MOSCOW — Inside Moscow’s massive VTB Ice Palace earlier this month, former five-time world boxing champion Roy Jones Jr. entered the ring to the strains of the Russian national anthem, under the Russian tricolor flag, for what the Pensacola, Fla.-born fighter’s trainer called his “coming-out party” as a Russian citizen.
The near-capacity crowd of 12,000 young men, whose clothing varied from business suits to tracksuits, was jubilant and loud.
Few expected the brutal knockout four rounds later that would leave Jones, 46, lying prone on the mat and probably at the end of his career. Later there would be recriminations, questions about the logic of sending a man that age into the ring, and Jones would dump the promoter who arranged the fight.
“What has Obama said about all the athletes leaving the United States and coming to Russia?” asked Aslan Sadykov, 27, queuing up outside the stadium for a ticket.
In the nosebleed seats, the Night Wolves, a patriotic motorcycle club that enjoys close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and helped organize the fight, pinned a series of white banners with black lettering onto the stadium handrails:
“Crimea is Russia — Ukraine is Russia — Alaska is Russia — Everything is Russia — Except Kosovo . . . — Kosovo is Serbia,” they read. “Wherever we are, that is Russia.”
Next to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, there is perhaps no better exposition of how sport, patriotism and business intersect in modern Russia than Jones’s emergence as a Russian boxing phenomenon.
Since Jones met personally with Putin in August in Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia from Ukraine last March, his fortunes here have soared. He received a passport by presidential order in October, avoiding a five-year residency requirement. He has read patriotic poems in Russian on television ads, held a boxing seminar for the Moscow police and received an iPhone bearing Putin’s golden image — all in a week.
All that was meant to promote his marquee fight sponsored by Russian state oil champion Rosneft against Italian opponent Enzo Maccarinelli.
“We want Jones to fight against foreign opponents at first, to let fans get behind him,” meaning against non-Russians, said McGee Wright, a longtime trainer for Jones, after a news conference this month.
Russia has long been a landing pad for aging stars. Gerard Depardieu, the French actor, became a Russian citizen in 2013 to avoid high taxes in France. Jeff “the Snowman” Monson, 44, a mixed martial arts fighter and anarchist who visited pro-
Russian separatists in southeast Ukraine, was granted citizenship by Putin last month.
Aging action star Steven Seagal has cultivated a close relationship with Putin over their shared love of martial arts, and Putin reportedly proposed that the “Under Siege” star be an intermediary between Moscow and Washington.
Still, few have gotten into the role as Jones has. When asked at a pre-fight news conference about his opponent’s youth and superior reach, Jones sized up his audience of state television journalists and went for the knockout. “The only disadvantage [for my opponent] is that on the other side of the ring he has to fight a guy named Roy Jones Jr., and I am Russian.”
He pronounced the last words, “Ya Russkiy,” in Russian, five times during that appearance.
The man responsible for Jones’s transformation is Vlad Hrunov, a round-faced, influential boxing promoter and certainly the sport’s most controversial figure here, who sees advertising contracts with Russia’s national airline Aeroflot and other companies in Jones’s future.
“I have a feeling like a father before the birth of his child,” Hrunov said in an interview before Jones’s Moscow fight, adding that he thought the market for Jones was far larger in Russia now because of his age than in the United States. “He has no prospects in America. It’s cruel there, you have to recognize that your time is over.”
In a career spanning more than a decade, Hrunov has won and lost contracts with some of Russia’s top boxers after accusations of mismanagement. Days after his loss to Maccarinelli, Jones announced that he too would dump Hrunov.
“Jones should only have been practicing,” said Andrey Ryabinsky, a prominent Russian boxing promoter and former business partner of Hrunov’s, in an interview to sporting magazine Sovsport. “Instead, they dragged him around like Father Frost.”
Hrunov and Jones, who have known each other for six years, both said that it was the boxer’s idea to seek Russian citizenship in 2013, so he could travel easily to Russia for appearances. But a person close to the promoter said that citizenship, “of course, was part of a business deal.”
“He gets the citizenship and then the sponsors come,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his professional relationships with Hrunov and others. “Hrunov gets to sell a new Russian hero, and he can save Jones’s career, too.”
Hrunov says he specializes in bringing foreign talent to Russia and that Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, whose wife is from Crimea, has said he may submit documents for Russian citizenship. Hrunov said that he wants Durst to play a concert in Crimea, too.
“I give foreigners a chance to come here and make money in the American way, and I give people here the chance to watch,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Perhaps Hrunov’s greatest trick is managing to arrange the Jones fight after being stripped of his boxing license in October.
“He has broken every rule that we have,” said Igor Mazurov, the secretary general of the Russian boxing federation. “I think that Hrunov has a new toy, and that toy is named Roy Jones Jr.”
The fight’s official sponsor was Umar Kremlyov, a former business partner of Hrunov’s, and the owner of a jewelry brand that bears the red star of the Kremlin as its logo. He is also a member of the Night Wolves, with whom Jones’s team has forged a close relationship.
Troy Ridgley, a former college football star at Notre Dame and a promoter for Jones, became the first American inducted into the motorcycle gang this year.
He said Jones would “use boxing to help build a bridge between Russia and the United States.”
“To be honest, we’ve had to be discreet about some of our connections here,” he added, noting that the Night Wolves were sanctioned by the United States after the annexation of Crimea.
Jones’s team declined to give formal interviews before or after the bout. At a post-fight news conference on Tuesday, Jones said he had been given the gift of a cottage on the Black Sea near the city of Anapa. He did not say who had presented him with the gift.