Top Ten Soviet Fighters

By Jarrett Zook on April 21, 2014
Top Ten Soviet Fighters
Tszyu was the greatest pound-for-pound fighter to come out of the former Soviet Union.

Putin’s resource misallocation and drive to lord over Eastern Europe remind me of a time in the not so distant past in which the USSR existed…

Vladimir Putin has certainly put Russia in the news. The overwhelming majority of this publicity has been negative. This is no case of media misattribution though, as Putin rules his land with an iron fist. Many in his country struggle, yet he spent an exorbitant among of money to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Additionally, despite the admonishment of the international community he continues to occupy part of Ukraine. Putin’s resource misallocation and drive to lord over Eastern Europe remind me of a time in the not so distant past. That time period of course is one in which the USSR existed. As a boxing fan this train of thought caused me to start thinking about who the best fighters to come out of the Soviet Union are. Thus, I have compiled a list of the top ten pound-for-pound boxers born in the former Soviet Union (amateur only careers not included).

10. Artur Grigorian (Armenian born in Uzbekistan) 38-1 (23 kayos)

The reason Grigorian makes this list is simply due to the length of time for which he held the WBO lightweight title. He won the vacant title in 1996 by beating the unremarkable Antonio Rivera and would hold it for seven years and eight months. This long title reign consisted of seventeen defenses over some very mediocre opponents of whom the best were merely fringe contenders. He even struggled in close decision wins over nondescript foes like Antonio Pitalua, Stefano Zoff, and Matt Zegan. Eventually Grigorian’s luck would run out and he was defeated by Acelino Freitas by wide decision in 2004. Freitas was by far the most notable opponent that Grigorian had ever faced in his career. However, he was likely far removed from his prime as he was thirty-six and no matter how cushy, a seven-plus year title run would likely be draining to some extent. Additionally, Grigorian was dominant until his fight with Pitalua in November of 2000. Thus, it isn’t completely unreasonable to assume that he may have been fresher in the first four and a half years of his reign. Be that as it may none of his opposition was nearly good enough to justify moving him further up this list and longevity can only get you so far.

9. Arthur Abraham (Armenia) 39-4 (28 kayos)

The name Arthur Abraham will not conjure images of greatness for most boxing fans. His recent sluggish performances in the Super Six Super Middleweight Tournament endeared himself to no one. As hard as it may be to believe, before the start of the tournament he was one of the favorites to win and was an undefeated long reigning middleweight champ. From when he won the title in 2005 to 2009 he defended his IBF title ten times. This included a hard fought decision victory against Edison Miranda where he gutted out a broken jaw. This broken jaw was later avenged when he stopped Miranda in four rounds in a catchweight bout. At the time Miranda was considered a top contender and Abraham was quickly gaining the esteem of the boxing community. Abraham’s veil of invincibility wouldn’t last forever though and after knocking out Jermain Taylor, he lost three of his next four fights. All three defeats were convincing and were against the best opposition he has faced. Thus, the ceiling on his career was revealed and it became evident that he wasn’t an all-time great. While he may be limited he has continued to find some success and recently recaptured the WBO super middleweight title with a victory over Robert Stieglitz in their rubber match. Capturing titles in two weight classes and having a long reign in one is enough to justify his position on this list.

8. Sergey Kovalev (Russia) 23-0-1 (21 kayos)

In the not so distant future Kovalev may rapidly rise to near the top of this list. This aggressive power-punching Russian makes his opponents wonder what is so sweet about the “sweet science.” He currently holds the WBO light heavyweight title and has absolutely massacred some decent adversaries. In 2013 he won the title by knocking out the previously undefeated Nathan Cleverly in four rounds and it took only three rounds for him to destroy the clever ex-WBA light heavyweight champ, Gabriel Campillo. While he holds some decent victories he needs some wins against truly marquee opponents to move further up in my rankings. This is by no means his fault, as his career is young and it takes time for the right fights to be made. Hopefully, a fight with fellow heavy hitter Adonis Stevenson will get made someday, though it now seems unlikely. It’s a fight boxing fans are hungry for and it could do a lot to enhance Kovalev’s legacy. 

7. Gennady Golovkin (Kazakhstan) 29-0 (26 kayos)

Golovkin, like Kovalev, has a great chance rise up this list as his career progresses. With a gold medal at the 2003 world championships and silver at the Athens Olympics his professional debut was highly anticipated. Since the very onset of his career Golovkin has shown his superior pedigree and has destroyed opponent after opponent. In fact, currently he has won sixteen straight fights by knockout and has held the WBA middleweight title since 2010. He overwhelms combatants with relentless powerful combinations and moves much faster than your typical plodding puncher. His biggest problem so far is that he has been unable to land bouts with the top fighters in the middleweight division. It seems as if he is blameless in this matter as promoters control such things and many are likely scared of throwing their prized ponies in with him. Golovkin cannot move up much farther until he’s further tested. But if he is truly great his time will eventually come and he could be number one on this list someday.

6. Vassily Jirov (Kazakhstan) 38-3-1 (32 kayos)

Big things were expected from Jirov after he won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. After two and a half years as a pro and at the age of twenty-five he had compiled an undefeated record of 20-0 against the typical fodder prospects are fed. Thus, in June of 1999 it was deemed that it was time for him to sink or swim and he was matched against respectable, but not great, cruiserweight titleholder Arthur Williams. Jirov swam strongly and knocked out his first live opponent in seven rounds. Following this victory Jirov made six defenses against the typical mediocre opponents that proliferate boxing’s perhaps least heralded division. Jirov would lose his title in 2003 against the great slickster James Toney. While the scorecards were wide the fight was tough, entertaining, and more competitive than the scorecards indicate. Following this defeat Jirov moved to the heavyweight division and lost an extremely close and controversial decision to rising contender Joe Mesi. In fact, this fight effectively ended Mesi’s bid for the heavyweight crown as Mesi suffered two subdural hematomas in the bout and would never again fight a respectable foe. Unfortunately, Jirov did nothing worth writing about following his classic scrap with Baby Joe. While he’s no hall of famer, Jirov had a solid career and acquitted himself well in some big fights.

5. Orzubek Nazarov (Kyrgyzstan) 26-1 (19 kayos)

Orzubek Nazarov is certainly an obscure name even to the most diehard of boxing fans. Nazarov like many before him thrived in the unpaid ranks under the Soviet system and the lightweight won a bronze medal at the 1985 world amateur championships and a gold in the European championships. However, unlike many before him he would have the chance to turn pro due to the dissolution of the USSR. Undoubtedly grateful for the opportunity Nazarov showed the western world that ex-Soviet fighters could thrive in the pro ranks. In 1993 he traveled to South Africa to challenge solid WBA champion Dignaan Thobela and pulled out a decision win. After beating Thobela by a wider decision in a rematch, Nazarov went on to defend his title five more times and held it until 1998. Over the course of his reign he destroyed former titlist Joey Gamache and future titlist Leavander Johnson. His final defense and fight was a fairly competitive decision loss suffered against the pretty good French fighter Jean Paul Mendy. What many don’t know, though, is that Nazarov had been suffering from left eye problems going into the fight and was thumbed in that very eye in the third round. This tragic accident tore his retina, ended his career, and left him all but blind in his left eye.

4. Vic Darchinyan (Armenia) 39-6-1 (28 kayos)

At the moment, Vic Darchinyan is merely a fringe contender at best. He has lost three of his last five bouts and the two bouts he won weren’t against fighters who will do much to enhance his legacy. Thus, for some it may come as a great surprise that the somewhat limited Armenian brawler rates so highly on this list. But Darch is thirty eight years old and most of his losses have come in bouts fought above his best fighting weight. While fighting in the flyweight and junior bantamweight divisions Darchinyan was an absolute terror. He won the IBF flyweight title by destroying Irene Pacheco, who was undefeated and had held the title for over five year. Darchinyan then defended the title six times (five by knockout) before running into the then unheralded Nonito Donaire. The diminutive Filipino shook the boxing establishment and destroyed the highly regarded Darchinyan by virtue of a fifth round TKO.

Vic wouldn’t let this setback derail his career though and he moved up to junior bantamweight. Initially he struggled a little and was held to a draw with the respectable, but unremarkable, Z Gorres. But he soon found his footing and won the IBF title by knocking out Dmitry Kirillov. Following this victory Darchinyan unified titles in an impressive stoppage win over Cristian Mijares and successfully defended them by destroying fellow slugger Jorge Arce. After these wins the pint sized “Raging Bull” wanted to see if he could fry the bigger fish and stepped up to face IBF bantamweight champ Joseph Agbeko. Darch was game as always, but came up short as he’s prone to being outboxed and his power wasn’t as great at a higher weight class. Following this defeat Darchinyan won some more fights before trying his hand against highly regarded bantamweight Abner Mares. Darchinyan was to lose by close decision for much of the same reasons he lost the fight with Agbeko. Following this defeat Darchiyhan scored his biggest bantamweight victory by beating Yohnny Perez by decision over five rounds. This would prove to be the last big win of Darchinyan’s career as he was to come short in other bouts fought above the junior bantamweight limit.

3. Yuri Arbachakov (Russia) 23-1 (16 kayos)

Arbachov was allowed to leave USSR as part of the Perestroika program that helped to break apart the Soviet Union. Along with Orzubek Nazarov, Arbachakov joined the Kyoei boxing gym in Japan. The gold medalist at the 1989 amateur championships proved very ready for the pro ranks and captured the WBC flyweight title by only his thirteenth fight. What’s more impressive is that the victory came by eighth round knockout against the tough Muangchai Kittikasem. In addition to holding a flyweight belt Kittikasem was also a former light flyweight titlist, whose only previous career loss came at the hands of Michael Carbajal. Oftentimes when a fighter beats another tough fighter it signifies that a long reign is about to come and this was certainly the case with Arbachakov. For five and a half years Arbachakov held the WBC title and defended it nine times. The talent pool is often low in boxing’s lightest weight classes, many titleholders have found it easy to defend against stiffs and admittedly Yuri faced some. However, he did beat Kittikasem in a rematch as well as ring magazine rated top ten contenders Ysias Zamudio, Yun-Un Chin, and Chatchai Sasakul. In November of 1997 though, the long reign came to an end as he lost by decision in a rematch against Sasakul. The Sasakul rematch came after a fifteen-month layoff that was induced by a right hand injury in a previous title defense. This as well as age (though he was only thirty-one lighter weight fighters often age more quickly) may have contributed to him being defeated by a fighter he was once able to beat.

2. Wladimir/Vitali Klitschko (Ukrainian born in Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan) 61-3 (51 kayos) /45-2 (41 kayos)

Okay it’s a little cheap and I have written an article about how Vitali would beat Wlad, but when it comes down to career accomplishments they’ve practically mirrored each other. This trend not surprisingly started in the amateurs where both were very successful. Vitali won silver in the 1995 super heavyweight amateur championships and was slated to fight in the 1996 Olympics. Unfortunately for him, Vitali tested positive for a steroid that he claims was present due to drug treatment for a leg injury. Luckily for Ukraine, however, Wladimir was able to step in and bring home the gold that his brother had a good chance of winning. The hulking brothers then started their pro careers on the very same card and both won by early knockout.  Like many prospects throughout the history of boxing the two brothers ransacked fighter after fighter, winning most by early knockout. Wladimir was the first to falter though as he gassed himself out against journeymen Ross Puritty and lost by eleventh round knockout.

While his brother faltered, Vitali kept rolling along and captured the WBO title by destroying Herbie Hide in two rounds. Only ten months after this victory, Vitali would taste his first defeat at the hands of the light hitting Chris Byrd. Dr. Ironfist was dominating his opponent, but was forced to stop due to a shoulder injury. After the Puritty defeat, Wladimir resumed his unstoppable ways and was well positioned for a title shot. Thus, he was eager to step in with Chris Byrd and keep the WBO title in Klitschko hands. Wlad was able to destroy the diminutive Byrd and held the title for three years until he was upset by Corrie Sanders. This time it was big brother Vitali’s time to avenge his sibling’s defeat and he methodically destroyed the hard hitting South African by eighth round knockout. Following this victory in 2004 and until his last fight in 2012, Vitali dominated the heavyweight division. Additionally, following the Sanders debacle Wladimir had only one setback against Lamon Brewster (which he later avenged) and continues to dominate the heavyweight division to this very day.

1. Kostya Tszyu (Russia) 31-2 (25 kayos)

Finally, it’s come time to introduce the best professional fighter to be born in the Soviet Union, Kostya Tszyu. The “Thunder from Down Under” had an inauspicious introduction to boxing. His father took him to a gym to release energy since he was a hyperactive child. This proved to be a wise move as Tszyu became an extraordinarily decorated amateur and won gold medals in both the European and World championships in 1991. He relocated to Australia after turning pro in 1992 and it took only three years for him to capture the IBF light welterweight title. In his first title run he blew out his first four challengers by convincing knockout before being upset by Vince Phillips. This shocking loss was only a temporary setback though and he emerged stronger than ever. His second light welterweight reign began when he captured the title the vacant WBC title by taking out Diosbelys Hurtado in five rounds. During Tszyu’s second title run he would truly establish his supremacy in the light welterweight division. He held the title for six and a half years, made nine defenses, and unified titles. In this second glorious reign Tszyu knocked out Sharmba Mitchell twice, quickly destroyed Zab Judah in epic fashion, knocked out the tough Miguel Angel Gonzalez, annihilated Jesse James Leija, and beat the famous Julio Cesar Chavez (albeit a very old version). Most of the other fighters Kosyta faced during this period were also contenders and he won against all pretty convincingly. However, fighters age and the good times too often end by crushing defeat. Three months shy of is thirty-sixth birthday Tszyu was overwhelmed by a hungry (no pun intended) Ricky Hatton. This moment represented the peak of Hatton’s career as he defeated the greatest pound-for-pound fighter to come out of the former Soviet Union.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Acelino Freitas vs Artur Grigorian

Sergey Kovalev Vs Ismayl Sillakh

Gennady Golovkin's Greatest Hits (HBO Boxing)

James Toney vs Vassiliy Jirov (High Quality)

Orzubek Nazarov vs Leavander Johnson

Vic Darchinyan vs Cristian Mijares [Full Fight]

Yuri Arbachakov vs Chatchai Sasakul

Wladimir Klitschko vs David Haye HBO)

Vitali Klitschko vs Dereck Chisora

Zab Judah vs Kostya Tyszu

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  1. Rocky 09:47am, 01/20/2015

    Putin is an ass hat. Anyone who thinks that calling him an ass hat is just “parroting the media” is an equally large ass hat.

  2. Jeff 05:49pm, 12/10/2014

    Stop repeating the tired American neo-con propaganda about big, bad Putin.  Just because someone acts in the interests of his own country, and not those of the United States (which is going down the drain anyway) doesn’t make him a bad leader.  He gets over 50% approval rating and which is more than can be said for Obama and Congress.  Learn to stop parroting the media and you’ll do a lot better.

  3. Thresher 11:37am, 04/23/2014

    If Lebedev rebounds against Jones on Saturday, I see him being above Griggorian based on level of opposition.

  4. Bernard 03:26pm, 04/22/2014

    Pirog was a joy to watch… too bad, I think he is done.
    Tzsyu is a complete fighter, great accomplishments.  Wlad has done more but he’s so boring.  Povetkin - Wlad was a pain to watch, no less.

    Good work!  An article depicting the prevalence of boxers from countries bordered by the Black Sea would be compelling.  And the trend seems to increase every year.

  5. Jarrett 02:55pm, 04/22/2014

    Every one of these fighters qualifies as a Soviet fighter in that they were all born in the Soviet Union (as stated in my first paragraph). Also, even if many listed fighters did not box under the Soviet flag in the Olympics, most spent many formative years in the USSR. Furthermore, most of the former USSR countries amateur boxing programs are vestiges of the Soviet system.

  6. Thresher 12:12pm, 04/22/2014

    Always polite to engage your posters Zook.

  7. Steve Compton 07:10am, 04/22/2014

    Several of these guys werent soviet fighters.

  8. Dranreb Datsboygym 10:26pm, 04/21/2014

    another non sense article…Russian only good on envinting the worlds greatest assault rifle AK 47…other than that Russian was a little bit way up tougher than the fixed fights of every american fighters such as the worlds greatest CHERRY PICKER…DUCKER…WOMAN BEATER…TRASH TALKER KFC - Kentucky Floyd CHICKEN…no such fighters can be able to level up the greatness of the real greatest fighter ever!!!  the PAC of POWER PACQUIAOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!  the only human being whos subject of every american ego maniac boxing writers and self proclaimed self centered american boxing historians…thats why only a handfull of non biased american has the ability to know the right from wrong without any single biased….before the famous american boxing cartoonist BILL GALLO died he mentioned that he has saw Robinsons fights…he saw ALI fights but when he saw the Filipino DYNAMO he believed that for the first time his eyes already witnessed the greatest fighter of all time!!!

  9. Ted 05:11pm, 04/21/2014

    Tszyu is not my pick for number one. I’d go with Vitali.

  10. Ted 05:09pm, 04/21/2014

    I just mentioned Prov. But Pirog is a big ? at this point. GGG has left him in the dust.

  11. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 04:57pm, 04/21/2014

    How about Lomachenko, Provodnikov, and even Pirog who almost killed Jacobs who in turn will finish what Rosado was on the verge of doing with Quillin.

  12. Ted Sares 04:32pm, 04/21/2014

    I can see replacing AA with Provodnikov at this point in time, but the guy I really like is Evgeny Gradovich, a vicious and relentless destroyer.

    Also Chagaev had a good run.

    Excellent list. Could not do better myself. And I tried in one of my books.

  13. Ted Sares 04:24pm, 04/21/2014

    Yuri’s alias was Yuri Ebihara which reflected the fact he had emigrated to Japan as part of the Perestroika program along with Orzubek “Gusshie” Nazarov (who himself won the WBA Lightweight Title in 1993 in South Africa against Dingaan Thobela). However, eye problems forced him to retire early. He finished with a 26-1 mark and, like Arbachakov, fought almost all of his bouts in Japan. Between them, these two great fighters finished with a combined mark of 49-2 against great opposition.

  14. Matt McGrain 10:27am, 04/21/2014

    Right, ok, which would explain the absence of Kaplan also.

  15. Jarrett 10:15am, 04/21/2014

    I wanted to clarify this at some point, but fighters like Bass aren’t included because they emigrated to this country at a young age and learned boxing here. They weren’t brought up in the Soviet system or born under the Soviet flag. Bass for example was born in 1904 (pre-Soviet era) and emigrated at the age of two.

  16. Matt McGrain 08:22am, 04/21/2014

    Superb!  But what about Benny Bass??