SOVIET LEGENDS: Igor Vysotsky - The man who had Teofilo Stevenson’s number!” ESB EXCLUSIVE Interview!
24.12.06 - By Gennadiy “Komar” Komarnitzky and Izyaslav “Slava” Koza: When Komar and I first started working together, writing the stories of the Soviet Legends of the boxing ring, the praise we received, also came with one specific request. Time and again we were asked to write an article on the one person hardcore followers of boxing knew but also knew very little about.
Article posted on 25.12.2006
It wasn’t a question of if an article on the matter would come, but a question of when, how, and what sort of motivation would make us write something worthy of the topic. This September, I sat down to watch a live feed of the Abraham-Miranda card on Russian TV. It was with great shock that I heard the host mention that Igor Vysotsky would be a guest analyst in the studio. Before the additional shock of hearing this legendary man speak could wear off Arthur Abraham’s courageous performance further pushed me to attempt and get in contact with this legendary fighter. Gennadiy accomplished the rest.
(Pictured here from left to right, K. Kopsev, Teofilo Stevenson & Igor Vysotsky) Too often we hear people like Max Kellerman, while good at their job, do the play by play, even though qualified former American ring legends are more perfect and more deserving of the job. The more we hear them speak the more we remember what it is they achieved and why these achievements inspire us, not only as fans, but new generations of fighters to strive and create their own records and feats.
His father, while prisoner of war, boxed with one of the best heavyweights of all time. Following in his footsteps he gave as good as he got in a 2 round exhibition match against the “Greatest” in Moscow.
( Igor Vysotsky with wife, Marina) There are very few legendary and special champions in the history of professional boxing. Even stranger is that there are less of them in the amateur ranks. Laslo Papp, Felix Savon and of course Teofilo Stevenson are the standard bearers for the definition of this class of fighters. However, even these monstrous virtuosos had opponents who accomplished unbelievable things against them. The first bout between Louis and Shmeling, Buster Douglas’s shocking upset of Mike Tyson, and Antonio Tarver’s brutal stoppage of Roy Jones Jr. are fights that hold such a distinction but do so while in front of eyes that photograph these events into history. The uniqueness of a little seen bout in 1976 perhaps cannot be recreated, but the man who made it possible can be appreciated and remembered for the deeds he accomplished and the inspiration he instilled because he is still alive and still willing to share his story with us.
Born in Magadan (the infamous forced labor colony for criminals and political prisoners), he grew up to become one of the brightest stars of Soviet boxing. Even in the talent rich USSR, there were only a select few who possessed the kind of charisma and will that he used to destroy the best the world had to offer.
Korolev, Sherbakov, Engibaryan, Popenchenko, Ageev, Lagutin, and Karataev were the class of fighter he stood alongside.
Meet Igor Yakovlevich Vysotsky
ESB: Greetings Igor Yakovlevich! First of all, tell us your amateur record? How many fights did you win by knockout?
Igor Vysotsky: 185 fights, 161 victories, half of which ended early.
(A young Igor Vysotsky) ESB: The most important thing our American readers want to find out about are the fights with Stevenson. Can you describe the circumstances under which you met and how you were able to achieve the kind of victory no other fighter could in the history of Stevenson’s long and illustrious career?
Igor Vysotsky: I fought Teofilo twice. We first met at the “Kardova Kardin” tournament in 1973 in Cuba. I took the first two opponents, both being Cuban, out early. In the third, I beat Stevenson on points. Although the score was 3:2, the pace of the fight forced Teofilo to take two necessary breaks to retie his gloves.
We had a saying in the USSR, “It’s easier to win the World championships than it is to win ‘Kardova Kardin’.”
The second time was at a class A International tournament in Minsk, in March 1976. In each stanza, Stevenson took a count, while in the final three minutes, I knocked him out.
ESB: Can you please explain why you were never allowed to go to the Olympics?
Igor Vysotsky: Before any major tournament the national team went through a lot of sparring sessions with each other. Before Montreal, in ‘76, I boxed against a light heavy named Kvachadze and received a serious cut. This was my Achilles’ heel, both in regular matches and in training. The Cubans didn’t know it happened and brought two guys to the Olympics, Stevenson and Milyano Romero. If I would have participated, Teofilo would be sitting on the alternate’s bench.
ESB: Who would you say was your most difficult opponent?
Igor Vysotsky: From the foreign guys, Milyano Romero, who I fought three times. I won once and lost twice. He was a versatile boxer and didn’t give his opponents much of a chance to figure him out.
From our Soviet guys-Evgeniy Gorstkov.
ESB: Which relatively famous Americans did you meet in the Amateurs? What were the results?
Igor Vysotsky: Tony Tubbs (KO 2), http://www.boxrec.com/boxer_display.php?boxer_id=000834
Woody Clark (KO 2), http://www.boxrec.com/boxer_display.php?boxer_id=001058
Jimmy Clark (W3 and a loss on cuts) http://www.boxrec.com/boxer_display.php?boxer_id=024034
Mitch Green (W3) http://www.boxrec.com/boxer_display.php?boxer_id=003171
Greg Page(L3, although the result was controversial because the bout took place in America)
Helton Willis (KO 1 in 25 seconds in)
ESB: Right now who would you say is the strongest professional heavyweight?
Igor Vysotsky: In my opinion, Wladimir Klitschko and Nikolai Valuev. Also, I really like Sasha Povetkin. Each of them have weaknesses and even a couple of real sins, but there is no such thing as an ideal boxer.
ESB: If you had to fight them, what tactic would you use to win?
Igor Vysotsky: The same thing I always did in the ring. Force them to come at me and counterpunch. My defensive arsenal was quite good-dodges, dips, bobbing and weaving. Other than that, it’s a technical matter. I’m pretty sure that not many of today’s champs could take my punches.
ESB: Who would you say is the greatest Soviet fighter of all time and why?
Igor Vysotsky: Without question it was Nikolai Korolev. He was a true worker, a personality, both in life and in the ring. You know his training methods? He would run behind his trainer’s car with a hook attached to it. When he ran out of breath he grabbed unto the hook and kept running until he caught a second wind. This ability to defeat even himself makes an impression.
I also liked Engibaryan (note: Vladimir Engibaryan, one of the first Soviet Olympic champs in boxing). To this day, the manner in which he delivered his punches, down up, has never been imitated. After all, he was the Olympic champion in 1956.
ESB: What age did you start boxing?
Igor Vysotsky: I went to a gym at 13, but…from age 6 my dad, Yakov Antonovich, trained me daily. We always exercised, and also did development training, as well as constant tightening of my defense. He was the one who taught me to instinctively dodge punches.
ESB: Do you remember your very first fight? Can you tell us when, and where it happened?
Igor Vysotsky: I remember, of course. I was 13 and weighed 74 kilos. It was the Magadan city championships. I lost.
ESB: What about your last one?
Igor Vysotsky: My last fight was at the 1980 National championships. It’s also where they determined who went to the 1980 Olympics. I lost to Zhenya Gorstkov, and once again, because of a cut, so I decided that I had had enough.
ESB: If the four current titleholders at Heavy, took part in a unification tournament who do you think would become the undisputed champ?
Igor Vysotsky: Right now, Vladimir Klitschko, although Valuev has a chance, too.
ESB: I know you are friends with Teofilo Stevenson. Do you speak often? Tell us about your relationship?
Igor Vysotsky: I wouldn’t even call it a friendship. Teofilo and I are like brothers, and that’s very hard to explain. Sometimes, I think he is one of our Russian guys. He is a great person with a big soul and a child-like ability to be content with life. I just came back from Cuba. He managed to surprise me once again, by cooking some amazing fish for us. He is a great cook, too.
To this day I still think, he is the greatest amateur boxer of all time and all civilizations.
ESB: Here in the U.S. we have a film called, “Undisputed” starring Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames. Rhames plays the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, who like Tyson goes to jail, where in the climactic finale he loses a fight to Snipes, the current prison champ, who remains in anonymity outside the prison walls even though he was the victor. To some degree the film’s plot is similar to your fate. In other words, the unknown fighter, about who nobody ever finds out. How do you think you would do if you participated in World Championships and the Olympic games?
Igor Vysotsky: Pretty good film. Motivation in boxing is made of a very thin material. If you see a goal and do everything you can to achieve it, you will always come out victorious.
ESB: If you had a choice between Stevenson’s fate (winning all the medals and titles but losing to you twice) or your own (knowing you were better then the best) which would you choose?
Igor Vysotsky: (laughing) I was, am, and always will be myself. It’s my life and I am completely satisfied with it. I am happy that my fights with Teofilo, made us friends.
ESB: Tell us about your current job?
Igor Vysotsky: The most important thing in my life right now is my children. I have my own boxing gym, where kids 16 and under train. It’s free because boxing is and always will be a poor man’s sport. The Soviet approach to children’s sport forever imposed its influence on me. You can’t take money for something that will bring you strength, strength and prosperity, in the future. Today’s youngsters are tomorrow’s citizens, defenders, and workers of your homeland.
They have to grow up healthy, strong, and with clear goals in life.
So that’s why I keep myself busy with them day and night. Training, Summer camp, tournaments, all sorts of different competitions. I like it. It’s my own.
ESB: Which famous boxers, past, present or future do you consider friends?
Igor Vysotsky: Everybody. I don’t have enemies in life.
ESB: Tell us about your family? What is everybody’s name and who did you name your kids after if anybody?
Igor Vysotsky: I can’t go on without mentioning my father. After all, he was a good fighter, too. During World War 2, he was part of our naval infantry forces. After getting nailed by a land mine, he was captured. Inside the POW camp, he fought against former heavyweight world champ Max Shmeling. He lost, but it was as they say today, a “close” fight. Just imagine: one was imprisoned, poorly fed, and obviously overworked, while the other was living a more or less full and meaningful life.
My father's ninth escape attempt was successful. However, instead of getting his well deserved medals and accolades, he was sent to Kolyma (note: Kolyma was the most infamous region in the whole of the Soviet Union used specifically for the GULAG forced labor camps).
He celebrated his fiftieth birthday fighting in the ring. That was my father.
My mother was born in Estonia. Her name was Meta Joganovna and she lived in Tallinn. She met dad in Kolyma (while imprisoned).
I have a son from my first marriage, and his name’s Igor.
Though the most important person is my wife Marina, she is the one I probably couldn’t exist without today. She is like a second mother to all my students, as well as my helper, accountant, and cook. She is my second “Me.”
May God grant every person a life partner like her.
ESB: What do you like to do in your free time?
Igor Vysotsky: I don’t have any free time. Ask a young mother with a 6-month-old, if she has free time?
Well, I’ve got a whole squad of ‘em.
ESB: Right now who do you think is the best p4p boxer in the world?
Igor Vysotsky: Nobody has the same preference for taste, and texture, but I was very impressed with Roy Jones Junior’s fights. He played around with the weight classes too much. Pity. Still he’s a great boxer.
ESB: Out of all the ones you have seen, which fight, remains the best ever, and why?
Igor Vysotsky: 1974 Ali-Foreman. Brains vs. Brawn. Experience vs. Youth. It was a very memorable event.
I got a chance to box two rounds against Ali in 1978. Unbelievable speed and combinations. Still I gave him some of mine too.
(note: In 1978 the “Greatest” came to Moscow to box 2 rounds each against three of the best Soviet heavyweights of the time, one of whom was of course Igor Vysotsky. Before the bout, Ali burst into the Soviet fighters’ dressing room screaming and threatening to destroy them. The policeman standing closest to the scene was frightened to death throughout the entire ordeal.)
ESB: Who do you think is the fighter of the year?
Igor Vysotsky: Floyd Mayweather Jr.
ESB: This interview will be seen by both Russian, as well as American boxing fans. What would you like to tell them?
Igor Vysotsky: I’ll tell the Americans one thing. It doesn’t pay to forget about amateur boxing, because otherwise, in the near future there won’t be a single world champ from the U.S.
For the readers of the former post-Soviet atmosphere: You have to raise and train your youth. Not in one on one street fights but in the ring. A boxer is all character. It’s the constant challenge of one’s self. If you master this in life then you can take any punch and keep coming out a winner.
I wish everybody great personal joy as well as a wish of happy holidays.
As mentioned this interview took about two months to set up but reflecting on the time spent I believe it was well worth it. I want to thank Komar for all his hard work, and everybody who suggested and showed interest in reading about this man because that helped inspired us to put it together.
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