Few deserve a more fearsome reputation than Igor Zinoviev, a 36-year-old Russian with a military-issue crew cut and a body that most closely resembles a cinder block.
He’s a Soviet-trained expert in several martial arts, a former Red Army commando, and a veteran of illegal bare-knuckle fights held in discreet locations in the outer boroughs. For three years in the late 1990s, he was a middleweight champion in the more regulated form of this sort of scrapping, known variously as extreme fighting, ultimate fighting, no-holds-barred, or mixed martial arts. He’s spent the past few years as a personal trainer, a bodyguard, and a stuntman for television shows, preparing intently for the day when he might regain his crown.
It’s quite a life story, the kind that leads most to imagine Zinoviev as a snarling automaton who is forever asking people to step outside for an Eastern Bloc ass-kicking—a combination of Chuck Zito and Drago from Rocky IV. But the truth is—how should I say this?—he’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. “He’s shy,” says one acquaintance. “A great guy,” says another. “A gentleman.” Three days a week, he visits a small martial arts school on a forlorn stretch of Bath Avenue in Brooklyn, patiently instructing Russian teenagers in the self-defense techniques he’s spent a lifetime honing. “I don’t do it for the money,” he says with a smile.
Zinoviev grew up dirt-poor in St. Petersburg, Russia. Stricken with meningitis as a child, he wasn’t able to walk until he was four years old. In an attempt to strengthen his weakened leg muscles, he would paddle around a local pool for hours on end. By his early teens he was a talented enough swimmer to be enrolled in a Soviet sports academy. Over time, he grew more interested in studying judo and boxing, drawn by the camaraderie of gym life and the exhilaration of hand-to-hand combat. He also started winning a lot of competitions. When he reached military age, Zinoviev was taken into the Soviet army, where he was trained as a member of an elite special-forces squad. “It was like a SWAT team here,” he says. For two years, he participated in actions throughout the Soviet Union, defending airports against terrorist attacks and busting illegal-immigration rings. Following his discharge, he spent four years on a municipal police force doing much the same kind of work.
After the fall of Communism, he ran into an American businessman in a Turkish bath. A fluent speaker of Russian, the businessman struck up a conversation with the six-foot-tall Adonis who had branched out to study sambo, jujitsu, and kickboxing. “You should come to America,” the man said. “I could get you some fights.”
Zinoviev bid do svidanya to his father and brother and arrived in New York carrying little more than a gym bag of clothing. He was eager to connect with the American businessman and engage in prize-brawls of the sort portrayed in the movie Fight Club. But the businessman was nowhere to be found. “So I found the fights through my own connections,” says Zinoviev. They were held in warehouses in Brooklyn and Queens and attended by moneyed clientele eager for blood. “It was rich people with cigars,” he recalls. He participated in about 10 fights, he says, winning all but one of them. Asked about the atmosphere, Zinoviev refers to the primeval ferocity displayed in the movie starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt: “That’s the way it was.”
In 1995, he opted to try his hand at the above-ground form of this fighting during the World Extreme Fighting championship in Madison Square Garden. But New York officials put a stop to the affair—mixed martial arts continues to be illegal in New York—and at the last minute the venue was switched to Wilmington, North Carolina. He faced a Brazilian jujitsu master named Mario Sperry in a caged, circular ring, a match-up in which Zinoviev was thought to be a huge underdog. For much of the battle the tenacious Sperry wrapped Zinoviev in a succession of grappling holds, in hopes of forcing the Russian to cry uncle. But Zinoviev jarred himself free and cut Sperry above the eye with a blow that drew blood, ending the fight.
“It was a great upset, one of the defining moments of the sport,” says Joel Gold, editor and publisher of Full Contact Fighter magazine. “Mario was the king from Brazil. He was this superstar. You know what made the victory greater? Here was a guy who didn’t speak much English and was quiet and intense—there was a mystery about him.”
Zinoviev successfully defended his title until 1998, when the extreme-fighting organization went under. “He always maintained his composure and was able to measure his opponents with deadly accuracy,” says Brett S. Atchley, a writer and photographer for Ultimate Athlete magazine. In March of the same year, Zinoviev challenged Frank Shamrock, the holder of the middleweight title of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but lost the bout in 24 seconds to a fighter who’s regarded as one of the best in the history of the sport. Nagging injuries and management problems have kept Zinoviev from mounting a full-scale return to the fight game. Besides, he has found other ways to seek his fortune in America. Wasn’t it inevitable that he would wind up as a Manhattan personal trainer?
“I remember when I first met him,” says Alex Reznik, founder of Complete Body Development, a Manhattan-based outfit that offers a battalion of trainers—many of them (including Igor) former athletes from the Soviet Union. “I watched him train at a gym and I was afraid to approach him. He was killing the bag. I thought, ‘He’s gonna kill my clients.’ They are professionals—dentists, lawyers. Then I found out that he taught kids. Then I thought, ‘He can’t be too bad.’ And the first clients he had fell in love with him.”
Zinoviev also branched out into bodyguarding, protecting the likes of— well, Zinoviev would prefer if the names of celebrity employers remain off the record. Then stunt work for television shows like Oz and Homicide came his way. For fun, he goes deep-sea scuba diving, shark fishing, and snowboarding with his nine-year-old son.
That’s not to say that’s he’s given up on returning to the ring for another chance at glory. He trains as hard as ever and professes to fear no opponent. “I’m ready to fight,” he says. “If I get a good deal, I’m definitely gonna fight.” Would he like to fight Shamrock? “I would like to,” he says. “I don’t care. I’ll fight anybody.”