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Flyweight Champion

On October 22nd, 1966, in a place called Ust’-Kezes, a remote forested Russian village located on the western Siberian plains and in a region that one would be hard-pressed to find accurate population numbers for, the last child in a family of ten was born. This sizable family was the product of a marriage which saw the mother and father bring four children from their previous relationships into harmonious unison with one another before adding two more to their ancestral line. When the last of these siblings was reared and of age, he treaded the same path that many indigenous youngsters of the region do: He attended boarding school in the small town of Tashtagol and took part in its boxing program.

Upon completion of his early education, he decided to pursue an institution which provided him the means of taking advantage of the area’s mining-based economy, so he enrolled in Tashtagol Mining College. While there, he sharpened the mental edges with tools of instruction and forged his physical tools of future pugilistic success on heavy bags, speed bags, and tightly held mitts. Those around him took note of his superb coordination, flawless technique, swiftness of hand and foot, and piercing power. They also admired the work ethic of this Asiatic stripling, who gave it a hard day’s work whenever he stepped foot in the gym. This Siberian purveyor of in-ring craft was future flyweight champion, Yuri Arbachakov.

Yuri wound up graduating, but his long road to professional fistic engagements was preceded by a mandatory stint in the Soviet Army. As a part of the “Red Army”, he met boxing trainer Vladimir Petrovic Kuregeshev. Arbachakov and Kuregeshev proved a wonderful tandem in the amateur ranks, as Arbachakov came out of the gate strongly, placing 2nd only behind Sergei Yeun in the Championship of Russia (1985). This valiant showing helped win Kuregeshev a “Masters of Sports” honor the following year. Arbachakov quickly followed up his success with hard-fought victories in the Championship of Siberia and the Far East, the Games of the Peoples of the Russian Federation, and a number of international tournaments.

1987 was largely a good year for the budding Soviet amateur standout, as well. However he met a roadblock in former World, European, four-time Soviet and multi-time Armenian Champion, Nshan Munchyan, losing to the stellar Armenian in the semifinals of the National Championships. The year after saw Yuri overlooked as a 51kg representative for the Soviet Union in the Olympic Games, which were held in Seoul, South Korea. Instead, Timofey Skryabin, a native Moldovan, was chosen. Skryabin had a good showing and went onto win the bronze medal, losing to the eventual gold medal winner in South Korean, Kwang-Sun Kim.

Arbachakov, like any good competitor, was undeterred by his setbacks. In fact, they only seemed to inspire him, for immediately thereafter any perceived cracks in the Soviet boxer’s game were caulked with extensive training. This became evident in his next year of competition. He took on and defeated the best domestic competition available (Champion of the Soviet Union); overcame the best Europe had to offer (European Championships); and edged former world amateur champion Pedro Orlando Reyes by the score of 18-17 in the World Championships, which happened to be held in Moscow. The Soviet Russia-Cuban final wasn’t without its share of controversy, however. The Siberian-native seemed to better the southpaw operator from the West Indies in the first round, but the second segment saw Reyes apply effective pressure and land a counter-punch that crushed Arbachakov’s nose. The crimson liquid frantically spilled from the wound and the Cuban continued to pour on the aggression. Seeing the damage inflicted on Yuri’s fleshy protuberance, the referee took counsel and decided to halt the contest. Since the hometown fighter was ahead on points at the time, he was awarded the victory, much to the dismay of Reyes and his team.

A mere days after Arbachakov’s greatest amateur triumph he was approached by light-welterweight gold medalist Vyacheslav Yanovskiy. The heavily mustached Yanovskiy notified his fellow gloved-game brethren that the professional ranks were an option and that Japanese promoters had come to Moscow to scout local talent. The Kyoei Gym, a world player in the boxing scene and keen on taking the Asian-looking pugilist home with them, offered incentive in the assurance of $2,200 a month simply to train—a considerable sum of money not only for a Soviet citizen of the time, but also for one hailing from the backwater plains of Siberia. After seeking the advice of his coach and realizing that there was no guarantee that he would take part in the next Olympics three years from then, the World Amateur Champion decided to pursue an occupation as a professional world titleholder.

Yuri Arbachakov wasn’t the only one who chose to exhibit his hardened skills in the pro boxing forum. Other Soviet amateur standouts in Vyacheslav Yakovlev, Ramzan Sebiyev, Ruslan Taramov, Orzubek Nazarov and the aforementioned Vyacheslav Yanovskiy, all signed an agreement with the same gym and emigrated to Japan as part of Perestroika Program. The process wasn’t complete, however. This band of Russian chin thieves needed glue and they found it in a mentor who could relate culturally while being displaced in a foreign land, the Leningrad-based trainer, Alexander Vasilyevich Zimin. The young Zimin was a personal guide to Vyacheslav Yakovlev and had worked with the others on the USSR national team. He was a natural choice.

So, with hopes and dreams in one hand and a bag full of gym essentials in the other, Arbachakov touched down in the “Land of the Rising Sun.” Straight away the Soviet transplant got to work, understanding full well his purpose. And this purpose was on its way to being fulfilled on the first day of February, 1990, in Tokyo, Japan, on a card stacked with Yuri’s teammates and Russian history. Yuri Arbachakov, for the first time as a professional, and one of the first ex-Soviets to do so, crossed through a pair of taut ropes and entered the squared circle as a paid representative. His opponent: Allan Tanaka, a Filipino who held a record of 0-4.

The contest proved a success, as the 5’4” orthodox fighter accumulated enough damage to have the referee call a halt to the contest in the third round. Despite the end result, it wasn’t smooth sailing the entire way. Yuri was dropped for the first time as a combatant, a hard realization that headgear was no longer there to muffle the concussive force of punches. His teammates were also effective in their debuts–each of them stopped their respective opponents.

Following up, the Siberian technician reeled off a string of six knockouts, including a gorgeous one-punch termination of former flyweight belt-holder, Rolando Bohol, who was 27-5-3 at the time. In the second segment of the match, Bohol became frustrated with his inability to land on his Russian foe and it led him to load up on power shots to compensate for his lack of accuracy. It was this blunder that cost him the bout. Arbachakov tagged Bohol with a crisp lead right hand at about the midway point of the round and the Filipino southpaw wished to respond immediately with a straight of his own. The former titleholder’s response was almost instantaneous but the target wasn’t there, for Yuri instinctively sensed the incoming blow, stepped back out of range, briefly planted his feet and rapidly countered with a gloved wallop that made a sound reminiscent of small arms fire when it struck Bohol’s head.

Next, the Asiatic puncher took out South Korean Hyun Ki Lee, extending his stoppage streak to seven. A vacant Japanese flyweight title happened soon thereafter, as Yuri faced Takahiro Mizuno, a native. This engagement proved no contest, as well, as Mizuno hit the deck a mere forty-five seconds into the first and then again twenty or so seconds later, and then for the last time via a ferocious left hook to the solar plexus. Byung-Kap Kim became a victim two months later; Shun Hazama fell in five in a Japanese flyweight title defense nearly two months after that; Samanchai Chalermsri ended Arbachakov’s kayo mark at ten roughly four months later; but a Thai fighter adorning the same last name, Suvatchai Chalermsri, helped pick up a brief but new one by succumbing in three rounds a month following. This last victory helped put Yuri in contention for a world title shot.

Muangchai Kittikasem was the World Flyweight Champion at the time, and for a man entering the ring with only twenty-one pro bouts, he was well-accomplished. “J-Okay”, as he was also known, had won a title in only his seventh professional fight, getting the nod in a split decision verdict over Tacy Macalos in a fan-friendly affair. The homegrown Thai boxer went onto defend his strap three times before falling to legendary Mexican fighter Michael Carabajal. Kittikasem rebuilt himself quickly and within a year’s time he was squaring off for the Flyweight Championship with fellow Thailander, Sot Chitalada, a veteran and two-time titleholder. Muangchai overcame him in the sixth and obtained the lineal crown. From there, “J-Okay” made three successful title defenses to match his earlier mark, and not against a bad bunch of pugilists either. He stopped one of the greatest 108-pounders ever in South Korean, Jung-Koo Chang and blitzed the aforementioned Chitalada in rematch. He also decisioned hard-punching Mexican, Alberto Jimenez, a man who would go onto pick up a belt himself and give the gifted Marc “Too Sharp” Johnson a stiff test.

With confidence in tow, Kittikasem decided to lay his green and gold on the line versus the twelve-fight Siberian aboriginal. The bout happened on June 23rd, 1992 in Kokugikan, Tokyo, Japan, in front of a partisan crowd. The men stepped through the ropes, waited for the typical pre-fight announcements, and with a cordial touch of the gloves and last-minute instructions from their trusted cornermen, the bell sounded and they met near the center of the ring. Arbachakov started this fistic dance as an aggressor, leading with technically flawless jabs, hard feints, and rhythmic bouncing, all of which are maneuvers meant to probe an opponent’s defense for holes. The Champion attempted to box, using lateral movement and little else in what looked to be a “feel out” round. Yuri was able to out-jab the defensively-minded Champion and managed a few clean power shots, his best of which was nearly in unison with the sound of the segment-ending gong. It was a well-timed straight shot over the Thai’s lazy jab that connected hard on the side of Kittikasem’s face, dropping him to all fours.

Kittikasem, a bit shaken but not stirred, picked up the pace in the second. The problem was, so did Arbachakov. The former amateur boxing star began unpacking the belt-holder’s offense, catching him off-balance and drawing many off-the-mark punches. This game plan allowed Yuri to counter-punch effectively and by rounds end, Arbachakov’s precision-guided right hands were finding their cranial target.

The third was a dramatic affair. The box-first orientated Champion led with two popping jabs and extended his power hand across the challenger’s face, putting him down glove first. Yuri was up by the count of “two.” The referee proceeded to the count of “eight” and waved the men in. Arbachakov may have taken a brief seat, but he looked clear-eyed as he glided across the ring and gave no quarter to the defending champion, who may have had a momentarily glimmer of hope. Yuri met the defending champion full-on, slashing “J-Okay” with a right hand that buckled him. The momentum had turned in an instant and Yuri followed up with a number of gloved strikes, both to the head and body, while at the same time gracefully avoiding return fire. Not long after, the challenger sent the Champion crashing down with a lead left hook that had a spring-loaded step behind it. Kittikasem got up groggy but full of bulldogged courage. The ref made it to eight and deemed the Thailander fit for fight. Arbachakov sensed that his man was in danger and pounced, ripping lefts and rights to his backpedaling adversary. Before the finishing touches could be applied, the ref signaled the end of the round, to the delight of Champion and crowd alike.

Most the next four rounds functioned much like the second, with the superb boxer-puncher from Siberia jabbing beautifully and scoring with accurate, lightning-quick smashes, while the Champion did what he could to break through the calculated defensive postures of his Russian foe, largely to no avail. Beginning in the eighth, the twenty-five-year-old Soviet transplant had had enough of the fistic fencing and sallied out looking for a more decisive ending than one the three judges at ringside could render. Yuri unleashed blistering attacks, one after the other. Finally, around the ten-second mark, Arbachakov stepped back and Kittikasem followed. Whilst giving a cursory chase, the Champion uncorked a right hook. This opening was closed via a powerful left-right combination, the force of which was amplified by the champion’s forward momentum. “J-Okay” painted the canvas in a fleshy heap. A count was unnecessary, but the kneeled in-ring moderator finished the formality and then went straight to the mouthpiece of the unconscious fighter. The fight was over and the title changed hands. Arbachakov embraced the historical moment fully, being championed around the ring by his people to rapturous applause.

Yuri had become not only the Champion of two nations, but of the world. He also became the first ex-Soviet to accomplish the feat, out-pacing the only other boxer to win a title from his team, Orzubek Nazarov, and by over a year. The technically precise harbinger of pain didn’t stop there, however. In but a few months Arbachakov was walking through the doors of Korakuen Hall, Tokyo, Japan, in an effort to defend his place as “the man” atop the 112-pound weight division. His opponent was a scrappy South Korean named Yoon-Un Jin, 27-0, 18 KO’s. The Seoul-native proved game, but ultimately, he couldn’t overcome Yuri’s effective boxer-puncher style. Jin couldn’t overcome tasting the mat either, as the newly-crowned Champion floored his challenger in the second round of a scheduled twelve. The punch was part of a fantastic sequence which highlighted what can be accomplished when offense and defense are interwoven with skill, instinct and good old-fashioned punching power. Arbachakov was strafing his man with foul-proof body shots. Immediately after, both men proceeded to fight on the inside. Yuri then moved to regain his distance and made a leftwards gesture with his upper body while pivoting to his left. The challenger stepped forward to reenter the Champion’s fistic airspace and Yuri pushed off to reestablish a “No Punch Zone”. When the Russian got there, the South Korean flicked off a jab which Arbachakov slipped and let rip a sizzling parallel counter-punch which stiffened his foe’s legs like boards. Though the Champion couldn’t topple his opponent, he emerged victorious by way of a twelve-round unanimous decision.

A rematch with Muangchai Kittikasem was made approximately five months later. This time it was in Kittikasem’s backyard. The return match was staged in an open arena while under the watchful eye of controversial referee Richard Steele. The Thai fighter proved only slightly more successful in the sense that he lasted into the ninth. The stoppage came after a series of almost comical knockdowns and get-ups by the challenger, which should have prompted an earlier halting.

Five months later, a flyweight title matchup with Nam-Hoon Cha, 22-1-1, 13 KO’s, another pugnacious South Korean, was setup in the winter of 1993. Like the last pugilist Arbachakov had engaged from the Korean peninsula, Cha proved a game battler. But like Nam-Hoon’s fellow countryman, determination just wouldn’t suffice in overthrowing such a skilled belt-holder. Arbachakov out-boxed, and whenever necessary, out-slugged the challenger, granting himself a unanimous points victory.

Next up was a non-title tilt in the form of Hiroshi Kobayashi, 8-10-1, 3 KO’s. The Siberian puncher laid waste to Kobayashi in the 9th and then like clockwork Yuri was back at it, this time in a title defense against an Argentine by the name of Hugo Rafael Soto, 39-1-2, 25 KO’s, on August 1st, in the Ariake Colosseum in Japan’s capital. Arbachakov was the aggressor throughout and displayed a workmanlike pace, unfurling stinging jabs which fronted his offensive output. The steely-eyed Siberian stayed two steps ahead of Soto for the first five rounds, out-thinking the challenger and unloosing the harder, more precise strikes. The ponytail-sporting challenger produced a solid fifth segment on work rate alone and looked to win it. The sixth was closely contested and the seventh was, as well, at least until the half-minute mark that is. At this juncture, the reigning Champion began to dissolve the challenger’s wherewithal, landing inerrant torso and head smashes with both hands. This carried over to the eighth and final round. The power-wielding Russian native backed his foe up and beat his foe down, ending the mill with a ferocious left hook to the liver region which behooved Soto to sit atop one of the ropes and remain in a slumped stupor until the count of ten had been reached.

Oscar Arciniega, 19-5-1, 13 KO’s, an orthodox Mexican fighter, got a stab at the lineal championship the following year. Akin to many of Arbachakov’s other opponents, he showed he was brave but ultimately lost. However he was one of the lucky ones to see the final bell. The fall of 1995 brought a new face to Yuri’s doorstep, a challenger whose amateur pedigree was also notable.

Born in Bankok, Thailand, Chatchai Sasakul sported an amateur record of 78-7 and represented his homeland in the 1988 summer Olympics. He lost the bronze medal-placing match versus a Hungarian by the name of Robert Isaszegi by one point (3-2). Back home, Sasakul had built up a winning resume, but it didn’t feature a lot of names even hardened fans of the “small men” would recognize. How he would fare on the world level was something of a mystery.

Yuri didn’t mind mysteries, of course. As an amateur he acclimated to different styles on a whim, hundreds of them in fact. He did so as a pro, too, but no matter what stylistic representation was presented inside the squared circle, the cerebral assassin that was Yuri Arbachakov almost always figured it out. The bout with Sasakul proved no different. The quick-handed Champion defeated the Thai challenger by the scores of 116-112, 116-114, and 117-113. This fistic triumph helped convince people over at The Ring magazine that Yuri was the sixth best fighter in the world, regardless of weight class.

Flyer for Arbachakov and Juarez

1996 proved a turning point in the career of the Russian transplant. Yuri received a points verdict over Mexican, Raul Juarez, 19-1, 11 KO’s, and a technical knockout over Puma Toguchi, a Japanese fighter, 18-2, 15 KO’s. Arbachakov broke his right hand en route to the coup de grace and the injury ended up requiring two painful surgeries and much recuperation. In conjunction with this, the Flyweight Champion had grown tired of boxing. Mental and physical fatigue from two decades of in-ring performances had set in. Even his trainer Alexander Zimin made note of it. And even though Arbachakov didn’t wish to continue, he was convinced to defend his crown once more.

It would be a rematch against previously bested Chatchai Sasakul, who had remained active since his defeat and picked up an interm belt while waiting for the Champion to recover. The bout took place on Wednesday the 12th of November, 1997. It was an entertaining scrap with both men exhibiting a high level of skill. The normally fast-thinking Arbachakov was out-thought and outfought, and he was tagged with numerous right hand shots. The challenger then became the Champion and he was well aware of it before the scorecards were ever read, throwing his hands up in triumph immediately following the sound of the bell. Arbachakov did nothing but touch the new Champion’s glove in good measure, a solemn acknowledgement of defeat.

Later, Yuri would later admit that Sasakul was his toughest foe, remarking at how skilled he was as an amateur and pro. And it only seemed right that the crown was then passed to the Thai boxer, for eventually, that same crown would find its way onto Manny Pacquiao’s head, possibly the greatest Asian fighter ever. His legacy, of course, wasn’t defined by who became Champion after him, but how he performed while donning his belt. Yuri Arbachakov was a flawless technician, maybe second only to one of his generation’s other great little men, Ricardo Lopez. He was also a consummate boxer-puncher with a potent jab, laser-like precision, an offsetting bounce in his step, and one of the better feinters of the last quarter century. He accumulated an amateur record of 165-21; registered a professional mark of 23-1, 16 KO’s; successfully defended his title nine times; emerged victorious against quality opposition; and cemented his place as one of the greater flyweights to ever do it. What he did for his native country didn’t hurt either. He was the first World Champion to hail from Soviet Russia and was the most decorated and tenured of all the men who made that initial journey with him.

Yuri’s story continued, of course. He, along with his Japanese wife Kayok, started a business in Nippon not long after his retirement. It didn’t yield the financial results they had hoped for so they packed up and moved 4,715 miles to St. Petersburg, Russia. There Arbachakov began to find a passion for the “sweet science” once again, but this time as one of the functionaries of the Professional Boxing Federation of St. Petersburg, as a trainer, and one day, as a gym operator.

Occasionally Yuri visits his original dwelling in the Kemerovo Oblast region, where since 1993 they have held an amateur boxing tournament in his name. His native village of Ust’-Kezes have also honored their homegrown superstar by naming a street after him and taking up measures to acquire Yuri’s last name as the title of the community itself. This idea was rejected by Arbachakov, but surely with some sense of pride. He had made a lasting imprint on his adoring fans, the boxing world, his little hamlet in Siberia and himself.