Oksana, obviously trained to pounce whenever an opponent goes into such an absurdly vulnerable retreat, pops me hard in the back of the head before letting up, seeing that I'm not quite understanding what I should be doing: punching her in the face. Mark Ionovich calls the round. An appropriately embarrassing start. I'm praying the camera wasn't working.
"Seth, don't ever turn your head," Oksana instructs me soberly.
When I return to my corner, Mark Ionovich yells at me to keep my left hand extended forward and jabbing. "She won't even be able to get near you."
He is right, of course.
With the cameras still rolling, Oksana and I trot out into the middle of the ring and tap gloves. Knowing I have to save face after my disastrous start, I begin prancing and shuffling around the ring, knowing that, at the very least, I have a quickness advantage on her. Keeping her at arm's length as Mark Ionovich had instructed, I manage to lean in and catch her in the forehead with a couple of left jabs. She keeps ducking and trying to get inside to administer some body blows. With a minute left in the round, Oksana stands straight up, exposing her chest for a second, and...THUMP! Her cotton sports bra is the only thing that softens my left-handed shot to her tits. I copped a feel!
I manage to avoid her punches for the remaining minute and continue keeping her away with my left. When Mark Ionovich calls the round, I stagger over to the corner, huffing violently, drained from my first semi-real bout.
"Good work," Yulia says to me. "Tough to believe you've only had three training sessions."
I thank her and begin stretching out. The TV people are interviewing Oksana, who is still inside the ring.
"Are you married?" the journalist Frolova asks.
"Yes," Oksana replies.
"What does your husband think of your boxing?"
"He says he doesn't like it when I come home with black eyes."
I realize Oksana is lying -- either to me, or to the TV crew. I'm not sure if I should hope that I'm the one who got the truth.
The next morning, Mark Ionovich is late for the final session before the group takes off for the Crimea on Monday. Half of the group is standing around the gym when Mark Ionovich strides in at 11:30. He is accompanied by a muscular 6'4" 20 year-old in khaki pants, a tank top and a red Detroit Red Wings hat. I will later find out that this is Roman Romanchuk, the number one light heavyweight in Russia.
"Where is everyone?" Mark Ionovich yells.
Those present answer him with mumbles and shrugged shoulders.
As if waiting backstage for their cue, the missing trio -- 17 year-old Evgeniy ("Zhenya") Gusev, a Russian from Kazakhstan; 19 year-old Kvicha Mestoev, a Kurd from Tbilisi; and 15 year-old Akhmed Basayev from Ingushetia -- hurries in. Each of the boys is looking at the floor and trying to hold back a grin, seemingly knowing that their tardiness will go unpunished. All three fighters have won the Russian kickboxing championship in their respective age and weight divisions. Mark Ionovich told me that Gusev and Mestoev both have outstanding futures as fighters. Basayev joked with me earlier that his cousin was Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev.
I had spent the previous night in one of the dorm rooms in order to get a better feel for the life of a Kitek athlete, and the boys' tardiness takes my thoughts back to 3 a.m. when I woke up thinking I heard a knock on my door. A late night visit from Oksana, perhaps? No. I opened the door and saw Zhenya in the hallway knocking on the door of the gorgeous blonde hardbody next door to me, the appropriately named Svetlana Kulakova (kulak means "fist"). He smiled at me mischievously. I shut the door and went back to bed.
Duking dyevs Kulakova (foreground) and Oksana
"Nice of you to make it," Mark Ionovich says sarcastically to the boys. "All right. Let's get started."