“I’m just staying fit, staying healthy and staying positive,” Taras Shelestyuk, Olympic bronze medalist and unbeaten pro disclosed over Skype on Thursday evening.
Just two months back, the 34-year-old was feeling optimistic about making significant strides towards a world title in 2020. After surviving a nasty cut against Argentina’s Luis Alberto Veron on a “ShoBox” card in Louisiana, the Ukrainian welterweight moved to 18-0 via unanimous decision and his plan was set.
In essence, this was to be the first of six planned outings this year as the Wild Card fighter edged towards fulfilling a dream of becoming world champion.
“Everything is good,” Taras confirms in a bullish manner. “We are staying in quarantine in L.A., but I still manage to get out for training on my bicycle.”
Training with his younger brother Bogdan – bronze medalist at the 2013 European Championships – offers an escape for the 147-pounder as he attempts to dismiss the elephant in the room he’s forced to frequent of a stuttering pro career.
Born in Makiivka, eastern Ukraine, Taras enjoyed a sports-obsessed childhood as he whittled down his extensive participation levels to purely boxing. Before his 14th birthday, gymnastics, chess and football were priorities in his life, playing the latter for five years until lacing up his first pair of gloves.
This obsession would lead a young Taras to dive deep into this new world head-first, highlighting Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Roy Jones Jr, Érik Morales, Johnny Tapia and José Luis Castillo as his idols growing up.
“I would watch any professional fight from a young age and try and copy how they fought in training. I like the wars of Gatti-Ward, but of course, would always tune in to watch any Klitschko fights on a Sunday morning.”
Despite a deep affection for Shaktar Donetsk – reigning Ukraine football champions – Taras’ future was set in the fight game as he fell in love with the sweet science at first sight.
“That moment changed everything. I knew from an early age that I wanted to go to the Olympics, turn pro and eventually, become a world champion.”
Despite this clear vision as a youngster, Taras would soon realise that much like the motto at the Wild Card gym where he trains, “It Ain’t Easy.”
”I thought it would be a lot simpler. I planned to fight in the 2004 Athens Olympics but it took me 12 years of training to reach a level where I could compete.”
Shelestyuk would go on to box at London 2012 where he secured a bronze medal for Ukraine, a year after winning gold at the World Championships in Baku by defeating amateur legend Serik Sapiyev by 16 points to 10.
“I was very happy with my amateur career – these memories will last a lifetime,” he continues, unable to mask the joy these recollections provide. His patience paid off, with a plethora of coaches over twelve years adapting Taras’ style proving a huge benefit to the adaptability he shows today.
A team consisting of Oleksandr Usyk, Vasiliy Lomachenko, Denys Berinchyk and Oleksandr Gvozdyk would all join Shelestyuk in medalling at London 2012, posing the question of whether this was the greatest amateur team to grace the famous Games.
“It’s the best Ukraine team ever formed,” Taras confirmed, unwilling to engage in hypotheticals whether it was superior to the USA’s efforts in 1976 and 1984. “With Usyk, Loma and Gvozdyk all becoming world champions, I am hopeful my time will come to join them.”
Taras lives in an apartment in Los Angeles with his wife Alina, with the couple deciding to venture to the West Coast of the States, having turned professional in 2013.
“When I turned pro, and I came to the USA after signing with Thompson Boxing and Banner Promotions, I was promised a world title fight within two years. It’s have been seven years now, and it’s still never happened.”
Despite the evident frustrations, the now-Californian has clarity in his thoughts and a sensible, measured outlook on the boxing landscape. Taras alludes to an unwillingness to pinpoint one specific reason for this unfulfilled promise, citing shifts in trends over the last half a decade that hasn’t been conducive to achieving his ultimate dream, yet.
“I think that during this time the boxing business has changed dramatically,” Taras explains, giving an insight to his schooling of the fight game outside the ring. He speaks candidly about moving into the business side of boxing when he is forced to retire, with a firm understanding of the Dark Side another string to his bow.
“New faces have come into the sport. With the social media and streaming services’ boom, some of the older promoters and managers have been left behind. Some of the best promoters don’t hold the power that they used to.”
Despite this, Shelestyuk has enjoyed the exposure he has received by fighting on Showtime and hopes that this angle will see him land one of the bigger PBC champions over the next twelve months.
“Hopefully, I can fight with [Danny] Garcia, Thurman or Spence Jr at some point in the near future. I am so excited and eager for this opportunity.”
When asked who he thinks is the current 147-pound king, the fellow welterweight was quick in his verdict of Terence Crawford holding a majority of the aces.
Having fought only three times since the start of 2017, Shelestyuk understands the importance of becoming more active over the next 12 months if he is to achieve his boyhood dream of becoming a world champion.
“This year has been good to me, but the virus [COVID-19] has come at a very frustrating time. I spoke with my promoters about fighting in May or June, but this looks unlikely now due to timescale. Most guys will need an eight- or 10-week training camp to feel comfortable returning to the ring.”
Scaling 5’11”, the southpaw is a reasonably sizeable welterweight but sees no reason to force himself up to the open 154-pound division.
“I think 154 is too big for me, as my weight in between fights is around 160. It’s easy to make 147. More realistic would be a move down to 140 pounds – I like this division a lot.”
Shelestyuk is direct in his admiration for sparring partner Regis Prograis, with Prograis’ coach Bobby Benton taking the Ukrainian’s corner for his last fight with Veron. Returning to the United Kingdom last year for Prograis’ world title unification bout with Josh Taylor, Taras was overwhelmed by the atmosphere at the O2 Arena, with a return to fighting in Blighty high on his list of career goals.
“I’d love to fight in the U.K. again – the fans are crazy and passionate for any sport. I like the people over there and how they support their fighters.”
It’s tough to stay positive in this current climate, but Shelestyuk is reluctant to be too downbeat as his career reaches another stop sign. His lack of in-ring activity over the last three years hasn’t altered his vision, with bad luck and boxing business proving the ultimate stumbling blocks.
“I haven’t suffered any real injuries; it’s mainly been a case of fighters pulling out of fights or giving me too shorter notice for potential outings.”
Taras continues to explain how a potential fight with Kell Brook on the Joshua-Ruiz II undercard fell through, with Team Brook opting for a softer touch at the start of 2020. “I agreed to the fight. I wasn’t even sure at what weight it would be, but it didn’t matter too much as I really liked this fight. Within two weeks their team had turned around and said they had changed their mind.”
For now, like every other fighter, it’s a waiting game for Taras Shelestyuk. 2020 was to be the year that the Ukrainian southpaw put his foot on the gas at 147, spearheading towards his overdue opportunity for success in the pro game.
There is no bitterness from Taras. No excuses, no apologies. Despite turning 35 later this year, the amateur star still believes his success can translate into the paid ranks, joining Ukraine’s burgeoning list of world champions.
“My time is coming,” he assures me confidently. Nothing worth having comes easy, and Taras has found this out first-hand throughout his career of uphill battles.