Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Soviet invasion

Here's a pretty circuitous way to get onto the subject of the first two professional boxing champions from the former Soviet Union: the other day, I was making fun of one of my friends because he had too many of his shirt buttons undone, and his grossly hirsute chest was repugnantly exposed. He looked like a reject from the Tom Jones 1970's über-gay collection. Of course, that blatant display of mean-sweaterism merited a crack or two, and I went with, "Nice pelt! Who shot the bear?" and "Hey, Nikolai Valuev called... he wants his furry chest back!" All-too-predictably, our exchange of insults turned into a conversation about the preponderance of "Soviet" boxers, especially in the heavyweight division, and eventually evolved into a listing of our favourite fighters from the former Soviet bloc. Hey, we're guys in our late 30's / early 40's -- talking sports is pretty much all we have left at this point.

Aside from the obligatory Armenian Honour Roll (and who would have thought tiny Armenia was a hotbed of boxing bad-asses? Abraham, Darchinyan, Martirosyan, and the too-soon-forgotten Abelyan, to name but a few), my two faves happen to be the first two professional champs from the Soviet bloc: Yuri Arbachakov and Orzubek Nazarov. I first read about these guys while leafing through a boxing mag at the Convenient Food Mart on the corner of East 98th and Granger; Garfield Heights inna moddafukkin' hizzay !!! Anyhoo, the mag in question featured both fighters on its cover, posing with their backs to one another but facing the reader. Arbachakov, an orthodox flyweight from Russia, had a pseudo-mullet and a frighteningly intense glare. Nazarov, a southpaw lightweight from Kyrgyzstan (I had to look up the spelling -- buy a fucking vowel already!), had a very impressive fu-manchu, and one of the friendliest grins I've ever seen on a boxer.

Physical differences notwithstanding, both fighters exhibited features that would prove to be a constant among Soviet fighters, or at least those of the non-heavyweight variety: a thorough understanding of the boxing fundamentals. Their defense was unspectacular (no Pretty Bitch Floyd Gayweather bob & duck here) but very solid. Their combinations were crisp, varied, and well-leveraged. They ALWAYS remembered to throw body shots. Their footwork and balance were exceptional. Their preparation and conditioning were, invariably, top-notch. They both had rock-solid chins and redoubtable mental toughness. They were both signed by Japanese promoters, and as such would become ultimate road warriors -- neither fighter ever fought in the Soviet Union, and most of their championship fights took place in the opponents' backyards.

Arbachakov was a high-powered, sped-up version of the prototypical "Russian automaton." He was preternaturally composed and methodical, and was one of the slickest counter-punchers I've ever seen, having an uncanny knack for timing his punches so that his opponents' forward movement would supply much of the power. He won the bantamweight world championship in only his tenth or eleven pro fight, and defended it successfully over the next few years until being forced to give it up due to inactivity caused by a serious right-hand injury. He never fully recovered, but tried to regain his championship before retiring. He lost a close decision to Chatchai Sasakul, a terrific Thai brawler Arbachakov had easily defeated in one of his previous defenses. Arbachakov announced his retirement immediately after the fight, his only career loss.

Here's a clip of the last three rounds of Arbachakov's textbook demolition of tough-as-nails Thai challenger and ex-champ Muangchai Kittikasem. The fight was staged in Thailand, and it's pretty funny to hear the crowd ooh and aah at every gutsy lunge by Kitti, only to be immediately silenced by Arbachakov viciously snapping Kitti's head back with well-timed counters. Note, as well, that Arbachakov never really goes after Kitti until he decides Kitti's hurt enough that he won't continue to come forward. The second knockdown in the ninth round is a thing of beauty. Arbachakov nails Kitti with a right and sends him flying backwards into the ropes, follows up with a left hook that whistles past Kitti's head as Kitti's starting to bounce off the ropes, then hesitates for just a split second, measuring Kitti perfectly and absolutely crushing him with a devastating right cross as Kitti's forward inertia drives him into Arbachakov's fist. Again, just a methodical masterpiece of ass-kickery:

Nazarov was an aggressive, lanky, long-armed, heavy-handed fighter who was as ruthless in the ring as he, by all accounts, was affable outside it. He threw punches in bunches and overwhelmed his opponents by applying constant pressure -- sort of a swarthy, left-handed precursor to Antonio Margarito. He won the lightweight championship by beating up South African champion Dingaan Thobela over twelve one-sided rounds, then defended it over the next four years in venues ranging from Maine and Florida to Johannesburg and Paris. Alas, much like Arbachakov, his career was derailed by an injury: Nazarov developed serious eye problems, and by the time he lost his title to Jean-Baptiste Mendy by decision in a somewhat listless but close fight, he was legally blind in one eye. Like Arbachakov, Nazarov was forced to retire after the Mendy fight, his only career loss.

Here's a clip of Nazarov's destruction of then-unbeaten challenger and media darling Joey Gamache. The fight was staged in Gamache's hometown of Portland, Maine, and poor Gamache got every bit of help imaginable from the wicked re-tah-ded hometown ref, who allowed him to repeatedly hold and hit, throw rabbit punches, and shamelessly grab and hold when in trouble. Still, this was nowhere near enough to dissuade or even slow down Nazarov, who simply cut off the ring, cornered Gamache, and pummeled him into submission in less than two rounds. The final knockout sequence is a thing of beauty, and something every prospective fighter who wants to develop finishing skills should study religiously: Nazarov walks the rapidly fading Gamache into the ropes and starts to whale on him. Gamache grabs Nazarov and tries to hang on for dear life, but Nazarov frees his left arm and throws a half-dozen vicious left hooks to Gamache's ribcage. When Gamache tries to step back from the barrage and lowers his arm to protect his ribs, KA-BOOM!!! Nazarov lays him out with a brutal uppercut & left hook combo. In the immortal words of Smokin' Joe Frazier: "Kill the body, and the head will die."

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