Not everyone would have been surprised by the upset victory last Saturday by Sergei Liakhovich, originally of Vitebsk, Belarus, over Lamon Brewster of Indianapolis, USA, to capture the WBO heavyweight title. Nor of the Russian giant Nikolai Valuev taking the WBA heavyweight strap from John Ruiz in December. Nor that two other upcoming heavyweight title fights might be won by fighters over the belt holders whom they each had previously beaten: Wladimir Klitschko of the Ukraine against Chris Byrd for the IBF title on April 22, and the WBC-designated mandatory challenger Oleg Maskaev of Kazakhstan taking on Hasim Rahman whenever that fight is signed.
If Klitschko and Maskaev prevail again in their rematches, despite the fact that neither they nor Liakhovich live anymore in the lands of their birth, it will give these four sons of the former Soviet Union all the major heavyweight belts.
Someone once told us so, sort of anyway.
It has been almost 50 years since Nikita Khrushchev, then head of the Soviet Union, told a group of Western diplomats in November 1956, “?? ??? ?????????,” meaning “We will bury you.” Often taken out of context, this statement was not a threat of war but an assessment of the future of Western capitalism and the system laughably known as socialism as practiced in the USSR and its allies and satellites. A more complete quotation appeared in The Times of London on Nov. 19, 1956, which read, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.” Khrushchev’s infamous shoe-banging incident took place later, in October 1960 on the floor of the United Nations.
Since then, of course, history wasn’t on their side, as most of these dictatorships of the party ruling in the name of the proletariat and their (per)version of socialism have landed squarely in history’s dustbin. This political and economic system collapsed, mainly from within, along with the disintegration of the artificially created federation of supposedly equal Soviet republics. These governments were just as much the victims of the horrible inefficiency of their economic bureaucracies as they were of their lack of political democracy in their one-party authoritarian systems. The Soviets also lost the Cold War, while suffering the consequences of so many hot wars with their imperial rivals of the West through surrogates and allies in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the end, yet another ideology had failed, like they all eventually do. (For the real “Short Course” on Bolshevism, see the animated version of “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, himself a socialist.)
But while the Soviet system had largely knocked itself out, Western capitalism continued to expand deep into every corner of the globe. The former Soviet empire was brought back into its orbit, including into the sporting world. Yet life during this transition period remained rough, and the resultant political and economic chaos fueled yet another historical wave of emigration westward.
While all this was transpiring, much of the West, and especially the U.S., was growing softer, both figuratively and literally. Manufacturing was exported to lands with weaker or nonexistent labor laws and unions, and, needless to say, far cheaper wages and far greater profits for the multinational beasts. America even began to rely on hired labor to fight its overseas military adventures. Culturally, nerds and geeks became cool, as well as gangstas and pimps. Parasitism thus became celebrated in the official culture. Obesity and type 2 diabetes (the kind which can often be controlled by treatments involving diet and exercise) became national epidemics. Video games became the national pastime. And the faded industrial and urban cauldrons which once produced generations of boxers gave way to a suburban-centric culture which gave many of the same types of big tough kids who used to end up in boxing gyms scholarships to play college football, with even a few of them going into basketball. Still others ventured into college wrestling and the various martial arts.
Symbolic of this change are the backgrounds of the men at the top of the political junk heaps in present-day Russia and America. Russian President Vladimir Putin is the son of a factory worker mother and a father who was drafted into the Soviet navy in the 1930’s and served in World War II. He is a judo black belt and a former officer in the KGB, the old internal political police force of the Soviet Union. U.S. President George W. Bush, on the other hand, is a third-generation major national politician, a graduate of Yale and Harvard, and – what did he do in the war again?
Such were not conditions conducive to producing another generation of top-flight American heavyweight boxers. With athletes from the post-Berlin Wall Eastern Europe pouring into Western professional sports at all levels, few sectors of the sporting world were as ripe for their domination as heavyweight boxing.
While Olympic boxing, with its highly controversial point scoring and headgear, looks more like modern fencing without the weapons than the pro game, in recent years Americans have had a notable lack of success, especially at the heavier weights.
At both the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, the U.S. failed to place a boxer in the top four, who are all awarded medals, at both heavyweight (201 pounds/91 kg) and super heavyweight. These were divisions in which only recently the American big boys had regularly won gold. At heavyweight, Joe Frazier in 1964, George Foreman in 1968, Henry Tillman in 1984, and Ray Mercer in 1988 each won gold medals. At super heavyweight, Tyrell Biggs won in 1984, while in 1988 Riddick Bowe took silver, losing only to Lennox Lewis in the finals. (Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won his 1960 gold at light heavyweight.)
This was the first time in decades that the U.S. was shutout at both these weights for two successive Olympic Games. And it presaged the decline of the American heavyweights in the professional ranks.
At the same time, boxers from the former Soviet republics were achieving greater success on the Olympic level through the remnants of that formerly state-supported program. While the Cuban amateur team continued its record of Olympic excellence, many sons of the former Soviet Union took home medals in these higher weights after the Americans were long gone.
In 2000, Cuban great Félix Savón won his third straight gold medal at heavyweight, but only by outpointing Russia’s Sultan Ibragimov 21-13 in the finals. Ibragimov is now 19-0 with 16 KOs as a pro, having won his last bout by seventh-round TKO over former contender Lance Whitaker in December.
In 2004, Russian Alexander Povetkin won the gold medal at super heavyweight. He is now 6-0 with 5 KOs as a pro. Fighting thus far exclusively in Germany, he has already beaten veteran journeyman Willie Chapman by a sixth-round TKO in December, before banging Richard Bango, then 17-1, to the canvas with a second-round KO March 4. In only his seventh pro fight, he will now face Friday Ahunanya (20-4) April 22 on the Byrd-Klitschko undercard in Mannheim, Germany. This is the same Klitschko, of course, who won gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics at super heavyweight.
The last American to medal at these higher weights was Nate “The Snake” Jones, who won a bronze medal in 1996 at heavyweight. He finished up his pro career in 2002 with a record of 18-2-1 and 9 KOs, losing by third-round TKO in his final bout to, ironically in this context, Lamon Brewster.
In 2000, the U.S. was represented at heavyweight by Michael Bennett. He is also through with his brief pro career. He ended up at
10-4 with 8 KOs, but hung up the pro gloves in 2003 after losing two of his last three fights by stoppage.
The American super heavyweight in 2000 was Calvin Brock, who lost in the first round of those Olympics. Brock is now a top ten pro heavyweight with a record of 28-0 with 22 KOs, including wins over Jameel McCline, Clifford Etienne, David Bostice, and Zuri Lawrence. But his next fight, scheduled for June 24 in Las Vegas, will be against yet another undefeated former Olympian from a former Soviet republic, Timor Ibragimov of Uzbekistan, a cousin of fellow undefeated heavyweight Sultan Ibragimov. Timor, who did not place in the 1996 Olympics, is now 21-0-1 with 13 KOs as a pro, although he has not yet faced any top opposition.
The U.S. heavyweight and super heavyweight representatives at the 2004 Olympics, neither of whom medaled, have each also turned pro, but with far less success than Brock. Devin Vargas is now 8-0 with 4 KOs, but two of his last three fights were only won by him by a split and a majority decision, and both against unheralded local fighters. Super heavyweight Jason Estrada is 5-0, but with only 1 KO. He did try to step up his opposition by fighting Yanqui Diaz Feb. 13, but this fight ended as a no decision in the first round after headbutts caused a cut over Diaz’s eye.
The newly-crowned Liakhovich was also an Olympian, but lost in the first round in 1996 at super heavyweight to Paea Wolfgramm of Tonga, the eventual silver medalist behind Wladimir Klitschko. Liakhovich’s press materials describe this loss as “a controversial one-point setback.” Wolfgramm left the pro ranks in 2003 with a record of 20-5 with 4 KOs, but lost his last two and four of his last six fights.
Liakhovich, we are also told, is quite the aficionado of both combat sports and real combat as well. His press materials state: “He is also a big fan of ultimate fighting and has had to be restrained by [manager Ivaylo] Gotzev from becoming a participant. A ‘Russian Commando’ at heart, according to his manager, he is a good friend with many of the ultimate fighting champions and attends their events regularly. Weapons, guns and ammunition also fascinate him.”
It was left to Gotzev to make a gold medal quote at the post-fight press conference after Liakhovich’s victory over Brewster: “I will personally send trucks to the doorsteps of the television networks and pay the dumping charges after they’re loaded with all of the older heavyweights so the public can see the new generation of heavyweights like Sergei and see for themselves what they have been missing.”
All that was missing was Gotzev banging his shoe on the table.