Given a fighting chance Ring hopes : Boxing brothers born in Azerbaijan draw attention on Maryland fight scene, and their managers predict wonderful things.

March 03, 1996|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Emil and Rufat Israfilbekov would be just two more young Baltimore boxers with their eyes on the big time, except for a few things that, well, sort of set them apart.

Such as physique: Rufat is 6 foot 4 and fights at 154 pounds; Emil is 6 foot 1 and 147. Some of their opponents have to stand on tiptoes to land a punch.

Such as personalities: Scrupulously polite and self-effacing, they appear about as aggressive outside the ring as a couple of shy graduate students of biochemistry.

Such as nationality: They are undoubtedly the first Azerbaijani-American fighters most fans have ever seen.

But mostly, what has made these gangly, look-alike brothers the talk of Maryland's boxing community is their promise. Both Emil, 23, and Rufat, 19, were national champions in the old country. Both have more than 100 wins in amateur bouts. And both are undefeated in their brief pro careers.

"We haven't done nicknames for these guys yet, but maybe we'll try 'Assassin' or 'Surgeon,' " says Charles Benjamin, son of a legendary boxing trainer and the brothers' co-manager with Francisco Naranjo.

Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Naranjo, two men with a serious gift for marketing, lace their chatter about the brothers with phrases such as "world champions." But they have also been attentive to the little factors that can influence celebrity. Their first advice to Emil and Rufat was to do something about that last name.

"Israfilbekov" is a little hard to scream at ringside. So the brothers sat down with their managers and picked a new last name: "Baku." Short, simple, easy for fans to chant. And the name of their native city, capital of Azerbaijan.

Now the managers have produced T-shirts with fierce-looking pictures of the brothers, the noms-de-ring "Emil and Rufat Baku," and the slogan, "From Russia with Gloves."

From Russia? Well, Mr. Benjamin explains, few fight fans have heard of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan; the brothers speak Russian as well as Azerbaijani; and, hey, Russia's just to the north. But their custom-made satin robes and shorts are in the blue, red and green Azerbaijani national colors and have the crescent and star of their national flag.

A great start

More objective observers than Mr. Benjamin and Mr. Naranjo say it's too early to predict the brothers' success, but they're off to a great start.

"If they're brought along right, they're going to be some big-time fighters," says Harold Moore of Philadelphia, a former boxer and trainer and currently a "matchmaker" who puts together fights. "They're real, real good fighters right now."

"They seem to have fans surrounding them already," says Gary Williams, a host of "Boxing Spotlights," a Maryland boxing show broadcast on Home Team Sports. Chants of "Baa-kuu! Baa-kuu!" greet their appearances in the ring.

Mr. Williams says both brothers impressed him in the few matchups he's seen -- but he adds a caveat that in itself is impressive: "The people they fought they dispensed with so fast, we didn't get to see much of them."

So far, fighting at Martin's West in Woodlawn, other Maryland rings and in North Carolina, Emil is 4 and 0; all four of the victories were knockouts; Rufat is 6 and 0, with three knockouts.

Such statistics make just the bare beginning of a successful boxing career.

But the brothers' records in the former Soviet Union suggest that their strong start here is no fluke. Emil was 138 and 6, a four-time national champion in his weight class in Azerbaijan. Rufat was 106 and 6 and twice national champion. They fought in Russia, several other Soviet republics, Turkey and Iran.

Reach advantage

They have what is known as "reach advantage," the ability to punish an opponent while his gloves flail about short of the target.

Rufat, the taller of the two, has a reach advantage of 12 inches against some opponents, Mr. Benjamin says, a fact he describes as "a miracle, like Moses opening up the Red Sea."

Seeing their slender build, a few fighters have concluded that the brothers Baku did not pose much of a challenge. Those opponents have generally not seen what hit them.

Even on the videotapes made by Mr. Naranjo, it takes several reruns to spot the knockout punches.

Sitting in the modest apartment behind Reisterstown Road Plaza they share with their parents, the brothers are polite, earnest and completely unthreatening.

When Mr. Benjamin tells a visitor they like "action movies," Emil corrects him in Russian, saying, "We like lots of kinds of films." Rufat chimes in that "Forrest Gump" is one of their favorites.

Rock and classical

From the local library, they have checked out a stack of books, mostly Russian translations of American best-sellers, including Danielle Steele's "A Perfect Stranger." Their taste in music, Emil says, runs to "light rock and classical." As Muslims, they say, they don't drink alcohol or use drugs.

"They're completely opposite outside the ring what they are tTC inside the ring," says Mr. Naranjo.

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