Soviet Legends: the story of Igor Ruzhnikov
19.03.05 - By Izyaslav “Slava” Koza and Gennadi “Komar” Komarnitzky: This series of Articles, entitled “Soviet Legends” is a collaborative effort between myself and Russian sports correspondent Gennadi Komarnitzky. It will profile some of the most accomplished and gifted boxers, who lived and competed in the former Soviet Union, and who’s talent, skill, and heart, were usually over shadowed by the politics of the time. Hopefully this series, will allow boxing fans to learn and appreciate, some of the boxers who were on the other side of the “iron curtain.”
Article posted on 18.03.2005
From the Interview “Igor Ruzhnikov: “I had much tougher opponents than Roy Jones.”
Life is a hard thing. Very often in the arts, in a movie for example, an actor becomes a hostage of a single performed role. The list of actors who have suffered such a bitter sweet fate, is longer then the longest football field, and farther then the farthest star. For instance,even in music, if somebody were to ask a bystander on the street to name two popular Eagle’s songs, besides “Hotel California,” you would unlikely hear a further response, and even though that is usually how life unfolds, doesn’t it seem just unfair?
Something quite similar happened in the boxing career of talented fighter Igor Ivanovich Ruzhnikov. It wasn’t by accident that we happened to meet, and it isn’t by accident that we want to believe that “nobody and nothing is forgotten.”
Igor Ruzhnikov was champion of the USSR, Europe and the World, but for many of his fans, his biggest accomplishment will forever be one he himself does not assign any great significance too. In 1986 at the GoodWill games in Moscow, Igor defeated a young kid by the name of Roy Jones Jr. Long before Antonio Tarver, and Glencoffe Johnson, had their way with a fading Roy Jones, and long before Lou del Valle, was able to sneak in a quick left and put Jones down for the first time in his career, Ruzhnikov beat Jones in an obscure amateur fight.
Komar: How did you get into boxing? Can you remember your first successes?
IR: Just like every boy my age I tried all sorts of different sports-swimming, wrestling, soccer. I wasn’t exceptionally gifted but when I first entered a boxing gym at 12 years old, I realized it was my sport. My first trainer was a guy named Vladimir Ivanovich Ginkel. I still keep in touch with him, although he lives in Germany now. My path to serious competition started with a funny incident. After about half a year of training, at the City Championship in Temirtu (Kazakhstan), my home town, I was victorious in the final, but when I received my award and certificate, it stated I had only taken “2nd place.” However, I was so happy and proud of my first victory, that this annoying misunderstanding didn’t bother me at all. My brother and I, who was of course cheering for me, decided to walk home to the other side of the city, instead of taking the bus. After all, we had such cool trophies in our hands.
My first serious achievement can be dated back to 1982, where in Kishinev (Moldavia), I came out on top at the USSR junior championships under 54 Kilograms (119 lb.-bantamweight). By the way, competing one category below me was Orzubek Nazarov, a future world champion, who was of course also victorious. The success I had in Kishinev, forced the necessary people to take note of my accomplishments. I started training with the senior national team, where I met with my countryman from Zhambul (Kazakhstan) Serik Konakbaev.
KOMAR: Was it easy for a youth champ to fight with the “big guys” for a place under the sun?
IR: My youth period was very and I mean very difficult. For about 3 years, I couldn’t win a single meaningful tournament. I think it was a lack of the necessary competitive experience, and of course, the opponents were talented, too! I can remember a guy named Gurevich (from Lvov, Ukraine). However, when I started competing for the Kazakhstan senior team, everything seemed to settle in its rightful place. It probably all started at the USSR CUP in Ivanovo in 1985. The Kazakhstan team had a very solid contingent. There was Zhenya Zaitsev (who lost to Roy Jones in the quarterfinals at the 88 Olympics), Sasha Miroshnichenko (Alexander Miroshnichenko) and others. Yet only I could capture gold. Right about that time is when the trainer of the Kazakhstan national team, Yuri Andreevich Tsehai, took me under his wing.
KOMAR: How would you describe your winning style? Or was it some particular aspect of the Kazakh school of boxing?
IR: I would say it was that I preferred to work on countering in a specific way. For instance, if I could get to my opponent, and force him to come forward and work full force, I was sure he was mine. With technical boxers like Vasili Shishov, and Cuban, Kandelario Duverhel, I just had magnificent fights, although the result was always up to the judges. The most uncomfortable guy, however, was a southpaw from Moscow, named "Kantzel." I never could figure him out, even though I did win.
However, the Kazkh school was very original and very successful. The strength was in its team spirit and universal combination of all boxing styles, with a very strong team of trainers. For a while, I was the captain of the team and believe I also participated in helping develop the quality of the team.
KOMAR: The highest honor in the career of an amateur boxer is Olympic Gold. Why couldn’t you compete in the Olympic games?
IR: Sometimes it just has nothing to do with you. In the beginning of 1988, there were three of us trying out for the Olympic team in the category under 63.5 Kg (139.7- Lt. Welter): My countryman and opponent Erik Hakimov from Kustan (Kazakhstan), Slava Yanovsky from Belarus, and me. We were constantly sparring and getting ready for the trials in Armenia, when one unpleasant day, they, what’s called, “came for me.” I became a soldier in the Soviet army. Coincidentally, Yanovsky was the only member of our team to win gold in Seoul in 88. I won’t try to claim I would have won, too, but Yanovsky’s opponent in the final, an Australian named Chini, was my first victim at the 89 championships.
KOMAR: Your 15 minutes came in exactly that year. You came up with what soccer and hockey fans call a hat trick: Champion of the USSR, Europe, and the world. Is that the kind of affect missing the Olympics has on people?
IR: It was just my time. The same Yanovsky who beat me in the 87 USSR final, was ranked somewhere in the bottom forties, and yet everything was going well for me. In January of 89, I won first place at the USSR championships in Frunze ( now Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) in the category under 63.5 kg (Lt Welter). By the way, that was also when a young Kostya Tszyu first became champ in the category under 60 kg (Super Feather to lt. weight). In June,I won a victory in Greece at the European championships, followed up in November with gold at the world championships in Moscow.
KOMAR: In Other Words, the Circle was complete. What did you decide to do afterwards?
IR: Your right, I didn’t really feel like doing it all again, and at the time, Soviet boxers were making the first attempts to turn pro. You know the very word, “Professional” in the USSR was considered a derogatory insult. Nonetheless, info reached some of us about the stars of the boxing world, and not only of Ali, but Leonard, Duran and Robinson. Funny thing is, the government paid us a salary for practicing boxing too, and always tried to make it look like it that wasn’t the case.
Anyway, I decided I wanted to see myself in a new role, even though I understood that I wouldn’t go far, seeing as I could only box well, and that in the pros is just oh so little. At the time, I doubted that in the next 10-15 years, any Soviet boxer will be a champion in professional boxing. I thought the pros were made from some sort of different mold. Even though, in reality, it’s the same boxing that we had. 15 rounds of sparring was about the norm, take off your tanktop-and there you have it, a real championship bout between professionals. Only later did I come to realize that there isn’t some undefined border between pros and amateurs, and I’m happy that first Yuri Arbachakov, and then Oruzbek Nazarov and Kostya Tsyzu, demonstrated that so clearly.
KOMAR: Ok, now lets return to the Goodwill games in Moscow in 1986, at which you met with one of the brightest future stars in professional boxing.
IR: Well, it was really my first high caliber international tournament on the senior team. I had a reputation of not “burning up,” or getting nervous before a big tournament. Remember Miroshnichenko, or “Miron” as we called him on the team, who unfortunately died last year? He had this problem like a lot of the heavier guys.
I thought that in the final it would be me versus Hakimov, but it didn’t happen that way. In the first round, I took out a guy from Germany, and in the second round, my opponent was Roy Jones. He was already looking good back then, but you gotta understand he wasn’t a star yet. We traded back and forth for awhile, although I was timing his mistakes and was able to outsmart him, and that is really about it. This fight wasn’t really that hard for me, but for him, well….. I think if we would meet right now, he would recognize me. By the way, remember I didn’t get to go to Seoul, and that is also where the judges robbed him (the infamous 1988 final between Roy Jones Jr. and Park si Hun). Now, Roy is definitely a professional superstar in the ring. I am very happy that at one point, I got the better of him in a little known boxing match, even though at the time, it wasn’t that important a victory for me.
KOMAR: To what do you attribute Jones’s shocking defeat at the hands of Tarver?
IR: Well, this is boxing. Roy could have gone down 5 years ago, but he is a genius and boxed in such a way, so as to not get seriously hurt by any of his opponents. However, nobody is insured against a (good) wild shot. I’m pretty sure in a third fight, Jones would come out on top.
KOMAR: Do You watch Boxing?
IR: Of Course! And for me, there is no difference between amateur and professional boxing. Right now, the level of the latter is much higher in our country. We still don’t have the entire mechanism for full promotion of fighters though. There isn’t a lot of managers, or strong promoters, plus regular people don’t have the money to pay for a good show.
I try to go to all the events. Last time I was at a tournament in St. Petersburg, I had loads of fun. Plus, I always find the time to watch historic matches. Fights with Ali, Tyson, and Julio Cesar Chavez, I could watch them over and over.
Amateur Career: 185 bouts, 163 victories
World Champion 1989
European Champion 1989
Champion of the USSR 1989
Silver Medal USSR Championships 1987
3 time Bronze Medal winner USSR Championships 1985,1986, 1988
Winner of the GoodWill Games in Moscow 1986
USSR CUP winner 1985 1988
Interviewed by Gennady Komarnitzky
Photo courtesy of Mr. Komarnitzky and Valeriy Nikolaev
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