Kazakhstan has a rich tradition of amateur boxing dating to Soviet times, with more than 30,000 athletes engaged in the sport, according to the Kazakh Boxing Federation (KFB). The nation’s boxers have won at least one gold medal in every Olympics since 1996, boasting 22 men’s and women’s medals. The rise of its professional boxers is attributed to the success of amateur boxing in independent Kazakhstan.
The foundation for Kazakh boxing was laid in 1933, when classes opened in sports schools across the country. The country’s first major Olympic success was celebrated in 1980, when Victor Demyanenko and Serik Konakbayev became silver medalists of the Moscow Games. Eighteen years later in Seoul, Kostanai boxer Alexander Miroshnichenko took the bronze in the heavyweight division.
(Photo caption top left: Kazakhstan’s best-known boxer and former middleweight world champion Gennedy Golovkin (GGG))
Kazakhstan was recognised by the International Olympic Committee in 1993 and the Atlanta Games in 1996 were the first international showdown of Kazakh boxers. Vassiliy Jirov captured the gold that year in the light-heavyweight division, followed by Bekzat Sattarkhanov (featherweight) and Yermakhan Ibraimov (light-middleweight) at the 2000 Sydney Games. Welterweight champions Bakhtiyar Artayev (Athens 2004), Bakhyt Sarsekbayev (Beijing 2008), Serik Sapiyev (London 2012) and Daniyar Yeleussionov (Rio 2016) solidified Kazakh dominance in the division.
In addition to winning the Olympics, Jirov, Artayev and Sapiyev were awarded the Val Barker Trophy, presented to the most outstanding boxer at the Games.
Martial arts, and boxing, in particular, are rooted in nomadic history, noted Kazakh national boxing team head coach Myrzagali Aitzhanov.
“Moreover, Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world. This means that our ancestors put a lot of effort to keeping this huge territory. Therefore, this force, endurance and courage were handed down by blood to the next generations,” he said.
After completing their amateur careers, many athletes turn to professional boxing. Jirov, among the first wave of Kazakh fighters to go pro, held the International Boxing Federation (IBF) cruiserweight title from 1999-2003 before retiring in 2009. His professional success was a trailblazer for many Kazakh boxers who continued their careers overseas.
“I set myself the goal of becoming the best professional boxer; I wanted to be the first who made it from Kazakhstan. I became the first Olympic boxing champion and, I thought, why not become a world champion among professionals,” he said in a recent television interview.
Boxing was packed with star athletes during Jirov’s professional career, including Oscar De La Hoya, Evander Holyfield, Lenox Lewis and Mike Tyson. Tyson, who is now retired, attributes viciousness and ruthlessness to boxers from the former Soviet Union and notes they are currently some of the best in the world.
“Kazakh boxers need to continue to train. You have GGG (Gennady Golovkin), so you need to continue to box. Kazakhs have a lot of talent; you just need to get to the international stage,” he said during his latest trip to the country.
The first decade of the 21st century saw the rise of the most prominent Kazakh boxers. Golovkin, an Athens Olympics silver medallist, is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, according to Ring magazine.
GGG turned pro in 2005, though in his first years he remained virtually unknown. Unhappy with the progress, he signed with the Klitschko brothers in early 2010 and the switch to the Ukrainian heavyweights proved successful. That August, he knocked out Milton Nunes in the first round to become World Boxing Association (WBA) interim champion.
In 2012, Golovkin signed with U.S. media giant HBO and made his American debut. He was expected to have a difficult fight, as his opponent was the experienced Polish fighter Grzegorz Proksa, but the match turned out differently. Gennady sent Proksa to the canvas two times before knocking him out in the fifth round.
Golovkin’s popularity in the boxing world has been steadily on the rise. Until his recent loss to Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, he was undefeated in his 39 fights and held the WBA Super, World Boxing Council (WBC) and International Boxing Organisation (IBO) championship titles. With a streak of 23 knockouts that spanned from 2008-2017, he held the highest knockout-to-win percentage (87.2 percent) in middleweight championship history.
Golovkin arguably is the best-known Kazakh in the world, with advertisement and sponsorship deals including the GGG collection from Nike’s Jordan, Apple Watch and Swiss Luxury watches.
The Sept. 15 GGG-Alvarez rematch in Las Vegas was the most awaited fight of 2018. Revered by his fans around the world and feared by his opponents, Golovkin is an example of the diligence, dedication and discipline nurtured in Kazakh boxers.
“I know the history of Kazakhstan boxing and believe that it occupies one of the leading positions in the world. Kazakh boxers proved their superiority in amateur and professional boxing many times,” noted former American professional boxer Roy Jones Jr.
Daniyar Yeleussinov, a Rio Olympics champion, is among the recent promotions to the professional scene. He has an outstanding hand and foot speed and while his powerful punches have been compared to Golovkin’s, he seeks to improve upon GGG’s results.
“I do not say that I will be like Golovkin, an animal in the ring, a puncher. We need to understand that in professional boxing, split seconds decide everything: if I miss one blow – that’s it. Good timing is important here and I will work on this. In amateurs, we are working on hits to score points; thus, professional boxing is totally different,” he said in advance of his debut fight in April.
Yeleussinov has won his three fights andplans on an average three or four matches a year. If all goes as planned, in two years he hopesto claim the championship title.
International audiences crave a show; the brighter it is, the better it sells. With at least 60 active boxers at the professional level, Kazakh boxing is eager to deliver that show.