A Natural Born Fighter


© Marc Wickert 
5 April, 2007

photos © IFL


Igor 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.


And 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.


Born 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.


“The 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.


“Since 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.”


[It 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.]


But 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 life.


“I 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.”


Igor, I believe you later became a commando?


“Yes, 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.”


And what were your duties?


“I 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 different duties.”


Did you take up judo and boxing before being in the Special Team?


Yes, 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.”




Chicago Red Bears Coach Igor Zinoviev and Brazil coach Mario Sperry at a press 
conference annoucing 2008 IFL Coaches, held prior to the 2006 IFL World Team Championship at Mohegan Sun. Zinoviev's all-Russian team begins competition in 2007, 
while Sperry's team will open in 2008.


So how did you come to be in America?


“This 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.”


But plans fell through with the guy who originally invited you, didn’t they?


“Yes, 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.”


Did the other Russian fighter accompany you?


“No, I was by myself.”


You then fought in illegal bouts in warehouses around Brooklyn and Queens.


“And 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.”


Was 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?


“Well, 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 opened up.”


Did you get the name ‘Houdini’ because of your ability to escape submissions?


“Yes. 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.”


How do you think your guys will go against the Tiger Sharks?


“Our 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.”


Will we see you competing against another IFL coach?


“It’s possible – they’re looking at it right now.”


Are you still fighting at middleweight?


“Yeah, I’m still 195. My weight doesn’t change; it’s stuck.”


So you’re keeping in shape?


“I train twice a day.”


Igor, is there anything you’d like to add?


“I 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.







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