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'Katie will experience double horror' - Sharipova working closely with Taylor's Olympic final foe Ochigava

Invoking the help of the great Russian and ‘the blood of great warriors and conquerors’, Firuza Sharipova believes she will dethrone the Irish icon in Liverpool.

Left: Firuza Sharipova.
Right: Sofya Ochigava and Katie Taylor at the London 2012 medal ceremony.
Left: Firuza Sharipova. Right: Sofya Ochigava and Katie Taylor at the London 2012 medal ceremony.
Image: @sharipova_firuza/INPHO

FIRUZA SHARIPOVA TELLS a story from her sports-mad early childhood in Taraz, Kazakhstan, in which she almost drowned on several occasions while attempting to play water polo without knowing how to swim.

Two decades on, Sharipova feels vastly better equipped to throw herself in at the deep end of a different sport; the one that finally clicked when she followed her neighbour and school-bus buddy into the gym as an 11-year-old.

On 11 December at Liverpool’s Echo Arena, Sharipova will challenge Katie Taylor for the Irish icon’s undisputed lightweight title.

From the perspective of Taylor’s team, a fight with the 14-1(8KOs) Kazakh is merely another mandatory defence taken to appease one of the pesky sanctioning bodies, a fight designed to keep the cobwebs at bay ahead of an era-defining showdown with the dangerous Amanda Serrano in the spring.

Sharipova’s crew are not reading off the same page.

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Champion Taylor recently spent time in Sylvester Stallone’s company — or as the actor would likely put it, he recently spent time in hers — but there is a Rocky-ish hue to the outdoor training clips sent by the challenger from Moscow via WhatsApp: in prohibitively snowy conditions, Sharipova, 27, is filmed felling trees with an axe, aggressively sawing them into smaller pieces of wood, and pulling the child of her Russian manager, Sergey Zavileisky, through their powdery surrounds on a sled — at one point doing so from her hands and knees.

Saturday week’s challenge of Taylor is a bolt-from-the-blue shot at the bigtime for Sharipova, sure. But a different kind of subplot has been written into the Kazakh’s corner, where a mutual former opponent is playing more than a cameo role in Sharipova’s preparation for Liverpool.

“At the beginning of my amateur career, Katie Taylor and Sofya Ochigava were role models for me,” Sharipova tells The42. “They were my idols.

“My coach, Felix Tikhonovich Tsoi, always said: ‘Firuza, if you are determined to win only the championship of Kazakhstan, you do not need to practice boxing. Always look up to world leaders.’ And for us, it was then Katie Taylor and Sofya Ochigava.

“Many people say that I have had no opponents like Katie Taylor. But I boxed with Ochigava.”

Indeed, Katie Taylor’s extremely skilled London 2012 Olympic final opponent, an 11-time major international medallist in her own right, inflicted upon Sharipova the sole blemish on her 15-fight pro CV in May 2016 on what was a paid debut for both women.

Now, Ochigava is fine-tuning Sharipova in the gym to shock the woman whom she feels took back to Ireland an Olympic gold medal which belonged to her and Russia — a sentiment with which her Kazakh opponent-turned-student fully agrees.

katie-taylor-celebrates-winning-olympic-gold Ochigava claims 'I'm no.1' as Taylor celebrates her Olympic success. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I watched their fight in the final of the Olympic Games and I’m sure that the judges helped Taylor,” Sharipova says. “Sofya knocked her down, which was not counted. Sofya looked better in this fight, she won it. Taylor is usually not afraid of anyone, but in that final fight, Sophia saw fear in her eyes.

Sofya is in my camp from the very beginning. She passed on to me all her knowledge about this opponent, and therefore in our battle Katie will experience a double horror: with me will be the intellect of Sofya Ochigava and my power.

“And even now, Taylor refuses to box with Sofya. But Sofya passed on all her knowledge to me, and in the ring opposite Katie there will be the two strongest boxers at once.”

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WhatsApp Image 2021-11-30 at 15.15.22 Ochigava has been instrumental to Sharipova's preparation.

Ochigava, a year Taylor’s junior at 34, has been “instrumental” to Sharipova’s prep but she won’t be travelling to Liverpool: her sixth professional fight is scheduled for Christmas Day in Russia.

When Ochigava put the spooks up Irish sports fans nine years ago, it was beneath a weight of feral noise at London’s ExCel Arena on what transpired to be a famous day in this country’s sporting history. In nine days’ time on Merseyside, Sharipova will similarly experience plenty of hostility — not only from the naturally sizeable Irish contingent in attendance but from a few thousand English boxing fans who have taken her to heart.

But victory would see the challenger become the first boxer from her country ever to hold all five major belts in a single division, and the relatively untested Sharipova will go as far as drawing from her bloodline to make the case that she can do to Taylor what more seasoned past opponents couldn’t.

She has convinced herself that she is readymade to further decorate Kazakhstan’s sporting tapestry. The rest will be simply noise. If even.

“When I box, I am in the ring. For me at this moment there is only my opponent and the voice of my coach. I carry out my instructions. It doesn’t matter to me what’s outside the ring. I don’t go out to fight with Taylor’s fans.

I am going there to box for my people and I will represent Kazakhstan in the UK. I come from the ancient city of Taraz. The great warrior Timur lived on this land, who conquered half of the world. The blood of great warriors and conquerors flows in me. I hope that I will perform very well and will raise the flag of Kazakhstan. I want to dedicate the victory to my country – my big family — on the 30th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence.

“I am neither Delfine Persoon nor Natasha Jonas nor anyone else. I am Firuza Sharipova. I am eight years younger than Katie Taylor. I have a lot of strength and a tough character. I am not inferior to Katie Taylor in skill. I just haven’t had the opportunity to show it with such a serious opponent lately. I am going for victory, I am confident in it, and my whole team is doing everything possible for this.”

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Sharipova still considers Taylor “a role model for many”. She describes the Irishwoman as “the absolute world champion, number one in the pound-for-pound rating” and “a top-class professional athlete.”

“Despite her age”, Sharipova adds, “she is very active, at the peak of her career.”

When asked if she believes Taylor’s team are guilty of peeking too early towards a long-mooted women’s superfight versus Amanda Serrano — which has been all but arranged for the spring in New York on the provision that Taylor and Serrano win their upcoming fights — Sharipova’s tone shifts: “I absolutely do not care what they say. This is her business, her conversations. Let her do what she wants.

The fight with Serrano has been discussed for a long time. But instead of this fight, Taylor will have to take revenge with me, since she will lose. But when I have my rematch with Sofya and put my undisputed title on the line, let Taylor box with Serrano — who is clearly underweight. Katie is already starting to look for lighter and smaller opponents. If she wanted really great fights, she would not run from Sofya Ochigava as a professional.

Sharipova gave birth to a son last year and, as she describes it, “learned the joy of motherhood.” She says that she has done “a titanic job to regain my excellent athletic form” but that without the help of her own parents, she would have been incapable of doing so.

They were the first people she told when the fight with Taylor had been all but agreed, “but not right away.”

“When I left for the training camp in Moscow, I said that I was just going to prepare for ‘my next fight’. The contract had not yet been signed at that time. Of course, when my parents found out about this fight, they began to worry a lot, knowing the seriousness of the fight… But on the other hand, they were very happy and supported me.”

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That support has been amplified by Sharipova’s hundreds of thousands of fans back home — and particularly when she needed it most: she explains how, earlier this year, she was allocated funds by Kazakh officials to prepare for an “intermediate battle with a strong rival” before facing Taylor. This money never reached her, and she wound up fighting a couple of rookies instead, blowing them out in a combined six rounds.

Her training camp for Taylor was consequently partially funded by fans via social media.

“My team did not stop” she says. “They did their best. I am grateful to my fans who believe in me and help.”

If she can shock the boxing world on Saturday week and hoist the blue and gold flag, Firuza Sharipova will have more than paid them back.

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