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Soviet Boxing School Forever

Photo by Bucerius Law School on Unsplash

The summer of 1952 was not so hot in Helsinki, and it rained on the main world sporting event on 19 July. However, this did not stop the 70,000-strong crowd from gathering at the Olympic Stadium in Töölö.

To the sound of the march 5.5 thousand athletes were waiting for the legendary runner Paavo Flying Finn Nurmi to run by and light the Olympic flame. The moment came – Nurmi flew into the stadium track and whirled through the rows of athletes, most of whom were just dreaming of seeing the legendary runner. A minute later the huge bowl was ablaze. So began the 15th Summer Olympics.

Of the 69 participating countries the Soviet Union athletes were in the spotlight, because for us it was the first Olympics in history. Our team had no experience in the international arena, we were busy rebuilding the country after the bloodiest war in human history. Most of the athletes were young men and women who had fought in the war. Many of them had wounds and crippled fates. Only the love for their homeland, the iron will and unbending character of these people gave them the strength to represent the Soviet Union at such a grand sporting event.

We wanted to win, but no one expected results from us at the time.

The boxing started on July 28 and ended on August 2. The team, led by coach Viktor Mikhailov, was able to perform sensationally. We did not take any gold, but managed to win the medal standings, winning four bronze and two silver medals. The strongest boxers at the Olympics were the Americans.

For our team, competing for the first time in an event of this caliber, it was indeed a major accomplishment. After the Olympics we returned home to work on our mistakes, because we had a long way to go to the top of world boxing.

The result was not long in coming. Four years later, at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, our boxers won three gold medals, one silver and two bronze ones under the guidance of Sergey Shcherbakov. You should agree that this is unbelievable progress in four years. Titans of boxing, such as the USA, England, Italy, needed decades to achieve such high results, but we have managed to take the lead in just one four-year cycle. What is the secret of success? Then Sergei Shcherbakov, our head coach, formulated a certain model of a boxer. Since Sergei Shcherbakov was a tough man who had been seriously wounded after the war, he knew how to survive in difficult conditions, so his boxing model was very strict. Tactics were built of short reconnaissance, stiff attacking actions and instant counterattacks. At that time, it was out of the question to skilfully outplay your opponent on points. Shcherbakov preached total superiority in all components of boxing.

At the Olympics in Rome in 1960, success was perhaps not as spectacular as in Melbourne, but still one gold, two silver and two bronze medals the Soviet team was able to get. Once again, the Americans were the best with three gold medals.

The world began to talk about a confrontation between the Soviet and American boxing schools. What is a boxing school, anyway?

By analyzing our boxers’ fights, coaches were constantly improving their fighters’ styles – from the way they moved in the ring to their punches. Indeed, there were pamphlets summarizing how to act against boxers with a certain style. And since boxing was a subject that had to be studied, such literature was a textbook of sorts.

All possible tactics were studied, and a winning strategy was devised against each one. Only the best were chosen for the national team, preferring boxers who were bigger for their weight classes, taller and with longer arms. Since 1952 it became clear that left-handed boxers were uncomfortable to box with, and they were gladly taken to the main team of the country.

In addition to constant standards, the coaching staff demanded that the theoretical part should be studied.

A boxer had to know by heart how to act in the ring against anybody. So training was going in all directions. They also began to involve sports psychologists, who developed the stress resistance of our athletes.

We were the first to apply a scientific approach to such a sports discipline as boxing.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games are a vivid proof of that: nine medals, three of which were gold, four silver and two bronze. On top of that, Valery Popenchenko, fighting in the middleweight category, got the Val Barker Cup as the most technically skilled boxer of the Olympic Games. Popenchenko finished all but one of his victories by knockouts.

Now the world clearly knew what USSR boxers were capable of, and our specialists began to be attracted to other countries.

Coaches Sergey Ogurenkov, Andrey Chervonenko and Konstantin Gradopolov flew to Cuba to develop boxing and spawned there our main competitor in the ring. The Cubans quickly mastered the sport thanks to their refined boxing training system. In 1964, Alcides Sagarra, a graduate of Kiev Sports Institute, a native of Santiago de Cuba, became the leader of Cuban boxers. They quickly hit it off with Andriy Chervonenko, and eight years later, thanks to Soviet training methods, the Cubans would reach the world level and would never go down again.

In the Olympic medal standings, the USSR ranks fourth (after the United States, Cuba, and Great Britain), but if you consider that we have been competing since 1952, it’s a very respectable result.

Now the Soviet Union no longer exists, but the boxing school has not kept its name for nothing. All children’s and youth Olympic reserve schools still teach boxing by the methods developed back in the early days when we were just starting our way up. Decades later our boxers still show the highest class at international competitions, and the Soviet boxing school has not lost its relevance and, on the contrary, is experiencing its second birth.

And, admittedly, what a pleasure it is to watch filigree footwork, sharp forehand strokes and great speed. And even if I am not told who is boxing in the ring, I will always recognize our boxer, because the visiting card and the standard of the quality of the fight will be the Soviet boxing school.

The author’s point of view may not coincide with the position of the editorial board.

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