By Alexey Sukachev
With last month’s victory over Mehdi Amar to capture the WBC interim-light heavyweight title, Oleksandr Gvozdyk announced his formal arrival to growing circle of world champions. This notion should be taken with a solid grain of salt - as there are more champions being made every year. However, we can at least attest that Gvozdyk passes the eye test, despite getting an “interim” label on a unanimous decision win.
Gvozdyk (15-0, 12 KOs) joins P4P stalwarts Oleksandr Usyk and Vasyl Lomachenko, as well as Artem Dalakian, as Ukraine’s fourth beltholder. The Eastern European nation has not secured that many world titles since late 00’s, when Wladimir Klitschko, Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir Sidorenko, Andriy Kotelnik, Yuri Nuzhnenko, Slava Senchenko and Sergey Dzinziruk held up to five belts at the same time (Sidorenko was disposed by Anselmo Moreno half a year before Vitali’s triumphant comeback, and Senchenko outpointed Nuzhnenko in April 2009).
It’s also not the first time where Ukraine had a couple of major players within the top-10 of the pound-for-pound ranks. Back in the late 00’s, the two towering Klitschko brothers held positions on those lists with the elder Vitali eventually retiring as an undefeated champion, and his younger brother Wladimir rising to the upper top-5 (and maybe even top-3 in some considerations) after years of a seemingly unbreakable heavyweight reign.
Ukrainian boxing has been defined by the Klitschko brothers for almost twenty years, actually for almost its entire existence. Then Vasyl Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk arrived, and the picture was completely redefined by a new wave of talent. Lomachenko and Usyk both belonged to the same amateur team, which is now making substantial noise in the pro ranks.
“The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness”, wrote Karl Marx in 1859 preface to his book “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”. The partial aspect of that writing is that a human’s culture (as a part of the consciousness and even conscience) is mostly defined by an economical (and political) basis.
Boxing – as marginal as the sport can be – is an ensured antithesis of culture (despite being part of it) and thus is defined oppositely. It strives where and when people struggle to make ends meet, ghettoes, favelas and various semi-criminal playgrounds being its natural breeding farm. That is why a shift to considerable multi-centricity was expected by many as an opposite move to a single center of power, created across the pond by a break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s.
During that time, prizefighting was dominated by the United States and few others like Mexico, UK and Japan being way behind - while the amateur game was dominated by a trio of competitors, led by Cuba, the United States and the USSR being a notch past the island nation.
However, what occurred then in the amateur game was something different: we witnessed the rise of a dominant player in Cuba. Former Soviet Republics (Russia included) struggled as a united team in Barcelona (1992), getting zero gold.
But the situation improved, with ex-USSR fighters earning three gold medals (Wladimir Klitschko, Vasily Jirov and Oleg Saitov) in Atlanta 1996, four (Alexey Tischenko, Bakhtiyar Artaev, Gaydarbek Gaydarbekov and Alexander Povetkin) in Athens 2004 and, most importantly five (Bekzat Sattarkhanov, Mohammed Abdullaev, Oleg Saitov, Yermakhan Ibragimov and Alexander Lebziak) in Sydney 2000 – the only time the combined team had beaten out Cuba (five-to-four in gold).
It was however the fall of the United States, which led to the 90’s landscape. The US captured just one medal in 1992 (Oscar De La Hoya), 1996 (David Reid) and 2004 (Andre Ward), getting zero in 2000 (which was condemned at the time) and then going absolutely winless during the last three Olympics, and arguably reaching its lowest point in London 2012, where the men failed to capture any medals at all. It couldn’t be get worse for the States.
And it couldn’t have been any better for Cuba between 1992 and 2004, when they captured seven, five, four and five gold medals over the course of four Olympics.
And then a tectonic shift occurred in the fall of 2006, when the cream of the Cuban team – four out of five recent gold medalists (Yan Barthelemi, Guillermo Rigondeaux – later retracting, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Odlanier Solis) – deserted to the jungles of Columbia. It led Cuba to a self-imposed semi-exile for Beijing and, thus, an imposed downfall, which the Cuban Team has still to recover from. Cuban went winless in Beijing 2008, won just two in London 2012 and three in Rio 2016.
The answer? Boxing’s “third world” came into the spotlight, China grabbing the team lead in 2008, while Ukraine led 2012’s chart, and Uzbekistan beating out the others in Rio. We have finally come to the landscape with plural centers of power – just what was expected a quarter of century ago.
THE OTHER GENERATION
What about Ukraine? In the unpaid ranks, it took part in six Summer Olympics with the following results:
• 1996: 1 gold (Klitschko) and 1 bronze (Oleg Kiryukhin), also taking part Sergiy Kovghanko, Yevgeniy Shestakov, Sergey Dzinziruk, Sergey Gorodnichev, Rostislav Zaulichniy;
• 2000: 2 silver (Kotelnik and Sergey Dotsenko) and 3 bronze (Vladimir Sidorenko, Sergey Danilchenko and Andriy Fedchuk), also taking part Valeriy Sidorenko, Servin Suleymanov, Senchenko, Oleksandr Zubrihin, Oleksandr Yatsenko, Olexiy Mazikin.
• 2004: no medalists, also taking part Maxim Tretyak, Vladimir Kravets, Viktor Polyakov, Oleg Mashkin, Fedchuk, Mazikin;
• 2008: 1 gold (Vasyl Lomachenko) and 1 bronze (Vyacheslav Glazkov), also taking part Georgiy Chigaev, Oleksandr Klyuchko, Oleksandr Stretskiy, Sergey Derevyanchenko, Oleksandr Usyk);
• 2012: 2 gold (Lomachenko, Usyk), 1 silver (Denis Berinchik), 2 bronze (Gvozdyk, Taras Shelestyuk), also taking part Pavel Ischenko and Ievghen Khytrov.
HUNTING DOWN THE GREATNESS
And so we have of the following pro success from the famed Ukraine amateur team:
• Vasyl Lomachenko (OG: gold medals in 2008, as a featherweight, and 2012, as a lightweight; WC: two gold medals in 2009 and 2011, and a silver one in 2007): 10-1, 8 KOs, as a pro, with WBO featherweight title (3 defenses) and WBO super featherweight title (4 defenses). Lomachenko is expected to fight for Jorge Linares WBA lightweight belt on May 12 in New York.
• Oleksandr Usyk (OG: gold medal in 2008; WC: gold medal in 2011, bronze medal in 2009): 14-0, 11 KOs, as a pro, with WBO (4 defenses) and WBC cruiserweight titles. Usyk is going onto a unification bout with WBA/IBF champion Murat Gassiev on May 11 in Jeddah.
• Oleksandr Gvozdyk (OG: bronze medal in 2012): 15-0, 12 KOs, as a pro, and WBC interim light heavyweight title.
• Sergey Derevyanchenko (WC: bronze medal in 2007): 12-0, 10 KOs, as a pro, ranked #1 by the IBF in the middleweight ranks.
• Taras Shelestyuk (OG: bronze medal in 2012; WC: gold medal in 2011): 15-0, 9 KOs, as a pro.
• Denis Berinchik (OG: silver medal in 2012; WC: silver medal in 2011): 8-0, 6 KOs;
• Ievghen Khytrov (WC: gold medal in 2011): 15-1, 12 KOs.
A brief look at the list is sufficient to divide it into three pieces. Vasyl Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk are looking for immediate greatness, with their ultimate goal (of course not voiced but presumed) to enter the IBHOF at some point but rather sooner than later.
Derevyanchenko and Gvozdyk are on the brink of fighting and maybe even winning world titles but something bigger than that looks foggy at this point (it was as foggy for Sergey Kovalev in 2013, when he was already 30 and untested – and look at where he is seated now).
The other three can at some point get a major belt but for stylistic reasons (for all three) and defensive vulnerability (for Khytrov and Berinchik) it doesn’t seem to be sealed and signed. They can very well remain contenders without titles either to retire or to become journeymen.
There were three previous cases, when highly successful amateur squads made a complete transition to a pro game – twice for the United States and once for Cuba.
Let’s see how those shifts have played out.
Five gold medals (Leo Randolph, Howard Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks, Leon Spinks), and one silver medal (Charles Mooney), and one bronze medal (John Tate).
• Two all-time greats and IBHOF members (Sugar Ray Leonard and Michael Spinks);
• Two world heavyweight champions, who later degraded to journeyman status (Leon Spinks) or into oblivion (John Tate). One super bantamweight world champion (Leo Randolph) who retired after a stoppage loss in his first title defense. All three captured major belts only to lose them in their first defenses and never regained any.
• One perennial world title contender failing to win something big on three occasions (Howard Davis Jr.)
• Four, who failed to achieve anything solid in the pro game (Louis Curtis, Clint Jackson, Davey Lee Armstrong, Chuck Walker)
• One, who never turned pro – Charles Mooney
It is often named to be the greatest team of all time but bear in mind that both Cuba and the USSR boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games for political reasons. It is safe to say that the outcome would have been at least partially different if two amateur super-powers had competed in the tournament.
Nevertheless, nine gold medals (Paul Gonzalez, Steve McCrory, Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker, Jerry Page, Mark Breland, Frank Tate, Henry Tillman and Tyrell Biggs), one silver (Virgil Hill), one bronze (Evander Holyfield), and only Robert Shannon went out in the second round without winning anything big.
Ironically, it was Holyfield and Hill, alongside Whitaker, who got the most out of their professional runs.
• Two all-time greats (Whitaker and Holyfield) and one IBHOF-member but maybe not an all-timer (Virgil Hill). Whitaker was arguably the P4P #1 fighter in the first half of the 90’s, specifically in its midst, winning titles in four weight classes, unifying the lightweight division in process. Holyfield is presently the only fighter to unify cruiserweight division before going up in weight to become a four-time heavyweight champion. Hill was a major player (and also a world champion or a beltholder) for almost twenty years.
• Two two-time underachieving world champions with solid yet less-than-expected credentials (Breland and Taylor).
• One one-time champion (Tate).
• Six of those who failed to achieve something big (Gonzalez, McCrory, Shannon, Page, Tillman and Biggs), with Shannon and Page never even getting a shot.
Thanks to a 2006 historical flee we’ve got a chance to see what can be made of the Cuban domination in the unpaid ranks. Actually, not much at this point.
It is five gold medals (Yan Barthelemy Varela, Guillermo Rigondeaux Ortiz, Yuriorkis Gamboa Toledano, Mario Kindelan Mesa and Odlanier Solis Fonte), two silver (Yudel Jhonson Cedeno and Lorenzo Aragon Armenteros) and one bronze (Michael Lopez Nunez). And as a result:
• No IBHOF-worthy careers, although one can argue that Guillermo Rigondeaux can at some point be enshrined. He was on his way there when he got a pyrrhic win over Nonito Donaire, which would have been career-defining, had it defined Rigo’s career in a right way. But it has not, and the subsequent four years turned into a mess, the Cuban fighting non-descript opponents all over the world.
• Three solid champions, two of them being career underachievers (Rigondeaux and Gamboa) and another one being a pleasant addition to the list (Yoan Pablo Hernandez). All three had solid runs with some nice wins (Salido, Barros, Ponce De Leon – for Gamboa, Cunningham and Ross – for Hernandez) but nothing special.
• Two major busts in Olympic champions Barthelemy (13-3 as a pro, never even close to a world title shot) and Solis (who failed miserably in his only title shot at VitaliyKlitschko, who was 40 at the time).
• Three who just hasn’t delivered (Luis Franco, Jhonson and Yordanis Despaigne Herrera)
• Two-time Olympic champion Mario Kindelan, as well as Lorenzo Aragon and Michel Nunez, have never entered the pro game.
Unlike the rest of the crop (Cuba included), Ukraine has at least several years (one would say till the next Olympic cycle) to get bigger.
At this point, it’s already better than Cuba-2004 in absolute numbers. USA-1984 and their fantastic scores can hardly be equaled, and the same goes for USA-1976 - although it can be easily argued that the impact of Randolph, Tate, and Spinks (aside from part of Ali’s lore), was next to non-existent.
But Ukraine has never had as many opportunities to achieve this level of pro success. Speaking in relative numbers it is already on the same scale. The final definition, however, will not be defined by the leaders (Lomachenko and Usyk) but by those who constitute the middle layer.
That’s why Gvozdyk’s win, as well as the future fights for both him and Derevyanchenko, and maybe the other three, is instrumental in defining the position of Ukraine’s best amateur team in the history of the sport.