Having worked as a boxing coach since 1974 after earning the rank of Master of Sport in the USSR, Mark Ionovich founded Kitek in 1990 together with a fellow boxing coach. Originally the plan was to start a Tae Kwan Do and kickboxing school, but when interest in Tae Kwan Do did not emerge, they decided to train boxers instead. "It's logical," Mark Ionovich explains. "A good kickboxer will be a good boxer, and a good boxer only has a little bit to learn in order to kickbox. We have fighters competing in both."
While boxing has a long tradition in Russia ("Russians are good boxers because they're so patient," Mark Ionovich says.), kickboxing is still a relatively new sport in Russia. Until 1980, boxing and judo -- two Olympic sports -- were the only legal forms of boyevye izkustva in the Soviet Union. Until then, only a select group of military and police personnel, including the Spetsnaz, were allowed to practice it, typically being taught SAMBO (Samozashchita Bez Oruzhiya), a combination of 25 different types of hand-to-hand combat systems. Martial arts circles began to form underground in the '80s and '90s, often producing bands of enforcement thugs for organized crime groups. With the fall of the Soviet Union, sports like kickboxing and ultimate fighting, based on concepts of once forbidden martial arts like karate, jujitsu and kung fu, began to spread and thrive in Russia.
The athletes at Kitek range from beginners who pay to train with the school's coaches to world champions in different age and weight classifications. Kitek fighters include two-time women's European heavyweight champion Sveta Andreeva, the first-ever women's world kickboxing champion Masha Krivoshaikina and European men's kickboxing champion Aleksander Pogorelov.
One look at Andreeva and there is no doubt in which weight classification she fights. Built like a nose-guard, with cropped blonde hair, she has been fighting for seven years, originally starting with karate and judo in Belgorod. She began boxing five years ago, and has trained under Mark Ionovich at Kitek since 1999. She would like to continue boxing as long as possible, perhaps going into refereeing or coaching after her career is finished. Her father was a "Master of Sport" wrestler -- she's keeping the family tradition alive.
The better fighters at Kitek get a government scholarship of 1500 rubles a month including room and board at the club. Russian boxers, however, like classically trained ballerinas feeding themselves by administering blue-ball inducing lapdances at Moscow strip joints, sometimes also have to engage in crass deviations of their art in order to make ends meet. Andreeva has fought in boy bez pravil ("fighting without rules," or Ultimate Fighting) bouts in New Arbat casinos to earn a few extra dollars.
"They've changed some rules to make it a little safer," Andreeva says. "There's no headbutting and you can't stay on the mat for longer than 10 seconds."
Currently 10 young men -- almost all Caucasians -- and 8 young women are living in Kitek's dorm rooms, which, though spare and clean, nonetheless reek of permanent body odor. The older fighters like 27 year-old Pogorelov are given their own rooms. The rest live three or four to a room.
"So what are we going to do with you?" Mark Ionovich asks me.
I tell him that I want to learn to fight. Seriously.
He tells me that his fighters are leaving for the Crimea in two weeks' time, where they'll spend a month in a training camp preparing physically and mentally for the fall competitions.
"Until we leave, you can train with my group for free," Ionovich tells me. "When we leave you can train with Eduard Andreevich."
He nods to a short, older Asian man who has entered the office without my noticing.
Eduard Andreevich, a 5'2", 70 year-old ethnic Korean, is a boxing coach hired by Mark Ionovich to work at the club. Mark Ionovich, as the director, receives a salary. The other coaches do not. Their earnings come from paid individual lessons. I suggest $10 per hour for the lessons, to which both promptly agree.