Seven years ago Mairis Briedis was awarded the Order of the Three Stars, the most prestigious award any Latvian can receive. 

At the time, the former three-time cruiserweight world champion was about to head into a unification bout with Oleksandr Usyk in his native Riga in the World Boxing Super Series. Briedis and Usyk fought it out in front of 12,000 raucous fans, the chants of “Breidis, Breidis, Breidis’ made hair stand up on the back of your neck. However, it would mark Briedis’s first career defeat, losing by majority decision. 

Usyk would go on to unify the division ahead of becoming the IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight world champion. Meanwhile, Breidis reclaimed his cruiserweight crown with victories over Krzysztof Glowacki and Yuniel Dorticos. He aggressively chased fights with then WBO champion Lawrence Okolie and influencer-come boxer Jake Paul as a war began in Ukraine. 

“I was at Michal Cieslak vs Lawrence Okolie,” Briedis remembered in an exclusive interview with BoxingScene. “I was at the fight and I was dressed up as [Super] Mario because Jake Paul called me Mario. Then the war started, and the condemnation. 

“Then the next thing I know, I’m at London airport and I get a text saying they need my opinion on the war. That’s what all the Latvian media asked me for. And I said – I don’t know what is going on. I am sitting in the airport now. They said to me, ‘how can you not know?’ I said, ‘I don’t know! And I was told that if you don’t tell me your opinion, all the media will write that you are for Putin. That’s what Raimonds [Zeps], my manager, said.”

For context, Latvia has a long running history with Russia. The small Baltic nation shares a border with them. It became part of the Soviet Union following World War 2 and had previously been a part of the Russian Empire. Around half of Latvia is ethnically Russian, the culture playing a huge role in modern day Latvia. It’s fair to say, many ethnic Latvians are anti-Russian due to a very recent and violent occupation.

“I said that I am against people dying both here and there,” Briedis explained. “Without taking sides in the war. Both are not my countries. But in Latvia people were acting as zombies or something. Even our current President (then Foreign Minister) wrote on his Twitter account that ‘the next time I watch the battle with Mairis, I will not be on either side’. It is a very powerful thing when such high-ranking members of the government, the leaders of the country, are expressing their opinion of the person.

“Of course, a lot of people will think that – he is our minister, so I must think that too. And that is what a lot of people wrote afterwards, that “oh, I won’t be on either side next time!”. And everything I would say was transformed by the media, turned upside down and made out to be pro-Russian, even though I don’t support Russia. There was never a single word like that.”

Briedis dealt with the nationalistic problem expressing his opinion in a video message two years ago: “Those who wage war, those who go there, those who force war, I am categorically against it. This is the craziest thing that can happen in our world. But I don’t want to lump Russian-speakers into one bag. There have already been cases when long-distance drivers driving with Russian license plates have already been stabbed, beaten to half death, I don’t want there to be a war between languages. I give you strength and energy so that peace will come to you as soon as possible and this horror will end. I pray that it will all end sooner. So don’t ask me for an opinion that I don’t fully understand. I am unequivocally against the war.”

The anger from his fellow Latvian’s has caused some issues for Briedis. An autobiographical book; Mairis Briedis – Is There a Life After Sport, was intended to be presented in one of the city’s largest shopping malls, but he was refused to promote his book due to the aforementioned issues. 

“I believe that in this way they stole 25 years of work at one point because of a diplomatic point of view at that moment,” Briedis continued. “You ask a professional sportsman for such an opinion? You should’ve given me some information! You know, I compare this situation to a medal or a coin. One part of the coin has turned against you and the other always turns to you. Therefore, there is now a lot of support not only from Latvians, but also from Russian-speaking Latvians. 

“I say, a person remains a person. The fact that we speak in some sounds, we also now speak English. If I know that language, if I’m learning another. These are the sounds we understand. Others generally speak with gestures. So who are they? Aliens if they don’t talk? These are the sounds through which we speak. And this is my philosophy, my vision of life, that when you start to get attached to some languages, that is… I don’t know where we live if the walls are closed to certain languages.

Anyways, they have wiped out the future of sport for Latvian children. Because I remember after my fights there were always full arenas and people wrote ‘wow! Kids came, adults came, lawyers, girls, the whole arena was full’. Now it’s a big problem nowadays that kids are sitting in front of their computers all the time.”

This would all culminate in Briedis having a bash at politics. He would run as a Member of European Parliament [MEP] for the Russian leaning party called Harmony in 2022. He would not get elected. 

Unfortunately or fortunately I didn’t get into politics for that party, but that’s another story. When journalists talk to me now, as far as I understand, they are not interested in boxing from me anymore, but they are just interested in politics, my political vision. And here we see it again, in reality… even now we spoke 70 per cent about politics, my story, my vision. And only 30 per cent for boxing. Then there is the question, what are people more interested in?

“Latvia don’t want to go further, they don’t want the world of boxing, the world of sports to talk about them. Okay, let’s not talk about the economy, because we don’t have much and we live all the time from the money of the European Union. Including you – Latvians who could have been here and earned a lot of money for Latvia and developed their country they all have left. There is a big difference in other countries. Latvia ate its own hero.”

Despite his problem with his people, Briedis’s accolades have inspired a new generation of Latvian fighters. You visit any gym in Riga, all the fighters look up to Briedis as a sportsman. He heads into a rematch with Jai Opetaia on the undercard of Tyson Fury-Oleksandr Usyk this Saturday in Riyadh after two years out of the ring. 

“By boxing in England he showed that he destroyed me, his opponents and showed that he is a high-level athlete,” Briedis added. “This is potentially my last fight, so, let’s go, let’s fight. The team is assembled, we will be in very good shape now too. Let’s once again show the world what Latvia is capable of. Because whatever it is, it’s my country.”

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