Conflict spares none in its vicinity, not even those who trade blows for a living on a daily basis.
Pavlo Ishchenko, a two-time European Championships’ medallist, had spent a good part of his boxing career representing Ukraine before being driven to Israel by the violent 2014 “revolution” which culminated in, what the West calls, Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Ishchenko, in fact, grew up in Kherson, a city near the disputed peninsula, which remains an international flashpoint.
Representing his adopted homeland at the ongoing 19th World Championships, Ishchenko’s is a fascinating tale, which also includes a brief unbeaten professional stint in the USA.
“I used to play for Ukraine till 2015, I was, in fact, the captain of the team. But after the revolution in 2014, it became hard to live there,” Ishchenko said refusing to elaborate on how hard it might have become for his family to move out.
The 25-year-old is a seasoned international campaigner, having won a lightweight (60kg) gold medal in the 2013 European Championships for Ukraine before claiming a bronze for Israel at the same event earlier this year, ironically on Ukrainian soil.
He has also been a quarterfinalist in the International Boxing Association’s semi-professional World Series of Boxing (WSB).
Ishchenko, along with David Alaverdian (52kg), make for a small two-strong Israeli representation at the mega-event, where the country has never won a medal.
“My father is a jew, he doesn’t look like a jew but he is,” Ishchenko joked pointing to his father Oleg, his formative coach and the man, who is doing his seconding at the championship here.
“I spent two years in the USA, exploring professional boxing, it was just three fights, I won all of them but after that…let’s just say I don’t speak to my promoters, they are bad guys,” he said.
It was on a trip back home to see his family when Israel’s Boxing Federation reached out to his father and offered the boxer a trial to get into their national team owing to his Jewish roots.
Israel is the only jewish majority country in the world and calls itself a homeland for the ethnic minority which was systematically persecuted during the holocaust.
“I decided to go home (which was Ukraine at that point) to see my parents because I was in USA for two years after 2015. After that I got an invitation from Israel federation to introduce me in the international ring. I accepted it and won the national championships.
“Then I took part in the championships of Europe for Israel and there I got the third place,” he said.
His teammate David Alaverdian was more forthcoming on the politics of being an athlete from Israel, a country locked in violent territorial dispute with Palestine and at odds with its Arab neighbourhood. But the boxer insisted that his view of opponents has never been guided by politics.
“We avoid looking at politics even when we meet boxers from countries, who perhaps don’t like Israel. We are friendly with them,” said the boxer from Nahariya, a small town bordering Lebanon, with which Israel fought a war in 2006.
Asked of his thoughts on Israeli athletes being at the receiving end of hostile political gestures like forfeitures, David chose not to blame individuals.
“It still happens (boycott of Israeli athletes) but I don’t think the athletes individually want to forfeit or be disrespectful. It’s just the politics that surrounds them. Sport, I believe, should be different from politics,” he said.
A long-time flag-bearer of Israeli boxing despite his young age of 24, David said he was actually forced into the sport as his father was fearful about him being bullied in school.
“Boxing, as I remember, my father forced me into it. My father is huge but I got my mother’s genetics so I am much smaller. My father was scared that I would get bullied in school. So he told me ‘go box’.
“By 18 I was sorted that I wanted to get into boxing. It’s not very popular in Israel but it’s rising,” he said.
Given that Israel is still developing its boxing infrastructure, the pugilists travel a lot to former Soviet countries to train but David said it would be great to try India as well.
“We travel mostly to former Soviet countries but it would be great to train with the Indian boxers. India is far geographically but I would love to go to India to train. We have many Indian movies and TV shows in Israel. They are very popular, people love them,” he said.