Soviet Legends: The Tale of Vyacheslav Lemeshev - Part 1

13.04.05 - By Izyaslav “Slava” Koza and Andrei “The Shark” Nikolaev: Unfortunately, human memory cannot compete with a good photograph or video on which we record the most wonderful moments of our lives. That is why when we read about some obscure Olympic boxer or athlete, we open our mouth and say “Yeah, he was some guy……,” and move on with our business and our lives.. Today, we ask everybody to take a moment and think and read about a 20 year old boxer, with a funny looking mustache, seen in photographs in so many Russian and Soviet newspapers, who although gone from our lives, unquestionably deserves a moment of your time.

Vyacheslav Ivanovich Lemeshev

It is sad to think that we cannot ask the hero of this article anything about his career anymore. Vyacheslav Lemeshev, Olympic champion of the 1972 Munich games, left us nine years ago on January 27, 1996. However, we still have the thoughts and memories of his friends, former teammates, and his wife Zinaida, as well as articles from newspapers, aiding us in remembering who he was and what he meant to the world of boxing. His four gold medals, claimed on the Olympic, European and Soviet rings, as well as endless numbers of trophies, prizes, and awards for boxing, remind us what he was able to accomplish in his abruptly shortened life. There is a hope among his fans, boxing writers and other boxers themselves, that somewhere in an old dusty archive room, there exists a collection of videos that have captured his most memorable victories at the Olympics, the European championships, as well as boxing meets between the United States and the Soviet Union. Tapes that show his dominance over future professional champions like Marvin Johnson and the legendary Micheal Spinks.

It would mean so much to so many to one day turn on the TV and see a boxing documentary about V. Lemeshev with footage of his bouts.

However, until such a day, the only things we have to go on in remembering the youngest Soviet Olympic champion, and two time European champion, are old newspaper cutouts, interviews with people who knew him, and information from books that don’t know whether they want to talk about Vyacheslav or some other unrelated and unimportant topic.

Vyacheslav’s friend, and first Soviet champion of the World (1974), lightweight Vasili Anatolivich Solomin (now deceased):

"Lemeshev’s manner of fighting was impossible to compare to anybody else’s. None of his opponents could understand anything. Everyone knew he would finish with his right, and still nobody could avoid getting hit by it."

This was not surprising. Vyacheslav’s second trainer, Armenian, Yuri Radonyak, remembers that on the Senior National team, there was constant testing done on the initial speed of a punch. Lemeshev’s punch was always the fastest. That is why the speed and strength of Lemeshev’s right hand allowed him to overcome any attack his opponent threw at him, often sending the hapless victim to the ring apron in short order.

In 1966, at the Moscow city championships, 14 year old Slava Lemeshev didn’t only win the tournament in his section, taking the prize for best technical boxer, but gained the attention of Wladimir Kon’kov, Internationational referee, and trainer of the legendary European champ Victor Ageev. Even before the result was announced, Kon’kov nodded towards Slava, and said to his future trainer Lev Segalovich: “That is a future Olympic champion.”

Nikolai Puchkov, candidate of Master of sports in boxing, International judge, and Sports commentator, remembers:

"Slava almost never jabbed. He was not really powerful; Just tall and lean, and often worked on countering. He didn’t like to train seriously and that is why he didn’t have enough stamina, it seemed. Often, he is losing a fight, time is running out, his opponent, feeling victory at his fingertips, relaxes a bit, lowers his hands a bit, and BAM! He used to estimate distance flawlessly! His opponent confused, tries again, and this time its over! What always amazed me was that after his counter right landed, Slavik never even looked to see what happened, and walked away to his corner. He was always sure of the result."

After two years, 16 year old Lemeshev again takes first place and prize for the best technicals skills at the Spartak Junior Championships in Yerevan (Armenia). In 1970, at the European Junior Championships, the great 3 time Olympic champion Laslo Papp, speaking about Lemeshev after his protégé was defeated by him, stated, “This kid has a bright future.” At that time, Vycheslav was the first winner of the Emil Gremo Cup (formerly the European cup), named after the former president of the International Assocation of Amateur boxing, and awarded to the best boxer of the tournament. Lemeshev captured this honor a second time in 1972 in Belgrade, before stepping up to go to the Olympics. In April of 1972, he was only 20 years old and in August he was already at the Olympics.

Try to imagine yourself at the age of 20 and already among the greatest amateur fighters in the world, and right before your first match you have a high fever. These obstacles had little affect on the young Lemeshev, who dismissed the idea of being taken out of the competition, and they also didn’t save an Indonesian kid by the name of Gomez from being knocked out in the first round. In dealing with his limited victim, it was as if Slava was dispatching with the fever that was preventing him from attaining this, the highest of amateur successes. The rest of the tournament went like this: The German, Brauske was able to withstand all three rounds and was sent home with the score of 60-54. While the Turk, Kuran and old friend Marvin Johnson, were each taken out in the second. In the final, Finn Reima Virtanen was knocked out after two minutes and 17 seconds of the first round. Vyacheslav Lemeshev was now an Olympic Gold medallist.

Puchkov: "Slava had many serious opponents. For instance the Finn Virtanen was tough, nobody even pretended Slava could win, but he went ahead and did it anway.”

For Slava this was a triumph. Just imagine what is to win an Olympic gold medal at 20?

In June of 1973, competing in the European championships in Belgrade, Slava seriously damaged his powerful right hand. A few years later, he remembered the ordeal with a smile on his face: "I couldn’t just get used to the pain, but hey, different things like that happen. Somehow, I fought with the broken hand. They jabbed at it with needles from all angles, and I went for the check up before the fight. So the official is examining me and carefully pressing on my bones and wrist. Just imagine me standing there with a mallet instead of a fist. I had no clue as to how I will force it into the glove. So the official is telling me “You can’t go out like that.” I say “Don’t worry about it, I’m fine, its nothing,” and smile from ear to ear. So he starts to examine the mallet, and from one of the places where they gave me a shot, a stream of liquid hits him straight in the face. All I could do was smile again. He gently lowers my arm, and says "It's ok," but doesn’t look me in the face.”

So Slava had to defend his hand until the final, and practically fight with only his left,against the previous year’s silver medallist and future Olympic bronze medallist at the Montreal games, Romanian, Alex Nestak. However, if he was able to get to the final without any real hardships, the fight with the Romanian changed all that, and forced Vycheslav to show his true character. After getting knocked down in the first, Vycheslav didn’t let himself falter, and found his wits, timed his opponent and let loose with a single, crowning, signature counter, with his broken hand. He didn’t have to do more- it was a knockout.

In March of 1974, in Izhevsk at the USSR championships, Vycheslav competed in the category under 81 kilograms and took the gold, but after jumping back down to his original weight, took on a very awkward opponent in Rufat Riskiev from Tashkent (Uzbekistan). Lemeshev lost to him in the final, but nevertheless, it was him and not Risakev who would be competing at the world championships in Katovtzi, Poland. There, 23 year old, Vycheslav took another gold medal, in the final defeating a German by the name of Vittenburg. However, regardless of this victory, this is about the time where he started to decline as a boxer. In the internal boxing tournaments of the USSR, Vycheslav could not get past Riskiev, who won the Tournament of Nations in the USSR, and was basically champion from 1971 onwards, even though he was the one, and not the junior Lemeshev, who the soviet trainers did not take to the Olympics. Now was Riskiev’s time, two years in a row, winning at the USSR championships in 1975 and 1976, and with them a place on the National team, knocking out the European champ Lemeshev.

Aleksander Vasushkin: “You know what kind of sparring sessions he was having at the time? Sometimes he was dragged out of the ring by his hands and feet. When he and Riskiev sparred, Rufat used to knock him around so hard they used to drag him out unconscious. He was getting hit with a lot of punches at that time.”

Nevertheless, as with every great fighter, there was one great fight left deep down within him. In the USSR-USA Match Meet, Vycheslav beat American Micheal Spinks, thus claiming his final real achievement. He lost the USSR championships in March of that year, only taking third, and in June, Riskiev was the one flying to Montreal. He fought magnificently, but fate is inescapable, as the same Micheal Spinks, denied Riskiev the gold in the final. What could have been is a long debate and one without a single answer, but the truth is Vycheslav could not find his way back to the national team. It was then, at 24, that Vycheslav is rumored to have started drinking, but who knows which rumors are true and which story tellers have it right?

In 1978 at the USSR championships in Tbilisi (Georgia), Vycheslav lost his very first fight.

Vasili Solomin: “I lived in the same room with him, and I knew that before that tournament he was sick or poisoned. Usually before a tournament, he would have to drop some weight, but this time there was no need, he weighed only 72 kg. Instead of the 75 kg. I told Radonyak, the trainer, “Take him out,” and he went and asked Slava if he should remove him, but Slava didn’t want to hear of it. We wouldn’t have even asked another boxer; we would just take him out and that’s it. Vycheslav was an Olympic champion, however, a European champ, and the trainers believed in him. What if everything turns out fine, and he forces his way out of this situation? However, that all evaporated, when his opponent hit him so hard that he spun around like a top. He was not even a shadow of his former self, green, and weak. They stopped it in the second round. It was a hard thing to watch. It was painful to look at Slava.”

TO Be Concluded………….

Article posted on 13.04.2005

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