by Fox Doucette
Welcome to Part 2 of the What If Klitschko Special, examining a world where the Soviet Union never falls and the best Eastern Bloc heavyweights never turn pro, starring the Klitschko brothers, with special guest star Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky:
In Kazakhstan, where Vladimir Rodionovich Klitschko, his wife, and his two sons were exiled following the coup d’etat that took Mikhail Gorbachev off the Soviet throne (such as it was) and installed Viktor Chebrikov and his KGB goon Vladimir Putin as the power players in this Cold War political drama, young Vitali Klitschko saw that his best chance to avoid a mindless life as a factory worker in the endless steppes of Central Asia was to prove himself exceptional in some manner of sporting discipline. Fortunately, the rough and tumble of growing up with a brother and a healthy sense of sibling rivalry, along with being a Ukrainian among the Kazakh people and the natural inter-cultural rivalries that undermined the best Soviet attempt at a Russian national unity that would get a kid into fights during his education, showed that Vitali—and his brother—had quite the talent for fisticuffs.
Wlad was still too young to make real waves in advance of the 1992 Games in Barcelona, but Vitali, who would be twenty-one in time for the opening ceremonies on July 25, was slated as a super heavyweight, weighing as he did 105 kilograms (231 pounds) on his big frame. There were just two small problems.
First, and most obviously, the position of the best super heavyweight in the Soviet Union was already held by defending 1988 Olympic gold medalist Alex Miroshnichenko, who was not about to step aside and gently yield his position, not when he was to be only twenty-eight and when he did not have a professional career waiting for him, that avenue having been closed by the Soviet regime’s keeping him in the Red Army for a day job.
Secondly, how in the hell was a guy with the last name Klitschko going to get a fair shake at the Soviet Olympic Trials in the first place? His family was out of favor with the regime, after all; his father was alive only due to the mercy of Chebrikov, who spared his life out of thanks for prior favors, but who was by no means in a particularly generous mood.
Vitali was in his usual off-hours spot at the boxing gym in Alma-Ata musing on the Olympic Trials with his trainer, asking how he could ever hope to be allowed to compete. Fortunately, the trainer, who himself had a bit of an odd background, being a mathematician by day when not training fighters for the local boxing bouts to entertain the proletariat, took a bit of inspiration from one of his idols in academia and came up with a plan.
“Bozhe moi, you ask such favor of me. But I will help,” said the mathematician.
“You will? You can? How?” Vitali looked at the man with a bit of healthy skepticism to go along with the hopeful look that was fighting to get out from beneath the surface that any good Soviet knew to keep over his positive emotions.
“Well, you see, it’s like this. I have a friend in Minsk, who has a friend in Pinsk, whose friend in Omsk has friend in Tomsk with friend in Akmolinsk. Whose friend in Petropavlovsk has friend in Alexandrovsk, whose friend somehow is training now the fighters in Dnepropetrovsk!”
“And Dnepropetrovsk is where the Sports Ministry is holding the Olympic competition.”
“Exactly. Igor Vysotsky is training fighters. He fought Muhammad Ali once, you know, in sparring. Chebrikov says he wants to show Amerikanski that knockout of Riddick Bowe was not luck, that Soviet Union has best boxers in world. If Vysotsky believes you can beat America, Chebrikov will let you fight.”
“Call your friend in Minsk.”
April 3, 1992: Vitali Klitschko Arrives in Dnepropetrovsk
It was the first time a member of the Klitschko family had stepped foot in Ukraine in six years, but Vitali had no time to reminisce on childhood memories, and not just because Dnepropetrovsk is nowhere near Kiev, a bit like dropping someone from New York in Minneapolis and expecting him to have fond memories of America when you’ve kept him in the Yukon for six years.
The simple point at issue here is that the man had work to do. He was fighting for the good of his family name. He was fighting for the pride he had in his chosen sporting path. He was fighting, at least a little, to make Alex Miroschnichenko look like a sap. Olympic gold? That would be nice too.
Chebrikov sent Vladimir Putin to survey the scene at the Soviet Olympic training facilities, to meet the athletes, to remind them of the importance of fighting for the Rodina-Mat and for the favor of the Kremlin, and to take some suitably badass-looking photo ops with the fighters for Pravda.
When Putin got to Klitschko, the two men could barely conceal their contempt for one another. To Putin, Klitschko was the son of a traitor, an extra-special irony insofar as Putin himself had switched his loyalties so easily when the Stasi recruited him into the conspiracy against the regime in the first place. To Klitschko, Putin was naught but a petty tyrant, a puffed-up little boy who took a little too much pleasure in being Viktor Chebrikov’s dog. Vladimir the elder had told his sons that whatever else could be said about Viktor Chebrikov, at least the man acted in what he truly believed to be the best path for Mother Russia and that he held no animosity toward the man. The same could not be said for Vladimir Putin—perhaps publicly, when loyalties would be in question in the eyes of the KGB, but never in private.
After seeing Putin act extra-friendly toward Hero of the Soviet Union, Alex Miroschnichenko, Vitali Klitschko had a new motivation. He wanted to knock the head clean off the dog’s favorite toy, and there was a little extra smetana—what the Russians call sour cream, and they love it like Americans love barbecue sauce—on his punches when he hit the heavy bag. Vitali was a man on a mission, a man fighting for something greater than himself.
The trials went on, fighters sorted out first into groups and then into a knockout tournament to determine who would hold the super heavyweight spot at the Barcelona Games. Vitali Klitschko found himself on the opposite side of the draw from his arch-nemesis, fighting toward him the way Daniel LaRusso fought his way toward Johnny Lawrence. When the final came…
April 22, 1992: Vitali Klitschko KO1 (0:14) Alex Miroschnichenko
Vitali’s weapon of choice may have, in some manner, been sour cream, but more to the point, he beat the living borscht out of his rival in the final contest of the Olympic Trials with a single straight right hand. Viktor Chebrikov wanted a man who could go to Spain and beat the Americans. It sure looked like he had his man.
July 29, 1992: Vitali Klitschko (URS) KO2 Larry Donald (USA)
In an odd twist of fate, the Americans sent a very weak boxing team to the Barcelona Games. Rather than draw Larry Donald into the bracket such that the two global superpowers would be matched up for a gold medal, Donald simply was not well-enough regarded by the Olympic tournament organizers to be given the courtesy. He was essentially seeded as a sacrificial lamb, and what in many a sports movie would be an underdog’s comeback story for Donald turned into a curb stomp in the first fight for each man after the opening-round bye that each had been given.
Donald looked about ready to fold at the outset of this fight. Viktor Chebrikov had sent the tape of Klitschko’s knockout of the 1988 Olympic gold medalist around the world, to friend and foe of the Motherland alike, and in the States, it ran on SportsCenter and it ran on NBC’s Olympic advertising and Donald himself had to see the now-114-kilogram (250-pound) Klitschko, bulked up and stronger than he’d been in his life, thought to himself “Look at the size of that Russian!” and damn near soiled his trunks.
Larry Donald never stood a chance, and the end came in round two, after Klitschko had used the jab and straight right as much like a professional as like an amateur simply trying to out-point his opponent; the score had to have been something like a hundred to nothing by the time the straight right that ended the fight landed. A cat would not do such things to a mouse, having eaten the rodent far earlier in the proceedings. Vitali Klitschko was a patient man…but perhaps more to the point, he was drawing out the slaughter both as tribute to Chebrikov’s ambitions and as “take that” to Chebrikov’s canine companion in human form.
August 9, 1992: Vitali Klitschko (URS) def. Roberto Balado (CUB), 17:4
Three rounds, seventeen scoring blows against the impossibility of Olympic judging, and an utterly flummoxed Cuban fighter who thought for sure he had an amateur’s chance of shoe-shining his way to a win in the gold medal bout, and the tournament was over. Vitali Klitschko had scored the ultimate prize for himself, brought honor to his family name, made Vladimir Putin look like a sap, made the Soviet Union look unstoppable in matters pugilistic, and left a mark on all watching around the world.
Meanwhile, in the pros…
Unless you think Oleg Maskaev is one of the greats of Russian boxing, we’re still not at the point in this tale where the pro ranks are terribly affected by the goings-on here; Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield smacked around Buster Douglas, Tyson went to jail, Lennox Lewis established himself as a professional after that silver medal in Seoul from the last part of this tale, Michael Moorer and George Foreman and fringe guys like Frank Bruno and David Tua and Bruce Seldon (but notably not Andrew Golota, who was still stuck behind the Iron Curtain himself in Poland, which was still a Soviet satellite state, the Berlin Wall being still very much intact in our timeline here) held titles at some level somewhere…it is another tale for another day if boxing is better off with one or two dominant champions who never look like losing their titles or if the sheer volume of mediocre fighters coupled with plenty of available belts makes boxing better by making it look more competitive even as the competition simply isn’t that good.
Back in the USSR:
Klitschko’s trainer back in Alma-Ata was delighted. From Dnepropetrovsk to Petropavlovsk, by way of Iliysk and Novorossiysk to Alexandrovsk to Akmolinsk to Tomsk to Omsk to Pinsk to Minsk to him the news did run…and in turn, he relayed the news to Vladimir and family not only of the older son’s success but that they were urgently required in Moscow—Chebrikov had heard of Klitschko the elder’s unfailing respect and loyalty to the man who had shown him mercy, and perhaps the time was nigh for the family to restore their pride of place within the Soviet Union and be allowed a return. Besides, Vitali had a younger brother, yes? It is his odyssey we pick up next week, as the word “rapprochement” gets used in a boxing column—who says the souls of Damon Runyon and Ernest Hemingway are dead?
Fox Doucette writes the weekly What If series for The Boxing Tribune and covers (what’s left of) ESPN Friday Night Fights for this publication. We apologize for the delay this week—a rather nasty illness forced the writing process on hold for an extra day. To those bothered by the blatant theft of Tom Lehrer’s lyrics from “Lobachevsky”, it behooves to remember the line from the song that leads into this week’s title…
Fan mail, hate mail, and suggestions for working “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” into next week’s episode can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.