Prior to my visiting with former lightweight prospect Sergei Artemiev at his apartment in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, New York, in early April, I expected to write a grim, cautionary tale of hopelessness, desperation and despair.
I was ringside at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City on March 21, 1993, when the heavily favored 24-year-old Artemiev, who had emigrated from his native Russia just three years before, was stopped in the tenth round of a 12-round fight for the vacant USBA lightweight title.
Artemiev was 18-1-1 (12 KOs) going into the bout, while his opponent, the 23-year-old Carl Griffith of Lorain, Ohio, was 25-2-2 (11 KOs). Had Artemiev beaten Griffith, which most people thought he would do, he was expected to get a title fight against WBC champion Miguel Angel Gonzalez three months later.
That would have been a dream come true for Artemiev, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, who began boxing at the age of ten. As a member of the Soviet national amateur team, he, along with heavyweight Yuri Vaulin and cruiserweight Sergei Kobozev, was brought to the United States in 1990 by promoter Lou Falcigno.
The best that the lauded Russian amateur program had to offer, all were considered shoo-ins to win professional championships. Tommy Gallagher, who trained Artemiev and Vaulin, believed in all of them but considered Artemiev the cream of the crop.
“He can definitely be champ and make a fortune,” Gallagher told me a few days before the Griffith bout. “He’s so bright and has so much character. He’s a real pleasure to work with. I love him.”
“Sergei is special, a phenomenal athlete,” he continued. “I can’t see Griffith lasting five rounds. After him we go after [Oscar] De La Hoya and [Jorge] Paez and the money guys.”
By that time Artemiev had grossed about $70,000 fighting throughout the United States, in such cities as Phoenix, Philadelphia, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Miami Beach, San Diego, Reno, Auburn Hills, Michigan, Madison, Wisconsin, Butte, Montana, and Biloxi, Mississippi.
He hoped to earn enough money to someday retire with his wife Lina and newborn son Peter, whom he affectionately called Peter the Great, to Phoenix. He had fallen in love with Phoenix the second his plane hit the runway.
“It is so beautiful there and the oranges grow on trees,” he said then.
Just days later, all of Artemiev’s grand plans were derailed when Griffith stopped him after landing several furious combinations. Bleeding from a deep cut under his right eye, he had arisen at the count of five. But with the crowd of about 2,000 screaming “Stop the fight, ref, what’s the matter with you?” referee James Condon did just that.
Condon later said that he was more influenced by the spacey look in Artemiev’s eyes than in the admonitions of the crowd. At the time of the stoppage, Artemiev was ahead on one scorecard and behind on the two others.
While Griffith later shouted instructions to his brother Mike, who lost a six round decision to undefeated Sal Lopez, Artemiev, who was paid $10,000 for the night’s work, was rushed to the Atlantic City Medical Center. He immediately underwent a four-and-a-half-hour operation for a blood clot on the surface of his brain.
He lay in a coma, teetering between life and death for ten days. His condition was so grave that Russian television announced his death on numerous occasions.
While visiting with Artemiev in his cramped but efficient apartment, he showed me, as well as TSS videographer Chris Cassidy, the tapes to prove it.
One Russian broadcaster, who was standing at what looked like an upscale boat dock, began his report with the chilling words, “The Sad Story of Sergei Artemiev,” before announcing his untimely death in an American prizefighting ring.
“Two doctors said I would die and another said that if I lived I would be paralyzed,” Artemiev explained in his thickly accented but very articulate English. “But I have life. When I come out of coma, the first thing I remember is opening my eyes and the room—all white.”
At some point a photo was taken of him in his hospital bed with his son Peter, who was born three months earlier. Although Artemiev was smiling and looked somewhat alert, he still has no memory of that shot being taken.
In the months that followed, Artemiev endured grueling physical and mental rehabilitation. Insured for only $20,000, his medical bills topped out near $100,000. Much of his expenses were paid for, without fanfare, by promoter Bob Arum.
Since that fateful night, the fighter’s life has been an emotional rollercoaster. At first glance, the now 37-year-old Artemiev, who resembles boxer Tony Zale and actor Heath Ledger, looks and sounds fairly normal.
He is not far off of his fighting weight and, with the exception of a somewhat splattered nose, most of his facial features are intact. His hair covers a jagged scar along his scalp, where staple marks make all too clear the surgery that he underwent. His slate blue eyes are clear and animated.
But as you spend more time with him you can’t help but notice that he always seems to be leaning towards his right. The reason, he says, is because he has no peripheral vision on that side. To prove his point, he extends his arm and points his finger at me. He moves his arm slowly to the right until he says it is out of his line of vision. If his arm was the hand on a clock, it would be at about the 12:02 mark.
When engaged in a conversation, Artemiev constantly interrupts the discourse until he is finished making his point. It has nothing to do with him being arrogant or wanting to hear himself talk.
You can tell by his subtle facial gesticulations that he is following his train of thought. Any interruption in that thought process will make it difficult for him to remember where he was in the conversation. Polite – almost to a fault – he apologizes incessantly for this practice.
On a daily basis Artemiev studies a Russian/English dictionary. He is not just interested in learning new words; he feels it is necessary to keep his mind active enough to help offset inevitable deterioration from the trauma incurred in the Griffith bout.
I pick up the dictionary, open it to a random page, and begin asking him the definitions of words with a check next to them. Every time he commits a new word to memory, he says he checks it off.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of such words checked off, and he quickly tells me the definition of all that I ask him about.
He also memorizes poems and keeps a daily ledger in a large calendar. Written neatly and tightly in the calendar are all of his activities from the past, as well reminders of those planned for the future. He says the calendar is like a lifeline for him, and he refers to it countless times during an ordinary day.
“This is very important for me to do,” he said. “Even if I’m tired, I force myself to keep my brain active.”
He also derives great joy from thinking about and talking about Peter the Great, whose mother, with whom Artemiev came to America from Russia, lives nearby with her second husband.
Peter is enrolled in a Texas military school, where he plays on the school’s football team and also has competed in Muay Thai, a particularly brutal form of martial arts. While Artemiev does not encourage his son to be a fighter, he does not strongly discourage it either.
“I would rather him play hockey,” he said. “I joke with him that he is too skinny to be a boxer, the same thing people say to me when I his age.”
He sees Peter several times a year, but says he is never far from his thoughts. “I speak to him in pictures and dreams,” said Artemiev. “He is always here with me.”
Because Artemiev feels as if he was reborn after emerging from the coma, he says that in his mind he is only 13 years old or three months younger than his son. “I had to learn everything again,” he said. “I was born left-handed, but fought right-handed. When I come out of hospital, I was left-handed again.”
It is obvious that son Peter adores his father, and views him more as a dad than as a friend. Three years ago, when Russian television did a story on Sergei, he was asked to show the Universal Boxing Title belt that Joe Frazier had bestowed upon him at a stirring ceremony at the Taj Mahal.
His son, who came along on the interview, insisted the belt was his while his father kept reminding him that it was not.
“I hug him and kiss him for that,” said Artemiev. “The belt means a lot to me, so I’m glad it means so much to my son. It is the dream of any sportsman. A hockey player dreams of winning Stanley Cup. A boxer dreams of winning belt.”
Artemiev is a very emotional man who is secure enough in his manhood to wear those emotions on his sleeve. He says, for example, that he gets “shivers” whenever he thinks of a phone call that he received from Griffith.
“One time, in low voice, he call and say he sorry for what happened to me,” said Artemiev, who insists that in the days leading up to their fight he had a fever and was also experiencing insomnia. “He said the first three rounds he felt my strong punches. The fourth round, so-so, the fifth round my punches soft, and since seventh round he felt nothing. He said I hope you forgive me.”
Artemiev not only forgives Griffith, he wishes that he had become a world champion and saw his own dreams come true. In Griffith’s only world title bout – against WBO lightweight champion De La Hoya – he was stopped in three rounds in 1994.
It is obvious that Artemiev does not seek sanctuary by viewing himself as a victim. As easy as that might be for him, it is not in his nature. Moreover, he is more of a giver than a taker. That was clearly in evidence in the days after my interview with him, when called several times to make sure I mentioned all of the people who have treated him right.
He praised public relations guru Gina Andriolo as a “beautiful, kind human being” for establishing a fund to help offset his expenses, as well as slew of other people.
They include Gena and Easia, the owners of a Coney Island sauna and bathhouse; Sasha Tarelkin, who acted as his translator for many years; Mark Rachman and sisters Sofa and Fira, as well as Yuri Usbensky and Simon Maklin, all of whom run the National restaurant and International Foods, where he buys his groceries; and a big thanks to Rafail Gorodeski.
He also cannot express enough gratitude to Dr. Pheiffer and two other physicians who saved his life, as well as the nursing staff who were always there during his arduous recovery. He is also eternally grateful to Dr. Michael Gordeev, a dentist who implanted five false teeth for free.
He got especially emotional when he took out a large bag containing hundreds of cards and letters that he received from well-wishers the world over. They began coming in within days of his injury. All were from perfect strangers. He was most touched by the $5 that was sent by a 10-year-old boy.
As easy as it is to view Artemiev’s situation as tragic and heartbreaking, he steadfastly refuses to go that route himself. Moreover, there is no inkling that he is unaware or the least bit deluded by his situation. Artemiev clearly knows the capacities he once had, and can compare them to the ones he has now.
A fighter by nature, he refuses to do anything but make the best of a bad situation. He admits to sometimes getting depressed, but says that he is glad to be alive.
His former stable mate, Kobozev, who was trained by Teddy Atlas, won the USBA cruiserweight title but was murdered by Russian mobsters. And Vaulin was dismissed by Gallagher as “a quitter” after being stopped by Tommy Morrison in a fight he was clearly winning on the undercard of Evander Holyfield’s April 1991 title defense against George Foreman.
“I’m alive and I have a son,” said Artemiev. “I used to cry about my damage, and that I not fight again. Sometimes I get angry. I’m not rich. I don’t have a million in my account. But I’m alive, thinking and hoping, and I believe in God. As long as I have life, I have something to live for.”