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GGG Genesis: The History of Kazakh Boxing Part 4

In part four we take a look at the path of the Kazakh's from regional accolades to the pinnacle of international success. On the way we will analyse the Soviet style both inside and out of the USSR, as we travel to Cuba and meet arguably the greatest amateur boxer of all time.

Andrej Chervenenko (middle) with his most famous student Teofilo Stevenson and Cuban trainer Alcides Sagarra
Andrej Chervenenko (middle) with his most famous student Teofilo Stevenson and Cuban trainer Alcides Sagarra

In the first three parts of this series, we have traveled through the combat history of medieval Russia through two World Wars and the rise of the Kazakhs from nomadic tribesmen to being in the top cluster of the Soviet amateur boxing ranks.

In the third installment, we took a look at the different boxing tournaments that were staged in Kazakhstan and the USSR, designed with finding the best of the best.

In 1952, In Helsinki, Finland the Soviet Union made their first appearance at the most prestigious international sporting competition: The Olympic Games.

The 1950's

From the 1950's up until the dissolution of the USSR, Kazakhstan's best would take part in domestic tournaments with the top prize at stake a chance to represent the USSR in international competition.

With such a large talent pool to choose from, the best from each individual Soviet State--or Oblast--would fight in the tournaments that would make up the entrants to the USSR championships. The winners of these tournaments would represent the USSR at the Olympics, the highest honour in international amateur boxing.

At this stage, the Kazakhs were still honing their skills. The majority of the Soviet Union's best amateurs remained Russians at this time, although the best Kazakh amateurs had local pride to fight for.

There were a few Kazakh fighters of this era of real talent, whose names carried importance through the following decades.

Gennady Rozhkov was a trailblazer, picking up no less than seven Kazakh national championships, making the final bracket of the USSR championships, and becoming the first Kazakh to compete in international competition when he traveled to Bucharest--taking bronze in the World Festival of Youth and Students in 1953.

Training under Davletkerei Mullayev--an innovative coach occupying a similar position to Shokra Bultek-Uly--Rozhkov credits him as teaching him not just about boxing but about life,

"I learned much from my coach D.M Mullayev--Ambition, always to look for the new and not to go round in circles."

In the below image you will see see Rozhkov working the pads--or focus mutts--with Mullayev. This is to my knowledge one of the earliest images of this particular method of training, perhaps demonstrating the innovative approach taken in the region at this time.

Rozhkov (left) working the pads with legendary trainer D.M Mullayev

Rozhkov paved the way for other Kazakh boxers when he represented the Soviet Union in the European championships.

Another important figure in Kazakh boxing from this era was Abdysalan Nurmakhanov. Not only did he achieve success both domestically and internationally, he will prove a vital figure later in this story.

A small heavyweight--usually outweighed by anywhere from thirty to forty five pounds--Nurmakhanov was another Mullayev disciple.

He won four medals at the Soviet championships (bronze in 1959 and 1967, silver in 1957 and 1962) and was the first Merited 'Master of Sport' from Kazakhstan.

Nurmakhanov--highly respected

When his career was all said and done he had lost just eighteen times in 239 contests.

It is this kind of record that saw him lead out the first ever completely independent Kazakh Olympic team in 1996. His motto to his students: "Always go for a knockout."

But more on that later.

The 1960's

The swinging sixties saw the Soviets hit a purple patch in international competition.

In the 50's--the first time they had competed in the Olympic Games--the Soviet Union team earned three gold medals, three silver and six bronze medals.

In the 60's they would win seven top honours, as well as twelve runner up medals--twice finishing atop the overall medals table.

This is also the decade in which Kazakhstan fought their way to the top of the Soviet rankings. The Karimov brothers--Viktor and Vladimir--took top honours in the 1960 and 1964 USSR championships. Still, boxing politics got in the way of Kazakh fighters representing the USSR at major international tournaments, and from what I can ascertain no Kazakh boxers represented the Soviet team in the Olympics during this period.

Therefore it is difficult to analyse the stylistic quirks they may have possessed. But readily available footage of the Russian boxers can give us some indication of the style being employed at this time across the region.

For many years, the general thought was that the Soviet amateurs were stiff and robotic. While this may be true to some extent, there is evidence to suggest that this was merely a stereotype of the Soviet boxers.

See this footage from the 1967 European championships between Russian fighters Viktor Ageyev and Boris Lagutin.

Ageyev--in the black shorts--feints with a left jab to set up and mask the overhand right. Lagutin, in the white shorts--who twice won Olympic gold at light middleweight--sees it coming and takes the edge off the blow by slipping back. He quickly fires back, but Ageyev--a two-time European champ who never lost in international competition--slips the counter with head movement more reminiscent of a Cus D'Amato protege than a 'stiff' European stylist.

Perhaps the biggest hero of Soviet boxing in this decade was Valeri Popenchenko. A two-time European champion and one-time Olympic gold medal winner at middleweight (Tokyo, 1964) Popenchenko was a ruthless fighter who combined efficient in-fighting with well-schooled counter punching. Watch below--the hallmarks of the Soviet style are all there; fairly upright, moving backwards with a hint of lateral movement, punching form designed to move the body with it to slip any counters that may follow. But there's a slickness there that belies the long-running stereotype that the Soviet boxers were robotic.

The one thing that always stands out about the Soviet boxers is their fencing with the lead hand. Popenchenko keeps that left extended as he moves back, both blinding his opponent and giving himself a solid feel for the distance. When the other guy comes close enough for a nice, short right, Popenchenko can tell right away, because he's touching him the whole time. The well-schooled lead hand of the Soviet boxers may stem from the teachings of the early pioneer of Russian boxing--Ernest Loustalot--who himself came from a fencing background. This, and Kharlampiev's want for his students to be able to step in off the jab and work in close is echoed in the best Soviet amateurs of this era.

Although boxing in the Soviet Union continued to go from strength-to-strength, this decade will always be remembered for The Cold War. With the Communist state and the United States of America seemingly on the brink of nuclear annihilation, it was a time of paranoia and fear.

The height of this was arguably 'The Cuban Missile Crisis'--when Soviet missiles were placed in the country of their Communist ally within firing range of the United States--and while a deal was made to disarm the warheads on the island, the USSR also provided Castro's boys with the foundations to produce their own weapons of mass destruction.

The 1970's

With a lack of footage of the top Kazakh boxers for most of this decade, the best way to gauge their possible style is to look at the Cuban stylists, who utilised the 'Soviet Style' as they went from nobodies to titans in the sport of amateur boxing.

There is some difficulty in defining just when Russian trainer Andrej Chervenenko was sent to Cuba. Some sources say he touched down in 1969--after the Mexico Olympics--and stayed for three years, teaching the Soviet system to Alcides Sagarra, who had already worked in the Cuban amateur system since the early 60's.

However, Chervenenko's most famous student claims he was trained by the Russian for five years, so perhaps he was there slightly earlier.

That student was the late great Teofilo Stevenson.

Three Olympic gold medals, three world championships and a hoard of other accomplishments, Stevenson was perhaps the greatest amateur boxer of all time, and he himself says he owes his success to Chervenenko and the system he taught him. When the interviewer in this documentary makes the suggestion that the Cuban boxers didn't take much from the Soviet school of thought, Stevenson offers a rebuttal,

"I disagree. Yes, Cuba always had the potential, but before soviets there was no scientific system of training elite fighters here."

Alcides Sagarra also learned a lot from the Soviet system. Not just from Chervenenko but from the great K.V Gradopolov, who he met on a visit to Kiev,

"I often remember my youth. Especially that spring in Kiev (Sagarra travelled to USSR) - it was amazing time. And I'm not ashamed to admit it - yes, I've learned a lot from soviet trainers, to this day I read their copybooks andfind something new, modern, original. Everything good in me I owe to USSR".

Yet more proof that Gradopolov's books were extremely influential.

To add to Stevenson's adamant comment that the Cuban and Soviet styles are one and the same, there are differences. Not so much in the methodology, but in the application of the style.

While the thought that the Soviet boxers were rigid operators is not true, it is also true that there were not as loose as their Cuban counterparts. This is down to culture and the foundations that were already there.

Sagarra used Cuban dance such as salsa to get his fighters to use their natural rhythm in their fighting style. And in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich--where Stevenson smashed the American hopeful Duane Bobick and won his first gold medal--Sagarra credited this as a key to their success.

" It's not right to think that this all happened spontaneously. Cuban boxing was pretty developed even before the Cuban Revolution. The essense of Cuban boxing lies in speed and flexibility that comes from national dances. Aided by Soviet school of boxing renown for excellent physical strength and endurance, advanced skills and strategic plans. All this combined work produced amazing results".

Indeed it did. Aside from Stevenson's success in the heavyweight division, Cuba finished top of the medal table with two more gold medals and a total of five podium appearances.

In second place--with two golds--was the Soviet Union.

In Stevenson we can see the Soviet methods in practise.

Here, we see him use movement in the same way as Valeri Popenchenko did, stepping back and to the side but using the jab as cover,

And in this piece of footage, we see Stevenson using the Soviet school to its full effect--using his stance and movement to cover himself and getting in position for a one-two. The methods here are the same as we saw with Popenchenko,

The visual indicators of the Soviet style are all here: The bouncing on the toes, the upright stance, the persistent jab that can be changed from a probing deflector into a ramrod shot in an instant.

How does all this relate to Kazakh boxers? The style had been exported all the way to the Caribbean, but had it made its way to Central Asia?

Interestingly Teofilo Stevenson himself was thought to have a connection to Kazakhstan. In the same documentary, a question of his biological heritage is posed to him. Stevenson laughs it off, but also supplies some possibly telling information,

"Nah, my grandgranddad wasn't Kazakh (laughs). But my first trainer Andrej Chervonenko was born in Kazakhstan."

Not that this is the strongest evidence to whether the Kazakh stylists were that closely connected to the Russians. Chervonenko was raised as a Russian and operated out of Moscow.

However, the great Cuban was aware of the Kazakh school--showing its strength even when cast in the shadow of its Russian counterparts,

Sure, I remember. Kazakhstan boxing school was one of the best in the world.

It wasn't until the late 70's that a student of the Kazakh school would graduate to world honours.

Valery Rachkov

The first great Kazakh we will lay our eyes on in this series is also their first World Amateur champion. In him, we can see the Soviet style, and this teaches us a lot about the Kazakh boxers of this era.

Valery Rachkov--the 1978 World Amateur Champion at welterweight--is our first visual proof that the Kazakh amateurs worked from K.V Gradopolov's teachings.

Here, the same bouncy movement employed by the Cubans is used by Rachkov--showing it wasn't just salsa that made the Cubans formidable stylists but rather a unified school of thought.

Here, Rachkov uses the same tactics that we have seen employed by the top boxers in Russia and Cuba, shifting his tempo constantly, stepping out of range as his opponent pushes on the front foot and throwing a left hand counter, before sitting down with the right hand--the primary weapon of the Soviet stylists.

Rachkov was as slick going forward as he was going back--more reminiscent of Roberto Duran or Aaron Pryor then he is a stereotypical 'European' stylist. Watch the below sequence, which should dispel any notion that the Soviet stylists were stiff.

Rachkov took first place at the 1978 World amateur tournament--the first Kazakh to win a major international tournament--but Olympic success eluded him. He'd competed in the Montreal games--two years prior to his World title victory--and was eliminated in the third round. His name will always be in the history books as the first ever amateur boxer from Kazakhstan to win a World title, admittedly while representing the USSR.

Kazakhstan would have to wait for their first Olympic medal, and when it came it was closer to home.

At the 1980 Olympics--held in Moscow, the first time a Soviet State had hosted the Summer Olympic Games--Kazakhstan's greatest son reached the final.

A major star not just in Kazakhstan but the whole of the USSR, his legend had spread as far as Cuba.

Teofilo Stevenson has the last word here,

"I especially liked Serik Konakbaev. He was fast, smart, with excellent technique. Had he possessed a better punch, he would have destroyed everybody, because his skills and speed were unparalleled."

In part five we will look at the most legendary fighter in Kazakh history to date.

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