Oleksandr Gvozdyk Shows What It Means to Be Ukrainian

The recently unretired boxer’s June 15 fight in Las Vegas is far less important than the battle happening in his hometown of Kharkiv. But in both a fighting spirit endures.
Gvozdyk is from Kharkiv, which has been heavily targeted by Russia in the ongoing war.
Gvozdyk is from Kharkiv, which has been heavily targeted by Russia in the ongoing war. / Premier Boxing Champions

The former world champion discovered boxing in his hometown of Kharkiv, the closest major Ukrainian city to Russia, the country that invaded in February 2022 and never left. War, the one between them, continues now, still, unabated. More than 27 months into another stretch of death and destruction, the conflict has shifted and transformed but never stopped. Never even slowed.

Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city, its first capital and among its most critical industrial centers. The former world champion who grew up there, Oleksandr Gvozdyk, proudly noted this all over video conference last month.

He cycled through emotions and responsibilities. He has a lot of both, the variance wide and stark. He must be in more than one place at the same time. The stakes are simply too high, extending far beyond sports.

At times, Gvozdyk comes across as a light heavyweight contender attempting to reclaim the title he lost almost five years ago, before he retired, without much of an explanation, and before he ended that retirement. At others, he presents another self: the concerned, heartbroken, wishes-he-could-do-more Ukrainian. He’s proud of his people, their indomitable ethos; prouder still of how long they’ve fought and how well. Russia might have more resources, more soldiers, more military sophistication; more everything. But Ukrainians picked up guns and reported for duty, because, of course they did.

“They are Ukrainian,” Gvozdyk says.

That’s why.

He lives, physically, in Southern California. Part of him remains with relatives and friends back home. His next fight, a June 15 pay-per-view appearance staged on Prime Video, is easily his most important in almost five years. Maybe his most important, ever. It will take place in Las Vegas. He must be in all those places—parts of him—all at once.

He starts the discussion in the place that makes the most sense, with Kharkiv. “A lot of people consider it the best city [in Ukraine],” Gvozdyk says, morphing from the typical shrug of a boxer coerced into interviews to a (oddly imposing and yet somehow gruffly charming) long-distance tour guide. When the war ends, give the man a microphone and send him back. He’d double the tourism industry in under a week.

The light heavyweight tourism official details the geography of Kharkiv: located in northeast Ukraine, roughly 19 miles—or about an hour by car—from the Russian border. He describes its broader cultural significance: as an industrial center, a cultural hub (opera, ballet, theater, museums) and a bedrock of Ukraine’s higher educational system.

Kharkiv, in other words, is a big deal. To those who live there. To their country. To its future. And, because of all that, Kharkiv is also an obvious, enticing target for the invading army.

There’s this …
Reuters headline (May 19): Russian strikes on Ukraine’s Kharkiv region kill at least 11

And this …
Newsweek headline (May 20): Kharkiv Rebuilding Despite Full-On Russian Assault

And this …
CNN headline (May 19): ‘No panic… no one is running away.’ Residents of Kharkiv defy threat of Russia’s advancing forces

Those headlines—three takes on the same news event, three views on the same endless war, three disparate ways to look at the Ukrainian people and their spirit—tell the same story as Gvozdyk. “It’s really sad,” he says. “You see your hometown, you see the destruction. It’s horrible, man. What can I say? Every hour, they feel the fire. A lot of people left. But those who stayed, you cannot break them. They just keep living. You can do whatever you want, you’re not gonna scare the people who live in Kharkiv. They are like metal bowls; they get even harder, even firmer, even more dense.”

Nothing explains Kharkiv quite like the square at its center, which forms something of a complicated local pulse. It’s where a city formed by natural divisions—run primarily by two countries, greatly influenced by both—came to be spelled two ways. The Russians called it Kharkov, after their power seizure in 1919, when they moved the capital from Kyiv and built a plaza for government offices that doubled as a monument to the new Soviet government.

Of all major Ukrainian cities, Kharkiv is historically the most influenced by its northern neighbors, a byproduct of geographical proximity and an endless, bloody struggle, between multiple countries, over centuries, to control it. Ukrainian remains the city’s only “official” language. But Russian remains its most commonly spoken dialect.

Still, when Ukraine regained its independence in 1991, the square was refilled for community events, reclaimed by Ukrainians. Queen + Paul Rodgers played a concert there, in front of an audience in excess of 300,000. Both helped announce to the world not just the square’s new name but what it signified, which was … everything.

Maidan Svobody.

Freedom Square.

When the Russians invaded in 2022, they fired long-range missiles over the border, with the square among the early and most frequent targets. One hit a historic building, the Kharkiv Regional State Administration, shattering windows, collapsing ceilings, killing 10 and injuring 20 more. It will likely cost too much to restore anytime soon. Then came the first ground assault. Then the second. Civilians died. Critical infrastructure was damaged and destroyed.

Gvozdyk understands Kharkiv’s fighting soul. His father, Serhii Gvozdyk, once an amateur boxer, handed him a plastic bag one afternoon. There was something bulky and squishy inside, the contents wrapped in newspaper. “I brought something to you, my son,” Serhii said. “Open it.”

Oleksandr unwrapped his first pair of boxing gloves that day. He was 8 years old. He felt … not elated but let down. He didn’t know anything about boxing. He had never even thought about boxing, about watching boxing, let alone actually boxing. At first, he gravitated more toward karate and kickboxing. But, eventually, he realized the combat sport he most adored was the one where “you work with just your hands.” He grabbed those gifted gloves and a few friends, and they shared them—two combatants, one glove each—which marked the moment that pointed the future champion toward his memorable moniker.

Don’t expect a boxer nicknamed The Nail to view this anecdote, his history, through a sentimental lens. That’s not Gvozdyk. He didn’t keep the gloves as a souvenir. He remembers only that they fell apart. He is Ukrainian after all, a born fighter, same as Serhii and his dad, and all the way back through their family’s history. Ukrainians limit sentiment; it’s part of their DNA, part of how they’ve survived.

After the latest war began, Serhii made it to California, where he was safe, or at least far safer, with his son, daughter-in-law (Daria) and three grandchildren (Dmytro, 15; Ganna, 10; Michael, 8). But California wasn’t comfortable; California wasn’t home. Dad was always a homebody, his hobbies limited to drinking beer and watching television, according to Oleksandr.

Serhii’s only child tried to convince the old man to stay, to move in permanently. But he couldn’t. “He’s not the guy who is willing to move somewhere,” Gvozdyk says. “He has a right to live [in Kharkiv]. I think he feels good where he is, among a lot of people who stayed in a period of hardship. They keep living their life. Yeah, sometimes it’s bad things. But for now, they are alright.”

There are phrases that capture this most Ukrainian of spirits. Gvozdyk uses two: Slava Ukraine! (Glory to Ukraine!) and Geroyam Slava! (Glory to Heroes!). The second is typically said after the first, a simple call-and-response that somehow explains a nation.

But while the past 10 years easily form the golden age of Ukrainian boxing, from Gvozdyk to even more accomplished countrymen like Vasiliy Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk, Gvozdyk also draws a clear delineation. The right one. Lazy metaphors aside, there is war. And there are sports. The two are not—and will never—be the same thing.

“Yeah, Ukrainians are always the strong people,” he says. But they’re forced to be; they’re often fighting, like now, because there’s no other choice. Their stakes are actual life and death, along with liberty, which must be won. “The people there,” he says, “just have to cope with that, because nobody wants to be Russian. You know, we’re playing [sports], it’s a joke; I mean, compared to what’s really going on out there.”

The sentiment hangs there, simple and sad and perfectly stated. The air feels heavy on the call. For a brief stretch, there is only silence.

David Benavidez and Oleksandr Gvozdyk face off at the press conference for their June 15 fight.
In recent news conferences, Gvozdyk has said he hopes to inspire Ukrainians with his comeback, to show the world they’re strong and brave. / Premier Boxing Champions

The secondary fight, if entirely separated from the larger, more painful and existential war, would be remarkable on its own. If it could be separated.

Gvozdyk won bronze at the London Games in 2012. He turned pro two years later. He knocked out the electric and heavy-handed Adonis Stevenson in 2018, climbing into the pound-for-pound conversation.

Everything changed on Oct. 18, 2019, when The Nail—used, even, as an identifier for his Zoom screen—met Artur Beterbiev, an undefeated champion who ranks among the top active boxers, in any weight class, in the world. They met for a light heavyweight unification bout, the first unified match between unbeaten fighters in the history of the division.

Gvozdyk clashed with Beterbiev for most of 10 rounds, trading blows that even sounded heavy, THWAPs echoing so loudly fans could hear them on TV. Beterbiev landed the harder punches. The cumulative toll became obvious in Round 10. Gvozdyk went down three times, prompting a TKO stoppage. Gvozdyk led on two of the three judges’ score cards.

He spent two nights in the hospital.

He retired eight months later.

Many who didn’t know assumed he stopped simply because he lost, Gvozdyk says. They thought that Beterbiev had “broken” him. Reality was more complicated. Gvozdyk planned to start another camp soon after recovering, only for COVID-19 to interrupt. He discovered some “good business options” in Ukraine, places he could invest in. Life was … good? He was getting older. He didn’t want to hang on and halt preparations for his next act.

War, of all things, helped bring him back. He woke up that February morning in 2022 to the devastating news of war, again. An ocean away in California, he felt confused. He knew this conflict dated back to 2014. Knew it was poorly understood outside Ukraine. He never had any issues with the Russians he encountered back in Kharkiv. But this? “It feels like a betrayal,” he says. “Like somebody back-stabbed me. But, whatever, you have to cope.”

The invasion ended his business opportunities the day it began, which wasn’t even close to the worst part. People he knew were killed but not anyone in his inner circle. Not yet. And they still remained under constant threat. 

Gvozdyk understood how he could best help: tap into his largest platform. As Saul “Canelo” Alvarez prepared to move up to light heavy to face Dmitry Bivol, he invited Gvozdyk to embrace a new role—as a sparring partner. Gvozdyk flew to camp and realized his skills had not diminished. He wanted to box again. Hence, 40 months after his lone defeat, his decision to return. He fought three times in 2023, an exercise, against meh-level competition, meant to shake the rust off. He won all three.

On June 15, Gvozdyk will face a boxer so punishing his nickname is The Mexican Monster. David Benavidez owns 24 knockouts in 28 victories. He’s also 10 years younger than Gvozdyk. Benavidez will engage in his first career bout at light heavy. Both will be featured in the co-main, as part of the 100th fight night at MGM Grand.

In recent news conferences, Gvozdyk has said he hopes to inspire Ukrainians with his comeback, to show the world they’re strong and brave. On the call in May, though, he’s clearer, more direct. His chosen theme: War and sport should never be tied.

The Russians, according to news accounts, were, at that very moment, bombarding Kharkiv with missiles. The strategy, those accounts speculated, was to force officials in Kyiv to redirect their limited resources from places that desperately needed them to Kharkiv, which the Russians could bomb from their side of the border.

Russia threatened and attacked Kharkiv with more force in the subsequent days, until the situation on the ground, according to The New York Times, more closely resembled that of when the war started. In 2022, Russian troops managed to reach the outer ring of Kharkiv’s borders, which forced hundreds of thousands of citizens to flee.

In late May 2024, Russian forces again advanced nearly that far, closing in on villages 10 miles or so from Kharkiv’s outermost northeast edge. Locals worried that the Russians were close enough—or would get close enough—to deploy even more of their artillery. The Ukrainian army, meanwhile, said that Russia tried to take Lyptsi, a village near those outskirts, but had been repelled. By the end of last week, the Times reported that 10 settlements near Lyptsi—and, thus, near Kharkiv—had been captured. Military officials described the strategy, as more attempts to strain outnumbered forces. Experts countered that perhaps Russia wanted to create a “buffer zone” to prevent Ukraine from attacking its cities that are located closest to the border. Kharkiv’s mayor reiterated his plan, which was not to evacuate.

Ukrainian government officials continue to plead for more weapons, more resources, more money—more help. Gvozdyk’s father and relatives continue to live in the city where help seems most needed. So much so, in fact, that the White House agreed to allow Ukraine to use U.S.-made weapons to strike military sites in Russia—the same sites that were attacking Kharkiv from longer distances.

When asked about recent developments back home, Gvozdyk,responded: [War] happens in Kharkiv every weekMy father and friends are okay. My feelings are the same

Hence the spirit that remains, the vow to stay and fight and, above all else, rebuild. One emphasis: pushing children to play sports; rebuilding gyms and other destroyed venues.

Perhaps his fight, the one that doesn’t matter nearly as much, can continue to remind the rest of the world what it means to be Ukrainian. Perhaps not. “War is horrible, man,” he says. “It’s not supposed to happen in the 21st century.”

Asked what he wants most in the months ahead, Gvozdyk responds quickly, simply, directly.

“I hope we’re gonna win,” he says. And he doesn’t mean on June 15.

Published |Modified
Greg Bishop


Greg Bishop has covered every kind of sport and every major event that takes place within them on six continents for more than two decades. He has written primarily for The Seattle Times, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated, where he's a Senior Writer who focuses on NFL cover stories and columns, in-depth profile writing, mental health in sports and live event coverage. He is the co-author of two books: Jim Gray's memoir, "Talking to GOATs"; and Laurent Duvernay Tardif's "Red Zone". He also writes or has written for Showtime Sports, Prime Video and DAZN. He has been nominated for eight sports Emmys, including three times for the writing category, and won two, both for production. He has completed more than a dozen documentary film projects, with a wide range of duties.