A Natural Born Fighter
Zinoviev is in Moline, Illinois, preparing his Red Bears team for their
showdown against Maurice Smith’s Tiger Sharks on April 7. But with the
exception of Mark Miller, this is a totally new Red Bears team that Igor
has brought to town, so a veil of secrecy surrounds them.
although Igor plays more of a behind-the-scenes role in the running of
his Chicago-based team, the further you delve into his intriguing life,
the more it feels like you’re reading chapters from Robert Cullen’s The
Killer Department, or maybe a novel by Martin Cruz Smith, with
segments thrown in from Gordon Newman’s The Streetfighter.
in Leningrad, Russia, Igor quickly learnt that life was going to be one
big fight, with his first challenge being a war against bacterial
meningitis – a disease that prevented him from taking his first steps
on ‘Red’ soil until the age of four. And that appears to have been
made possible only through the young boy’s sheer determination rather
than through any medical breakthrough.
medicine available in Russia then was really terrible, and after my mom
brought me home from hospital, I spent the first four or five years of
my life combating the disease. I had meningitis twice during those
years,” says Zinoviev.
I took my first few steps it became apparent that everything in life was
going to be a problem for me, so my mother took me to learn swimming to
assist my rehabilitation. From then on I wanted to be the best at
everything I did. After the first year I trained at a regular gym and
attended a sports school for swimming until sixth grade, which required
me to swim twice a day, every day.”
appears Igor’s prowess in the pool has since rubbed off on his
13-year-old son, Daniel, who today competes in the United States. And as
his dad proudly boasts, Daniel has already broken the records Igor held
while representing the Soviet Sports Academy.]
for Igor, swimming twice a day eventually became somewhat tedious and he
looked to other pool activities such as water polo to relieve the
monotony. Watching fights on television became another activity that
caught Igor’s attention, and ultimately changed the course of his
found that after watching wrestling movies on TV, I could then step
outside with my friends and repeat everything that I’d watched. Then
one day a coach from the wrestling team passed by and saw us wrestling
in the sand, and he took us to the gym. On that same day I beat all his
students – even the ones who’d been wrestling with him for three
years. He was very surprised and asked me where I trained. I told him I
was a swimmer, and he asked how I learnt wrestling. I then told him I
learnt from watching the movies.”
I believe you later became a commando?
I was in the Special Team, which was like the equivalent of the American
SWAT, but it was an elite team consisting of only five people.”
what were your duties?
was a sniper. I could use any weapons of course, but primarily I was a
sniper. Each member of the Special Team had two or three duties, so I
was a sniper and an operator of heavy machine guns. Another guy had to
operate the radio and other things. The five of us all specialized in
you take up judo and boxing before being in the Special Team?
my first coach, Vladimir Dovagal, and I trained together in judo and
sambo. He was the first person to teach me the correct way to punch and
kick. In Russia in those days we just had karate, but not kickboxing; so
we started to make our own system where we incorporated all those
techniques into one new system.
“Then when I was in the army, and after that in the police department, we had tournaments the same as MMA, where we had divisions competing in all the police departments and all the military. We used helmets, small gloves and judo gis – that’s all we had, and we competed in full-contact fights.”
how did you come to be in America?
gentleman came to Russia, and by accident he met a friend of mine and
me, and he asked if he could watch us train. After we took him to our
gym and he saw us in action, he asked us to come to the States to
compete in fights. We didn’t believe him at first, but then he gave us
an invitation, and that’s why I came to the United States.”
plans fell through with the guy who originally invited you, didn’t
I called him from Canada and spoke to his wife, but he wouldn’t come
to the phone. So I started looking around and I’m glad because I found
everything for myself: It was a hard way, but a good way.”
the other Russian fighter accompany you?
I was by myself.”
then fought in illegal bouts in warehouses around Brooklyn and Queens.
I was also working three different jobs: I was doing massage therapy,
personal training, and ‘executive protection’ – a lot of people
don’t like the expression ‘bodyguard’.
And I continued training twice a day, because I knew sooner or
later I was going to fight in sanctioned events.”
the warehouse-fighting bare knuckles?
“It was no-rules fighting, and there were no gloves. I fought, I made a little money, and I dreamed of opening a school, but it was too difficult. It was hard – really hard, but I’m glad they introduced ultimate fighting, cage fighting, more and more tournaments, and now the IFL. It’s a great organization: I’ve come across fighters from the past and they are very jealous because the IFL looks after its fighters so well.”
After the warehouse fighting you became the World Extreme Fighting Middleweight Champion from 1995–1997. But in your first bout, you came in as a complete underdog and defeated Mario Sperry. Can you give a brief rundown of your bout with Mario, please, Igor?
it was a long time ago… I don’t want to say anything bad about Mario
because he’s a great fighter – you have to understand that… I
trained really hard for that fight, and for the first time in my life I
trained in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I tried to find out what the differences
were between BJJ, judo and sambo. I found that there were some different
moves, but not many: They’re all similar, and I found the key and it
you get the name ‘Houdini’ because of your ability to escape
And I know Mario brought me to the floor, but BJJ is mainly ground
fighting, whereas fighting is not just BJJ. Fighting is fighting. And
after that fight a lot of people changed their minds about BJJ. But
before that, BJJ was king for a lot of people.”
do you think your guys will go against the Tiger Sharks?
team comprises all new members, and I’m kinda satisfied, but I
didn’t have time to train with these new guys. After this event
we’re going back to the gym to study each guy’s game and try to
eliminate any problems in their games. But this team is much better than
the previous team.”
we see you competing against another IFL coach?
possible – they’re looking at it right now.”
you still fighting at middleweight?
I’m still 195. My weight doesn’t change; it’s stuck.”
you’re keeping in shape?
train twice a day.”
is there anything you’d like to add?
look forward to working more with the new guys – particularly on the
technical stuff. And keep watching out for the Red Bears.”
For more on the IFL: www.ifl.tv.