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.
Tonight we shall pay attention to the third group of fighters, which are ranked between the 25th and the 11th positions.
25. Alexander Makhmutov (Russia)
Weight class: flyweight
Record: 42-8-1, 21 KOs
Years active: 1990-2004
Titles held: Russian (1992-2004, 4 title defenses); WBC CISBB (1993-2002, 1); PABA (1996, 1); EBU (1999-2000, 0; 2000-2003, 5).
Three biggest wins: Leonard Makhanya (12-0) – TKO 10, 1993; David Guerault (19-0) – PTS 12, 2000; Jason Booth (20-1) – UD 12, 2001.
Probably, you have never heard of him but that doesn’t mean Alexander Makhmutov is a superfluous person in this list. While his international merits were hardly enough to give him some consideration, his continental success was long-lasting and pretty impressive. More impressive is the fact that this little (5’2’’) fighter reached his peak well into his thirties after more than twenty years of competition which is a rare fact for a vast majority of flyweights.
Makhmutov was a good guy coming in. He was an outstanding amateur fighter and he has even represented USSR in Seoul Olympics. Alexander was eliminated in quarterfinals by Ivaylo Marinov Khristov which was nothing to be ashamed of as Khristov cruised to the gold medal and was later named the best Bulgarian fighter of all times; their amateur system being rather effective, especially at lower weight classes. Feeling some side pressure Makhmutov didn’t hesitate upon turning pro and soon found himself at paid ranks becoming one of the first Soviets to make a change in 1990. It took Makhmutov two years to establish himself as the best Russian flyweight in Russia; especially after two wins over Vyacheslav Anikin.
Those wins gave Makhmutov a ticket to Thailand, which became his second boxing Homeland for four years since 1993 to 1996. Alexander fought a total of five bouts in one of the largest Asian centers of boxing. The Russian stylist lost four of them winning one in an inaugural fight for a vacant and newly created PABA flyweight belt. However, his losses came against top-tier Thai prospects including future world champions Chatchai Sasakul and Ratanachai Singwancha and versus much underrated but extremely powerful destroyer Samson Dutch Boy Gym who dealt to Makhmutov his only clean kayo loss of the career. Russian’s career culminated in a bid for WBA belt in 1996 when the tiny flyweight challenged long-time WBA king Saen Sor Plonchit but dropped a convincing twelve-round decision.
It looked like his career was virtually over at 31, but Makhmutov thought otherwise and he proved doubters wrong with what was one of the most amazing comeback staged by Russian fighters at all weight classes. In 1999 the Russian veteran won a vacant EBU belt over Salvatorre Fanni only to lose it in his first title defense against Damaen Kelly. He came back in 2000 to defeat unbeaten Frenchman David Guerault at his backyard and then loaded up in impressive three year-long chain of defenses against solid European opposition which included young version of Jason Booth, former world champion Jose Lopez Bueno and two wins over Mimoun Chent. After three years of continental domination, which was mostly a road product, Alexander turned back the time, and at almost 38 years of age got his second title opportunity against still-reigning and still-undefeated Argentinean Omar Narvaez. Technique and intelligence were still in place but speed and endurance wasn’t there after years of traded punches. Makhmutov, beaten and bruised, surrendered in his corner after the end of the tenth. Several months later he would lose his fight against rising future champion Brahim Asloum and immediately hanged up his gloves for good.
Makhmutov’s career was one of the most illustrious by Russian fighters in a long run. He has literally seen it all and fought a vast majority of his most meaningful fights in a hostile territory, which is probably the most amazing fact of them all. His final rewards were good but nowhere near those prized he would have possibly achieved, had he been more lucky and had he had a better promoter behind his back. He was just a step too far to reach for glory even though he had assets to become a world champion and not the worst one.
24. Andrey Kotelnik (Ukraine)
Weight class: light welterweight
Record: 31-4-1, 13 KOs
Years active: 2000-…
Titles held: WBA (2008-2009, 2) + minor: WBA I/C (2003-2004, 2; 2005-2007, 2); WBO Asia Pacific (2005-2006, 1); WBO I/C (2006-2007, 1).
Three biggest wins: Muhammad Abdullayev (15-2) – UD 12, 2005; Gavin Rees (27-0) – TKO 12, 2008; Marcos Rene Maidana (25-0) – SD 12.
A huge controversy is what Andrey Kotelnik’s career is all about. It has marred a majority of his fights both positively and negatively with the negative effect overwhelming the positive one. At 33, the Ukrainian stylist is still here with somewhat good chances for future titles or, at least, big fights just around the corner… if another controversy won’t show up.
Kotelnik was a stellar amateur fighter with good credentials (135-15) and 2000 Sydney silver medal (a loss to Mario Kindelan, Cuban best P4P fighter at the time, was no shame) to further harden and brighten his image. The Ukrainian was immediately picked up by then-powerful German stable Universum Box-Promotion and started his slow but diligent development into a world-class operator.
Andrey’s career can be easily divided into four significant stages, which didn’t affect his boxing style or an entire impression of his boxing but vividly changed his results or his level of competition. The first stage, which lasted for four years, saw Kotelnik methodically elaborating his style and slowly coming into his own as a contender at 140 pounds. There were no notable wins during this period, except maybe for a close but utterly uneventful decision over long-time European contender Gabriel Mapouka.
Dullness and boredom are those factors which followed the talented Ukrainian for almost entire career. Without any obsession of power and with fascinating timing combined with more than sound fundamentals and noisy, crisp jab Kotelnik soon evolved into a perfect stylist with Ukrainian school and German buffing. That didn’t bring him any friends outside of his native Ukraine and Germany, which soon became his second Homeland, and it’s when the second stage came into life.
As soon as he became a world-ranked contender fighting in lower weight class (in comparison to those appreciated in Germany) without a crowd-pleasing style, Kotelnik was forced to travel abroad in order to get chances for bigger fights. His first significant journey – to France for Souleymane M’Baye – ended in controversy as the local fighter was awarded with disputed split decision in the WBA eliminator (October 2004). A fight and nine months later Kotelnik changed France for England but got nothing better than another controversy – this time against European champion Junior Witter who was awarded with a unanimous nod. The Ukrainian got back to his German base and regrouped nicely with several convincing win over the second-tier opposition culminating in fellow amateur star Muhammad Abdullayev. Those victories finally got him a title chance. On March 10, 2007, Kotalnik entered the ring in maybe his best career shape but bad omens combined as he was fighting the Frenchman in England, and a draw – as dubious as they are – left him outside for the third time.
The third stage was just around the corner, however. A year after M’Baye’s draw Kotelnik finally got the work done with a splendid twelfth-round TKO over unbeaten Welshman Gavin Rees (2.5 points), who was an unexpected WBA champion at the time – once again in Britain. He followed it up with a comfortable lopsided division over flamboyant but overmatched Japanese Norio Kimura (1 point) in his hometown of Lviv, Ukraine. Finally, a true test came his way in the face of Argentinean brawler Marcos Rene Maidana (2 points). On February 7, 2009, the Fortune has finally turned to the Ukrainian, who outboxed Maidana but looked a beaten man nevertheless as a result of Argentinean’s terrifying punching power. A razor-thin split decision in his favour wasn’t however a gift of luck but rather a reimbursement for earlier screwing.
In five months it was all over anyway. The WBA champion travelled to MEN arena in Manchester, England, and found his youth was well behind him and reflexes weren’t sharp enough to give fits to rising star Amir Khan. Kotelnik didn’t lose a single bit of his dignity in that lost but lost his title and – after a sour break-up with Klaus-Peter Kohl – his promoter as well.
Being ultimately forgotten even by Eastern European fans, Kotelnik suddenly arose in 2010 to sign a contract with no other than Don King to open a new, fourth page of his career. The page was deemed to be grey but suddenly started to sparkle when no one expected it to do so – against unified WBC/IBF champion Devon Alexander in a fight that was thought to be an easy walk for the defending champion. Instead, Kotelnik brought Devon down to hell delivering one of his best performances. The Ukrainian utilized sneaky defense and movements; set up a nice jab and to a whole lot of witnesses either outboxed Alexander clearly or gave him an even fight. A unanimous decision – in Alexander’s favour – was as expected as unjust.
Being a long-time underachiever doesn’t help Kotelnik’s case. If a fair shake had been here for him, he could have been 35-1-1 right now with a stellar ledger. At least, he could have been around 15th-17th places in this list. His career isn’t over yet, however. Maybe, just maybe, Kotelnik will get another chance and then who knows…
23. Ruslan Chagaev (Uzbekistan)
Weight class: heavyweight
Record: 27-1-1, 17 KOs
Years active: 1997; 2001-…
Titles held: WBA (2007-2009, 2) + minor: WBA I/C (2006-2007, 1); WBO Asia Pacific (2006-2007, 0); WBO I/C (2006, 0).
Three biggest wins: Felix Savon – 14-4, 1997; John Ruiz (41-6-1) – SD 12, 2006; Nikolay Valuev (46-0) – MD 12, 2007.
While Kotelnik’s career is marred with a chain of controversies, Uzbekistan’s best ever expatriate (and we mean an independent state here) Ruslan Chagaev has to blame himself (partially), his Fate (mainly) and his handlers (to a certain degree) for both health issues and organizational inconsistencies surrounding the career, which promised a whole lot but, at 32, seems to near its end. It’s hard to imagine that three or four years ago Chagaev was reported as a star in coming by “The Ring” magazine; his boxing life now following a steady downward spiral which is indicated by a lackluster victory over ancient Australian Kali Meehan and a “horrible thriller” in his last fight (which is an appropriate word when you’re being engaged into brawl with glass-shot Travis Walker and barely come as a winner on a dubious decision).
As several heavyweights before him (notably Mo Harris and Jeremy Williams among others not to speak about Mike Tyson), this ethnic Tatar gave a notion of himself at extremely early age for a fighter of his weight class. At 16, he was already the Asian heavyweight champion; at 17, he competed for Uzbek national team in 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games (lost on points to Luan Krasniqi in the first round); and a year later Chagaev reached for a colossal upset with a one-sided points victory over Cuban all-time great Felix Savon, who was still near his prime, and won 1997 world championship (future cruiserweight titleholder Giacobbe Fragomeni was defeated on his way up). He was later stripped off the title for taking part in two professional fights on the eve of the major amateur competition – one of aforementioned inconsistencies, which chased him for years and years to come. He was then reinstalled but some momentum was lost and he failed to prove his international superiority (despite being a dominating force in Asia) losing a rematch to Savon in 1999 Houston championship and failing to get out as a medalist of 2000 Sydney Olympics. Chagaev felt it’s time to move up and the transition proved to be utterly successful as he rolled over three opponents to win 2001 world super heavyweight championship in Belfast and immediately turned pro in his native country before relocating himself to America at still young age of 23.
An American period of his career turned out to be a relative disaster – one of many in years to come but still just a sign of them in the future. Feeling his boxing life moves to a wrong end, a talented southpaw relocated himself to Germany and after busy 2004 (seven kayos in a row and a decision over notable journeyman Sedreck Fields, which was later “avenged”) and quiet 2005, he emerged as a real force in a breakthrough year of 2006. Wins over “All-American” fringe contender Rob Calloway, fellow undefeated prospect Vladimir Virchis and British veteran Michael Sprott got him high in the ranks, and a close but well-earned split decision against still-capable John Ruiz (1 point) in the WBA eliminator propelled Chagaev into a lifetime fight with heavyweight behemoth Nikolay Valuev (3 points); a chance he has masterfully realized by beating incredibly higher and bigger opponent with his straight left, wise tactics and overall fundamentals. Chagaev, with the WBA belt around his waist, was one step from worldwide recognition; a step he has never made though.
It was also when Chagaev’s Doom started to take over a gifted champion. Firstly, minor injuries and then a major disease thwarted a possible unification with the WBO titlist Sultan Ibragimov. Chagaev was diagnosed with hepatitis B, not a life-threatening but still an infectious disease and it’s still unclear both when he was infected with a bad virus and how it affected his boxing and his life as a whole. Adding more disappointment were rumors about Chagaev being half-blind at one eye since his amateur days.
The Uzbek universalist was back to the ring in January 2008 in a stinky tune-up win over old Matt Skelton (1 point) and set himself for a rematch with Valuev, a fight which has never happened. He was close to enter the ring against the giant Russian but days before the fight suffered a torn Achilles tendon and instead of a major fight was brought into abyss of medicine and surgeries. Chagaev barely made another comeback (as a meaningless “Champion in recess”) and disappointed in a technical decision over unheralded Costa-Rican Carl Davis Drummond (1 point) in February 2009. A fight against then-WBA champion Valuev was a long shot in making and was finally cancelled at a pre-fight health check a day before its scheduled date under still-mysterious hepatitis-related circumstances in Helsinki, Finland. A cancellation turned to be a bless for Chagaev in more than one department when he signed as a late-sub for his biggest ever payday against IBF/WBO unified champion and division’s leader Wladimir Klitschko for a vacant “Ring” belt and tons of recognition. Chagaev fought a brave fight but was nowhere near the giant Ukrainian in terms of his skills and overall power, being handled his only loss to the date when he retired on his stool after nine round of one-sided beating.
Chagaev is on a possibly ill-wise comeback trial since then. Unfortunately, his health issues prevent him from fighting anywhere out of Germany and some selected states and his fight versus WBA champion David Haye looks not very likely even though Chagaev is Haye’s mandatory challenger. With his prospects being foggy and without a resilient performance for almost four years, it’s hard to imagine that Chagaev would be back to his former self, a fighter who was definitely destined for something bigger than that.
22. Robert Stieglitz (Germany/Russia)
Weight class: super middleweight
Record: 39-2, 23 KOs
Years active: 2001-…
Titles held: WBO (2009-…, 3) + minor: WBC Intl. (2008-2009, 0); IBF I/C (2004-2006, 4); IBF Youth (2002-2004, 4).
Three biggest wins: Alejandro Berrio (23-3) – TKO 11, 2005; Karoly Balzsay (21-0) – TKO 11, 2009; Enrique Ornelas (30-6) – UD 12, 2010.
Unlike two boxers, listed above, Robert Stieglitz’s career is thriving as he currently reigns as the WBO super middleweight champion of the world with several good victories, three title defenses and still is just 29 years of age or, it’s better to say, of youth. The obvious question, however, is why one can find a fighter with German name and German surname in the list of boxers, which is named “Top fighters from the USSR”. In fact, Robert Stieglitz indeed is an ethnic German, which shouldn’t come as surprise as there are a handful of them in Russia and neighboring countries. A majority of Russian Germans are descendants of those who have settled in the largest country on the Earth a couple or so centuries ago when the USSR didn’t exist but it was the Russian Empire, which was one of the biggest powers around. After the Iron Curtain had been dismantled, Robert’s family moved to their historical Homeland where a boy, originally named Sergey, took another moniker. However, his youth, his thoughts and his background are very much Russian, and his passion for the sport has its roots in the city of Eisk, where he is from. Therefore I pretended to include Sergey/Robert Stieglitz in this list although it can be considered an odd choice by some.
Stieglitz has never been a notable amateur fighter but he is a fully realized pro fighter with some accomplishments and adversity he was able to overcome en route to the position he is holding onto right now. This road wasn’t rocky at first. Signed by German powerhouse Universum Box-Promotion Stieglitz was carefully raised as a pro. He fought often (8 times in 2001, 8 times in 2002, 5 times in 2003 and 4 times in 2004) but his opponents were picked nicely to avoid unnecessary risk and to develop a versatile boxer-puncher at the same time. In December 2005 Stieglitz, who started as a light heavyweight before moving down in weight, got his first major win stopping rugged Columbian brawler Alejandro Berrio (0.75 points) in the IBF super middleweight eliminator in eleven rounds. The moment, however, wasn’t right as the IBF belt was owned by Jeff Lacy who was on a fast track for a unification fight with Joe Calzaghe. Left outside Stieglitz was forced to patiently wait for any alphabet disorder. It came along in a year and three months, when the Welsh dominator was stripped of the IBF portion of his title. Stieglitz was here but a lengthy period of inactivity played a nasty trick with him as he was dismantled in three by the very same fighter he had stopped previously – Berrio.
Stieglitz comeback road was rocky as hell as well. He got two wins over journeymen but in March 2008 Robert met hard-charging and rock-solid power puncher Librado Andrade in the IBF other eliminator and was taken down in a shootout after eight rounds of two-way action. At least, it triggered Robert’s soft spot – his questionable chin – but on the other hand gave him tons of experience. Another comeback fight – a narrow decision over former German Olympian Lukas Wilaschek positioned him for the WBO title shot against Hungarian Karoly Balzsay. Stieglitz, who was released from his contract with UBP and fought under Ulf Steinforth’s aegis, was thought to be a considerable underdog. He proved doubters wrong with his spirited performance as he unleashed a lengthy series of punches – one after another – before the groggy Hungarian was stopped on his feet to a sad astonishment of his home crowd in the eleventh (2.5 points).
2010 was even better for Stieglitz, as he enjoyed three successful title defenses (3 points): a knockout win over mediocre Argentinean Acosta (+0.5 points) and close but convincing decisions over fellow teammate Eduard Gutknecht and Andrade’s brother Enrique Ornelas in his most recent fight. Now Stieglitz enjoys a deserved break before future fights. A rematch with Balzsay can be interesting and (if successful) add a couple of points to his resume. A future move up in weight can also be explored as the time passes by. Anyway, Stieglitz, who was on the brink of hangin’em up, refused to do so and proved he is worth mention in this list.
21. Oleg Maskaev (Russia)
Weight class: heavyweight
Record: 36-7, 27 KOs
Years active: 1993-???
Titles held: WBC (2006-2008, 1) + minor: WBC Intl. (2005-2006, 0); PABA (1995-1996, 0; 1998-2000; 2).
Three biggest wins: Hasim Rahman (31-1) – KO 8, 1999; Sinan Samil Sam (24-2) – UD 12, 2005; Hasim Rahman (41-5-2) – TKO 12, 2006.
One can hardly find a man, who has made more for Russian pro boxing than a relatively mediocre heavyweight with a good punch and steel will but also in possession of a china-chin and slow feet combined with years of mismanagement and under/overachievements. It’s Oleg Maskaev who we are speaking about – a symbolical and significant figure in the history of post-Soviet prizefighting, who was the first one in many ways. He wasn’t the first Russian to fight for a piece of heavyweight title (Zolkin was that man) and he wasn’t the first Russian to win one (Valuev acquired the WBA belt eight months ahead of Maskaev). Yet he was the first Russian heavyweight to garner a nationwide recognition overseas and no one before him defended his heavyweight champion’s belt in Homeland – they way Maskaev did in his fight against Ugandan Peter Okhello (1 point). More important is the fact that “The Big O” was one of those native pugilists (alongside Kostya Tszyu and Klitschko brothers) who aided greatly to a development of the sport in the former USSR.
There’s no need to describe Maskaev’s career in details. It’s well-known and facts can be found all over the Net. Speaking in short, it was a roller-coaster from the debut in April 1993 till the probable end in December 2009. “The Big O” was derailed not once but at least thrice on his way up and twice after that. Four times he was able to resurrect himself like Phoenix rose from its ashes. Twice he loaded up fascinating series of wins to completely erase bad memories from the past only to suffer another setback and to return with a never-ending fire.
Interestingly though, despite a number of quality victories (which included such gifted boxers as Alex Steward, Courage Tshabalala, Sinan Samil Sam, Derrick Jefferson and Toakipa Tasefa just to name a few), two wins that coined Maskaev’s career came against one fighter (6.25 points in total) – Hasim Rahman. Those wins defined his legacy and Oleg will be forever linked with former undisputed (sic!) champion of the world. His first blowout – a stunning thru-the-ropes knockout in 1999 – brought and immediate attention to the Russian and catapulted him high into the ranks. The second win – against reigning world champion – indicated a sudden spring time for 37-year old fighter which seemed totally unlikely just a few years ago when he had suffered back-to-back losses against Kirk Johnson and Lance Whittaker before being stopped by plodding journeyman Corey Sanders.
Victory over Rahman was Maskaev’s last and only chance at glory and he realized it perfectly, stopping badly faded American with just seconds remaining. A knockout punch and relentless slugging ability made him a popular figure among both Russian and American fight fans. His weak chin (all seven losses came by the way of kayo and a majority of those stunners were dead hard) and slow feet prevented him from joining heavyweight elite even when he took a belt. The mixture of these qualities produced an exciting prizefighter though who will be remembered for a considerable span of time – at least among local followers of the game. As for the future I put in q-marks there. His one-round loss to Nagy Aguilera proved he is finished as a serious contender. But at 42 he still can be back for a payday or as a punching bag and as a stepping stone for younger fighters. Hopefully, he would prefer another road and stayed retired for good. He has nothing to be ashamed of in his career.
20. Akhmed Kotiev (Russia)
Weight class: welterweight
Record: 27-2, 15 KOs
Years active: 1991-2000
Titles held: WBO (1998-2000, 4) + minor: WBC Intl. (1995-1996, 0); WBO I/C (1998, 0).
Three biggest wins: Leonard Townsend (29-0) – UD 12, 1998; Santos Cardona (37-7) – UD 12, 1998; Daniel Santos (21-1-1) – SD 1, 1999.
Continuing to bring fighters from obscurity; Akhmed Kotiev’s name is next in line in this list. Almost forgotten he was once a world champion who held his share of welterweight regalia for more than two years before succumbing to a superior power of future three-time world champion Daniel Santos. Kotiev was a foreigner fighting in Germany without a notable TV exposure, fan base and with still partially-marginal WBO strap around his waist. Combined with his virtual irrelevance for Russian fight fans (he boxed only thrice in Russia and that was at the very beginning of his career) we can see a man of some notable talents but ultimately with little chances to get him a name.
Kotiev, an Ossetia-born Ingush, started his pro career in times of stress. He fought just thrice, losing a decision to Victor Baranov in his third bout for Russian junior welterweight title, and then (after a year-long layoff) moved to Germany to continue his professional career under a guidance of Universum Box-Promotion. As a majority of German or Germany-based fighters, he was brought along slowly but effectively. For five years (1996 was an off year for the Ingush) he was fighting mostly bums (at best) and most notable name on his resume was that of well-known journeyman Anthony Ivory, who nevertheless had a negative record for the largest part of his career.
1998 saw a quantum leap up in a class of Kotiev’s opposition. He began it with an easy blowout of Belgian Douglass Bellini in five rounds. A major opportunity for Kotiev came just two weeks after that. Romanian Michael Lowe, also guided by the Hamburg-located club, was the WBO welterweight champion at this time. However, he suffered a career-threatening injury which meant his regalia would be on hold for time being. It’s where Klaus-Peter Kohl offered a chance to another fighter to step up and make a backup for a struggling champion. Kotiev was here and during “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” the Russian boxer took a vacant WBO interim crown with a major win (0.5 points) over unbeaten American Leonard Townsend (29-0) who was knocked down several times over twelve one-sided rounds. Akhmed got the belt but he wasn’t considered a real champion with Lowe on hold and Townsend hardly being more than a glorified clubfighter with some serious padding in his record (which was proved by the rest of his career). When Lowe retired undefeated a couple of months later Kotiev became a paper champion but his recognition was rather limited and he should fought somebody of note to confirm his newly acquired status.
A clean sweep of Argentinean Paulo Alejandro Sanchez did little to boost his image but a unanimous decision over still-relevant Puerto-Rican Santos Cardona, who has fought four times before for a share of welterweight title (each time giving a serious fight), was really meaningful. “It was my hardest battle in years. Cardona was really a tough opponent”, said Kotiev in an interview to “Serdalo” several years after. South African Peter Malinga wasn’t as highly regarded as Cardona but was still thought to be a dangerous proposition for the champion. He didn’t last long though being stopped in just three rounds. It was only after these wins when Kotiev has finally achieved some recognition as a champion. His biggest win was, however, ahead. On Nov. 27, 1999, Kotiev took on future three-time world champion Daniel Santos, also of Puerto-Rico, and was lucky to escape with a controversial split decision. A rematch several months later proved Boricua’s superiority as he just wiped Kotiev out in five rounds. Feeling less fire in his veins and a decreasing desire in his soul, the proud Ingush chose to retire for good immediately after that.
Kotiev was a usual creation of German boxing. He has never fought outside of Germany since getting a pass there and his title defenses were mostly soft or aided with dubious judging. Still, Kotiev was an excellent fighter who belongs to this list. As controversial as was his win over Santos, the Russian fighter did a hell lot of things in the ring. His victory over Malinga was also impressive and he looked sharp and tough again Santos Cardona as well. Kotiev was also the third Russian to get a piece of world championship past Kostya Tszyu and Yuri Arbachakov. Today he continues to build his legacy as a politician. He has recently been appointed a ministry of sports for Ingushetia by local president Yunus-Bek Yevkurov.
19. Anatoly Alexandrov (Kazakhstan)
Weight class: super featherweight
Record: 37-6, 16 KOs
Years active: 1990-2001
Titles held: WBO (1998-1999, 1) + minor: Russian (1992, 0); WBC Intl. (1994-1995, 1); EBU (1995-1999; 5).
Three biggest wins: November Ntshingila (23-2) – PTS 12, 1994; Julien Lorcy (38-0-2) – MD 12, 1998; Arnulfo Castillo (29-0-2) – TKO 8.
Anatoly Alexandrov has a distinction of being the first Kazakh fighter to win a major title in pro boxing competitions. Alexandrov made his dream come true in May 1998, a year before his trick was repeated by Vasily Jirov, the best Kazakh pugilist in history. It’s a big deal, despite a fact that Kazakhstan isn’t definitely the centre of professional boxing. It’s an outpost of world-class amateur boxing, however, and Anatoly Alexandrov was one of its graduates, though he hasn’t got any accolades as an amateur. It’s also worth noting that over a course of his career this tricky battler fought just thrice in his Homeland. Alexandrov lived (and currently lives) in Moscow, where he had also trained and prepared for his voyages to foreign lands. So rating him as a Kazakh representative has its portion of conventionality.
As a number of other boxers, listed here, who started their pro careers when the USSR was still alive, Alexandrov had been fighting for the first several years against almost unknown local fighters. He won some and he lost some capturing Russian super featherweight title along the road. In July 1992 he went abroad for the first time but dropped a close decision to more experienced Spaniard Felix Garcia Losada (14-0). Exactly a year later Alexandrov had finally emerged as a figure on international boxing scene after a unanimous decision over South African November Ntshingila (23-1, although the bout was held on July 16) on Al Cole vs. Glenn McRory Moscow card (the first ever championship card to be held in former USSR). The victory opened some doors for Alexandrov and he travelled over half a world to make his American (actually, Hawaiian) debut in a shutout of journeyman Robert Granciosa, which was followed by victorious effort in a road rematch with Ntshingila (WBC International title was at stake and both Alexandrov and his coach Victor Safonin were robbed after the fight… and outside the ring). The Russian Kazakh followed it with an easy blowout of Guyanese contender Joseph Murray in two rounds in May 1994.
The next year symbolized a temporary transition of the Kazakh fighter from international to continental boxing scene, as Alexandrov chose European road to fame and for the next three years the Russian (we shall mix adjectives according to the aforementioned notion) contender fought exclusively abroad – in Spain, in the States but more often in France. As Boris Sinitsin after him, Alexandrov was a dominant figure in European boxing (in his weight class) for a good five years. He acquired his belt with a road win over quality veteran Jacobin Yoma and defended it thrice in 1996 outpointing capable Djamel Lifa and Didier Schaeffer and stopping Pedro Ferradas in a hard road collision.
Quality results and European belt in possession opened a door for Alexandrov to fight for a major title. He vacated his EBU title and took a plane to Texas for a fight with long-time WBC king Genaro Hernandez. Hernandez, an outstanding champion and a star in his own right, was deemed to be an overwhelming favorite over almost unknown European stand-up fighter but Alexandrov delivered one of his most brilliant performances and deserved to come out as a winner. Judges thought otherwise awarding Hernandez with a dubious split decision. “I know George Foreman was shocked with this decision. His eyes were as round as they have ever been”, said Alexandrov years after. “A European judge came to me after the fight, apologized and said that he had thought I had been a victor but he was just too afraid to give me my due; he thought he wouldn’t come out of Texas alive if he would favour me”.
A big win was just around the corner for the Russian fighter, however. But firstly he mounted a comeback and defeated newly crowned European champion Lifa for the second time to regain his positions. An opportunity loomed in May 1998. It was when long-time French contender Julien Lorcy (38-0-2 at the time), who was coming out of two draws with Arnulfo Castillo for a vacant WBO belt, was set to fight for a still vacant trophy for the third time. As his original opponent was declared unfit to fight for medical reasons, Alexandrov stepped in on a four-week notice. As always, a local crowd was prepared and hyped for celebrations but Alexandrov spoilt them with his life-time best performance getting a majority nod (3 points). Interestingly, he continued to hold both titles for a considerable span of time and he has even defended his European crown once when he was already the WBO titleholder. His championship reign was short as he defended the belt just once, stopping still-unbeaten Castillo (29-0-2) and thus unifying the belt in possession.
On August 7, 1999, it was all over for Alexandrov. “I suffered blurred vision: objects doubled and I couldn’t measure a distance between me and them. My eyes just betrayed me but I don’t want to make any excuses – I was a loser that night”. That night Alexandrov ran into rising Brazilian superstar Acelino Freitas and was nearly vaporized in the ring in less than two minutes. Alexandrov was unconscious for five minutes and his career was over. He tried to mount a comeback but he was a badly shot fighter which was proved by another of his losses – this time against Bulgarian Tontcho Tontchev in January 2001 – his last career fight.
Interestingly, Alexandrov is more known of his losses (to Hernandez and Freitas) than of his wins. It’s rather unfair for the best European super featherweight of late 90’s: Alexandrov was a hard-rock champion with highly underrated skills and toughness. He has just come short of something big but fortunately got a title.
18. Roman Karmazin (Russia)
Weight class: light middleweight / middleweight
Record: 40-4-2, 26 KOs
Years active: 1996-2010
Titles held: IBF light middleweight (2005-2006, 0) + minor: WBB light middleweight (1997-1998, 1); EBU light middleweight (2000-2001, 0; 2003-2004, 2); WBA I/C light middleweight (2007-2008, 0); NABF middleweight (2009-2010, 1).
Three biggest wins: Michael Rask (30-2) – KO 2, 2003; Keith Holmes (39-3) – MD 12, 2005; Kassim Ouma (21-1-1) – UD 12, 2005.
Always underrated by world boxing community Roman Karmazin, who was on the brink of becoming the first Russian fighter to get world titles in two separate weight classes, comes short on this list as well. He should have been higher than two boxers who will start the next issue of this series but the selected evaluation criteria let him down and prevented a famed fighter from getting deservedly high on this list. On the other hand, six or seven years ago Karmazin wasn’t even thought to be a legitimate candidate for this contest. At 30 years of age he was in virtual limbo with a little desire to fight on, lost title opportunities and just 0.75 points behind his back. He is here now as one of the most respected Russian fighters in the history of the game, worldwide recognition (especially among hardcore fans) and a feeling of a heroic overcoming his career has always been.
Karmazin was a late bloomer in many ways. He started his pro career in 1996 being already 23 years of age. It’s not that he had an illustrious amateur career to start with – he hadn’t – but he was developing terrifically fast as a prizefighter. Just four months and four wins (over forgettable opposition) after the beginning he was brought in Spain as a pushover for local powerhouse, former Olympian and future world title challenger Javier Martinez Rodriguez (25-1). Karmazin fought brilliantly to get a draw. Two months later he was a bit more successful overcoming Juan Ramon Medina (23-2-3) on points over eight rounds to confirm his reputation as one of the toughest fighters to ever box in Spain. It was also when he was nicknamed “Made in Hell” by his Spanish representative. Not sure about his creation but there was a hell for Roman’s opponents inside the ring. Possessing a tricky defensive style with sneaky right hands, annoying jab and awkward movements and punches – an old school of boxing taught him by late Igor Lebedev and developed half a century ago by famous Soviet trainer Grigory Kusikiants for his pupil Valery Popenchenko – Karmazin was almost unsolvable inside the ropes. He could also take a big punch during that stage of his career and his punches were also very painful.
Karmazin took a long road to recognition. He did that by fighting a lot – 8 fights in 1997, 5 – in 1998 and 6 – in 1999. There were no big names on his resume but there was a cream of Russian boxing, many durable journeymen and gatekeepers. Roman fought not only Russia but all over Europe and even overseas (a career-ending knockout of Anthony Fields in January 2000). Later that year Karmazin got his first big title (EBU belt), retiring Dutch-based Turk Orhan Delibas (23-1; 0.75 points) after just three completed rounds. He would forfeit it later that year to concentrate on a world boxing scene.
The title, Roman was really looking at was the WBC light middleweight crown, which was held both by all-time great Oscar De La Hoya and Spanish veteran Javier Castillejo (as an interim champion). Karmazin put Oscar on a hot pursuit but Team De La Hoya has never been interested in a clash with non-marquee, dangerous fighter like Karmazin so Roman ended in Madrid on the 12th of July and just five days removed from the final of FIFA World Cup 2002. The Russian fighter was overtrained and emotionally exhausted by long months of preparation. He didn’t belong to the ring that day and he was a loser since the starting bell. Only through an unraveled mastery he was able to give the champion a good fight only to lose it via close yet deserved unanimous decision. “I was literally vaporized after the fight. I didn’t want any more boxing in my life and it seemed it would be a closed page in a couple of days”, recalled Karmazin afterwards.
It wasn’t a closed page – thanks to Igor Lebedev who resurrected a seemingly empty fighter and fueled his fire once again. 2003 was a banner year for Karmazin, who took a European journey over Spain, Denmark and England to acquire and twice defend European light middleweight crown. All three wins (2.25 points in total) – over Jorge Araujo, Michael Rask and David Walker - have come by way of knockout (TKO 5, KO 2 and TKO 3).
Karmazin was a dominant force in Europe but he decided to risk all his future for a chance to fight division’s top-ranked guys. To do so he signed a promotional agreement with odious American promoter Don King. Title fights, TV exposure and belts were on the positive side; dubious financial conditions and long periods of inactivity signified a considerable negative background. Karmazin didn’t let his chance go though. He has first defeated two-time champion Keith Holmes (1 point) in the IBF light middleweight eliminator and then, stepping to the ring as an underdog, delivered his A-game against much younger and presumably more talented Kassim Ouma (2 points) to become the fourth ever Russian champion of the world. The negative side popped out right after that as several fights (Daniel Santos and Ricardo Mayorga were mentioned among others) have never come into fruition. Nor there were any title defenses up until July 2006, when Roman suffered a close-call loss against Cory Spinks in his first defense of the title.
Karmazin’s career has been a roller-coaster for remaining four years. His first comeback run, which featured a notable blowout of former two-time champion Alejandro Garcia (1.25 points), ended in a horrible disaster when the Russian was stopped by journeyman Alex Bunema in a wrong fight. Roman came back as a middleweight to fulfill his long-time dream of becoming the first Russian… et cetera. Wins over Bronco McCart (1 point) and Antwun Echols (0.75 points) were nice but Roman’s chin gradually became more and more fragile with the age which was proved by his 2010 FOTY candidate against Dionisio Miranda in a world-title eliminator. His next fight ended in another losing controversy as he was held to a draw on the IBF champion’s (Sebastian Sylvester) home turf. Finally, a long road came to an end three months ago with a stoppage loss to Daniel Geale in yet another IBF middleweight eliminator.
Though not an exceptional fighter, Karmazin was a good champion whose accolades by far exceeded those of longer-reigning champions.