Soviet Legends: Nikolai Korolev – The Champ Who Couldn’t Fight Joe Louis!


29.06.05 – By Gennadi “Komar” Komarnitzsky and Izyaslav “Slava” Koza: While perusing through the archives of Russian history, it is relatively often that one can read about kings, rulers, and emperors. However Soviet history lacks such distinguishable traits for obvious reasons. The last Czar, or better still emperor, “disappeared” (in other words was murdered) at the beginning of the 20th century. Still, it is in that precise century that two people with the great royal name “Korolev” (approx. meaning King) lifted the country up to unimaginable heights.

The first, Korolev Sergei Pavlovich, made our country “Cosmic (Father of Soviet Space program),” while the Second, Nikolai Fedorovich, made our country undefeated, knocking out opponents in the ring and on the front lines of World War 2. Truthfully, our hero should have had a different last name in Fadeev (great Soviet writer), however life unfolded in such a way, that he chose Korolev. It is the name that he carried, entering into the history of Soviet, and hopefully world boxing, and the name which will be written about for years to come, because that was the name attached to the legendary, Nikolai Federovich Korolev.

The Boxer

Boxing started creeping into Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. It wasn’t the English version, but more likely the French variant. One of the first proponents of the art of boxing in the USSR was famous trainer Anatoli Harlampiev (later credited with creating the Soviet Self Defense technique known as “Sambo” and instigated its use in the Soviet Army). He was also the one who the young Kolya Korolev received his first lessons from, and who taught him the art of “hitting without getting hit.”

Before entering Harlampiev’s school, young Nikolai and his friends, were on their way to discuss who ruled the streets of Izmailovo, with another gang of neighborhood kids from down the street. While passing through the park, Nikolai happened to notice real boxers training. He saw this before of course, when his neighbor Fedya, worked the speed bag stuffed with wood shavings in his shed, but never quite like this, out in the open air with jump rope, and sparring partners.

He was 14 years old when he first faced off against an opponent in boxing gloves instead of his bare fists. In any given street fight, Nikolai caught and never showed mercy to anybody, with the gloves on however, he didn’t just lose, he couldn’t even touch his opponent. This embarrassing fight was followed by another loss, and then by yet another one. It seemed that there were too many of them, to seriously pursue this “less then childish” type of sport, but those who have never tasted defeat can never become real winners, which is what he obviously became.

1934 was the year his victorious march started. At the end of that year he won 3 bouts and had 1 draw. In 1935 he had 12 wins out of a total 17 fights, ending matters early in 7 of those contests. In February of 1936 he becomes champion of Moscow. In four months time he is champion of the USSR, and in October, after beating one of his most difficult opponents, Victor Mikhailkov, becomes Absolute champion of the Soviet Union for the first time. He will repeat this in 1937, 1944, and 1945. This feat will be repeated only some 40 years later by Evgeni Gorstkov.

We were able to obtain records from the 1948 boxing archive, and here is how Korolev faired: 126 fights, 110 wins (39 stopped early, and 24 due to decisive advantage), 14 losses, and 2 even. It is almost unimaginable to consider that in amateur boxing; a fighter’s win record is made up of more then 50% KO or TKO victories. By that time he had competed in 12 international bouts, and not one of his opponents was able to stand till the final bell.

In 1936 Nazi Germany hosted the Olympic games in Berlin. Some countries, in protest to the Fascist regime, decided not to participate at those games. As an alternative, the very next year in Antwerp, these countries organized the Socialist Olympic Games.

Soviet athletes stunned the world. In swimming, soccer, wrestling and boxing they had no equals. One of the most memorable performances of the Soviet boxing contingent (all 4 representatives of the USSR won by the way) was Korolev’s.

In the first fight he crossed gloves with a Finn named Hilandrom. This was Korolev’s equivalent to Mike Tyson’s knockout of Marvis Frazier, because he ended matters 11 seconds after they had begun. Then he proceeded to pulverize Palestinian fighter Eldorades.

This is what the press had to say at the time: “This was a brilliant victory for the Soviet boxer. Eldorades seemed completely crushed, it was as if he was covered by a Stone Avalanche.”

It would have been prudent for the Nazi high command to watch these fights, because it might have foreshadowed their fate, once they crossed paths with the Red Army, of which Korolev later became a part. Perhaps then they would have realized how futile it was to even consider conquering Russia. After all if they would have known who they would be facing, in Korolev, maybe things would have been different.

However, at that time peace was still the dominant force, and the world explored the North Pole rather then getting ready for war.

This is what famous explorer Ivan Dimitrevich Papanin had to say about Korolev:

“He is one of my close friends. We exchanged photographs awhile ago. I kept his in my tent, and when we were met with hardships, I showed the photo to my team, and told them to look at one of the favorite sons of the Soviet Union, and to draw inspiration from him. The absolute champion of our country, respected by young and old alike. He came to me once and asked to learn how to fly a plane. He understood the threat to our nation and to him it was a great tragedy.”

The Guerilla Fighter

The whole country knew who Korolev was by that time. America wasn’t the only place where a heavyweight champion was a well-respected celebrity. He had already learned how to handle Soviet fighting craft, and had made 10 parachute jumps as part of his training. His last jump was very unsuccessful and he seriously injured his leg. This injury stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The country was getting ready for war, but because of his injury Korolev was initially not allowed to serve in the ranks of the Red Army.

“As soon as the war started, I went to the recruitment office to sign up, and they tell me I should go home and heal my leg.” Remembered Korolev.

Everything he tried to do, he did for his nation, which is why he why wouldn’t have been the same Korolev, if he wasn’t allowed to serve alongside his countrymen in defending his homeland.

He was taken into a Special Forces Motorized Infantry Brigade that worked in the Bryansk Region behind enemy lines. He had the fortune of ending up under the command of distinguished soviet spy Dimitry Medvedev.

In one military operation, famous commander Medvedev was injured by enemy fire. Korolev was the only one next to the commander. When Medvedev saw that Nikolai raised his hands and walked towards the enemy, he quickly raised his gun and was about to put a bullet in Korolev’s back (as per Soviet protocol by the way), when at the last moment he realized what the mighty soldier had in mind.

The Germans screamed “Russian Ivan surrender,” and at gunpoint took him to their barricaded gun nest. Korolev entered the cramped interior of the fortification, appraised the situation, and reminiscing about the good old days, proceeded to KO both Nazis flat out and unconscious. He then borrowed their grenades and concluded the show by blowing the small Nazi encampment to smithereens.

Shortly after he was sent back to Moscow for re-training. He was supposed to probably visit enemy lines once again. Fate would have most likely teamed him up with another legendary Soviet spy in Nikolai Kuznetzov, who was also serving under Medvedev, but the powers that be changed their mind at the last moment. Nikolai Korolev became the physical conditioning and self defense instructor for other Special Forces guys working behind enemy lines.

The Soviet high Command organized an anti-fashist meeting, and during proceedings named Korolev Chairman. His authority on the matter was so great, that this decision, only brought success to the Kremlin leaders.

At this time, on the other side of Europe the allies had a different champion, who was in truth even more famous then Korolev, but who did not fight, and instead raised morale among American troops.

They could have met even before the war, because they were talented, strong, and determined, but fate forced them to live in different countries, and different systems, and now leaves us to ponder, the always tragic “what could have been.”

The Communist

“The greatness of your successes as a Soviet boxer reached us even in America. Many Americans say they would like it if you could demonstrate your abilities here for us…….”

This was the opening paragraph of a letter to Nikolai Korolev, from the famous boxing promoter Michael Jacobs, then President of the 20th Century Sporting Club. He was ready to organize a showdown with the Undisputed Champion Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis.

Was it a dream or reality? The “Russian Tank” vs. the “Brown Bomber?”

It does seem hard to imagine. Today any Russian professional boxer, can write a letter to Oscar De La Hoya and call him out to fight. Our boy won’t even think about asking permission from the Russian Government.

It was a different time though. Korolev longed desperately for this fight. He scrupulously collected all photographs, newspaper articles, and print mentioning the famous American champion.

Remember the bout for the title of Absolute Soviet Champion, consisted of 6 three minute rounds. Which at the time was practically not even half the distance in a fight for the World’s Heavyweight title in the Pro’s. It was obvious Korolev would be at a disadvantage if the two champions were to meet.

Right after the war had ended with Germany, in Berlin in 1945, on American occupied territory, in one of the allied officer’s clubs, some professional boxer from the allied side, decided to demonstrate his skill in an exhibition style event.

Every three minutes, the opponent, who was chosen from the crowd of viewers, found himself on the ring apron soon after stepping through the ropes.

Unfortunately for the American boxer, one of the viewers was Korolev. He asked if he could give it a shot. The first two minutes Korolev fooled around a bit and played possum, and then finally decided to reply. When the American regained his consciousness, well after the count of 10, he asked Nikolai “Who are you?” “Korolev Nikolai,” was the response. “Oh! I read about you in our papers.”

However the fight with the mighty Louis was not permitted by the government. Korolev was of course sure of his chances, but the politicians of the time were afraid. The resolution was final and unfavorable “The fight can only take place on Soviet Soil,” and not the famous Madison Square Garden. No not the famous arena, where any performance by any boxer is to this day considered prestigious, but only the “Circus on the Flowery Blvd.(“Tsevtnom Bul’vare”),” where obviously Korolev had no chance of losing, and no chance of having the fight come off.

Many people, who were connected to boxing in some form or another, were confident, that even after the war Korolev had the stuff necessary to conquer the “Brown Bomber.”

Still he was really hurt by the decision of the government. He couldn’t realize his dream, which he surely could have made into reality given the opportunity. After all what more can you do to a person who loved his country so dearly! A person who was its soldier on the battlefield, as well as in the ring!

He was pushed away from major boxing, at almost exactly the moment, when our athletes started competing internationally, and participating in the Olympic games. He was pushed away, labeled “Old,” and ignored by the people making the decisions. “Old”? What about the other representative of unarmed combat, Estonian Kotkas, who at age 38, returned from the Olympics with a gold medal?

As with many athletes it was just simpler to find a replacement rather then put faith in somebody who believed in themselves, and wanted others to believe in him as well. His replacement was gifted, young Lithuanian Algirdas Shotzikas.
Nikolai protested this indifference and ignorance, and even went so far as to write to Leonid Brezhnev, that he is still ready to serve his nation. The reply was cold, indifferent, and sadly similar to most other responses: “And what did you do for your country?”

He was the only child in his family, and when he became older, he dreamed of having a son, but in order to realize this dream one small detail was needed-to become weak. Four marriages had born him three daughters and no sons. The unspoken rule was as follows: strong willed and spirited men, can only have daughters.

He was getting ready for his 57th birthday and drove out to the Moscow countryside. He was short only two days. The heart of the champion had given out. The autopsy revealed it was gone. The big heart of the Champion, the Guerilla, and the Communist was gone.

Six months later in Havanna, the first boxing world championships took place, while in the USSR, the first memorial tournament held in honor of N.F. Korolev.

Career Profile: Korolev Nikolai Federovich
Born February 14th 1917
Died February 12th 1974
4 time Absolute Soviet Champion (1936,1937,1944, 1945)
9 time Champion of the USSR (1936-1939,1945-1949)
Champion of the Socialist Olympics in Antwerp (1937)

All photographs courtesy of the Archive of Nadezhda Koroleva-Basharov.