No neighbors – relatives to be honest – were as close to each other as Russia and Ukraine, top remnants of the Eastern European global superpower named the Soviet Union. However, their history – mutual for four centuries and joint for almost seven hundred years before that – is much older and richer than anyone can imagine.
With global politics involved, Russia and Ukraine are at the lowest point of their mutual relationship. Fueled by the Crimea conflict and then by military activities just miles away from their Donbass border - both nations, which are ethnically and linguistically closest to each other, are currently in a tense scenario.
And the ongoing tension makes sports rivalries between love-and-hate relatives a lot more heated. Team sports tend to avoid them now by separating tournament paths of the Eastern European nations so they are unable to meet each other at a club or national level until the very advanced stages of the competitions.
In boxing, the measure of all is a championship fight. And the stakes are certainly high when WBC light heavyweight king Oleksandr “The Nail” Gvozdyk of Kharkiv, Ukraine, is matched against IBF reigning champion Artur Beterbiev from Khasavyurt, Russia, this Friday night at Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Their will mark the third time Russia and Ukraine have collided in a unification and it takes place in one of the sport’s most decorated weight classes. The previous one produced the undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world and 2018 Fighter of The Year.
There’s a distinct difference between pugilism and certain other sports. Both Russian and Ukrainian boxers are almost unanimous in voicing their desire to avoid any political scuffles and they want to concentrate solely on the competitive aspect of their encounters while supporting each other against fighters from other areas.
It all comes down to the cultural background, which motivates fighters from both Ukraine and Russia (as well as from other ex-Soviet republics) to keep themselves modest, avoiding insults and trash talking – specifically between each other, and specifically when politics are involved. No one put this forward better than P4P stalwart Oleksandr Usyk, when explaining why he discarded Andrey Fedosov as a heavyweight opponent.
“He won’t be my opponent. Previously Alexander Povetkin’s name was raised. I said before that I don’t want to fight them because politics will unfortunately be involved, and insults and profanities will be shouted. That doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t need that," said Usyk.
Povetkin, notably, was in full agreement and supported Usyk in return.
With this in mind, let’s forget (and make others forget) the political upside to the coming fight, which is rightfully expected to be something special.
And to fuel the positive feeling, let’s look back at the best of Ukraine vs. Russia in boxing over the last twenty-five years.
• Vladimir Virchis (Ukraine, 14-0, 12 KOs) KO 8 Zaur Abdulgamidov (Russia, 17-1, 8 KOs) – 31.01.2004
• Vyacheslav Glazkov (Ukraine, 8-0, 6 KOs) UD 8 Denis Bakhtov (Russia, 33-6, 23 KOs) – 26.03.2011
• Nikolay Valuev (Russia, 28-0, 24 KOs) UD 12 Taras Bidenko (Ukraine, 3-0, 2 KOs) – 21.07.2002
• Sergey Kovalev (Russia, 30-2-1, 26 KOs) TKO 2 Vyacheslav Shabranskiy (Ukraine, 19-1, 16 KOs) – 25.11.2017
• Alexey Trofimov (Ukraine, 20-1, 16 KOs) UD 12 Dzhabrail Dzhabrailov (18-3-2, 10 KOs) – 12.12.2003
• Denis Boytsov (Russia, 24-0, 19 KOs) TKO 6 Taras Bidenko (Ukraine, 26-2, 12 KOs) – 06.06.2009
• Zaurbek Baysangurov (Russia, 17-0, 12 KOs) TKO 8 Roman Dzhuman (Ukraine, 23-4-1) – 23.03.2008
• Vitaliy Tsypko (Ukraine, 20-2, 11 KOs) UD 12 David Gogiya (Russia, 18-2, 4 KOs) – 29.09.2007
Special. Stas Kashtanov (Russia, 29-1, 16 KOs) SD 12 Server Emurlayev (Ukraine, 22-0, 8 KOs)
Venue: Druzhba Sport Palace in Donetsk, Ukraine
Titles: WBA Interim super middleweight
The most interesting fact about this fight is that neither Kashtanov, nor Emurlayev are fully qualified for this category. At the time of the bout both contestants represented Ukraine, more to that – the same company: the Donetsk-based Union Boxing Promotions, albeit Emurlayev was originally from Uzbekistan. As for Kashtanov, he later made a move to Russia and settled down in Serpukhov to become Russian citizen.
The fight itself was a crowd-pleasing affair between a battle-tested veteran in Kashtanov, who was coming off a highly controversial split decision loss to Karoly Balzsay for the regular belt a year earlier, and his younger and untested teammate. After losing the opening rounds, Kashtanov found his groove to dominate at the mid-point and later on, snatching an important career-saving victory in front of mostly partisan crowd (Stas was born in Donetsk).
7. Sergey Dzinziruk (Ukraine, 32-0, 22 KOs) UD 12 Alisultan Nadirbegov (Russia, 15-1, 7 KOs)
Venue: Brandberge Arena in Halle an der Saale, Germany
Titles: WBO light middleweight title (2nd defense)
Tolyatti-based Russian, who turned pro at age 25, and fought mostly mediocre opposition in his native city, shouldn’t have been in the same ring with a former amateur standout, who was undefeated as a prizefighter for more than a decade after his debut. But he earned his chance the hard way during the most intriguing year of his short but fierce career.
Nadirbegov, then almost unknown to anyone even in Russia, lost to Moldavian Ion Gontsa in March but came back with an extremely exciting, come-from-behind TKO 11 over Kuvanych Toygonbayev in Moscow just two months after that. Watch this fight on YouTube and you will see what a not-so-hidden-but-overlooked-classic means.
Toygonbayev, a quality contender with some solid wins overseas, was highly ranked by the WBO, providing Nadirbegov with a lucky ticket, which he realized when Dzinziruk, one of more avoided champions of the 00’s, was left without an opponent once again. On the fight night, it took Dzinziruk just a couple of rounds to evaluate his foe and then to implore his trademark jab-based domination for a wide decision on all scorecards. That was the first time Russian and Ukrainian fighters collide in championship affairs.
6. Sergey Kovalev (Russia, 22-0-1, 20 KOs) KO 2 Ismayl Sillakh (Ukraine, 21-1, 17 KOs)
Venue: Pepsi Coliseum in Quebec City, Canada
Titles: WBO light heavyweight title (1st defense)
This should have been a fight of a different magnitude, had Sillakh not lost to unheralded Denis Grachev a year and a half before that. Still his reputation and amateur accolades coupled with four easy wins in the previous months of 2013 made up for an intriguing clash against the newly-crowned boogeyman of the light heavyweight class, right?
Wrong. As wrong as was Sillakh’s showboating and boastful presence before the fight, magnified by the fact Ismayl could easily reach for the opponent of the same language, in what clearly irritated the Russian banger, who did not tolerate such behavior in the pre-fight (in what could clearly been seen in his breakthrough performance versus Nathan Cleverly, which earned him the WBO title).
No one was really surprised by the actual outcome. But it was aggressiveness and evil determination of Kovalev to smash his nemesis, which continued to open eyes on the Russia’s most intimidating fighter in years. Sillakh was blitzed, put down cold and verbally insulted at the same time to continue his downward spiral into oblivion, while Kovalev continued his road to glory.
5. Arnold Khegai (Ukraine, 10-0-1, 7 KOs) KO 10 Valery Tretyakov (11-0, 4 KOs)
Venue: Luzhniki, Moscow, Russia
Now onto a rough one. This wasn’t a title fight, not it involved any established fighters. Arni Khegai, the Odessa-based stalker of the Korean origin, is just setting up his mark as a super bantamweight contender, maybe a champion (who knows?) at one day. Valery Tretyakov has never fought after that fight.
But no one lit up the crowd on that cold November night as two smaller and lesser known, yet undefeated fighters who engaged in a reminiscent of JCC vs. Meldrick Taylor I. As witnessed by the BoxingScene:
“Khegai landed the harder blows but Tretyakov matched them with their number. The Odessa native meanwhile showed an assortment of dirty tricks, which would have made legends of the past like Harry Greb and Fritzie Zivic proud. As the bout progressed, the firepower of Khegai became well felt by his opponent. Tretyakov was badly hurt in the seventh and in the ninth again with a left hook but somehow survived and refused to go down and continued to throw punches.
"In the tenth, a badly faded Tretyakov fought on instinct and was being pummeled all around the ring but still not going down. Finally, when the ten-second bell sounded, Tretyakov made the wrong choice to slug it out one last time, ate a monstrous left, was fully out cold on his feet, then went down hard after two more hooks”.
4. Denis Grachev (Russia, 11-0-1, 7 KOs) TKO 8 Ismayl Sillakh (Ukraine, 17-0, 14 KOs)
Venue: Frank Erwin Center, Austin, USA
Titles: NABF Light heavyweight title
The very beauty of the sport is when someone works his way through adversity and over the limit of his abilities to reach for the heights, seemingly unachievable under normal conditions. That was something Denis Grachev, a hard-nosed kickboxer with a very small grain of talent mixed up with tons of determination, was able to do not once but twice in his career (the second time – against 33-0 Zsolt Erdei).
Sillakh, a flashy smooth-walking, smooth-talking and hard-banging prodigy, looked like a complete fighter and a star in making when he entered the Grachev fight as high as a 10-to-1 favorite.
Grachev, a physically strong but limited slugger with also limited boxing skills, hit the deck in round three. The problem (for Sillakh) was that Grachev just didn’t want to go away. He kept moving forward. He kept punching on. He kept looking for his chance. That – more than anything – forced Sillakh out of his game plan and into the muddy waters. In round eight, Sillakh was wobbled badly and, sensing his negligible chance, Grachev didn’t let Ismayl off the hook, scoring one of the greater upsets of that year.
3. Wladimir Klitschko (Ukraine, 49-3, 42 KOs) UD 12 Sultan Ibragimov (Russia, 22-0-1, 17 KOs)
Venue: Madison Square Gardn, New York, USA
Titles: WBO and IBF Heavyweight titles
Not every fight produces a story. Not every unification, even involving a bona-fide, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, is a fan-friendly scrap, let alone a part of greatness. Well, frankly, it was a snoozer of sorts. Yet, it’s here, #3 of the list – thanks for its significance for fans in both countries and as a paving block for future unification collisions of a different sort.
Sultan Ibragimov, a 2000 Sydney Olympics silver medalist (losing to all-time great amateur Felix Savon), really got his gear going in mid 00’s – now as a real heavyweight. A string of TKO wins in 2004 and 2005 positioned him as a contender, and then he realized his title chance by outmaneuvering firstly Shannon Briggs to earn the WBO belt in June 2007 and then Evander Holyfield in the not-last-as-always stand of the latter.
Klitschko, meanwhile, overcame struggles of the mid-00’s and evolved into the best heavyweight on the landscape with wins over Chris Byrd, Calvin Brock and a rematch stoppage of Lamon Brewster. But he needed hardware to prove he was the one.
Enters Ibragimov, a presumably fan-friendly Russian slugger. Yet on the fight night, both combatants laid an egg. Klitschko, still not fully ensured in his punch-taking abilities, employed his trademark style (which will become both effective and infamous at the same time), keeping Ibragimov at the end of his jab, rarely opening for a stinging right hand. Ibragimov, unable to work through the jab, preferred not to risk being smashed. The result was a forgettable decision if it was not for the extra belt for Wladimir and a final paycheck for the Russian fighter.
2. Wladimir Klitschko (Ukraine, 60-3, 51 KOs) UD 12 Alexander Povetkin (Russia, 26-0, 18 KOs)
Venue: Olympiyskiy, Moscow, Russia
Titles: Super WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO heavyweight titles
Five and a half years later, now a part of the undisputed heavyweight duo Wladimir went into the lion’s den for the biggest fight in Eastern European history and one of the wealthiest promotions in history, almost six years in making (since Alexander’s win over Chris Byrd).
Supported by mortgage tycoon and then boxing stalwart Andrey Ryabinskiy, his long-time manager Vladimir Hryunov and others, Team Povetkin was able to lure the unified champion into hostile territory. Given the stature of his older brother in Ukrainian politics, an ongoing heat-up in Kiev and mixed perception of Wladimir himself amongst Russian fans and Alexander amongst Ukrainian aficionados – both casual and hardcore – it’s easy to realize how many more extra shades this fight really got.
None of this shades or aspects distracted Wladimir from his painfully unfriendly (yet effective) fight plan. Establishing his jab early on, Klitschko immediately clinched and put weight upon his foe whenever Povetkin got close. But he was also doing all the work, dropping Alexander in the second round and almost finishing him off in the seventh (three knockdowns). Povetkin fought to the end, while Klitschko also fought and wrestled during the closing rounds of a specific encounter to get a one-sided win.
1. Oleksandr Usyk (Ukraine, 14-0, 11 KOs) UD 12 Murat Gassiev (Russia, 26-0, 19 KOs)
Venue: Olympiyskiy, Moscow, Russia
Titles: Super WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO heavyweight titles
None of the fights ever fought on the Russian soil reached this level of magnitude. In fact, that was both one of the biggest fights in European history and arguably the biggest cruiserweight fight since the days of Evander Holyfield (or at least David Haye if you mark his interactions with Jean-Mark Mormeck and Enzo Maccarinelli this way).
Unlike the Klitschko vs. Povetkin showdown, it didn't have any of the behind the scenes drama, allowing both Usyk and Gassiev to concentrate solely on their mission to determine the biggest cruiserweight star in thirty years. On the fight night, both combatants did all they could for the victory, but the sheer technique, ring cleverness, precise footwork and overall finesse allowed Usyk to produce a technical masterpiece that is rarely seen today. On the losing side was Murat Gassiev, a likable and classy character and a fundamentally solid champion.... just not great, which Usyk proved to be.
With all four major belts at stake, two unified champions and Moscow suddenly becoming the Mecca of boxing worldwide, Usyk vs. Gassiev is the most memorable clash between Russia and Ukraine in the pro ranks.