The Pugil List: 10 Greatest Russian Boxers
Russian knockout artist Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev has fashioned himself into an underground sensation and will likely further his appeal with boxing hipsters by knocking out unfashionable Blake Caparello. The fact that HBO is willing to air Kovalev against an unrecognized foe speaks to his popularity, nearly rivaling that of fellow Eastern European bomb-thrower Gennady Golovkin. Given the current political climate and America’s long-standing animus with Russia, this “man-crush” the North American boxing fraternity has with Kovalev is compelling. Simply put, other than vodka, Sergey Kovalev (who should start his own KO brand of vodka) is the best import from Russia and puts just as many people on their asses!
In all honesty, when contemplating this project, I expected a more formidable list of boxers to emerge. However, many of the fighters I initially thought of were born in former Russian satellite states like Kazakhstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. Some built-in limitations hurt, like only having professional boxing since the 1990s and the lack of a professional infrastructure that meant Russia’s most talented boxers had to base themselves in other countries. Also, successful amateur boxers can make a good living in the Soviet Union because of government stipends and enjoy a good deal of public recognition as well.
Along with Alexander Povetkin, Sergey Kovalev is one of the last Russian boxers with an old-style Soviet amateur pedigree. Newer Russian prospects prove elite amateur status is no longer a must to reach the highest levels in the pros. Some fantastic amateurs like Aleksei Tishchenko, Oleg Saitov, Valeri Popenchenko and Stanislav Stepashkin were considered but they did not do enough to merit inclusion. Active boxers are excluded since it is impossible to judge an incomplete career given the rapid declines and sudden reversals in fortune boxing is well known for. This choice eliminates boxers like Alexander Povetkin, Ruslan Chagaev, Oleg Maskaev, Alexander Bakhtin, Ruslan Provodnikov or Denis Lebedev.
Just missing inclusion on the list were Alexander Makhmutov, Sultan Ibragimov, Andrey Pestriaev, Alexander Zolkin, Boris Sinitsin and Sergey Artemiev.
10. Dmitry Kirillov, 31-4-1 (10) – Diminutive boxer /counterpuncher could not get a break from the judge, twice on the losing end of the scorecards in title fights (overseas against Luis Perez and Masamori Tokuyama) that many ringsiders believe he won. Soldiered on and finally won a title in his third attempt, becoming the first Russian boxer to win a world title on native soil, defeating Jose Navarro for the vacant IBF junior bantamweight title. The win over a recognizable American name enabled Kirillov to fight Vic Darchinyan on Showtime but unfortunately it was too much too late with a fading Kirillov stopped in the fifth round by a naturally bigger and primed beast. It was the only time Kirillov was consummately outclassed. In general, Kirillov had a frustrating habit of doing just enough to win or lose, never finding that fifth gear in his game. Some of that was because Kirillov fought above his optimal weight to gain title opportunities, which showed in a 28% kayo ratio and countering tendency. Improved offensively when trained by Freddie Roach but never really got away from his reactionary amateur roots (member of the Russian junior national team but turned pro at age 19). In early 2013, five years after the Darchinyan fiasco, Kirillov registered two insignificant wins but knew his time had passed and retired again at age 35.
9. Akhmed Kotiev, 27-2 (15) – A strange case, Kotiev was presented with a title shot when stablemate Michael Lowe retired and his promoter needed a suitable replacement at short notice. To Kotiev’s credit, he made the most of the opportunity. Kotiev had to be persistent since he did not have a fan base in Russia, only fighting there three times, and was not a popular boxer in his adopted home in Germany either. Thus Kotiev worked his way to a title shot, though his opposition was weak until 1998 when he broke through, knocking undefeated American Leonard Townsend down three times in a title eliminator. Better-than-average feet always put Kotiev into good position to counter opponents but when he did lead, Kotiev was impressive in his dedication to body work. Left hook was his most potent punch and was quick enough to be equally effective as a lead or counter weapon. Made four defenses of the WBO welterweight title, defeating the Puerto Rican duo of former and future champions Santos Cardona and Daniel Santos. However the Santos win was controversial and a rematch saw Santos dethrone Kotiev knocking him down twice in the fifth, scoring a deserved stoppage. The intelligent Kotiev decided he had peaked, retiring immediately and is now a minister of sport in the Russian state of Ingushetia.
8. Denis Inkin, 34-1 (24) – Credited with nearly 300 amateur victories (won World Military Championship twice, falling short of making Russian Olympic team despite amateur wins over Carl Froch and Jeff Lacy), Inkin could do everything well but lacked that one great gift to make him dominant. Because of success in amateurs, did not turn pro until age 25, had a slow start in Russia but quickly moved up the ladder after basing himself in Germany. Won the European title against brawling Mger Mkrtchyan but got more attention for defeating former champion Julio Cesar Vasquez in dominating fashion. Won title eliminator by defeating German stylist Mario Veit by knockout in Germany and captured the WBO title with an impressive unanimous decision over hard-punching Fulgencio Zuniga. Defeating different styles displays Inkin’s adaptability and sense of distance; it kept Inkin on the edge of others’ offense while able to land his well-timed and precise punches. Lobbied for fights with well-known champions Joe Calzaghe, Lucian Bute and Mikkel Kessler but was not considered high-profile enough given they were fighting on American television. Inkin looked set to for a good title run given the other champions’ lack of interest but was upset in his first title defense by awkward, former sparring partner Karoly Balzsay in an intense and close decision. Inkin was only 31 when he suffered that first career loss and never fought again despite having a rematch clause with Balzsay.
7. Sergey Kobozev, 22-1 (18) – Sadly, Kobozev is probably more known for his death at the hands of the Russian mob (shot in the back, then had his neck broken) instead of the positive role model he was well on his way to becoming. Kobozev boxed for and was a captain in the Russian army, earning a degree in chemical engineering and only suffered one – albeit controversial – split decision loss in France for the WBC interim cruiserweight title. In hindsight, Kobozev’s best victory was a decision over future heavyweight champion John Ruiz, winning on the strength of his aggression and superior volume. Two fights later, defeated former champion Robert Daniels, beating the hard-hitting veteran to the punch and brutally battering Daniels into an eighth round submission. Showed his overall boxing ability against former USA Olympic champion Andrew Maynard, stopping him in 10, pitching a near shut-out. Only loss was to undervalued Argentinean Marcelo Dominguez; because of the closeness and excitement of the bout, Kobozev was to earn a $100,000 dollar payday in a rematch. Instead, he was senselessly murdered after throwing three Russian mobsters whom were threatening employees out of a restaurant. Kobozev was among the leaders of the first Russian wave of boxers and if not for his untimely death, could have been the face of that movement given his charisma and offensive prowess.
6. Nikolay Valuev, 50-2 (34) – Yes, “The Russian Giant” was on the receiving of fistic jokes because of his freakish size (seven foot tall and 320 pounds) but he holds victories over Evander Holyfield, John Ruiz (twice) and Sergei Liakhovich. A lot of Valuev’s achievements were due to his size advantage but he wielded a stiff and accurate jab to go along with enormous natural strength. Valuev had relatively fast hands for a man that size and became more precise and selective with his punches late in his career. There was clear improvement in terms of skill as Valuev climbed the ranks and he took the sport seriously despite only starting to box in his late teens. Two losses were by majority decision and despite his sometime oafish or slow foot movement, he was never totally outclassed. Valuev will be remembered for his imposing frame but it can be argued that hard-to-maneuver behemoth structure was a detriment to Valuev. Muscle and joint injuries conspired to hold him back as well but his 52-bout career ended with 50 wins and a respectable 64% kayo ratio. After retiring, Valuev became a successful politician and was elected to the Duma (Russian congress); he also appeared in popular Russian TV shows and movies.
5. Newsboy Brown, 56-13-5 (12) – Whirlwind volume puncher defeated world champions Panama Al Brown, Baby Arizmendi, Midget Wolgast, Frankie Genaro, Corporal Izzy Schwartz and twice drew with Hall-of-Famer Fidel LaBarba. The problem is that Brown did not beat those champions while they held the world title. It was tougher back in the 1920s and ‘30s, when there was only one world champion per division! Real name was David Montrose; his Jewish parents fled Russia in his early teens (birth date is unknown. Some outlets suppose it was August 17, 1905) to settle in Iowa. A stocky flyweight, only stood 5’1” lending him a bulky frame, Brown threw a lot of punches without generating much power, only stopping 12 opponents. Turned pro at 16 and mixed it up with elite fighters only three years later. Had one shot at a universally recognized world title, losing to flyweight champion Corporal Izzy Schwartz. News wire reports tell the story, which was a microcosm of Brown’s career. “Schwartz fought the huskier Brown to a standstill. Brown forced the fighting throughout but rarely was able to evade the short uppercuts Schwartz snapped inside to his chin. Although there were no knockdowns, these uppercuts several times sent Brown reeling. The ‘Newsboy’ refused to retreat, however, and several times, shook up Schwartz with jolts to the head and ribs. Schwartz was bleeding freely from the ear and left eye at the close.” In any other era, Newsboy Brown would probably have become a champion.
4. Dimitry Pirog, 20-0 (15) – The only undefeated boxer on this list, Pirog is an entrepreneur outside the ring who retired in frustration over the politics of boxing that stripped him of the WBO title. Flew under the radar in Russia despite scoring respectable wins over Kofi Jantuah, Sergey Tatevosyan and Kuvanych Toygonbayev. All that changed in New York City when Pirog dismantled and then knocked hot prospect and hometown boy Daniel Jacobs out in five rounds. Sported a wiry, tough-as-nails physique, infused with skills earned over 200-30 amateur career. Pirog earned admirers in Germany defeating Jantuah in scintillating fashion. Amazingly, won many fights without the aid of a trainer; Pirog studied film and prepared for bouts alone until his 10th pro bout. Rarely clinched and constantly moved to create openings or set up a punch. Had a cool ring demeanor that allowed him to throw double and triple hooks and perfect spacing enabling him to avoid punches with a twist or roll of the upper body. It is a shame the political side of boxing drove Pirog away; stripped of his WBO title for taking fight against tougher Gennady Golovkin instead of Hassan N’Jikam. The Golovkin fight fell through because of a back injury Pirog suffered and after fruitless negotiations with N’Jikam, Pirog gave up boxing to concentrate on his businesses again.
3. Roman Karmazin, 40-5-2 (26) – Talk about coming up the hard way, Karmazin competed in unlicensed bare-knuckle bouts at clubs and basements around St. Petersburg since they paid more than he was getting in professional boxing. That goes a long way to explaining Karmazin’s expressive nickname of “Made in Hell.” A good boxer with some pop, he had the all-around skills to beat naturally bigger Keith Holmes but never maximized his earning potential because of untimely setbacks in winnable fights. Came to light in America after dominating Kassim Ouma, taking the IBF junior middleweight title in the process, but always had trouble with pure boxers, suffering loses to Cory Spinks and Javier Castillejo. Took out familiar names Bronco McKart and Antwun Echols, which made Karmazin the number one contender to the title held by Oscar De La Hoya. Unfortunately, was too dangerous and did not have the name value to force a fight with De La Hoya (though he sued and got some financial compensation). Always seemed to be battling through promotional problems as well, never building momentum since he rarely fought more than twice a year. As a fighter, used momentum well, a stubborn, straight-ahead fighter with long arms who could cut off the ring. Tough fights aged Karmazin beyond his 37 years and when Daniel Geale and Osumanu Adama stopped Karmazin in consecutive bouts, he knew it was time to retire.
2. Yuri Arbachakov, 23-1 (16) – Notable as the first boxer from the former Soviet Union to hold a professional world title in 60 years (1992) after Ukrainian Benny Bass lost his title in 1931. Arbachakov should be given extra credit for converting his Soviet amateur style (went 165-21) to an aggressive pro style favoring a stiff jab followed by the straight right. He could have boxed his way to titles and maybe extended his limited 24-bout career by doing so. Won the European and World Amateur Championships; unlike most Russian boxers of the era, he decided to go to Japan where the smaller fighters are more appreciated instead of America or Germany. Could do it all, equally adept at boxing on his toes or sitting down on punches and knocking opponents stiff. After only two years as a pro, defeated – via very impressive eighth round TKO – tough Thai Muangchai Kittikasem for the WBC flyweight title. Went on to make nine successful title defenses, all of which were one-sided with the exception of a close fight with Ysaias Zamudio. A right hand injury sidelined Yuri for a year-and-a-half, after which former victim Chatchai Dutch Boy Gym (known also by surname Sasakul, who Arbachakov beat handily) won a wide 12-round decision. Arbachakov, tired of nagging hand injuries, retired after the fight and was never tempted back into the ring. Sadly, a great match-up, one of the best of the 1990s, between Arbachakov and Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson never came off.
1. Kostya Tszyu, 31-2 (25) – A loss to Ricky Hatton in his final fight does not stop Tszyu claiming the number one slot; if anything, the class Tszyu showed in defeat enhanced the aging legend’s status. No Russian boxer had as much hype coming out of the amateurs. A beast on the amateur circuit, Tszyu destroyed Vernon Forrest to win at the World Amateur Boxing Championships in 1991. Tszyu began boxing at nine, infusing the stand-up, Soviet amateur style with amazing balance that allowed for power-punching. Showed an uncanny knack for stopping southpaw boxers and impeccable timing earned him 25 knockouts in 33 fights. Perhaps, the physically strongest junior welterweight ever, who was nearly unbeatable after elevating his mental game to match that physical prowess. Tszyu deviated from his astounding work habits early in his career, relying on physical gifts after winning the title, leading to a loss against Vince Phillips. Of the experience, Tszyu says, “I became a professional athlete after that fight. I had a different attitude.” The key to life is learning from mistakes and Tszyu did so with amazing consistency, making 12 title defenses over two reigns and becoming the first 140-pound boxer to unify three titles, a consistency that kept him at junior welterweight for his entire career, nearly unheard of for the last two generations of boxers. Tszyu is proof that mental focus – not just physical gifts – is the key to achieving and maintaining greatness in all aspects of life.