FRANKLIN PARK, Ill. – Nazar Smal arrived in Chicago two years ago from the western Ukrainian city Ternopol.

“It’s good – this America. I like it!”

The 27-year-old has boxed 15 years, but never imagined the fighting that’s ravaged his homeland in Russia’s unprovoked war.

“He really feels bad for the people there because people there are dying,” explained Smal’s translator. “He feels horrible for them.”

His brother and father joined the fight to protect Ukraine – something Smal was ready to give up his new life in America for, as well.

“He actually wanted to go there but his dad told him to stay here. He had a plane ticket ready to go back.”

It is here, in his adopted home, where Smal trains for a much different battle – the Chicago Golden Gloves – competing in the 203-pound Open Division Finals this week. 

“This is a chance to be somebody. You know what I mean? A chance to be a champion.” 

Smal is one of three Ukrainian fighters training under the tutelage of former IBO light heavyweight title champion Andrzej “Andrew” Fonfara at his gym in Franklin Park.

The native of Poland has lived in Chicago since 2009. After hanging up his gloves three years ago, Fonfara now trains the next generation.

“I see those guys here in the gym – how those kids are working hard. When we go to the fight and those guys start winning, I’m excited. I’m happy, too. If my fighters are winning, I’m winning, too.”

Maksym Haruk is another Fonfara disciple competing in the Golden Gloves Finals. The 19-year-old grew up in Ukraine before immigrating to the States in fourth grade.

“For me it’s like – I should be happy I’m in this position instead of the other position that other people are in in Ukraine right now. I really take that in. I really embrace that because I could be them right now. If I never moved here, I would have been one of my friends on the front lines right now.”

In his first Golden Gloves bout, Haruk happened to face off against another countryman, Oleh Chorniy.

“As we were getting ready, I saw [the] Ukrainian flag. Then, I checked the name. I’m like, ‘This is a Ukranian name.’ So, I speculated that I was going to fight him and I actually ended up fighting him.”

The two posed for a picture after the match draped in the Ukrainian flag.

“It was like brother and brother fighting. I didn’t see him as an enemy. I just go out for fun. I had so much fun during that fight.”

For Haruk and Smal, representing their country has taken on new meaning. Their sport provides an outlet to channel the frustration and pain at the horrors happening in their homeland.

“We try a lot of things, so those kids don’t think about war and what happened there,” Fonfara noted. “It’s hard to forget. It’s hard to not think when your families are there.”

Far from family and the front lines, they try their best to focus on the fight at hand. And if they become a Golden Gloves champion?

“I will raise the flag and be proud that I’m Ukrainian.

“Slava Ukraini!” or in English ‘Glory to Ukraine!’

Nazar fights Thursday while Maks’ match is Friday.