In part one we took a look at the close political and geographical connections between Kazakhstan and Russia as well as the long history of fist fighting in the latter, in particular 'wall-to-wall' group fighting. In this the second part, we will try and make sense of the changes in Russian society that made boxing a fast-growing sport in terms of popularity and participation, as well as the pioneers that made it possible for Russia to compete in the most iconic sport of the 20th century.
Kister, Loustalot and the Rise of Gloved Boxing
To understand the growth of boxing in Kazakhstan you must first understand its growth in Russia and the Soviet Union.
Originally lumped in with other athletic endeavors--such as weight lifting and athletics--boxing gained traction as a widely recognised sport when Mikhail Kister translated an English textbook into Russian, the very popular 'Tutorial with Drawings-English Boxing.'
Perhaps tellingly, Kister was not from the 'wall-to-wall' Russian school. That belonged to the poor farming types and Kister was a rich military-affiliated man obsessed with the pursuit of all things manly. Lifting weights, fencing, wrestling and pugilism were among his interests, but as an aristocratic type he practiced the noble art of fisticuffs and encouraged others to do the same.
Mikhail Kister (left)--a very influential figure
With a team of like-minded individuals, he performed boxing exhibitions, and on July 15th, 1895 arranged what appears to be the first gloved boxing tournament in Russia.
Spectators at Khodynka Field in Moscow would have seen mixed events featuring boxing as well as the other aforementioned sports such as weight lifting and wrestling. Kister came in second place overall, with Sergej Lomukhin--one of his students--winning the tournament.
Perhaps buoyed by Kister's demonstrations in Moscow--and perhaps having read his book--other parts of Russia wanted to learn the boxing style of Western Europe.
In 1897 French Savate practitioner and all-round specimen Ernest Loustalot was invited to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg.
Loustalot was a true physical specimen. Not only a French Savate kickboxer, he was also an expert fencer, a record-setting swimmer and a boxer.
Similar to Jem Mace's travels around the world spreading the boxing germ to previously uncultured combat aficionados, Loustalot taught techniques to eager Russians, and likely drew on his Savate kickboxing and fencing background.
The first ever boxing match in St. Petersburg took place on March 25th, 1898 in the Winter Stadium between Loustalot and his student 'Bines'. This would have surely attracted more attention to the sport and enticed more fighters and athletes to study under the Frenchman's tutelage.
At this time however--as it was in Moscow--boxing was still seen as a manly art rather than a fully-fledged standalone sport. Loustalot worked with weight lifters and strongmen, such as Guido Meyer, seen below with the Frenchman around 1898.
Boxing did find a stronger foothold in Russian sporting culture fairly quickly after Loustalot started training athletes. Just a year after his public exhibition it was included in the third annual Russian weight lifting championships. It is possible that his pupil Guido Meyer participated in the weight lifting part of the championship-showing that at this point boxing and strength-based sports were still closely intertwined.
Guido Meyer; clearly a strong man
Kister and Loustalot were the catalysts that sparked the revolution, and in 1917 they was still in the country when another revolution took place.
Boxing in Russia after 'The Great War'
With many Russians fighting a battle with much higher stakes than pugilism--and not returning home after it was finished--boxing took a hit during World War One.
The series of events that led to the 1917 Russian Revolution--the ousting of the Russian monarchy and the rise of the Soviet Socialists--saw boxing given another round.
In 1918 Lenin established Vsevobuch--meaning 'Universal Military Training'--which placed an emphasis on physical education and practical combat skills.
With a large military in constant training the amount of combat practitioners soared and were encouraged by the military trainers to pass on their knowledge, thus laying the foundations for the Soviet boxing program that would come to dominate the amateur scene for years to come.
At the forefront of this was Arkadij Kharlampiev.
Before becoming an instructor in the Vsevobuch program he had lived for a time in Paris and had picked up techniques there--some that he wasn't particularly impressed with- -and drawing on his experience he saw a need to advance boxing technique.
Noting that the Western European styles that had been taught in his homeland were outdated, Kharlampiev forced a shift away from a style that derived from fencing to a modern style that incorporated in-fighting.
"Old boxing is dead... We're witnessing the birth of new boxing principles, disciples of which are dominating old school French and English fighters".
Kharlampiev taught the next generation of great Russian trainers
Some Russian sources claim that Kharlampiev fought the great middleweight Billy Papke while in Paris, but as Papke's career is well documented--and I have never seen anything about this taking place, even as an exhibition--far more likely is that the Russian was in Paris when Papke took on Frank Klaus. If he had been, he would've seen a great display of mutual in-fighting and this may explain the influence of this facet of boxing on his own mindset.
Whilst Kharlampiev was an important figure in the development of boxing in the Soviet states he almost led to its demise.
Pushing hard for the socialist state to accept boxing as a fully fledged professional sport and distancing it from other forms of athletic competition, he staged bouts on his own accord. Unfortunately some of them were lambasted as either being fixed or gross mismatches and public perception of boxing turned towards the negative.
With boxing briefly outlawed in the early 1920's because of this, a medical commission was tasked with judging whether the sport was safe and came to the conclusion it was.
With the sport given a reprieve, a an official tournament was staged in 1926 to find the best of the best in the Soviet Union.
One of Kharlampiev's students won top honours in the middleweight division and would take the baton from his mentor and pass it to the next generation of fighters.
K.V Gradopolov and the Soviet school
Born in 1904 and donning the gloves for the first time aged sixteen, K.V Gradopolov became the first middleweight champion of the USSR in 1926 and he is perhaps the true starting point for the modernisation of boxing in the Soviet Union. He finished with a career tally of 48-10 (24 KOs) and was beaten only twice in international competition. His experience was clearly revered as he was the head coach of the USSR boxing team from 1953 to 1960.
An astute trainer and physical theorist, in his lifetime he authored over seventy books on boxing technique-many of them very influential-and in his 1972 autobiography 'Memories of a Fighter' he recounts tales of bouts that clearly show the progression of the sport in his homeland.
In part one we looked at the long-standing tradition of 'wall-to-wall fighting', and this was still a popular activity in Gradopolov's fighting years.
An advocate of group training, it is quite likely that Gradopolov saw some merit in the archaic style of combat despite his own techniques being more advanced.
Even with the Vsevobuch program bringing boxing techniques to the stacked ranks of tough Russian soldiers, the wall-to-wall fighters were still highly respected and feared.
And there was nobody more fearsome than Alexey Ankudinov.
A paving slab of a man who weighed somewhere between the modern light heavy and cruiserweight limit in his prime, Ankudinov was a wall-to-wall fighter who specialised in one-on-one fighting.
By all accounts a bizarre stylist who fought out of an upright stance and threw clubbing hooks, he was also defensively adept-deflecting shots off of his biceps and shoulders rather than employing any form of evasive movement. He trudged forward and threw every punch with the intent of causing damage to his opponent.
Definitely not of the French school.
Gradopolov later wrote that Ankudinov was the first 'professional' champ of Russia, when in 1922--in one of the notorious bouts staged by Kharlampiev--Ankudinov scored a come from behind knockout victory over one 'Mikhail Fomin' in the ninth round. Little is known of the opponent
Punching through an opponent with superior science was everyday business for Ankudinov and judging by his ties to Kharlampiev he would have faced more than his share of modern boxing stylists.
Not that 'modern' back then meant in-and-out boxing. If anything-as the aforementioned Kharlampiev stressed to his charges- that was seen as an outdated approach, and for all of Ankudinov's brawn he was relatively unskilled on the inside.
Gradopolov proved he was the new breed to an extent by beating Ankudinov--a man much larger than himself--no less than four times. A literal display of the progression of the sport.
He elaborated on his bout with another seemingly notorious wall-to-wall fighter in his biography,
There were plenty of fighters from Kolchugin, a small town of Wladimirskaya Oblast.
Back then there were hardly any good fighters in Kolchiugin. Obviously, they were far inferior to Moscow fighters, so we all treated them with graciousness.We didn't want to beat down them, we didn't want them to lose interest in boxing.
My opponent was a famous local "стеночник" (wall-to-wall fighter) Vladimir Lebedev. I decided to take it easy on him, especially considering that a few people there asked me to take it easy on him too.
I stepped into the ring and shook my opponent's hand. He was a tough-looking, muscled man with a cocky face.It looked like he was called the best fighter for a reason.
"Ok, I'm gonna show superiority of boxing skills over your brawling abilities", I thought to myself and started the fight with plenty of feints and pot-shotting. Not wanting to hurt my opponent's self-esteem, I tried not to land any hard punches on him.
This continued for about 2 minutes. It was going well, but the guy probably didn't appreciate my good manners and thought that it was a sign of weakness. As I tried to "show superiority of technique over your raw power", he clearly had other things on his mind.
As a result, I took a loud-sounding punch, one of those known as a "right hand to the ear". It wasn't a hard punch, but it was so loud that everybody in the audience heard it land. Somebody burst into laughter. Credibility of boxing has been crushed. Farmers brute strength got the better of sophisticated boxing skills. This guy simply wanted to lay me out cold.
"So, here's your gratitude for my good manners?! Okay, let's have a different type of talk! It's not only about me anymore..."
And I hit him.
When the referee finished the count and tried to help my opponent to get on his feet, he tried to crawl out of the ring. Obviously, he wasn't very well educated in boxing rules. This fight was a good lesson for me and my opponent.
Gradopolov went on to discuss technique in a way that shows how well-schooled he was,
How could this happen? How did I get hit with such a ridiculous punch? There was a lot to think about. Fighting a tough unskilled brawler is not that easy. A textbook fighter always follows a consistent pattern that comes from his rational boxing technique, but a "natural" brawler acts spontaneously and he throws the most unexpected punches. Fighting him you don't know what to expect, which punch will he throw next, what will be the trajectory of a punch. But they usually don't know how to protect themselves properly and are easy prey for textbook fighter.
With a teacher like Gradopolov sharpening the young knives of the Soviet Union--and with his popular books teaching those who couldn't make their way to him--boxing in the Soviet union would go from strength to strength.
But the influx of hungry and hardened fighters to the burgeoning scene wasn't limited to Russia.
A quieter revolution was taking place South of the border, one that would eventually grow louder until everyone in the Soviet Union could hear. In part three we will look at the most important figures in the development of boxing in Kazakhstan.
Footage that shows Gradopolov's students studying his books and the great trainer working with his team-including the great nine-time heavyweight champion of the USSR Nikolai Korolev