In the first four 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 the fringes of Soviet success to major international boxing medals.
In this--the fifth part of the series--we take a look at the most popular and famous fighter in the history of Kazakhstan. A superb boxer and decorated competitor whose popularity in his prime dwarfs anyone who followed him.
There's just something about Serik. A hit with the ladies in his youth, a hero with his Kazakh people, and respected across the whole of the Soviet Union for his unparalleled boxing technique, this respectful boxer from Kazakhstan just had that special something.
Born in the North East of Kazakhstan in 1959, before his twentieth birthday Konakbayev had established himself as the best light welterweight in Europe. However, when he first began training in the sport his future trainer Yuri Tshai--a Korean living in Kazakhstan--wrote him off,
"Why are you wasting time with this kid. He's too pretty. He's not a fighter."
Serik Konakbayev and his trainer, Yuri Tshai
That mistake might have been easy to make. While as boxing fans will know that a boxer doesn't need to adhere to the stereotype of a brutish thug to be a natural fighter, Konakbayev was a fan of poetry and Russian literature. Not only was he an admirer of the great Russian writers--among them Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin--he tried his hand at writing poems himself.
Before long, Konakbayev would use his hands for what they were seemingly born to do, proving Yuri Tshai wrong and quickly proving himself one of the true superstars of the Soviet boxing program.
His first major international tournament was the 1979 European Championships--held in West Germany--and Konakbayev seized the opportunity with both hands, taking the gold medal and proving himself not just the best in Kazakhstan and the Soviet Union, but in the whole of Europe.
On his way to gold he pitched shut outs over representatives from Poland and Ireland, scored a third round stoppage over home fighter Karl-Heinz Kruger (future Olympic bronze medalist) and dropped his first point in the gold medal match, scoring a 4-1 decision victory.
His opponent in the final was Patrizio Oliva, a smart and skilled Italian who would go on to hold the WBA light welterweight title as a professional.
Serik took the victory with a 4-1 decision. The Italian appeared devastated when the scorecard was announced, but his Kazakh opponent graciously consoled him.
The Kazakh would meet the Italian with gold on the line again. This time there was more on the line than European honours. The winner would have bragging rights as the best amateur on the planet.
1980 Moscow Olympics
Konakbayev achieved many milestones for Kazakh boxing at these games. Not only did he win the first ever Olympic medal for a fighter from the region, he became the first Kazakh to captain the Soviet boxing team in Olympic competition.
As captain, Serik had to be there for his teammates. When the tournament started to get on top for them, he would sing to boost their morale. When making weight frequently in a short space of time got too much, Serik rounded up his team and took them to a disco wearing a few layers of clothes, injecting some fun into the ordeal.
Konakbayev--A Keen Dancer
In the ring, Serik was all business.
Although didn't have the hardest path to the semi-finals (his quarter final opponent couldn't appear) the man he faced-off with in the opening match-up was as formidable as they come.
Simon Cutov of Romania was a highly decorated amateur. Two-time European champion, and silver medalist at both the World Championships and the Olympics, Cutov was a hard-nosed pressure fighter who cared as much about taking shots on the chin as he did for hearing opinions on his moustache and mullet combo.
He was also no stranger to the Soviet stylists, having fought many in international competition, but even with his experience and mastery of footwork, jabbing and inside fighting he was no match for Serik Konakbayev, who whitewashed him on the cards.
The Kazakh's hardest draw may well have been in the semi-final, where he drew tough Cuban José Aguilar. Konakbayev was struggling with making weight himself, having to lose an estimated ten kilo's before the tournament started, so it was starting to catch up with him later on in the tournament. He took the bout with a 4-1 decision, but it may have cost him a gold medal.
Waiting for him in the final was old foe Patrizio Oliva.
Round 1&2 of Olympic final, round 3 can be viewed here
After a highly-technical battle with both men getting their licks in, Oliva took the decision and the gold medal. Not only that, but his victory over the highly-regarded Kazakh saw him win the Val Barker Trophy--the award given to the boxer deemed the classiest operator in the tournament.
Perhaps Oliva's distraught expression at the end of the European Championships of the year before can be explained by his post-fight comments, as transcribed by the Associated Press,
"The only thing I feared was the judges. I thought I beat him last time, but the decision went against me."
Years later, Oliva's coach said that his fighter was lucky to have fought Konakbayev when he did,
"We were lucky that Serik was still feeling affects of the hard fought semi-final fight against Jose Aguilar".
While this may seem an excuse for Konakbayev (not that he would make any himself) immediately after the Olympics the Italian victor said he had his own struggles, that put the tough schedule of the Olympic Games in perspective,
"I cried at the victory ceremony...I cried even more during training for the Olympics. Sometimes I was so exhausted after training that I would shut myself in my room and weep."
Serik Konakbayev would have to be content with his silver medal, still a stunning achievement for a Kazakh boxer--the first of its kind. Serik didn't tend to dwell on his defeats anyway,
"I'm happy with all of my fights, regardless of their outcomes. I rarely lost but you've got be able to deal with a defeat with dignity."
An Olympic gold would prove elusive then, but Serik won his second European gold a year later--this time a weight class north of his prior medal-winning display--when he beat Karl-Heinz Kruger of East Germany five votes to nothing.
Serik defeating his Hungarian opponent in European semi-final
Then he received an offer that could have changed his life forever.
Konakbayev vs.....'Sugar' Ray Leonard?!
It's 1981. Serik Konakbayev is one of the best amateur boxers in the world. He has won two European championships, two World Cups, and a silver medal at the previous Olympic Games.
A world away, 'Sugar' Ray Leonard is arguably the best pound-for-pound professional on the planet. In the past year alone he has avenged his lone loss to Roberto Duran, beat up top quality junior middleweight champion Ayub Kalule, and proved himself the world's best welterweight by punching the terrifying Tommy Hearns to a standstill.
Serik Konakbayev was in Ray Leonard's part of the world taking part in one of many USA vs. USSR amateur duels. He claim that after his fight he was approached by some mysterious people. They offered him the chance of a lifetime, to face Leonard in Japan,
"I was considered the best amateur fighter in the world in 1981.During the Soviet amateur boxing team tour over in the US in 1981, some important people approached me and asked me if I would like to face Sugar Ray Leonard."
If the fight seems nonsensical to western readers, Serik was in no doubt as to the intentions of those trying to make the bout happen,
"The meaning of the fight was obvious: Leonard was considered the best (pro) fighter in the world back then. It was supposed to be Capitalism versus Communism."
The deal presented to Serik would have seen the winner take home a Mercedes Benz and a million U.S dollars, but Konakbayev was a fighter who yearned to prove himself as the best fighter in the world and had no care for materialistic gratification. He had failed to win top honours at the Olympics, but with Ray Leonard he saw a chance to get the glory he craved. Not that he cared about winning--He justed wanted the chance to test himself against the best, to see how he would react in such a situation,
"I agreed to face Leonard without hesitation.I didn't care how long the fight would last --three, four or five rounds--All I wanted is to face Leonard in the ring - to test his chin and his liver."
Of course, the communist state did not permit professional boxing. Serik had to ask permission to take the bout, and predictably his requests were turned down by the Soviet Committee of Sports.
The Kazakh legend still rues their decision to this day, saying, "The most disappointing fight of my career was the one that didn't take place."
I have to say that I have never seen any reference to this bout in any Western publications, and it has to be noted that not many fighters have had their career scrutinised as much as Ray Leonard has. No mention of it by Leonard--or any of the major publications at the time--leads me to believe that if there was an offer it wasn't taken serious by Leonard or the American press.
This offer may have instead been an attempt to keep Konakbayev in the United States and to defect from the Soviet Union. As it stands, he went home to ask for permission--and that was never going to fly with the Soviet government.
Serik Konakbayev at least showed willingness to take on a fighter most would say was leagues above him at this time. He would get another chance to fight an American legend a year later.
And this time it was in his own domain.
1982 World Amateur Championships
Years before Sylvester Stallone used Rocky IV as an allegorical tale of 'The Cold War', bouts between the communist states of Cuba and the Soviet Union and the capitalist USA were a very real method of proving each states superiority over one another.
So when Serik Konakbayev took on the best American fighter in the final of the 1982 World Championships it was to establish which school of thought was better.
Konakbayev's opponent in the welterweight title was not at the dizzy heights of popularity he would eventually receive, but he was already an accomplished fighter.
Mark Breland of New York was Konakbayev's polar opposite stylistically. Whereas the Kazakh resembled the Soviet stylists we looked at in part four, Breland was a typical American boxer-puncher--quick hands, big on lateral movement, keeping his work at range and looking to put together flashy combinations.
Not that Breland was a shoe-shiner: He was a devastating offensive force, and had knocked out nearly all of his opponents. He had lost just once as an amateur--a loss he would avenge as a pro--and had already won numerous Golden Gloves tournaments as well as being national champion.
In the first round, both looked for an opening. Serik using his well-cultured left hand to inch closer to the American and Breland shooting his jab to the body. The bout was close until midway through the second round--when this happened,
The Kazakh recovered quickly, but Breland did the more meaningful work, taking the decision and the gold medal and cementing himself as a star.
Despite this victory--and his status as clear favourite to take gold at the 1984 Olympics--Breland's main stumbling block on his way to glory was seen as his old foe from the Soviet Union,
The U.S.S.R.'s Serik Konakbayev could have given Mark Breland of the U.S. a good scrap at 147 pounds--Sports Illustrated, May 1984
Sports Illustrated said could because for Serik Konakbayev--and numerous other Soviet and Cuban talents--there would be no chance for Olympic glory in Los Angeles.
The Soviets had led a boycott, in retaliation for the U.S-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.
Serik Konakbayev never won another major tournament, but left a legacy behind that inspired many boxers.
And their mothers.
Kostya Tszyu, the future world champion amateur and legendary light welterweight professional, was urged into boxing by his mother--who happened to be a big fan of Serik Konakbayev.
It might have helped that Tszyu was a fan himself,
"Serik did some beautiful things in the ring. His boxing was intelligent and aesthetically pleasing"
That it was. A two-time champion of the USSR, two-time European champion, two-time World Cup winner, and silver medals in both the World and Olympic championships, Konakbayev is still lauded today as perhaps the greatest amateur to ever come out of Kazakhstan.
So much so that in 2014 he was appointed vice-president of AIBA--the international governing body of amateur boxing--his influence still being felt in amateur boxing long after he hung up his gloves.
In part six, we will look at the Soviet Union's return to the Olympics in 1988, where a body-punching specialist from Kazakhstan battered the future world heavyweight champion to the mat twice in quick succession.
Mark Breland vs. Serik Konakbayev--Full bout from the 1982 World Amateur Championships