by Fox Doucette
Welcome to another What If special series, this time asking the question “What if the Cold War never ended and the Klitschko brothers never turned pro?” We’re going heavy on the history in the first installment—the fights get more of a focus next week.
Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko get their share of criticism for fighting in a heavyweight era where nobody has truly stepped up and challenged either man in over a decade—Vitali retired after not having lost a fight in the last nine years of his career after his loss to Lennox Lewis in 2003, and Wladimir is currently riding a nearly eleven-year unbeaten run, his last defeat coming at the hands of Lamon Brewster in April of 2004.
Once again, think about that. For eleven years, a pair of brothers have been the only game in town when it comes to serious discussions about who is the heavyweight champion of the world. There have been “beltholders” and “titlists”, but at the very least since 2009, when Wlad beat Ruslan Chagaev to claim the Ring Magazine belt, the word “champion” has described only one surname—the only reason it did not describe one man is because the brothers never fought each other.
But what if the Klitschko brothers never became professional fighters? Sure, there are easy ways to set up this story (they’re Ukrainian; all it would take would be to put them via chance event a little too close to Chernobyl when it went boom and this becomes less a boxing-site alt-history involving missing fighters and more a video game site alt-history involving Fallout 3 and STALKER: Call of Pripyat.) Let’s not take the easy way, huh? Let’s instead delve into a bit of Soviet history and twist it to our aims, shall we, starting on the thirtieth anniversary (as of this article going to press) of a monumental event in the history of the world:
March 10, 1985: Konstantin Chernenko Dies, Mikhail Gorbachev Assumes Soviet Leadership
It’s a funny thing about the Soviet Union. Ask most people to name a list of Soviet leaders (there were a total of seven who were the supreme ruler of the place either de jure or de facto between 1917 and 1991), and those same folks will, given a bit of time to think, probably come up with five—Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev. The two they’ll forget, unless they were of a certain age during Ronald Reagan’s first term and are Russophiles, are Yuri Andropov (who took over for Brezhnev) and Konstantin Chernenko (who took over when Andropov died after less than two years in office and who himself barely lasted a year.)
The Soviets were in danger of a Roman Empire Crisis of the Third Century when they lucked (such as it was) into certain other people of a certain age’s favorite gallows-humor joke with that map of Korea on his forehead. Gorbachev instituted glasnost and perestroika and various other reforms whose names sound like menu items at Russian pastry shops stateside…and in the process managed to bring down the Soviet Union, as all the economic reforms did was make it painfully obvious even to the Russians that communism wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. From there, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet Union itself in 1991, we know the prime-timeline story. Enter an all-too-likely hero and visionary:
Summer, 1985: Vladimir Putin Sent to Dresden; Meets Stasi Contacts Hostile to Openness
Historically, Vladimir Putin was one of Gorbachev’s loyalists almost to the bitter end—“almost” being why he was able to keep his head in 1991—and did much to root out East German dissent in the lead-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Here, in our story, Putin, quickly found and recruited by elements in the East German government fearful that the Soviet Union was abandoning them as the front lines of the hardline communist struggle against the West, a struggle that for the Stasi had been their chance to be in the first rank, proved quite adept at doublespeak, maintaining an image even among the spymasters of Moscow in the ranks of the East German secret police that he was Russian to his core, while simultaneously gathering intelligence for the dissidents and doing just enough to put loyalist spies off their trail.
Years ahead of the fact, Putin saw which way the wind was blowing, but rather than try to position himself for a post-Soviet future, he instead inculcated himself with hardliners who would sooner seize powers for themselves than watch the USSR decay into a secondary power.
Meanwhile, in the States:
Boxing, ever ignorant of world politics and having found a surge of popularity among the American public after the Commie-Free Zone that was the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was nonetheless in a dark age as far as its marquee division was concerned. Sure, there was a kid in New York tearing through everything that dared step in the ring with him, even showing up on national cable TV a time or two, some fledgling station with a penchant for showing Australian football late at night and highlight shows during the day called ESPN, which partnered with Top Rank to show fighters on the rise. Mike Tyson was the perfect ESPN fighter long before Friday Night Fights was a thing, and guys like Bonecrusher Smith and Larry Holmes and Pinklon Thomas and Trevor Berbick couldn’t help but take notice.
The heavyweight ranks were an American affair; the occasional lumbering European would show up from time to time as a sideshow, but the lineal champion had been American since Floyd Patterson got the belt back from Ingemar Johansson in 1960. From Patterson to Liston to Ali to Frazier to Foreman, back to Ali and Holmes and, thanks to a Vegas upset in September of 1985, to Michael Spinks, it was as American as apple pie, the title lineage.
The only talk about Soviet fighters as professional champions in 1985 would have to come from Hollywood; Rocky IV came out on November 27. If I can change, and you can change…
January 1, 1986: Mikhail Gorbachev Assassinated by Suspected Stasi Double Agent, East Berlin
Gorbachev decided to ring in the New Year by making a state visit to the Soviets’ erstwhile ally/rump state, and Putin, a rising star not only in Dresden but throughout the ranks of the apparatchiks, was tabbed to lead the security detail.
You’ve heard the bit about foxes and henhouses; this is a bit more like appointing Godzilla to head up the Tokyo fire department. The hardliners chose their time to launch a coup; led by Chairman of the KGB Viktor Chebrikov and supported by Putin’s loyalists in the East German ranks, they slipped in one by one past the wink-and-nudge security guarding the prestigious visitor’s guest quarters. As with the conspirators who killed Caesar on the Ides of March almost two thousand years in the past, the knives came out…and Gorbachev was butchered along with his family and his closest supporters.
In the United States, it was the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis that the armed forces went to DEFCON 2; nobody was quite sure if the Soviets were ready to march on Western Europe…or launch The Bomb. Nobody was out seeing Rocky IV, not when the world was quite possibly on the brink of World War III and the Soviet Union was in chaos.
February 11, 1986: Vladimir Rodionovich Klitschko and Family Deported to Central Asia
The father of the young Klitschko boys was a military attaché of Ukraine in East Germany; when the coup came, Klitschko sided with the loyalists in the conflict. After being captured and subjected to a show trial, Klitschko was found guilty of actions detrimental to the Soviet state, but rather than have him executed, Klitschko was merely stripped of his military ranks and titles and sent back to Kazakhstan at least in part in recognition of the meritorious service he had performed during the Brezhnev era when Chebrikov was Deputy Chairman of the same KGB that had just executed the change of regime for the Soviets.
On the bright side, this meant that at least one Klitschko story gets a happy ending; in the prime timeline, the patriarch of the family was put on security detail overseeing the cleanup of Chernobyl, from which he absorbed a dose of radiation that almost certainly caused the cancer that ended his life. Safely tucked away in Kazakhstan, Vladimir the elder was spared this unwholesome duty; he continues to live in alternate-universe 2015.
November 22, 1986: Mike Tyson Wins Heavyweight Title, Beats Trevor Berbick
Meanwhile, back in the States, another belt landed in the hands of an American, returning to order the clean sweep of the division (WBC, WBA, and IBF; the WBO would not form as a splinter group from the WBA until 1989 and would not crown a champion who did not inspire peals of laughter from anyone instructed to take that title seriously until at least 1991 (Ray Mercer) and quite possibly as late as 1995 (Riddick Bowe), depending on how you feel about Tommy Morrison as a heavyweight champion.
Over the next two years, not only would Tyson unify the actual belts (from Bonecrusher Smith and Tony Tucker, respectively, in 1987), but also claim the lineal title held by Michael Spinks in the greatest moment of Tyson’s career, the 91-second demolition of the champion-in-name-only on June 27, 1988.
Which brings us to another important sporting moment in 1988 in boxing:
September 29, 1988: Alex Miroshnichenko (URS) KO2 Riddick Bowe (USA), Seoul Olympics
The hardline Soviet leadership, far from boycotting the Games in South Korea over North Korean protest of the IOC’s refusal to allow them joint hosting, decided instead to use the Games as a political statement to the world of a different sort; one of unbridled dominance of the Red Army and its boxing team, given special treatment even on top of the Soviet Union’s historic penchant for using the Olympic Games as a showcase for their semi-professional athletes.
1988 was also the year of the Games so tainted by steroids that all anyone seems to remember is Ben Johnson of Canada’s positive test and the numerous rumors surrounding Florence Griffth-Joyner’s still-extant 10.49-second 100-meter dash world record, a feat still not even close to having been broken, that it was not a faulty wind gauge (and thus a stiff breeze at her back) that led to so swift a time but rather the kinds of steroids that even Mr. Ed on a formula of Lasix and Mountain Dew would be hard-pressed to piss out.
Speaking of Rocky IV, was it ever established what was in that syringe they stuck Dolph Lundgren with during the training montage? Whatever that stuff purported to be in the film, they damn sure shot a bunch of it into Miroshnichenko for his training for the Games, and somehow the same anti-doping people who went after Flo-Jo seemed to be after the big Russian, which is to say the testing was done by the Keystone Kops.
Whatever the result, what in the prime timeline was a decision win for Bowe despite hitting the canvas twice (keep in mind these were the same Games where Roy Jones got robbed and changed the Olympic judging system forever) turned in our story to the Russian smashing the American in front of him as Viktor Chebrikov and his goon Vladimir Putin watched stoically in the box seats.
Oh, and Lennox Lewis, the Canadian for Olympic purposes who beat Bowe in the final? Miroshnichenko got rid of him too. Lewis would have to settle for silver.
Not that any of this mattered in the pros. The Soviets had other ideas for their fighter, namely keeping him in the Red Army rather than letting him go pro, the same problem that had bedeviled their hockey players and kept them out of the NHL for all those years when the Soviet Olympic hockey team was otherwise at least a match for and often the better of their Canadian counterparts.
Lewis was the best guy in that tournament who was actually eligible to become a professional afterward.
It is here that we close for this week; next week, the 1990s unfold without those pesky Russians to get in the way, and we haven’t heard the last of the Klitschko family. They may be cooling their heels in Kazakhstan as our story makes its turn from the administrations of Reagan to Bush in the United States, but young Vitali in particular has shown something of a talent for boxing…
Fox Doucette covers Friday Night Fights for The Boxing Tribune and writes the weekly What If alternate-history series for this publication. His opinion column, The Southpaw, appears on Thursdays. Fan mail, hate mail, and howling about just how utterly implausible that Putin scenario really is can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.