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The Russians (and members of former Soviet Republics) are Coming

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Actually, they’re already here and have been for some time.  It is just that the American dominated boxing universe prefers not to draw more attention to the fact than is absolutely necessary.  The likes of the hermanos Klitschko and Gennady Golovkin aside, the American boxing public gives about as much respect to old Eastern Bloc fighters as Apollo Creed afforded Ivan Drago back in 1985.  And we all know how that ended.

Twenty one different men hold belts of varying value and hue in the top five weight divisions today.  A third of them were either born in the USSR or, in the case of cruiserweight Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, arrived struggling out from behind the iron curtain in the Soviet controlled People’s Republic of Poland.  To put that figure in perspective, only three Americans (Hopkins, Ward and Quillan) are champions in said divisions.

Apart from Wlodarczyk, three of the seven champions I speak of, Lebedev (cruiser), Kovalev (light heavy) and Chudinov (middle), hail from Russia, two, Kiltschko (heavy) and Kashtanov (super middle), are Ukrainian and GGG (middle) is from Kazakhstan.

You can drop down the weight classes and still find Russian champions in Ruslan Provodnikov at light welter and Evgeny Gradovich at featherweight.  Gradovich fighting at 126 lbs is a particularly strange case however.  His father is still nervously awaiting the results of a paternity test on his son who carries the moniker the Russian Mexican.  Either Mrs Gradovich got carried away on her trip to Acapulco 28 years ago or it is going to emerge that Evgeny is actually only 13 years old and will compete in the heavyweight division when he is fully grown.

On the basis that the average Russian baby is born struggling to make weight for a flyweight bout, it is always going to be from middleweight upwards that they shine while leaving Latin American and Asian fighters dominate the lower divisions.

So where is the love?

It should be said that Golovkin is already a recognised bona fide star on his way to almost mythical status thanks to having the heaviest hands in the business right now.  Ruslan has also built up a bit of a cult following thanks to his recent heroic wins and defeats.  And although it took the Klitschko family around 100 fights to achieve it, they too were finally granted a modicum of respect and acknowledgement for their achievements in the ring.

The majority of their Eastern European brothers remain largely anonymous however.  Of the seven current title holders I mentioned above, only Klitschko and GGG appear in the top 30 of Boxrec’s respected pound for pound list.  Thirty one year old Carlos Molina, victorious in only 75% of his 29 bouts and with a pitiful 20% KO rate, is an example of who is in ahead of the rest.  Ahead of the likes of the unbeaten Kovalev who with an 88% KO rate is almost as devastating as Golovkin.

Something seems off to me.  So aside from a lingering cold war hangover, an inability to forgive Ivan Drago, or trouble pronouncing their names, what other reasons could there be for these boxers not being brighter lights in the sport they are a credit to?  I believe that Adrien “the Problem” Broner is the perfect case study to answer that question.

Until he was unceremoniously bludgeoned to a comprehensive defeat by Marcos Maidana last year, Broner was sitting pretty in Ring Magazine’s P4P top 10 and regarded as the heir apparent to Floyd Mayweather.  With hindsight, his heralding as the next big thing was so premature as to be untrue.  Of course he is a decent fighter, but the next Floyd?  No chance.

So what was Broner doing in the P4P lists and why was he the talk of the boxing world while ex-Soviet bloc title holders remained completely unheard of and relatively untouched by the boxing press or media?  I’ll posit three reasons: style, marketing and opponents.

Firstly, deserved or not, eastern Europeans cannot shake off the old cliché that they are hands high, upright, technical, stiff fighters more suited to an episode of robot wars than a title fight in Vegas.  Fans often make a subconscious judgement on a fighter’s worth or attractiveness based on nationality (TQBR guide here) and if you’re not a super slick American or a rugged warrior from Latin America, you’ll struggle more to be given a chance to enter hearts or minds.

Secondly, a lack of English and a tendency to be more reserved in public makes them harder to sell in today’s boxing world where appointments with HBO to record 24/7 and Face Off are fast becoming as important as sparring in the build-up to a fight.  The loud, brash, arrogant and ignorant Broner on the other hand is a PR man’s dream.

Finally, every good boxer builds his record fighting relative bums in their comfort zone.  This is true all over the world but it is clear that an American superiority complex, admittedly born from an undeniable fact that the country hosts the vast majority of world class operators, has decreed that an American bum is worth more than a European bum. Broner was given more credit than he deserved in his first 20 bouts while a guy doing the same while learning his trade in the UK or Germany will be dismissed until he proves himself Stateside.

Clearly then, it is a tougher climb to reach the peak of boxing when setting off from Moscow, Kiev or Karaganda than Michigan, Ohio or New York.  But perhaps once there, you are more reluctant to descend.  Wladimir Klitschko is the second longest reigning heavyweight champion in history with 16 defences under his belt.  America needs to get used to it.  Some of these Russians may well be around for many more years to come.

 

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