ONE was at war with his own government, a maverick, a quality and divisive heavyweight fighter. The other one was Muhammad Ali.
Igor Vysotsky was the man in the loud Soviet red vest in the third of three two-round exhibition fights – they were called “comrade training fights” – to take place in front of 4,000 people at the Central Army Sports Club in Moscow in June 1978.
Ali was on a ten-day peace mission to the Soviet Union. He met Leonid Brezhnev in the Kremlin, flew to Tashkent, kissed the heads of babies, ran in Red Square at 6am and foolishly agreed to the exhibitions. “I was not at my best,” he explained when the fights were shown in America.
Vysotsky was known in America, a regular in the now, sadly, defunct and hugely popular Soviet v USA matches. The Cold War fight nights were great. At the Sahara in Las Vegas in 1976 he had blasted out Tony Tubbs; at the Hilton in the same city the following year he had lost a split decision to Greg Page. In 1975 Big Igor – who was arguably the best amateur heavyweight in the world at the time – fought at Madison Square Garden and dropped Jimmy Clark twice before losing on cuts in the third round. Igor’s name was in lights that night. Vysotsky knocked out Clark at the same venue the following year. Cuts cursed Igor, his thick brows are criss-crossed with hefty mounds of crudely stitched skin; he was never stopped or dropped from punches, just the damned cuts. He lost 24 and won 161 times.
In 1973 Vysotsky travelled to Havana and beat the Olympic champion Teofilo Stevenson on points. This is the fearsome Stevenson who sent men to sleep with ease and from either hand. It was not a fluke and in April 1976, at a tournament in Minsk, Vysotsky stopped Stevenson in the third round. It was just a few months before the Montreal Olympics. These are not “comrade training fights”, these are the real thing. Vysotsky was the real thing, but he had a history and that was a barrier inside the Soviet system. His face – and there was a lot of it – simply never fit. I have interviewed men of sixty from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan who swear that the blonde haired and blue-eyed Russians and Ukrainians were given all the spots on teams. Vysotsky was not a pin-up, he was a labour-camp baby, a gulag kid.
Vysotsky was conceived by his two exiled parents at a gulag called Magadan, a remote port on the Sea of Okhotsk. He was born surrounded by criminals and political prisoners, an outcast, one of the lost, one of the millions of nameless and forgotten victims. His father had been a war hero against the Germans, but he was wounded and taken prisoner and not celebrated when he escaped. There is a tale that his father, a Soviet Jew, had his own exhibtion against a former world heavyweight champion when he met Max Schmeling over two rounds in a POW camp. Hey, it’s a nice tale and it might just be true.
At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal the mighty Cubans panicked. They took Stevenson, but had a replacement if the Soviets had entered Vysotsky. This is not an apocryphal story, this happened, it is true. The Cubans sent Angel Milian, who had won two of three meetings with Vysotsky, to Canada. But, it was an unnecessary precaution; Vysotsky had suffered a cut in the pre-Olympic training camp and was out. It was a wound that suited the men in power running the secret Soviet boxing machine.
Stevenson won his second gold medal and would have sat on the bench if Vysotsky had not been cut. “It was my weakness,” Vysotsky said.
In early 1978 there was another of the bloody and addictive Soviet and USA matches, this time in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Vysotsky won again, beating Mitch “Blood” Green over three rounds on points. Big Igor was close to unbeatable if he was not cut and if he was given a fair shake by the authorities. He never was and, it has to be said, all of the evidence I have acquired over the years suggests that he was a difficult man to deal with, never slow to question the powers. He was born under harsh conditions, had to fight for his freedom from his days in the labour camp and any pleasures he had were snatched, never given. In his boxing days it seems he never lost his attitude and there were endless skirmishes with the grey men from the party in charge of sport. His defiance makes me like him even more.
Ali wore a long white robe for the walk to the ring for the exhibition with Vysotsky and was flanked rather controversially by a small group of American marines, men released from their embassy duty to guard Ali. The cameras were rolling, he was carrying about fifteen extra pounds, mostly resting on the waistband of his white satin shorts. He was topless that day in Moscow and I’m not sure when a man without a vest was last in a Russian ring? Ali had lost his world heavyweight title in February of the year to Leon Spinks.
Round one is gentle, a tap here, a counter tap there – so far, so exhibition. Ali moved his feet a few times, set himself and never let the punches go. Big Igor, wearing the iconic brown gloves with the white scoring patch across the knuckle area, also found good angles and could have let his right cross go a dozen times. That was the first round at the Central Army Sports Club in front of the leading members of the Communist party. Two outcasts in one ring, two men with a history of rebellion against their governments. I like to think Igor and Ali could have been friends. Igor and Stevenson were like “brothers”.
In round two, with about a minute left, it all gets a bit more serious. It was quality, class from both and the punches flowed. There was no decision, no need.
Ten weeks later Ali won the world title back, beating Spinks in the rematch. Big Igor must have strolled about that day like a giant, a proud man and a Soviet boxing icon. It was, my friend, a real boxing exhibition.