To the uninitiated, it may seem like the rise of Kazakhstan to the peak of boxing superpowers has been a swift leap from the preliminaries to the main event.
To many boxing fans, Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin is the peak of their professional success thus far.
But while Golovkin--or 'Triple G' as he is known to everyone with more than a passing interest in the sport--may seem like a one man army as he destroys contenders left right and center, he is in fact the culmination or more than eighty years of evolution in his homeland.
But before we get to the first gloved punches traded in Kazakhstan, we have to look at the country that Kazakh boxing is inextricably linked to--Mother Russia--and how a particular style of pugilism would come to develop in the Soviet states. For this we have to look back not just decades but centuries.
The Russian Connection
The history of Kazakhstan's fluctuating borders is something best left to a series of geographical articles, and because of their long reliance on oral history, the journey of its people is hard to grasp.
But in investigating how a nation of a little over seventeen million became one of the most decorated boxing nations on Earth, it needs to be touched on.
The Turkic people are generally thought to have spread out from China and settled around what is now known as Central Asia.
Settled in the country that would eventually become the Republic of Kazakhstan, the nomadic tribes faced several formidable invaders--including Mongol warriors from the North East and Russians from the North West--that would've seen their future gene pool mixed and their warrior spirit tested. Even with fractured tribal leaders, the Kazakh people resisted attempts at colonisation.
When the Russians tried to colonise Kazakhstan in the 17th Century, they were met with stiff resistance by the nomadic tribes that populated the land. However, the Kazakhs were also being attacked from the East--by the Kalmyks--and this distraction allowed Russia to gain ground.
Eventually, the growth of the Russian Empire was too much for the Kazakh people to stand up to, and in the 19th Century their agricultural society was rendered obsolete by Russian technological advances on the outskirts of their land.
The Kazakhs fell and were annexed into the ever growing Empire and although the Kazakhs put forth an armed resistance against the Empire--a rally against Russian insistence that all states under their control were subject to conscription during World War One--it only delayed the inevitable.
In the 1920's, the Kirghiz ASSR was renamed the Kazakh ASSR. This close relationship with Russia is--in my eyes at least--the single greatest factor in the high profile of boxing in Kazakhstan today.
A Brief History of Fisticuffs in Russia
As with much of history, there comes a point where it is nigh on impossible to get a definite answer as to the genesis of a particular thought and fist fighting in Russia is no different.
There have been many instances of pugilism in Russia down the years which shows it was very much ingrained in the national psyche. It took a while to take shape in the form of boxing as we know it, but history would suggest that Russia was built for boxing.
The most popular form of fist fighting in pre-20th Century Russia was wall-to-wall fighting where two sides (or walls) of combatants would charge each other and exchange blows. Bare-knuckle of course.
Artists impression of wall-to-wall fighting circa 1700
While this sounds primitive and borderline barbaric it was not without rules. Boys fought boys, men fought men and the toughest men fought their formidable counterparts. Every strike bar punching was barred. You couldn't hit an opponent if he was on his back but you could hit an opponent if he was trying to rise. Punches to the Adams apple and below the waist were completely off limits. If a competitor turned his back or tried to run away, he would be left alone--chasing down a cowering opponent was not considered a fair method of attack.
This form of fighting was usually carried out in the interest of fun and a way to prove one's manliness.
Not that group fighting was the only means of hand-to-hand combat in Russia. One on one fighting was usually carried out as a duel to settle a legal dispute, with adjudicators and legal witnesses. Because of this, one on one fighting was nowhere near as popular or practiced.
The influential Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov did touch on a bareknuckle duel in his poem 'The Song of the Merchant Kalashnikov'. The poem shows that one on one fights were not for mere sporting purposes, but to settle disputes. It also says that rudimentary gloves were used.
The Russian painter Viktor Vasnetsov depicted a one-on-one fight that appears to fall under the rules set out above. The fight--finished by a brutal knockout by the looks of things--is overseen by some sort of bureaucratic figure. Note that these combatants also appear to be wearing gloves. What needs to be taken into account is that Vasenetsov wasknown for his paintings of mythical Russian figures, so this may not be an accurate representation of a fist fight in his time.
'Fistfight' by Viktor Vasnetsov--Produced sometime in the 1800's
So the gloves may be a bit of truth spliced with some artistic license perhaps-but even if only a literary device it can be seen as an important forebear of things to come.
Although boxing as we know it today was still many decades away we are getting closer to it--and closer to the Kazakhs--and in part two we will look at the death of bareknuckle fighting and the rise of gloved boxing in Russia.