It probably isn’t in any of the history lessons taught in the classrooms of Chelyabinsk, Russia, which is the hometown of WBO light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev, or even in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he now resides. Like many American citizens who were born in these United States and never have lived anywhere else, and nationals from other countries who came here in search of a better life, he complains, half-jokingly, about the amount of taxes he has to pay as part of the price for the privilege of being here. But they say you can’t really know where you’re going unless you understand where you came from, and the 31-year-old Kovalev would do well to consider some of his predecessors from the old Soviet Union who arrived on these shores nearly a quarter-century ago hoping to find something that was unavailable to them in Russia and 11 additional republics that then comprised the USSR.
Kovalev (24-0-1, 22 KOs) is a professional world champion and an increasingly well-compensated one at that, and he’ll bank a nice paycheck for Saturday night’s HBO-televised defense against Australia’s Blake Caparello (19-0-1, 6 KOs) at the Revel Resort in Atlantic City, N.J. Should Kovalev, who recently received his green card as a permanent U.S. resident, win as expected, the hard-punching “Krusher from Russia” can expect to have an increasingly higher profile in the U.S. and internationally, not to mention financial compensation that once would been considered unimaginable in Chelyabinsk. A victory over Caparello – and he’s a solid favorite to do so, and probably inside the distance – could vault Kovalev into a unification showdown with 49-year-old legend Bernard Hopkins, the IBF/WBA champ who has called him out publicly.
“I would like to fight any champion in my division,” said Kovalev, a short list that also includes WBC titlist Adonis Stevenson. “If it is Hopkins, it is Hopkins. If it is different guy, it will be different guy.”
Most of the questions directed to Kovalev during a media session last week in New York City were about Hopkins, whom he might or might not fight, and Caparello. But none – and I blame myself for this oversight – referenced Viktor Egorov, Yuri Vaulin and Sergei Artemiev, who helped clear the path that allowed Kovalev to arrive at the position he now enjoys. Nor, for that matter, did anyone bring up Ivan Drago, the fictional Soviet heavyweight who threw down with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa in 1985’s “Rocky IV,” or then-President Ronald Reagan’s notable depiction of the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.”
The current nasty business in Ukraine notwithstanding, maybe we really have come a long way, baby. Americans appreciate boxers, regardless of their country of origin, if they are sufficiently entertaining, and the higher the likelihood of someone delivering a spectacular knockout, the more willing U.S. fans are willing to accept them. It is a well of goodwill from which Kovalev draws, as is the case with Gennady Golovkin, the popular WBO/IBO middleweight ruler from Kazakhstan who defended those titles on a third-round stoppage of Australia’s Daniel Geale last weekend in Madison Square Garden.
So where does Kovalev like it better, Russia or Florida?
“In the future, I don’t know,” he said, smiling, of where he might spend his post-boxing life. “Right now, I like being in America. I like Russia, too. Wherever it will be better for my family, I will stay there.”
The world has changed, obviously, since children in the USSR were instructed that all Americans were selfish capitalists and kids in the U.S. were told all Russians and those in their satellite states were commie stooges bent on global domination. There is such a thing as Russian billionaires – one of them, Mikhail Prokhorov, owns the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets – and U.S. companies are thriving in the more open marketplace of Eastern Bloc countries. There is residual spying back and forth, of course, but people who were once on either side of the old philosophical divide no longer fret so much about some politician’s finger twitching on a nuclear launch button.
But ‘twas not always so. Americans of a certain age still remember the Cuban missile crisis, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev banging his shoe on a desk at the United Nations and loudly telling everyone in the U.S. that “We will bury you!” It was easy then to tell the good guys from the bad guys, or so we thought, and every athletic confrontation involving individuals or teams representing the world’s two great superpowers wasn’t merely a sporting event. It was a referendum on the validity of Our Way of Life vs. Theirs.
Into this maelstrom of intrigue and mistrust came Egorov, Vaulin and Artemiev, who might be described as pioneers who wanted some of the same things that Kovalev and Golovkin now have, without having to shoulder the heavy burden of being seen as symbols of an omnipresent Red Peril. Do you recall maybe the most poignant line in the HBO-produced documentary, “Klitschko,” which shone a spotlight on Ukrainian brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, heavyweight champions who held the division in a vise-like grip? Vitali, reminiscing about his first trip to the U.S. as part of a Soviet youth kickboxing team, spoke with wonder of the seemingly endless options to be found in an American supermarket.
“There were so many kinds of cheeses!” said the now-retired Vitali, or words to that effect. In Ukraine, he continued, “We have one kind of cheese. We call it … cheese.”
Repressive and totalitarian societies offer few if any choices for so many things Americans have long taken for granted, not the least of which are freedom of movement and of commerce. In the environment in which Egorov, Vaulin and Artemiev were raised, you took what you were given or allowed to have. A lot of us in this country are familiar with tales of repressed peoples behind the Iron Curtain standing in long lines to receive items as basic as a roll of toilet paper, and Russian kids all but selling their souls to procure black-market jeans or rock ’n’ roll albums featuring American and British musicians.
Then the Berlin Wall was torn down, East and West Germany reunited, the cash-strapped Russkies all but throwing up their hands in surrender when The Gipper floated the notion of the U.S. developing a futuristic “Star Wars” missile defense system. The arms race basically was called off because we were too far ahead and too well-financed to be caught by the panting Soviet bear.
Now? Well, a lot of Americans fret, and rightfully so, about our $17.6 trillion debt, our sieve-like southern border, the polarization of our political process and any number of other issues of paramount national importance. But to others – including boxers from Eastern Bloc nations we once were so wary of – this is still the land of opportunity, and the place where dreams are made.
Even though the Soviet Union officially was dissolved on Dec. 26, 1991, remember the climate that still existed when a pair of Russians, Egorov, a middleweight, and Artemiev, a lightweight, and a Latvian, Vaulin, a heavyweight, were brought to this country in 1990 by New York-based entrepreneur Lou Falcigno, to test the choppy waters of professional boxing.
What they found, perhaps not unexpectedly, were audiences more prepared to cast them as stereotypical villains than as hopeful but wary voyagers making their way toward an impending new reality. Such was the case Oct. 2, 1990, on a chilly night in Philadelphia, when the three Soviets appeared on the same card at one of America’s most iconic boxing clubs, the Blue Horizon. A capacity crowd of 1,500-plus, second-largest ever to jam into the old building to that point, came in no small part to vent its collective anger at the trio. And why not? It had been only five years since the lines of demarcation had been so starkly drawn in 1985’s “Rocky IV,” which pitted fictional Philly heavyweight Rocky Balboa against the seemingly invincible and remorseless Russian destroyer, Ivan Drago, who had beaten Apollo Creed to death in the ring with his gloved fists.
Vaulin and Artemiev won their bouts, the former on a split decision and the latter on a fifth-round stoppage, but Egorov was a TKO victim in the fourth round, an outcome that met with shouted approval from the vast majority of spectators.
Tommy Gallagher, the New York guy who trained all three Soviets, said Vaulin, in particular, was shaken by the hostile reception he received in Philly and other U.S. venues in which he sought to ply his trade. “He wants so much to be liked that when he heard that `USA! USA!’ stuff, he feels like a villain,” Gallagher said. “He has to be able to learn how to deal with that b.s., to block it out of his mind.”
With so much elapsed time from which to assess the impact of the players in Falcigno’s bold experiment, it is clear that Artemiev enjoyed the most success of the three men who fought in Philadelphia that night. He is also the most tragic figure, but the maybe the most inspiring one, standing as proof that maybe human beings are not so different after all.
Artemiev, a husband and father of an infant son, was paid $10,000 for his March 21, 1993, bout at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J., against Carl Griffith, with the vacant USBA 135-pound title on the line. Had he won – and he was favored to do so – the likelihood is that Artemiev would have moved on to a matchup with WBC lightweight champion Miguel Angel Gonzalez three months later. But Artemiev was stopped in the 10th round, absorbing so much punishment that he was rushed to a local hospital where he underwent a 4½-hour operation to alleviate the pressure of a brain bleed. He never fought again.
But the story, in its own way, has an upbeat ending. Artemiev, who was described by Gallagher as a person of “so much character” and “a real pleasure to work with,” never went back to St. Petersburg, Russia. He continues to live in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, N.Y., where his positive outlook remains a shining beacon of hope to everyone, regardless of nationality or political ideology.
“I’m alive and I have a son,” Artemiev told writer Robert Mladinich in 2006. “I used to cry about my damage, and that I not fight again. Sometimes I get angry. I’m not rich. But I’m alive, thinking and hoping, and I believe in God. As long as I have life, I have something to live for.”
Kovalev, by comparison, has had it easy. He is not accustomed to being booed in the U.S.; the Cold War thawed years ago, and he is the sort of turn-out-the-lights puncher for whom American fight fans have an affinity, regardless of where they come from, maybe because there are so few home-grown blasters to command their affection. It will be interesting to see how the audience is divided if and when the “Krusher” meets up with “The Alien,” Hopkins, who is 100 percent made in the USA but hasn’t scored a knockout in 10 years.
Until then, Kovalev has the peace of mind knowing that he can purchase all the designer jeans he wants and can load up his fridge with any cheese that suits his taste. Some would call that progress.