By Alexey Sukachev
This month Russian boxing celebrates a memorable date. Twenty years ago a group of then-Soviet amateur stars and standouts, led by young coach Alexander Zimin, signed agreements with the worldwide known Kyoei Boxing Gym and relocated themselves to Japan in order to become one of the first Russian professionals in history. Six men were chosen to begin their search for stardom. Bigger and heavier Ramzan Sebiyev, Ruslan Taramov and Vyacheslav Yakovlev weren’t destined to become stars among Japanese boxing fans even though they certainly brought some attention to the power of Soviet boxing. Vyacheslav Yanovskiy did much better but at 33 he was too old to reach for considerable success and to fully adjust his style to the needs of pro boxing. He competed well but didn’t get his title chance and later came back to Russia. Those who really made a colossal impact on the world boxing scene were lightweight Orzubek Nazarov (originally from Kant, Kyrgyzstan) and flyweight Yuri Arbachakov.
Nazarov captured the WBA lightweight belt in 1993 following two wide decisions over three-time world champion Dingaan Thobela and defended it five times more, including stoppage wins over American former titlists Joey Gamache and Levander Johnson, before suffering a badly torn retina and dropping road decision to Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Mendy.
Arbachakov did even better. He entered pro ranks following a stellar amateur career (165 win and 21 losses), which saw him capturing consecutive Soviet, European and world titles in his breakthrough year of 1989. After just five victories at paid ranks over nondescript opposition he stopped ex-IBF champion Roland Bohol in two rounds and after another tune-up captured the Japanese national belt with a horrific first-round kayo over Takahiro Mizuno. On June 23 in 1992 Arbachakov became the first Russian (and the first ex-Soviet expatriate as well) to become a world champion when he decisively beat two-time titleholder Muangchai Kittikasem to the punch before knocking him out in the eighth round. Later that year he defended his WBC flyweight belt via a well-deserved decision over unbeaten Korean Yun Un Chin (27-0 at the time) and in early 1993 travelled all way to Lop Buri, Thailand, to get the better of Kittikasem for the second time. A number of defenses followed, including points victory over Ysaias Zamudio (33-3-1), kayo of Hugo Rafael Soto (39-1-2) and a hard-fought decision over rising Thai Chatchai Sasakul (20-0). During his last successful outing Arbachakov broke his injury-prone right hand but nevertheless stopped Japanese Takato Tokuchi (18-2) in nine rounds on Aug. 23 in 1996, retaining his title for the ninth time. That contest proved to be Yuri’s last stand at glory. After 15 months of hiatus he came back in a rematch versus Thai Sasakul and dropped a wide unanimous decision to him, effectively ending what was a stellar pro career. After less than eight years as a pro, Arbachakov compiled a record of 23 wins (16 by way of knockout) with a single loss. He is now recognized as one of the finest flyweights ever to step into the ring. Fightnews contacted the Russian legend to reveal some memories and to speak about his current work.
Yuri, Fightnews is glad to congratulate you on the 20th anniversary of your pro debut in Japan.
Thanks a lot, a nice date and I appreciate your attention.
Let’s revive these memorable days. How did you start fighting as a pro in Japan?
I remember I was offered a pro contract by Kyoei Gym head manager Mac Kanehira after the domestic world championship (Moscow 1989), where I had won a gold medal. I wasn’t alone. There were six of us there and we decided to give it a try. Along with Orzubek (Nazarov) I was the youngest part of the team.
How fast have you adjusted your boxing style to the new requirements of the paid ranks? Was it hard for you or not?
Pretty fast indeed. I didn’t feel a huge difference between amateur and pro boxing. Of course, I was a bit cautious about fighting as a pro. I had never fought in such a way. But my amateur background was pretty decorated; I had tons of combat experience and that definitely had helped me much.
You entered pro ranks as an amateur star right after a huge year of 1989 when you had won a number of sound competitions. One says first pro opponents are usually much weaker than most accomplished amateurs. Did you feel that way?
Yes, definitely I felt that way. I had never faced a strong opposition up until my first world title fight. Those foes at the very start of my pro boxing career were weak indeed. I had no problems dealing with them easily.
You have faced a handful of Asian fighters of different origin during your days in the paid ranks. Which Asian boxing style was the most difficult to deal with?
Asian fighters prefer to fight in close quarters or at middle range in a pretty unorthodox, awkward and viscous way. Japanese fighters are very willing and energetic; Thais are better technicians and one cannot find more durable guys than Korean fighters. However, I cannot say it was that hard to cope with their styles. It all depends on their level, not on their nationality.
Have you ever faced your amateur opponents during your stay at pros?
You started your professional career with a string of devastating kayos (11 of 12 wins before the world title shot had ended in knockouts, including a ten-fight string of stoppages). However, that all changed when you became a world champion. What was the reason for a significant decrease in kayo production rates?
The level of opposition had significantly raised and it surely made its toll on my performances. As I have already said, my initial opposition was pretty poor. But I cannot say the same about champion-level opponents. It was pretty hard to stop them inside the distance. I had to use all my skill set to get the better of them.
Who was the most difficult and the toughest opponent of your entire career?
Chatchai (Sasakul). I remember that guy fighting in amateurs and he was pretty good. He was a good technician and a durable, willing fighter, which gave me tons of problems.
You won your first encounter with Sasakul on points back in 1995. However, two years later he outpointed you in Sapporo and wrestled your belt away. A long hiatus preceded that contest. What was the reason for such a long layoff and why have you lost to Sasakul at the end of the day?
There were a number of reasons. I had broken my right hand and I was forced to take a long time to recover. I was fading a bit too as I felt myself completely fatigued of pro boxing. In fact, there was enough boxing for me at that point in my career.
Your head coach Alexander Zimin told me you had no desire to fight Sasakul for the second time and that you were drained and tired of all these contests and competitions.
If I had wanted to fight Chatchai, I would have dug deep into myself and maybe, just maybe, I would have found some extra resources to get a victory. But Alexander Vasilyevich (Zimin) is right. I didn’t really want to fight Sasakul. I was very tired of boxing.
Can you please summarize for us your impressions about your pro career? What have you done and what have you not? What was your greatest accomplishment?
Well, I don’t want to say anything this way. Frankly speaking, I turned pro to earn some money and not to become the greatest of all time. Money was my main goal and titles followed them. I don’t know boxing history well enough to assess my stance among champions of the past and present. However, I feel that I achieved some recognition and made some accomplishments.
Have you earned anything of note during your pro career?
Our fees were pretty small, especially in comparison with heavyweights. But it was a big step up in terms of money after fighting in USSR. I have saved some money from my boxing days, that’s for sure.
You were pretty popular in Japan, partly because of your Asian looks and certainly due to your skill set. Why haven’t you stayed there following the end of your boxing career?
Well, I had been working for a year in Japan as a coach until our little gym was closed for some reasons. I saw no reason to stay in Japan any longer.
What can you say about Japanese boxing fans?
They are specific but I felt their support during the entire stay in Japan. I want to thank them for their hospitality and I hope I gave them some memorable fights to be proud with.
Have you had any offers to fight overseas in America?
Really, I was unaware of any. It’s the promoter who decides where and whom you will fight next. As I realize, Japan is the citadel of world boxing in lighter weight classes. Fees, TV coverage and fans attention to the sport (particularly to flyweights.) So it was beneficial for everyone to fight in Japan.
Have your learned how to speak Japanese while living overseas?
I can speak some Japanese and I can understand what they are saying but, unfortunately, I cannot read what they are writing.
What are you doing now? Are you still connected to boxing?
Yes, I am. I’m working as an official for the Interregional Professional Boxing Federation (president is Vazha Mikaelyan). I’m judging some fights in St. Petersburg and neighboring regions.
There were rumors that you will help rising Russian prospect Alexander Bakhtin to prepare better for his next fight on Feb. 22 in Izhevsk.
I can help Team Bakhtin whenever they want me to help. However, I feel there should be a single head coach inside the training camp. Alexander Zimin is a great trainer who can give much help to a young fighter and my presence there is unnecessary. I’m sure Zimin will prepare Sasha for the upcoming fight in Izhevsk. I saw Bakhtin fighting. He is a good technician and a well-rounded boxer with a nice set of skills. I’m sure he is ready for stepping up in class. I’ll root for him and I wish him all the best.