In the first part of this series we started with the Kazakh boxing machine, the cogs of which have turned to produce pro' middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin and innumerable amateur talents.
Since touching on the present, we have travelled through the past--starting in Russia--and if you read with the intention of learning about the Kazakh pioneers you may have wondered when this detour would end.
It ends now, and our journey through the history of boxing in Kazakhstan begins.
The popularity of boxing as we know it--gloves, rounds and rules--had grown exponentially in Russia in the 1920s, and with Kazakhstan very much part of the Soviet Union in this time--albeit as an autonomous state--we can assume that the word had spread to the Kazakh region as well.
There isn't any info relating to any pugilistic activity in Kazakhstan in the twenties, although there were societal changes that may give us an indication why so many young men were willing to take up the sport.
Touched on briefly in part one, the Kazakh people were nomads and many of them were rural farmers. Their agricultural ways had been rendered less effective by Russian industrialism, and when Josef Stalin went about collectivization--with the thought that consolidating smaller farms into bigger joint operations would help mass production of grain--their was more upheaval to the Kazakh communities.
It was on the other side of the Russian border that would affect Kazakhstan the most. The Ukrainians opposed collectivization, and as it would be known in years to come, Stalin did not like people opposing his ideas.
Millions of Ukrainians died in the famine Stalin forced upon them, and they weren't the only state to suffer.
A poor return on the harvests in the early 1930s meant much of the region went without food. Whilst affiliated with the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was low on the food chain, and much of their livestock was seized by the Russians.
It is estimated that up to a million people from regions such as Kazakhstan, the North Caucasus and southern Russia died.
Kazakhstan saw some upturn in population when many people were forcibly removed from their homelands. In Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin he writes,
In March 1934 in Soviet Ukraine, some 10,800 Soviet citizens of Polish or German nationality were arrested. Between June and September 1936, some 69,283 people, for the most part Soviet Poles, were deported from Ukraine to Kazakhstan.
Those that survived the journey would not have been much use to any efforts towards survival due to malnutrition, and the indigenous Kazakh population fell swiftly as they left of their own accord--with some thought to have traveled to China on empty stomachs in desperation.
Under Stalin's rule information was kept under lock and key and many of those who knew classified information went to their deaths, the facts dying with them. Today it is estimated that during the famines of the late 20s and early 30s the population of Kazakhstan dropped from 3.6 to 2.6 million.
It is a cliche--especially in pugilistic prose--that hard times breed hard men. In this instance, it appears to be true, as in the years following the formation of the USSR and the political and personal hardships these people had to go through, the number of active boxers rose.
In 1936 when Kazakhstan was brought in as a fully recognised Soviet State and renamed the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. At this time the military training which had been afforded to Russian soldiers would have been rolled out all over Kazakhstan, thus educating the Kazakh people in boxing.
This is where the story begins.
Shokra Bultek-Uly and the Post-War Generation
Just how Shokra Bultek-Uly learned of boxing and decided to pass on his knowledge to the hungry Kazakh boys of his time is unknown. Perhaps he had seen exhibitions or amateur bouts in Russia. In The Kazakhstan Boxing Encyclopedia* Bultek-Uly's 'idol' is listed as K.V Gradopolov--the brilliant and influential Russian trainer. Perhaps, like many he had been passed a copy of one of Gradopolov's books to study or maybe he had studied the art of boxing under the great man himself during active service.
However he came to the realisation that he was to be a boxing coach is not that important. What is important is that Shokra Bultek-Uly is the father of boxing in the Kazakh region.
Bultek-Uly is thought to have opened the first boxing gym in Kazakhstan in the 1930's, and is also credited with organising the first boxing tournament in the region in 1937. In this tournament there were fifty participants.
Kazakh boxing was taking off, when a battle bigger than sport commenced.
World War II took the lives of millions of Soviet solders, among them an estimated 310,000 Kazakhs, a figure that doubles when civilian lives are taken into account.
Boxing must have seemed like a game after the harsh reality of the second world war, and Bultek-Uly taught the kids how to play.
His most impressive charges were the Omarov brothers--Mahmut, Maksut, Rasheed and Edik--who became the most successful fighters of the first wave of Kazakh boxing.
The Omarov Brothers
The first USSR boxing championship after World War II took place in 1946, with top class Russian Lev Segalovich winning the gold medal in the 51 kilogram flyweight division.
In the tournament of the following year, Mahmut Omarov--a pure boxer--outfoxed his early opponents but lost in the semi-finals to the vastly more experienced Segalovich. A bronze medal was a massive coup for the Kazakhs, who had not been in the boxing game long, and Mahmut Omarov's success spurred on many others in the region to take up the sport.
The 1946 Kazakh boxing team--Mahmut Omarov is in the black vest, and Shokra Bultek-Uly is to his left
Mahmut Omarov would go on to further success, winning the Kazakhstan championship multiple times (as did his brother Maksut) as well as taking first place at the Spartakiad, the Olympics of the Soviet Union which was relocated to the Central Asian region once the Soviet states decided to take part in the Olympic. His brother Maksut also won a tournament at one of these events, and in The Kazakhstan Boxing Encyclopedia it says,
When fighting in the ring, he was notable for his superb boxing technique--he is the father of scientific boxing in Kazakhstan.
If Maksut was the father, then Shokra Bultek-Uly was the grandfather.
Mahmut Omarov, Date/Source Unknown
Perhaps the best single victory credited to the Omarov brothers goes to Rasheed Omarov. He sparked out the excellent Russian Gennady Garbozov in the 1950's. Garbozov was a truly world class amateur who had defeated no less a figure than future bantamweight world champion Raul Macias--one of Mexico's greatest ever fighters--on route to a bronze medal in the 1952 Olympics.
For the success he achieved as a trainer, Shokra Bultek-Uly was recognised as a Master of Sport of the USSR, the first from the Kazakh region to have achieved such an honour. By the time the Omarov brothers had wound up their fistic careers, they would also be bestowed with the honour.
In 1950 there were an estimated 1,300 fighters in Kazakhstan. In the whole of the Soviet Union, nearly forty thousand.
Despite their lesser numbers, the boxers of Kazakhstan were well and truly on the map. In years to come, the best boxers in the Soviet Union would include those not just from Russia, but from Kazakhstan as well.
In part four we will look at some of the greatest ever amateurs from Kazakhstan from the 1950's up until the fall of the Iron Curtain.
*My gratitude goes out to Alikhan Okassuly for providing information from this book.