Why the Old Soviet Block of
Nations is having Success in Boxing
Years ago, back in 1977 upon my return from extensive traveling in the world, I
made the bold prediction that upon being allowed to participate in professional
sports, Soviet athletes would be very successful in boxing. Actually I said
they would take over in many divisions, especially the bigger ones. I also
said, and I have been proven right, that kids from the Caribbean and its Central
and South American neighbors would come to make great baseball players and in a
huge way take the jobs of many American big leaguers.
The baseball prediction was a easy one. I noticed that the climate of these
nations was great for all year around baseball playing in which to perfect
skills. Baseball being a sport of motor skills in which you don't have to be a
giant of strength to participate, made it a more even playing field for these
nations of the South that didn't produce alot of "big" people stature wise. I
also saw a love of the game, a love of the playing of the game in the kids down
there that Americans kids were leaving behind. These kids play baseball from
the moment they get up, until the sun goes down. Every empty lot in these
nations has a baseball game going on. I haven't seen that desire to play in the
United States since the fifties. Of course there was another obvious reason-the
kids down there were very hungry and determined, being denied much of the excess
in recreations that are available to kids here.
If I am to explain correctly what has happened in boxing from my point of view,
I need to qualify and explain just what makes the information coming from me
credible and why I was able to obtain this information.
In the later part of the seventies I was able to make quite a bit of money, and
being single with no parents nor wife or children, I was able to spend a
significant part of the next decade traveling around the world and the United
States. Now many people travel and they do so for many different reasons. I
mean to say that they notice different things and seek different things and
experiences. I am about the same as any travelers. I had a purpose in my
travels, but I sought it in a unusual way. I never stayed in the expensive
hotels nor did I seek to congregate in the areas that visitors do. I myself,
stayed in the cities amongst the people. I sought to walk amongst them,
socialize amongst the sometimes poorest of them and get a true beat on what was
in the hearts and minds and bodies of its people.
Being a student of history, I wanted to recreate in my mind the significant
events in history and see the places and the ancestors of the peoples involved.
That was very very thrilling to me and very romantic. Next I was a passionate
lover of boxing and being so I always traveled with a eye for boxing and its
potential in the people I viewed. I had a very keen eye for the virility and
machismo in men that boxing requires, the conditions socially and physically so
to speak. The third thing that interested me was girls and looking at them in
all their different shapes and forms. But that's for another article and
explanation that has no place here. Lets talk boxing.
Back in the days when I was coming up in Chicago and I'm sure the case was much
the same in all the major cities of The United States, boxing was a major
sport. It was even more so of course in the twenties and thirties and forties,
but still in the fifties and early sixties boxing was very strong in
popularity. There were many gyms where guys could box and learn to box and more
qualified guys to teach it. Much more so than today. More important though,
there was much more boxing material around then there is today.
" Boxing material"? Now just what is" boxing material"?
Boxing material. It is men and teens who are qualified physically to train very
hard, to discipline themselves for a cause, having the courage to put their
bodies on the line in a physical fight, the hunger and sometimes desperation to
put years of themselves into this pursuit, and coming from a environment that
raises males in a attitude of physical and moral virtue. It also most of the
time is a environment devoid of economic opportunity.
You take that "material", put it in a gym to learn and develop, and add
excellent teachers-Bamm! You're gonna have good boxers.
I know there are exceptions, but for the most part this building of a man who is
boxing material starts when one is quite young.
What I am about to describe as attitudes and environment of the American big
cities of my youth, I'm sure guys my age and older will co-sign and recognize.
The cities then were full of boys who "honored" fighting and courage. They
honored the marshall qualities of the armed forces of the nation. They usually
settled arguments with their fists and usually were honored for doing so, both
winner and loser. Physical courage was developed and honored, no kid wanted to
back down from a fight. There were weapons of course of sorts, but nothing
compared to the advanced guns kids carry today in our inner cities.
Gun violence then was mostly limited to older people.
Any open spot in the neighborhood was filled with kids running around, playing
games, and the kids knew how to chose up sides in what they needed to chose in a
intelligent fashion. Most of the kids ate what their mothers prepared for them,
few of them knew what "fast" food was, and most guys were in their prime youth
also hardly ever out of shape or obese. Most of the kids were wide eyed,
healthy, aggressive, born of mothers who knew nothing of drug addiction and
other bad habits common to the girls of today. It told of good stock, good
breeding, and masculine quality. Poverty and low income was mostly the norm and
none of the kids were spoiled or thought life owed them. They knew they had to
go get it.
The mass drug use, open sexuality, easy access to money and soft living and
overeating just wasn't there. The culture on the street was a masculine one.
I'm sure if the traps of today were there the kids of the fifties and early
sixties would have fallen prey to it, but it just wasn't there and available to
the poorer people and their children.
The harder conditions that I describe were even more pronounced in this nation
in the twenties, thirties and forties.
Now you add to these hard conditions, plenty of boxing gyms and trainers and
teachers of the sport, and access to watching the greats of the past and you
have the conditions in which "boxing material" can develop. You will have young
men who have the deep desire to be the greatest fighters in the world. Keep
that in mind.
Lets get back to my traveling. I was disappointed in what I found in Western
Europe. Considering the qualities one looks for in boxing material it was very
weak. Take away some of the working class slums of England, Ireland and West
Germany, the conditions and spirit needed in the youth to produce boxers just
wasn't there. These nations of Western Europe were aspiring and obtaining a
high standard of living and the evidence of a affluent and soft lifestyle was
every where. The effeminine culture that has gripped the males of America was
pronounced in those nations.
People in Western Europe, like in the United States were seeking pleasure and
obtaining it. I saw none of the marshall qualities needed in the people to
produce fighters. In fact any warlike nation coming forward could blow hard and
take it over. Like I said there was the old spirit in parts of England, Ireland
and West Germany, but these were exceptions. If fighters were going to come out
of Western Europe, it was going to be from the big immigration and hunger coming
there from other countries. But this was as yet undeveloped.
Being half Italian and being very proud of the records of the great Italian
American boxers this nation has developed I was kind of disappointed from a
boxing standpoint even in our beloved Italy. The poverty that bore my Mother
and the other immigrants that came to the United States was not there anymore.
It was a new generation, upwardly mobile, affluent, educated and desiring of
privilege. I didn't sense the kids in Italy on the whole wanted to box anymore.
Before I go on I want to make it clear that just because the conditions didn't
exist in these nations that make great boxers didn't mean that athletically they
were backward. They weren't at all. The stuff for track and field, basketball,
tennis, soccer, etc etc etc were all there and they were developing in those
terms. Much like this nation still developed athletes of great talent in many
sports other than boxing. But again I say, boxing is a special sport, special
in the conditions that create it and special in the men who participate. You
either believe this or you don't; But I do....
The next group of nations I visited were in the Middle East. The genes were
there for good fighters, the people were hungry, the kids aggressive and tough,
but the culture was a mercantile one and with a non sports Islamic bent. The
men were strong and would fight you, but the lifestyle was not one that was a
athletic one. Like Africa, the potential was there, but not the athletic
conditions, the gyms, the teachers. People were poor but boxing was not seen as
a way out. They seemed to aspire to sell things. It was cultural. I also
noticed in talking to the people that they saw combat with weapons and the
newest guns as a common thing. Nobody wanted to fight with fists, it was guns.
I spent time in Afghanistan and the men were very tough with a determined,
unspoiled air about them. I sensed a warrior code and tradition that of course
now the whole world knows about, but it was Medieval and war instead of sports
drove the men. The desire to own guns and to use them was even more pronounced
Pakistan and India had little in sports tradition, especially boxing and I
sensed no drive in either people to fight. The poverty was there amongst the
teeming masses, but no athletics was in the minds of the people. Here as in the
Middle East the culture was religious and mercantile, especially India. The
people there were very civilized and desirous to move forward and I don't deny
that someday they will be the driving force in the world. But never in boxing.
The Far Eastern Oriental nations I visited of course encourages one to see many
lighter weight fighters. The people are slim and hard and would become good
boxers given the opportunity and teaching. The Chinese are starting to produce
at the Olympic level and it wouldn't surprise me to see them dominate in the
lower classes some day. The discipline and the bodies are there. Yet boxing as
of yet doesn't come naturally to them. It has to be taught for their traditions
are not a warlike one but one that seems to educate and be educated.
Iran was a interesting nation. The stock of people was a healthy one and there
was tons of young men. At the time I went there The Shah was in power so there
was a huge gap between rich and poor and there was plenty of poor. I saw plenty
of reason to be optimistic that boxers could be developed there given the
training and gyms and there still might be if the sport catches on. The
strongest heavyweight weightlifter in the world today is a Iranian and it
doesn't surprise me. The women were very clean and the base was there to
develop strong people if they could throw off a oppressive leadership.
I had traveled alot at this point, but still I hadn't seen the future in
boxing as of yet.
Being half Armenian by my Fathers blood and having relatives there in Soviet
Georgia I inquired about obtaining a visa to visit there. I hadn't figured on
going there at first, although I had in the past a desire to see Armenia. But I
knew these were Communist nations and being a ex felon I figured I never could
get a visa. It was strict back then. But I got a break.
It seems my Father's Sister Sonia had married a Judge and moved to Armenia.
Being a Judge and a loyal Communist he was very connected. There like here
"connections" count big time! One, two, three I was able to get a visa and with
that connection I was able to move quite freely, leave the nation and come back,
and that way I met hundreds of people and saw what I wanted.
Being young I was able to meet a very attractive girl of Russian blood who was a
dancer with a folk group and through her and my family I met many, many young
people and was able to get the information I needed.
Now the Soviet Union is a huge, huge place. I mean you could put four United
States in it. To them, THEY are the center of the Earth. I mean to Russians,
its Russia that has the best, the biggest, the most pride, the eye of the tiger
of the human race so to speak. We watched John Wayne movies here in the States
and we figure we won the big war, but don't tell the Soviet people that; They
won the war with the blood of 30,000,000 people. They had the marshall pride in
their army and their history that I noticed in the young guys of the fifties.
Their parents won the big war and they had that pride, like my generation did.
I liked that quality.
Walking around the streets of the Soviet Union the first thing I was struck by
was the healthy looks of the people. I was all over that big nation, Russia,
Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Kazakastan, and it was the
same everywhere. The girls had that rosy cheeked, clear eyed look and the men
had that strong eye and the countenance of health.
It was then while I noticed the lifestyles of the young and old that I saw the
damage that drugs, loose sex, and fast food was doing to the youth of America.
The kids here in the States were like little "adults". They overate, chased sex
and drugs, and were soft. Even in the poor neighborhoods of the big cities of
America the lifestyle was soft. No kids worked hard labor jobs any more, kids
chased drugs, sex was available, and even the girls lived the unclean lifestyles
that in the past was only available to men. They grew up fast and were getting
wore out fast. Kids didn't resort to fists and fighting to settle disputes.
They were too wore out and jaded. It was all guns now. The virility to fight
and work hard was not there any more. The gyms of the big cities were not full
of boxers anymore. IT was basketball. Nobody seemed hungry to get hit in the
face and learn to box.
It was even different in the prisons I was in. The first time I was in prison
in the sixties you had a fistfight every day between men. Guys were fast and
virile and tried to escape constantly. No more. Drugs were the pursuit and
weapons and cowardly attacks settled disputes. The manhood to settle fights
fairly was lacking. We had a demoralized populace when it came to boxing. The
people weren't hungry, there was too much plenty, life was too soft, the culture
was not a masculine one any more. Even our poor were rich compared to the rest
of the world. The conditions needed to produce Dempsey's and Louis's and Ali's
It was easy to understand, and I had thought about it in the past. In the early
part of this century times were hard, men worked from early years at labor
jobs. Women were much more moral and inclined to chastity, protected from the
ugly side of life. Guys fought it out as teens and walked away without
resorting to a weapon. The population was vital and healthy and poor. The
combination of clean vitality, health and poverty led to the type of spirit and
hunger that produced men who would in large numbers turn to boxing to find a way
It isn't like that anymore in the States, but it was in the old Soviet Union.
They were behind us about fifty years; Bad for consumers but excellent for
producing boxing material.
I visited many boxing gyms in the old Soviet Union. They were full of hungry
kids who watched, learned, participated and were full of the courage of
warriors. Remember they were doing all of this with NO boxing history to lean
on. They had no boxing heroes of their own and were cut off from Western boxing
history. They couldn't emulate Louis, Dempsey, Robinson, Johnson, etc cause
they didn't know who they were! What they wanted to show was strength, power,
courage and toughness. My God, the material was there like no place else, given
good coaches, to produce good boxers!
I was astounded to see how hard these boxers trained. Ten miles a day roadwork,
half hour sessions on the heavy bag, plenty of sparring and hard work with
sledgehammers. They were neither cowed nor feared of anything in that ring. I
knew that given professional conditions that they would develop great fighters
and have even greater success in the pro game than the amateur game. Why is
that? Well I'll explain....
The mindset in the Soviet Republics I visited, along with the Eastern Bloc
Slavic nations is much much different than here in the States and Western Europe
and South America. Athletic qualities that are admired and desired is much
The Western nations appreciate speed, jumping, flashy execution. The athletes
we admire are full of those qualities, the Jordons, Ali's, Leonards, Namaths,
Woods, Ryans, etc. But the Eastern Bloc respected above all strength, power,
endurance, courage. They strove to obtain these qualities above all. Look at
the strength events in the World Championship events like wrestling,
weightlifting, hammer throw, discus, etc and you'll see a Eastern European
domination. It was the manly virtue above all that all the young boys strove
Ask the average man in Moscow who Ray Leonard was or Mike Jordon and he wasn't
much interested, but they knew and admired American athletes like Paul Anderson,
the legendary strongman, or Dan Gable the wrestling champion. Show them
strength, power, and endurance. Show them you are the biggest, the strongest,
the most powerful and they will pay attention. At the time of my visit the
strongest man in the world was Vasily Alexaev the gigantic weightlifter and he
was easily the most popular athlete in Russia. The most popular athlete in
Armenia was Yurik Vardanyan, perhaps the greatest weightlifter ever born. See
what I mean. No weightlifter has ever gained big popularity in the States.
Study World War Two and read the interviews of the German generals who fought
against the Soviets and the West. To a man they thought the Soviet solders
superior because of their physical capacity to ENDURE, their willingness to
fight to the death rather than quit, their humbleness to take orders. Good
qualities in boxers. I saw these qualities in the people there in spades.
Mentally they were bred to endure and suffer and outlast their opponents. The
tradition in Russian literature to endure suffering to strengthen and build the
"Russian Soul" was not a joke. It was very very real to the people and they
approach life like that very uncomplaining.
The amateur boxing game was a three round effort and the Soviet athletes did
well, but I knew the 10 round and 12 round professional contests were made for
them. They would do much better at the professional level. Given the longer
distance the flash and razzle dazzle of the western boxers trying to emulate
their heroes could and would be overcome by the hard training and hard mindset
and endurance of the Soviet athletes. They were mind set and made to fight to
the finish. The sacrifice needed to win had been bred in them. They knew they
had to work and work hard to be victorious and they had the hunger to pay the
price in boxing.
In other words, I saw very few spoiled athletes. They were hungry and willing
to work very hard to succeed. It only made sense that as the world grew smaller
for them and they had the chance to see Ray Robinson, Joe Frazier, Rocky
Marciano, Jack Johnson, Carlos Monzon, Bob Foster and others that they would
only get better. They would work hard to emulate what they saw, much as the
modern foreign basketball players have gotten better watching the greats of the
Western past. Let their trainers learn from ours, let them get a bite of
success in applying their qualities matched against the qualities of the weaker,
poorer trained fighters being developed here, and you'd see them work even
harder. You'd see the millions of poor kids over there sense a chance to make a
living fighting and they would swarm to learn to box. It didn't take a genius
to see this.
I once heard Emmanuel Steward say that the Soviet athletes have done so well
because they start boxing so young and learn fundamentals, where our guys get
rushed into the pros and don't develop completely. That is partly true, but it
is also true that at a young age these boys learn and are bred to the marshall
qualities needed by boxers to be successful.
There is one more reason that these athletes are doing so well. It is a deadly
We here in the States are not big on history. We have short memories about
wars. Why? Well for the most part the wars weren't fought here. We in the big
cities of industrial America don't realize really what war does to the
I never realized what the Civil War meant until I bummed around the South as a
young man. I never realized the loss of young manhood, how many women went
without husbands because so many young men had been killed, how it was the best
of men that died. These men, the best of the race didn't get the chance to make
babies. In essence the race lost the best of its next generation. Eastern
Europe had this curse to the maximum.
Consider 15,000,000 dead in World War One, 12,000,000 in the Russian revolution,
30,000,000 dead in World War Two. How many millions died in starvation nobody
really knows. How many of these were the best of the generation you can guess.
The result was a lack of men, a lack of young men, a destruction of the best of
the nation. No nation can not suffer in its production of first class athletes
given that disadvantage.
Take the case of Armenia for example. Today Armenia has about 2,500,000
people. Out of that they produce two world champions and several contenders in
the sport of professional boxing. Yet in this century this tiny nation has lost
over a million people in World War One, 300,000 in World War Two, and about
100,000 in a devastating earthquake. Given this catastrophe they still produce
champions in several sports like weightlifting, tennis, wrestling, gymnastics,
and boxing. But think how much more they could have produced given no wars and
insane loss of people to violence.
All of the nations of the Eastern Bloc suffered such in this century, and they
all could have produced many more great champions given peace instead of war in
the last century.
Given these facts, its easy to sight as another reason for the recent success in
athletics of Eastern Europe is the fact that they have had relative peace for
the last fifty years or so. The flowers of the generation is not being killed
and they are again producing the manhood that national selection would warrant.
This is very important if not understood in the United States. The loss of the
best men to war and the inability of these men to produce babies has to effect
the number of athletic men available to box.
I understood and the facts warranted this conclusion, that the people of these
Eastern nations were bred for hard work, strength, power, and endurance. Under
the old non-professional code of the Communists a man with these attributes was
just as apt to become a wrestler or weightlifter or a gymnast as a boxer. Why
not? It all paid the same anyway. But with professional sports and the lure of
money shining the way to these athletes bred to fight and train hard, I just
knew that they would gravitate towards boxing. I also knew that the ten round
plus limits would show their particular attributes much more strongly than the
The heavyweight and light heavyweight classes I knew would be loaded with top
guys from the Eastern Bloc. Why? Well its easy to answer. No matter how many
guys from say Thailand want to box its not going to be easy to create too many
great heavyweights. They, as a race, don't get that big. Mexico is a great
example of this. They as a nation, have been the leaders in the lower classes
in producing champions, far and away. Yet they don't and haven't produced that
great heavyweight champ as of yet. They just don't produce as a race or
nationality, that many heavyweight men in structure. But not so the Soviet
I saw many many men in all the republics I visited who would be light heavies or
heavies in structure. They had many bodies to choose from of this large
stature. Look at todays top heavies, Liahovich from Belarus, Valuev and
Povetkin from Russia, Maskaev from Kazakistan, and the Klitchkos from Ukraine as
champs and Ibrahimov and Chagaev from Uzbekistan for example. I saw this
clearly and the future will bear it out even more, with the recent success of
these men. All of these men will inspire others to try their luck.
I understand that critics will say that these Soviet trained fighters are tough
and endure and are powerful, but they lack the "moves" and fluidity of the great
American fighters of the past. This may be true, but only true of this present
generation of fighters. The upcoming generation will have the access to the
American past and will learn from our methods. You'll see, in my opinion, that
great heavyweight coming from the East who will rest comfortably with the greats
of the past. That day will come.
I have always believed that fighters are made from birth and environment first
and then in the gyms with hard work. It wasn't hard for me to see that the
Communist nations I visited and the men I saw, had both things going for them
and given the opportunity would dominate some day over the fighters from the
softer work ethics and lifestyles of the West. I made that statement years ago
upon return to the United States and you are seeing it now.
Remember that John L. Sullivan was champion of the world that boxed, as was Jack
Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali. But that
world didn't include nations that just might have produced guys, given the same
opportunity that would have been champion instead. The fighters from Eastern
Europe and the old Soviet Union are getting their chances now and are gaining
championships. It is their backgrounds and training methods that are gaining
the victory. Maybe the time will come, as in distance running where the Western
runners now try to learn the training methods of the Kenyans and Moroccans,
where the boxing trainers of the West need to learn from the East. But again,
in my opinion its not enough. Its lifestyle and culture and we have fallen back
from producing what makes great fighters, maybe too far back to ever get up
again. We'll see.
The majority of the population of these Eastern Bloc nations is still quite
rural, at least for now. It is changing, but slowly. That means that the
rapidly changing cities don't exactly reach the majority of the populations with
its decaying moral atmosphere.
Of course things don't last forever nor conditions. The Western "pop" culture
which is effeminine with its men wearing earrings, men dancing like girls and
moving their private parts like strippers, and dress codes that hardly matter is
reaching the youth of these nations along with boxing opportunity. What will
happen there is anybodies guess in the future. People are people and conditions
make them. But for now the generations there are inheriting the old Soviet
culture in athletics and it will show in the boxing ring.