By Alexey Sukachev
Go West… Nah, stop. Turn around. Go East then. It’s just the right time.
And it’s just that time when it’s pretty darn hard to imagine modern boxing without fighters from what was once called the “Evil Empire”. And, yes, I’m talking about the former USSR and the present array of once united and now independent states. More than 25 world champions (counting only so-called “major belts”), a lock on the sport’s glamour division, several heated rivalries, a few of dominating masterminds, and now – with the Kostya Tszyu’s arrival to Canastota – we have our first ever Eastern European Hall of Famer (Purists will call for Laszlo Papp but it’s an ultimate exception and Hungary’s placement in Eastern Europe is also a subject at large).
Twenty one years since the first Soviet amateur stalwarts diffused onto the Western (and partly onto the Far Eastern) fight scene, it’s finally a time to give a detailed look back and to remember the cream of the cream of post-Soviet prizefighters. The moment is chosen perfectly, contained by two 20th anniversaries – one which is mentioned above and another one (the dissolution of the Soviet Union) coming this year.
It was an interesting yet provocative challenge as a number of deserved candidates by far exceeded a number of places even in the prolonged version of the list. I decided to assess their achievements using a specifically designed formula. To do so, I have limited myself (and fighters correspondingly) only to major and semi-major titles and only to elite opposition.
By semi-major titles I mean top continental trinkets (EBU, NABF, OPBF and USBA) and the IBO title, which has gained a bit of recognition recently. For each victory in a fight, which had any of these belts at stake, a winner got 0.5 points. WBC, WBA and WBO interim belts were also treated as semi-major thus giving corresponding victors 0.5 points for each successful fight. A 0.25 bonus was set for a win by knockout in a semi-major battle.
Four major alphabet titles (WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO) were priced at 1 point each (for a victory) and all belts were set additive. NYSAC and NBA regalia gave their holders 2 points for each victorious fight. The undisputed “World” championship cost 4 points instantly. A win by a knockout in a major title fight gave a 0.5 bonus.
By “champion” (aka “elite opposition”) I recognized every fighter, who had won a piece of world championship at least once in his life. WBC/WBA/IBF/WBO titleholders as well as NYSAC/NBA and “World” champions were taken into account. Importantly, interim champions were treated on even terms with “full” champs.
A win is a win but a win over a former (or future) champion is one achievement worth to be taken into account. However, you cannot find two similarly accomplished champions as they differ much through their achievements. A following solution was introduced: for every major title, held by a champion (on separate occasions), his value was increased by a single point. Points gained were divided by two for a win in a non-title fight (regardless were there any “minor” belts at stake or not). A knockout over a titleholder gave its creator 0.5 points in a title fight and 0.25 – in a ranking bout.
Kostya Tszyu kayoed Zab Judah in two. Three major titles were at stake (WBA/WBC/IBF – 3 points in total); Judah was (or would be) a three-time world champion with five belts at his disposal (WBO and IBF junior welterweight, WBC/WBA/IBF welterweight) – 5 points; a stoppage win gives Tszyu 0.5 bonus points. Summing up these achievements we get: 3+5+0.5 = 8.5 points – a bonus, got by Tszyu for defeating Zab Judah.
As almost every ranking method, this one is rather subjective and can be even called biased. But at the end, its purpose wasn’t to give an ultimate and impeccable list of champions sorted strictly by their accomplishments (which is impossible) but rather to select a group of those fighters, who are worth of being remembered specifically. And as every other list this one is opened for any discussion, ignorance, and acceptance etc.
Who have been taken into account? Three groups of fighters were considered by the author; although two sets can be subjects of controversy.
1. Fighters from 15 republics of the former USSR: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan;
2. Fighters, which were born in the Soviet Union, who either retained a considerable connection with its boxing school (maybe via various ex-Soviet trainers) or competed for one of ex-Soviet (or Soviet) national teams in amateurs. Such fighters as Kostya Tszyu, Vic Darchinyan or Robert Stieglitz fall in this category.
3. Fighters, which were born in what was once known as the Russian Empire or in one of future Soviet Republics. Louis “Kid” Kaplan and Benny Bass are two prominent exemplars with David Montrose and Anton Raadik being two other notables, which were mentioned in this research.
While the last two groups are surrounded by controversy to a degree, the author chose to give them a chance – firstly, for completeness, and, secondly, to compare their achievements with those of present day warriors.
So, without further ado we start from those pugs who…
Failed to make the list
There’s quite a body of such fighters. One champion – Yuri Nuzhnenko – is also presented. Nuzhnenko, a capable pressure fighter, was (and is) competitive at Euro level but hardly can be ranked any higher than that. Yet he was able to get his portion of title in December 2007 when (in the biggest win of his career) he travelled to France to closely outpoint local veteran Frederic Klose over twelve for the WBA interim welterweight title. Despite a subsequent elevation to a “full” title, Nuzhnenko has never been considered a champion since firstly Miguel Cotto, then Antonio Margarito and, finally, Shane Mosley held a so-called “WBA Super” title. He hasn’t helped himself either barely getting past limited Boricua Irving Garcia in his first “title” defense and being defeated by fellow compatriot Vyacheslav Senchenko in April 2009 to lose his regalia. Nuzhnenko has never defeated a champion nor he held any continental titles and earned just a point to go deep under our radar.
Meanwhile, a cutoff was set at 1.5 points which helped us to select 51 fighters. The only one of them (and it was a hard choice) who was left outside despite getting a necessary number of points is Ukrainian Sergey Devakov, a two-time European super bantamweight champion with a stoppage win over British Spencer Oliver among others. With 1.25 points two more boxers are outside looking in – an almost forgotten Estonian Anton Raadik, who was a notable figure on European and American middleweight scene in 40’s and even fought thrice in the Soviet Union (not the former USSR but present and thriving!), and Ukrainian heavyweight banger Vladimir Virchis.
Among those, who didn’t make it, several more accomplished fighters can be mentioned, including cruiserweight kayo artist Denis Lebedev (Russia, 0.75), 2000 Olympic gold medalist Mohummad Abdullayev (Uzbekistan, 0.75), 1988 Seoul boxing champion Vyacheslav Yanovskiy (Russia/Belarus, 0.5), Uzbek heavyweight Timur Ibragimov (0.5) and notable promoter and former European champion Alexander Yagupov (Russia, 0.5) as well as a number of other deserved candidates.
50-51. Andrey Tsurkan (Ukraine)
Weight class: light middleweight
Record: 26-5, 17 KOs
Years active: 1999-2009
While not an elite fighter by any means, Tsurkan was there to entertain. And, man, he did it well. The Ukraine-born slugger relocated himself to the States in mid 90’s. He started his pro career in 1999 and was quickly brought up as a contender. A sudden loss to tough Guyanese Garrett followed with a subsequent setback against Kuvanych Toygonbayev. Tsurkan was able to fight back and he did mount an impressive comeback story culminating in 2006-2008 years – clearly the best moment of his life in pro boxing. The biggest breakthrough was made in nationally televised bout versus Hector Camacho Jr.; where usually rugged Tsurkan showed some impressive technique to stop the son of the legend in eight rounds and to acquire a vacant NABF light middleweight title. He increased his ledger with stoppage victories over Sammy Sparkman and Jesse Feliciano, while losing a dubious split decision to future world champion Yuri Foreman. Tsurkan’s career turned to bad in late 2008, when he was brutally stopped on his feet by Alfredo Angulo. He has been never seen again after another loss to Vanes Martirosyan.
Though not a resilient boxer, Tsurkan will be remembered for a big heart, a sturdy chin and a willingness to slug it out event against much better opposition.
50-51. Maxim Nesterenko (Russia)
Weight class: welterweight
Record: 48-10-2, 28 KOs
Years active: 1992-2007
This tricky fighter started his own path to the top in dark ages of Russian boxing, at the very beginning of modern Russia. The first part of his career was highlighted with several minor titles and a thrilling trilogy against Panamanian upset specialist Edwin Murillo which ended in two stoppage victories and two stoppage losses for WBC International and IBF intercontinental titles.
Nesterenko’s big days came along in 1998-1999, when he captured and retained once European welterweight crown. In 00’s he was more of a stepping stone for rising prospects and well-known contenders. His last hooray was heard in 2006 after two back-to-back road wins over Danish veteran Christian Bladt. A loss to rising Yuri Nuzhnenko followed, and in a year Nesterenko was all but finished.
49. Sergey Gulyakevich (Belarus)
Weight class: super featherweight
Record: 31-2, 13 KOs
Years active: 2003-…
While two fighters, listed above, are done with professional boxing, this Belarussian technician could still have something ahead of him. At 30 with just a year and a half removed from his controversial loss to Mexican Humberto Mauro Gutierrez, Gulyakevich is within a reach of another title opportunity.
His first one came after series of quality wins, dating all way back to his decision over Russian Sayan Sanchat. He later doubled up with a surprising domination over Bulgarian Toncho Tonchev only to be held to a technical decision against future champion Alex Arthur. Another series of quality wins followed soon with point victories over another future titleholder Vitaliy Tajbert and France-based Russian-Armenian brawler Leva Kirakosyan. A world title opportunity followed less than a year since Tajbert win. Gulyakevich is 5-0 after it.
48. Alexey Ilyin (Russia)
Weight class: cruiserweight
Record: 25-4, 23 KOs
Years active: 1993-2000
A notorious puncher Ilyin was a fringe contender during the second part of 90’s but, as was often a case for Russian fighters of the previous generation, lacked professional experience and serious refining for serious achievements. He was good against limited opposition though, stopping almost every opponent which was put against him.
However, he also scored a couple of important victories. During his rise he travelled to Rome and stopped former champion Maximiliano Duran in just four rounds within a year since his pro debut. A few fights and a couple of years later, Ilyin was beaten mercilessly himself losing via TKO 4 to Akim Tafer in France. He slowly rebuilt his record with several mismatches and finally got his title opportunity in October 1998. Timing was all wrong, and Ilyin fell a victim to WBC boss Juan Carlos Gomez who was on his way towards a long-time reign. He bounced back once again with a TKO over Christophe Girard in a single most impressive fight in his career but was soundly beaten twice just after that.
47. Alexander Povetkin (Russia)
Weight class: heavyweight
Record: 21-0, 15 KOs
Years active: 2005-…
A bust or a triumph? We shall see how the rest of Alexander Povetkin’s pro career will answer this tricky question. Right now it’s hard to predict an immediate future of one of the best Russian heavies in years, not to speak about something distant in time (and maybe in space).
Upon this transition from unpaid ranks to paid ones, the only Russian to ever win an Olympic gold medal at the super heavyweight division, was thought to be a future star and was brought up as a possible successor for Klitschko brothers whom he was seemingly destined to beat. And he started well indeed. After a year and a half of adaptation and a series of tune-ups Povetkin posted a banner year from December 2006 to January 2008. He opened it with a quick annihilation of mostly forgotten former champion Imamu Mayfield, followed it up with two easy blowouts of journeymen and then suddenly drastically improved his level of opposition, firstly dominating Larry Donald, beating long-time heavyweight master Chris Byrd into submission next and finally overcoming some tough resistance of technically sound Eddie Chambers to take a close unanimous decision.
He certainly looked to be on his way up in early 2008 and some boxing daredevils even predicted him to win over Wladimir Klitschko till the end of 2008. Unfortunately, a chain of unexpected injuries, personal issues (including a death of his father Vladimir), a change of head coach and some other problems hampered his career over the last three years which has also seen a strong decrease in the level of opposition. Right now, Alexander’s future looks rather foggy and only time will tell if he becomes the next champion or downgrade low enough to be remembered as the second coming of Audley Harrison, another Olympic champion who failed to live up to big expectations.
46. Andrey Pestriaev (Russia)
Weight class: welterweight
Record: 29-9, 19 KOs
Years active: 1992-2004
While some other fighters should probably be ranked higher in this list for their achievements or for what they have done in their careers, a highly underrated Russian welterweight Andrey Pestriaev should have been placed into a brighter spotlight based on what he could have made had he been a bit luckier in a fight of his lifetime.
Largely unknown European champion Pestriaev was brought as an easy pushover for P4P long-time mastermind Pernell Whitaker in October 1997. Whitaker, just six months past his last great performance against Oscar De La Hoya, was still a major player in pound-per-pound ranks and was preparing for a possible comeback. Twelve rounds later he was extremely lucky to get a close unanimous nod which looked dubious in a much tougher-than-expected fight against an unheralded opponent. Pestriaev’s great work started to look even better when an all-time great was tested positive for cocaine after post-fight drug tests.
This triumphant showing assured a chance for Pestriaev to get a much needed title opportunity which he failed to capitalize on being easily destroyed by James Page in just two rounds. Pestriaev has never been the same again (except for maybe his biggest win against 29-0 Steve Roberts in 2002) and ended career losing his five last bouts in a row. Yet, his two European titles gave him a spot here and almost-a-win against Whitaker made for a memorable moment to be long associated with his name.
45. Dmitry Pirog (Russia)
Weight class: middleweight
Record: 17-0, 14 KOs
Years active: 2005-…
Still a work in progress, Dmitry Pirog is an only Russian world champion nowadays. No need to speak much about his career in this article as we have already followed his career in details here and here.
A question could be raised, however, why he is so low in these ranks. Pirog got his 1.5 points in a single fight against highly touted American prospect Daniel Jacobs, which ended in a huge upset for American fans and an expected leap up for a number of Russian fans who saw Pirog’s potential from the distance. One can argue his wins over Kofi Jantuah, Sergey Tatevosyan or Kuvanych Toygonbayev should have been mentioned but a criterion was chosen to avoid any minor titles which are governed directly by ABC’s and neither of listed fighters has ever won something big.
44. Almazbek Rayimkulov (Kyrgyzstan)
Weight class: lightweight
Record: 27-2-1, 15 KOs
Years active: 2001-2009
Known mostly as “Kid Diamond” (“Almaz” means “diamond” in Russian), Rayimkulov signed with Top Rank and turned pro soon after his showing in 2000 Sydney Olympics. Rayimkulov was brought up lightly until he exploded in a breakthrough fashion to score a string of chilling stoppages in the second half of 2004 and the first half of 2005. Going one by one, Kid Diamond destroyed two fellow unbeatens Ray Narh (10-0) and Koba Gogoladze (17-0) as well as a savvy ring veteran Lamar Murphy in emphatic way. It was enough to warrant him a match with presumably fading Cuban star Joel Casamayor, a fight in which he got up after the first round knockdown to outmuscle his opponent but to be held to a draw at the end. Casamayor later proved he had another life in him and scored a win over late Diego Corrales in a rubber match followed by a memorable ring war against Michael Katsidis. A common opinion was that Rayimkulov can do no worse in the future but…
… He saw his momentum vanished in a sad fight against Nate Campbell where Kid Diamond had never shown up. The fight was stopped in the tenth after a frightful beating taking by Rayimkulov, and the Kyrgyz fighter has never been the same again. Amazingly, he got all his points (which he hadn’t got for a draw with El Cepillo) here in three subsequent years though his win over Miguel Angel Huerta (0.5 points) was highly controversial and he didn’t impress against Javier Jauregui either. An end soon followed with a stoppage loss to Antonio De Marco. It was Almazbek’s last fight to date.
43. Dmitry Kirillov (Russia)
Weight class: super flyweight
Record: 29-4-1, 9 KOs
Years active: 1998-2008
One of the most underrated Russian fighters around, Dmitry Kirillov would have been higher in this list had he been just a bit luckier in his most memorable fights. While several magooes can be addressed Dmitry himself it’s obvious that he was at least held back a couple of times by controversial judging.
His biggest setback came in his second title opportunity, when Kirillov, seemingly a clear winner in his fight with long-reigning IBF super flyweight Luiz Alberto Perez, found himself on a wrong end of a pathetic twelve-round split decision. It wasn’t the first disappointment for a smallish sharpshooter, nicknamed “The Baby”. Four years before that he was held back in a European bantamweight championship against bigger Danish Albanian Spend Abazi, also in debated fashion. Then another close loss – this time to a WBC king Masamori Tokuyama – came along.
To his credit, Kirillov never stopped trying and finally found his luck in November 2007 becoming the first-ever Russian fighter to become a champion on his native soil – The Baby decisioned another underachiever Jose Navarro for a title vacated by Perez. The previous fire wasn’t there and it resulted in a hardly affordable draw versus journeyman Cecilio Santos in the initial title defense. Kirillov has already set his sight on after-boxing activities, and he retired immediately after his one-sided loss to Vic Darchinyan.
42. Vadim Tokarev (Russia)
Weight class: cruiserweight
Record: 26-1-1, 19 KOs
Years active: 2000-2008
Tokarev was a rare case of a kickboxer-turned-boxer who achieved a considerable success in his second business despite a late transition. What is a common case for Thai and partially American boxers isn’t a usual road for the Russian fighter but Vadim chose it, never looked back and finds himself well into our list.
After several big wins and kickboxing titles Tokarev started from the very beginning in Russia. A streak of wins followed and in 2003 the Kazan-based tough guy (an exact definition of his pugilistic style) captured a vacant IBF I/C cruiserweight belt. He was thought to be a gimme for then-champion Firat Arslan but being brought to Arslan’s backyard he fought back vigilantly to upset the odds and got a draw at the end.
This experience was considered negative as Tokarev settled down in Kazan under Rinat Yusupov promotion and mounted a lengthy series of wins against various American opponents, including former world amateur champion Michael Simms (with controversially wide scores), rugged brawler Darnell Williams and former champion Arthur Williams. Feeling it’s time for something bigger Tokarev relocated himself to California and opened some eyes with a short but thrilling encounter with Felix Cora Jr. (TKO 4). A win later Tokarev, ranked as high as #5 by The Ring, travelled all way back to Germany but found that his physical prowess wasn’t enough to defeat Marco Huck and lost a majority decision in a single, most important battle of his career. At 35, Tokarev had little chance to get back. He tried though but wasn’t heard about since autumn 2008. Though officially non-retired, Tokarev will hardly be anything but a stepping stone upon his comeback. His time has passed.
41. William Abelyan (Armenia)
Weight class: featherweight
Record: 24-6-1, 13 KOs
Years active: 1998-2005
Almost unknown in his Homeland (not in Armenia but among post-Soviet fans) this Armenian crowd-pleaser made quite a mark in Nevada in California, especially during a four-year (2000-2003) span which followed a rough start of his career. After a short destruction from the hands of Columbian Victor Polo 10-4-1 Abelyan regrouped and bounced back with some fine wins, which included unanimous decisions over former one-time titlist Jesus Salud, another ex-champion in Guty Espadas Jr. and a future world champion Orlando Salido. Shamir Reyes, Alvin Brown, Armando Cordoba and Orlando Soto are also in making up for a nice ledger.
Abelyan’s efforts weren’t fruitless as he finally got his chance in June 2004 against talented but criminally obsessed Scottish WBO champion Scott Harrison. Abelyan was destroyed in three then made a nice comeback stoppage of Martin Honorio and seemed on his way back, when his plans were ruined by American journeyman Phillipe Payne who stopped William in ten rounds in May 2005. Sadly, Abelyan suffered a sub-deral hematoma in the fight and was permanently suspended right after that. Fortunately, he didn’t suffer any side effects from his losses.
40. Andrey Shkalikov (Russia)
Weight class: super middleweight
Record: 56-7-2, 28 KOs
Years active: 1990-2003
It cannot be any harder than that. Andrey Shkalikov, while being a bit limited in technical department, possessed one of the best chins in business. Coupled with an overwhelming physique and stamina this mixture produced a long-time European and world contender who was a hard nut for every boxer inside the ring. He was seemingly unstoppable but could have been outboxed and outhustled. A lack of a hard punch was also a shot back for him. Nevertheless, according to BoxRec after 13 years of pro career Shkalikov scored more wins than any other fighter from the former USSR after the break-up of the Iron Curtain. Even Wladimir Klitschko is yet to beat this record.
"The Ural Squall” has seen it all in the ting. He turned pro in 1990 when the Soviet Union was still in existence. He travelled all around Russia and CIS republics fighting in such boxing-forgotten places as Moldova and Turkmenistan and winning multiple local titles (Shkalikov held Russian super middleweight title for ten years). Andrey also travelled in South Africa, USA, France and Italy albeit with mixed results. It was a latter journey and a win over Mauro Galvano which provided him with the European belt and a shot at a WBA title against such a respected champion as Frankie Liles. Shkalikov did his best but his limited skills resulted in a spirited but a clear unanimous decision in favour of Liles. The stocky (5’7’’) Russian bomber came back with zeal but close losses to Danilo Haussler (SD) and Mehdi Sahnoune (UD) prevented him from another title challenge. However, his consistency and stability were fascinating and he will be remembered at least in Russia for quite a sometime. Shkalikov now works as commentator on Russian TV.
39. Vitaly Tajbert (Kazakhstan/Germany)
Weight class: super featherweight
Record: 20-2-0, 6 KOs
Years active: 2005-…
This nominee can be considered controversial but as soon as we set the criterion Tajbert gets his spot here. Being of German origin Vitaly was born and raised as a kid in Kazakhstan as well as a number of other German champions (Dmitry Sartison, Ina Menzer and Christina Hammer to name a few). More important is the fact that after his relocation to Germany Tajbert was developed in somewhat post-Soviet traditions, training and competing back-to-back with ex-Soviet trainers and boxers. His pro coach Magomed Shaburov is also a former Soviet expatriate.
Tajbert is also competitive at this level with other boxers. He was an outstanding amateur with some top honors which included 2000 world junior championship, 2004 Euro title and 2005 Military title. He was also a silver medalist in Bangkok and a bronze medalist during 2004 Athens summer Olympics.
As a pro, Tajbert was carefully developed by Universum Box-Promotion. Being a boxer rather than a slugger, the Kazakh import isn’t particularly thrilling but he kept himself busy and active to outpoint his opponents (undefeated Petr Petrov and Jesus Garcia Escalona were among them). Tajbert lost some steam in a disappointing loss to aforementioned Sergey Gulyakevich but thanks to his promotional ties he got Sergey’s conqueror Humberto Gutierrez at home to acquire a vacant WBC interim 130lb title in a close fight. One successful defense followed before Tajbert has lost his title in a recent voyage to Japan. At 28, he still has some fights left in him so expect another title rally soon.
38. Sergey Liakhovich (Belarus)
Weight class: heavyweight
Record: 25-3, 16 KOs
Years active: 1998-…
“White Wolf” Sergey Liakhovich remains one of the most debatable boxers which have come out of the former USSR. He doesn’t possess and eye-popping talent which can easily be detected at once but he captured a portion of the most prestigious title anyway. The Belarussian fighter was inconsistent enough to lose it in his first title defense and he was also dropped and then knocked out by another disputed person in Maurice Harris but he has also wins over several world-class opponents. Liakhovich is still here but his activity (just six fights in almost seven years) is much less than desired.
Liakhovich, a big imposing figure with undeniable boxing skills, turned pro in 1998 after a successful amateur career which saw a bronze medal in world amateur championship (1997), a win over Audley Harrison and a worthy record (145-15) to start with. And he started well, firstly in Belarus and than in the States. On his way up (after a win over then-undefeated Friday Ahunanya) Sergey’s career was slightly derailed by upset specialist Mo Harris but the Belarussian bounced back nicely with a series of quality wins. Yet he was considered as an underdog against purely talented but never-realized American heavyweight Dominick Guinn. Liakhovich used his pugilistic intellect to get a nod in a slow, lazy fight and quickly returned into obscurity.
A horrific comeback occurred almost a year and a half later when Liakhovich suddenly got his title chance at the WBO crown, owned by Lamon Brewster at the time. In one of the rarest heavyweights classics of the last decade Liakhovich raised from the seventh-round knockdown to outbox a powerful enforcer for his belt. It was a nice win but Liakhovich failed to capitalize on it and lost his title in just several months to Shannon Briggs in dramatic fashion. Another long lay-off followed until Liakhovich was completely swept out by bigger man in Nikolay Valuev. He is on his slow comeback trial since then.