Ranking the 10 Best Eastern European Fighters in Boxing Today
Even as longstanding, historic tensions flare up in his native Ukraine, world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko is preparing to defend his belts next month against Alex Leapai of Australia. Meanwhile, the elder Klitschko brother, Vitali, has stepped away from the sport to devote his full attention to helping his country through this time of crisis.
During the years of the Cold War, fighters from the Eastern European Soviet Bloc dominated the amateur scene. Since the fall of the "Iron Curtain," fighters from that region have gradually become fixtures in the professional ranks.
For this list I have included any boxers from transcontinental countries that straddle the Eurasian landmass. So a few of the names here are technically Asians.
10. Tomasz Adamek
Poland's Tomasz Adamek lost to up-and-coming heavyweight contender Vyacheslav Glazkov last month by unanimous decision. Still, his overall resume merits mention on this list.
After an outstanding amateur career, Adamek turned professional in 1999. As a light heavyweight and cruiser, he was a bruising, punishing fighter and a dominant world champion in both divisions.
As a heavyweight, he has consistently ranked in the top 10, despite being a small fighter by modern heavyweight standards. In 2011 he put on a gutsy performance against Vitali Klitschko, who dwarfed him, before going down by Round 10 TKO.
At 37, he may no longer have the speed and timing to compete against bigger men.
9. Vyacheslav Glazkov
Vyacheslav Glazkov won a bronze medal for Ukraine in the 2008 Olympics. So far as a professional, the heavyweight has maintained an undefeated record. However, I had him losing in his 2013 draw with Malik Scott.
Glazkov is a technically skilled boxer, and although he is relatively small by heavyweight standards, he is durable. He's promoted by Kathy Duva and Main Events, who have done an excellent job in recent years of promoting Eastern European fighters on the East Coast of the United States.
Glazkov's win last month over Tomasz Adamek is a great career milestone, although I do feel he might have caught Adamek in a career decline. I'm far from sold on Glazkov as a future world champion, but he is definitely one of the heavyweights who could make the division interesting as the sport emerges into the post-Klitschko era.
8. Alexander Povetkin
If this was 2008 or so, Alexander Povetkin would rank much higher on this list. At that point, the Olympic gold medalist was fresh off beating Larry Donald, Chris Byrd and Eddie Chambers and was already being discussed as the best possible candidate to face one of the Klitschko brothers.
Teddy Atlas was brought in as his trainer during this time and wisely assessed his fighter as not quite ready for the Klitschkos. Unfortunately, that delay stretched out for the better part of a decade, and Povetkin didn't end up with his long-awaited showdown until finally facing Wladimir Klitschko last fall.
Along the way, Povetkin held a "regular world title" that the WBA invented for him. It was taken about as seriously as a circus clown. When Povetkin finally got into the ring with Klitschko, he lost by one-sided unanimous decision.
Still, he remains arguably the second-best active heavyweight in the world. And his fight with Klitschko might have at least been more interesting if Luis Pabon had enforced the rules and prevented the much taller champion from leaning on Povetkin all fight.
7. Kubrat Pulev
In my opinion, nobody in the world right now is more deserving of a shot at Wladimir Klitschko than Kubrat Pulev of Bulgaria. The former amateur star is undefeated and has beaten better competition than Deontay Wilder or Tyson Fury have.
In 2012, Pulev knocked out 32-1 Alexander Dmitrenko and undefeated Alexander Ustinov, both 6'7" giants. Last year he added the always dangerous Tony Thompson to his resume, adjusting well to the crafty veteran to earn a decisive unanimous decision.
I'm not convinced that Pulev could beat Klitschko, but he's got the height and skill to potentially reach the champion's notoriously vulnerable chin. If he doesn't get his shot this year or early next year, it will be an injustice.
6. Marco Huck
Serbian-born Marco Huck lost an extremely close majority decision to Alexander Povetkin in 2012. But this is a pound-for-pound list, and the current resident of Berlin is arguably the best cruiserweight in the world right now, so I am ranking him above the heavyweight contender.
Like the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers, Huck has become a very popular fighter in Germany. His trilogy with Ola Afolabi has been one of boxing's great, but overlooked, rivalries over the past few years. Huck has also fought a two-fight series with Firat Arslan since 2012, winning their second battle by Round 6 TKO last January.
Huck is the WBO champion at 200 pounds, and I'd love to see him in a unification fight with Cuba's Yoan Pablo Hernandez, the IBF champ.
5. Evgeny Gradovich
Evgeny Gradovich stepped up on short notice to take a shot at IBF featherweight champion Billy Dib on the March 1, 2013, episode of Friday Night Fights. The result was a split-decision victory for Gradovich and a world championship for him in just his 16th professional fight.
Gradovich is a great example of what makes so many of the Eastern European fighters a threat. Even a generation after the collapse of Communism, the popularity of the combat sports ensures a significant degree of support for members of the national teams in sports like boxing, judo and wrestling.
As a result, fighters like Gradovich are able to have sustained amateur careers as they continue to hone their craft.
But Gradovich made a full commitment to his professional transition, moving to Oxnard, Calif., to train at the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy. Gradovich's gym-mates have embraced him, nicknaming him the "Mexican Russian."
Gradovich's quick rate of improvement was obvious last November, when he won the rematch with Dib by Round 9 TKO.
4. Ruslan Provodnikov
Ruslan Provodnikov is a native of Siberia, one of the most rugged places on the planet. That makes him an Asian, but it also makes him a Russian, so I've decided to include him here.
Provodnikov fights like a boxer forged on the cold Siberian tundra. He is a powerful, durable and relentless opponent.
Provodnikov has lost just twice in his career. In 2011 he dropped a contested decision against the crafty Mauricio Herrera.
Last year was Provodnikov's breakout campaign. In March he gave pound-for-pound star Timothy Bradley a brutal beating, even as he lost on the cards, in a "Fight of the Year" effort.
In October Provodnikov captured the WBO light welterweight title when he gave Mike Alvarado a shellacking and won by Round 10 TKO. Provodnikov is scheduled to return to action in June but with no opponent yet named.
I'm not sure how anxious anybody is to climb into the ring with the "Siberian Rocky," regardless of what alphabet-soup belts are on the line.
3. Sergey Kovalev
Sergey Kovalev exploded onto the international boxing scene in 2013, going 4-0 for the year with four KOs and capturing the WBO light heavyweight title in August when he stopped unbeaten Nathan Cleverly in four brutal rounds.
Along with WBC champion Adonis Stevenson, Kovalev has made the 175-pound division one of the hottest in the sport as we head into the warmer months of 2014.
Like most of this list, Kovalev has a strong amateur background. But he's also one of the most dangerous punchers in the sport.
Kovalev is 23-0-1 in his career with 21 KOs. The draw was a technical draw, when the fight was stopped after two rounds.
Heading into his defense against Cedric Agnew this weekend, Kovalev is riding a streak of six straight stoppages. His fights have gotten shorter as his competition has improved.
2. Gennady Golovkin
Like Ruslan Provodnikov, Gennady Golovkin is technically from Asia. His native Kazakhstan is a transcontinental country, with the majority of its land mass on the Asian side of the Ural river.
Still, a portion of the nation is in Europe, and its historical and cultural ties have been largely connected to Europe since the 18th century.
Since winning a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, Golovkin has put his nation on the map in the boxing world. Beyond his strong amateur background, "GGG" is among the most ferocious punchers in the sport.
The WBA middleweight champion is 29-0 with 26 KOs and currently has a streak of 16 straight stoppages. He's among the most avoided fighters in the sport, and as a result, he has yet to get a fight with another world champion.
But it's a mistake to dismiss Golovkin's record. Golovkin has completely smashed numerous fighters who had fought very competitive bouts and won rounds against other middleweight world champions.
1. Wladimir Klitschko
At this point, world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko will likely never get popular with North American fans. His ugly, safety-first, clinch-fest victory over Alexander Povetkin last October seems to have established that once and for all.
Still, Klitschko's defenses all sell out in Germany. So the Ukrainian Klitschko can be forgiven for thinking he can do just fine without the American boxing public behind him.
Just the same, fans in the United States should be willing to give credit where it's deserved. Klitschko has dominated the heavyweight division for a decade, despite having a vulnerable chin.
That's not an easy task in any era, even one as weak as this one has been. I'd also argue that, like Joe Louis in the 1940s, the talent of the Klitschko brothers has made the rest of the field look like less than it actually is.
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