As preparations for a postponed Olympics go, Denis Latypov’s have been pretty remarkable, pandemic or not.
Fighting now under the Bahrain banner, the Russia-born heavyweight has sparred recently with Anthony Joshua, the current WBA, WBO, and IBF world champion and a 2012 Olympic gold medallist.
There’s the support from Bahrain royalty, a framework placed around him that includes working under the expert tutelage of Tony Davis, the former Britain Boxing coach and accomplished combatant back in the day.
And for the past week, as he puts together the final pieces of the jigsaw for Toyko, Latypov has had the ear of former light-welterweight world champion Amir Khan in Dubai. Like Joshua, Khan has contested an Olympics boxing final, bringing back silver from Athens in 2004.
So, not bad for the sport's only Gulf representative at the upcoming Summer Games.
“I’m many years in this sport and saw many different countries, different teams, but none of them give me such a support that Bahrain did,” Latypov tells The National, through a translator. “I’d like to thank Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa for what he’s doing for me, and with his support, my dream — my goal of Olympic gold — can come true.
“Sheikh Khalid believed in me and gave me this chance. I will do my best to reach my goal, to bring Olympic gold for the first time to the Middle East.”
Born in Bashkortostan, a republic of Russia, Latypov began boxing aged 10 — his father was a talented pugilist, now coach — and was based in Baku before Sheikh Khalid took him under his wing in 2019.
Last year, Latypov came home fifth in the Asia Oceania qualifiers to book his place in Tokyo, where he’ll compete at super-heavyweight (+91 kilograms). The 30-year-old had to wait longer than expected for the games, given its pandemic-enforced delay, but leaves for Japan next week in time for the opening ceremony on July 22.
“It’s everything for me,” Latypov says. “Since I started playing sports as a child, it’s a dream of mine — every sportsman dreams of the Olympics. So we push our limits to reach our goal. Hard work pays off.”
Davis has been central to the drive towards that target. The Englishman was appointed Bahrain’s national boxing coach in late 2018 and soon identified Latypov for the kingdom's programme.
“Denis is naturally strong and, that coupled with speed, will just make him more powerful. Fast hands and fast feet is the way he’s got to be,” Davis says. “For me, who’s been around boxing for most of my life, it’s sort of Guinness Book of Records stuff in how he’s qualified.
“To represent Bahrain, a new kid on the block, especially in the GCC … I came over there a little over two years ago and we set up boxing, and now we’re the only GCC nation going to the Olympic Games.
“Denis is going over there in just over a week’s time and he’s going to be on the biggest show on earth. He’s already realised a dream, then it’s down to him. To medal would be success. I’m realistic, I know it’ll be tough, but I’m just waiting until the draw is made.
“If you can stay away from the top two seeds — in qualification, Denis was beaten on points by the current world champion and the No 1 prospect for gold at the Olympics, but he’s much better now than in March 2020 — then anything is possible.”
The hope is that his Dubai stay has only strengthened chances of success. Davis and Khan go way back, as former Team GB colleagues who have remained friends, and so the latter invited Latypov and crew to the emirate to round off their camp, where he now resides. In September, Khan was named president of the newly formed World Boxing Council (WBC) Middle East Boxing Council.
“The preparation couldn’t get any better,” Davis says. “With Anthony Joshua, he’s learning from the best, and now he’s come here to Dubai and rubbing shoulders and getting advice from Amir Khan. It doesn’t get much better, does it?”
It was viewed a no-brainer, since Khan claimed silver in 2004, as a fresh-faced 17-year-old.
“Even if I can help Denis by one or two per cent that could make the difference,” Khan says. “I’ve been to the Olympics; I know what it’s like. Hopefully we’re going to help get him right to the top level where he can come back with a medal. That’s what we all wish for. He’d be the first Middle East boxer to ever win a medal.
“Every time I’ve spoken to Denis I’ve told him how the Olympics changed my life, and what it can do for him. As long as you go in there and give it your all. With the power he’s holding, and how elusive he is — I’ve seen how good he looks in sparring — I really feel he’s going to be a threat in the division. He’s got everything to become a champion.”
Maybe he could take back a medal to Joshua. As a southpaw, Latypov represented an obvious sparring partner for Joshua in Sheffield last month, where the Brit boxer was preparing for September’s mandatory defence against Ukrainian Olexsandr Usyk.
Once Tokyo is out of the way, Latypov hopes to head again to the UK to resume his role.
“I got a huge experience from Joshua, that you’d never get in gyms, because this is a world champion,” Latypov says. “When I met him, I was thinking this is a boxing superstar, a world champion, but he is a good guy, down to earth.”
As a heavyweight gold medallist at the London Olympics nine years ago, there’s arguably no one better for Latypov to seek advice from.
“He said, ‘Just fight. Your level is good’,” he smiles. “’Just fight, you can beat anyone. You have to just push forward, towards your goal’. This I take with me to Tokyo.”