Ryan Burnett and Zhanat Zhakiyanov used to share the same gym, the same trainer and the same dreams.
On Saturday, they will share the same ring when they face each other in a world bantamweight title unification clash — the first ever in Northern Ireland — at the SSE Arena in Belfast.
Four years ago, Northern Irishman Burnett and Kazakhstan’s Zhakiyanov were training and sparring each other at former world champion Ricky Hatton’s gym in Hyde, near Manchester.
Burnett (17-0, 9 KOs), 25, turned professional under Hatton’s guidance in 2012, but left two years later. Zhakiyanov (27-1, 18 KOs), 33, stayed and this weekend the pair will be reunited but in opposite corners as rival world champions.
“I never thought they would end up fighting each other,” said Hatton, a former world champion at welterweight and light-welterweight.
“I knew 100 per cent that Ryan had the ability to go all the way when I was training him. I was having a lot of problems at the time, I wasn’t in a good place at all, and Ryan felt the training was better elsewhere.”
Burnett is now trained in south London by Adam Booth, who guided David Haye to world cruiserweight and heavyweight world titles, as well as Andy Lee to a world middleweight title.
The ambitious Belfast boxer has his second world title fight on Saturday after a split points win over England’s Lee Haskins for the IBF belt in June. It was a dominant win, which should have been rewarded by a unanimous decision, but one judge incredibly got the identities of the boxers mixed up.
“I don’t want to just be a world champion, I want to be a great world champion,” said Burnett, whose fiancee Lara Milner is lead dancer on Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance show.
“Unifying the division is great but I will then want something a bit more. I’m definitely not someone who gets a bit of success and wants to stay at that level. Once I get it I forget about it and want to move on to something bigger.
“He will keep coming forward and punching and bullying his way to the top. I’ve had a training camp that has taught me how to deal with that. I have the tools to deal with it.”
Like Burnett, Zhakiyanov will be making a first defence of his world title while trying to win another belt.
Zhakiyanov won the interim version of the WBA with a split decision over Venezuela’s Yonfrez Parejo in Monte Carlo in November 2015. He has fought just once since, when he got off the canvas to defeat American Rau’shee Warren by scores of 115-111, 116-110, 111-115 for the full version of the WBA world title in February. Zhakiyanov was floored twice in the opening round in Ohio but recovered to become Hatton’s first world champion as a trainer. Zhakiyanov knocked down Warren in the third but there was no count and Warren, who tired, afterwards complained about the split decision.
“I’ve spent one month in Kazakhstan and two months in England, we’ve trained well and I am ready,” said Zhakiyanov.
Neither boxer is the most famous from their countries — former super-bantamweight and featherweight world titleholder Carl Frampton has a huge profile in Northern Ireland while world middleweight No 1 Gennady Golovkin, from Kazakhstan, is ranked ESPN’s pound-for-pound No 1.
But Saturday’s winner will see his career move to the next level, with future fights against the likes of Warren and the winner of England’s Jamie McDonnell (29-2-1, 13 KOs) against Venezuela’s Liborio Solis (25-5-1, 11 KOs), who meet in Monte Carlo on Nov. 4.
Hatton believes his man has the experience to pull off a shock.
“He went to Ohio in Warren’s backyard to take his belt and this time he goes into Ryan’s backyard so it’s nothing new to him and the experience will help,” said Hatton.
However, a Burnett victory on points seems the more likely outcome. Zhakiyanov will be dangerous in the first four rounds, when he has previously stopped opponents, but Burnett looked ever so sharp against Haskins. Burnett’s blurring hand speed should be too much of a problem for Zhakiyanov and earn him a dominant points decision.