Difficult-to-pronounce Eastern European names that often end in a “v” “y” or “o” now dot the boxing landscape. And there are plenty of imposing nicknames to accompany them like “Zar,” ”The Eagle,” “The Machine,” “The Beast,” “Russian Hammer,” Krusher,” and “The Nail.”
One of the common denominators–aside from their origin– is the level of excellence they have reached. Vasyl Lomachenko (pictured), a Ukrainian, and Gennady Golovkin, from Kazakhstan, are at or near the very top. Sergey Kovalev, a Russian, was up there until recently. Hot prospects Ivan Baranchyk (Russia) and Egidijus Kavaliauskas (Lithuania), who reside in Oklahoma and Oxnard, California, respectively, are both undefeated as are exciting Oleksandr Usyk and Oleksandr Gvozdyk, both Ukrainians There are many more, too numerous to list here.
The modern day Eastern Europe fighters no longer take that long trip to the US or vice versa. Now they tend to live and train together, providing a support network for one another, whether it’s in Oxnard, California, home to the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy, or in Brooklyn which reportedly contains the world’s largest community of Russian immigrants with LA close behind. Florida is also popular with these fighters. Dmitry Kudryashov and Denis Lebedev still live in Russia. But they are the exception.
The thread of excellence continues in the recently announced World Boxing Super Series where the cruiserweight segment already features Murat Gassiev (IBF reigning world champion), WBC titlist Mairis Briedis, former world champion Krysztof Wlodarczyk, and former WBO world champion Marco Huck. These four will compete in a single eliminator tournament, along with four others yet to be determined, and will vie for the biggest portion of $50M in total prize money, along with a shot to win the Muhammad Ali trophy. Look for more difficult-to-pronounce names to be added.
The Early Warriors: Arbachakov and Nazarov (1990-1998)
Yuri Arbachakov was probably the first Russian fighter to make the pro boxing scene, predating the subsequent explosion of talent that arrived since the early part of the new millennium. As a flyweight, he became the first Russian professional boxing champion, finishing with a 23-1 record. He first won the Japanese Flyweight Title in 1991 and then captured the world crown the following year by icing the storied Muangchai “J-Okay” Kittikasem in Tokyo. Yuri defended eight times but injured his hand, which may have played a role in his losing his last fight to Thailand’s Chatchai Sasakul, a loss that led to his retirement.
Unlike most Russian boxers of that time, Arbachalov decided to go to Japan where the smaller fighters were more appreciated. He was joined there by fellow Russian Orzubek “Gussie” Nazarov who won the WBA lightweight title in 1993 in South Africa against Dingaan Thobela. As an amateur the super skilled Nazarov from Kyrgyzstan was the world bronze medalist in 1986 and European champion in 1987 and had a record of 153-12. His final fight was a shocking decision loss suffered against French fighter Jean Paul Mendy. Nazarov had been suffering from left eye problems going into the fight and was thumbed in that very same eye in the third round. This tragic accident tore his retina, ended his career, and left him all but blind in his left eye. He finished with a 26-1 mark and, like Arbachakov, fought most of his bouts in Japan.
Between them, these two great fighters finished with a combined mark of 49-2 against the very best level of opposition.
A contemporary, Andrey “Ural Squall” Shkalikov, fought from 1990-2003 and ran up a 56-7-2 record while fighting out of Russia. He was the Russian super middleweight champion who held a number of secondary titles but came up short in two attempts for a world belt against Frankie Liles and Bruno Girard.
The face of boxing began to change after the end of the Cold War and then more dramatically during the late ’90s and that change involved an influx of boxing talent from Eastern European countries. No longer were these fighters doing their thing in a predictable and boring stand-up fashion. These were new and extremely well trained and disciplined boxers with a more fluid and relaxed manner of fighting. They literally exploded onto the boxing landscape and have remained ever since.
The influx started in earnest with Russian Kostya Tszyu, but then the Klitschko brothers emerged from the Ukraine as if out of nowhere and the flood gates opened. Russians Oleg Maskiev, Nikolai Valuev, Aleksandr Povetkin, Vasily Jirov, and Sultan Ibragimov made their mark on the heavyweight scene as did Ruslan Chagaev who is from the Republic of Uzbekistan. Chagaev and then the UK’s David Haye were able to stop Valuev’s improbable run. Serguei Lyakhovich from Belarus lost the title to Shannon Briggs but Ibragimov won it right back. These men were the real McCoy.
Nikolay Valuev put it succinctly as follows: “This development does not surprise me in the slightest. It is simply the case that the time has come — it is our turn now. Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union, many boxers have taken the opportunity to head west and have trained there. By doing so, they have gained valuable experience. On the one hand, we are influenced by the Russian school, but on the other hand we can implement this newfound knowledge. That is the secret of our success.”
Heavy-handed cruiserweight Sergey “The Russian Bear” Kobozev (22-1), who fought from 1992-1995, was among the most popular of this wave of boxers. If not for his untimely murder, allegedly by the Russian Mafia in New Jersey, he could well have been the face of that movement given his charisma and skills in the ring. The Bear resided in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, at the time of his death.
Other retired Russian boxers of note included Dimitri “Baby” Kirillov, Denis Inkin, Akhmed Kotiev, Dmitry Pirog, and Roman “Born In Hell” Karmazin.
After a celebrated amateur career in which he went 259-11, Tszyu (31-2) hit the road running when he turned pro in Australia in 1992. He meshed quick reflexes, great stamina, and uncommon focus and discipline with numbing power in his right hand, the deferred nature of which was displayed when he made Zab Judah (27-0) do the infamous “Chicken Dance” in 2001.
Perhaps the most celebrated Russian fighter ever (and arguably the greatest fighter with Australian citizenship), Tszyu retired in 2005 with a deceptive 33 fights—deceptive because he had been matched against top tier opposition virtually from the very start of his pro career. In fact, he beat Juan LaPorte in his fourth fight, and his second pro opponent had 35 fights.
Known as the “Thunder from Down Under,” Tszyu won the IBF super lightweight title in 1995 by stopping Jake Rodriguez in Las Vegas. He defended it successfully until being upset by Vince Phillips in 1997, but went on to win the WBC version of the title, stopping Miguel Angel Gonzalez (43-1-1). He then won eight in a row including a blowout of Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez (103-4-2 at the time). During this streak, he also won WBA, WBC, and IBF world title belts at 140 pounds. In May 2005, he lost his final fight when he could not answer the bell for round 12 against Ricky Hatton in Manchester, England.
The affable and articulate Tszyu got the deserving call from the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011.
To Russia Without Love
Tszyu reportedly moved his family to Russia in 2008, but then came back home to sunny and warm Sydney to live where he chases his dream of being an elite boxing trainer. His son Tim Tszyu, who fights out of Australia, is 5-0 as a pro and is thought to have a very bright future.
Ted Sares is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and holds several records in the Grand Master class. He has won the EPF Nationals championship four years in a row. A member of Ring 4’s Boxing Hall of Fame, he enjoys writing about boxing.
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