Vladimir Engibaryan: The Noble Wizard of the Ring

Vladimir Nikolaevich Engibaryan was born on April 24, 1932, in Yerevan, Armenia. His ancestors hailed from the village of Ijevan in the Tavush region.

The family of the future boxing champion frequently moved around the country in search of work and better living conditions. Vladimir was born during the devastating famine that struck the USSR between 1932 and 1933. Policies like the liquidation of the kulaks as a class, a shortage of labor resources, an increase in taxation, crop failures, and widespread loss of grain crops all contributed to dire consequences.

Vladimir’s father, Nikolai Avanesovich, took on any job he could find to provide sustenance for his family. Through tireless efforts and strict upbringing, his children survived this difficult period. The youngest and fourth child became known worldwide as one of the greatest fighters in the history of amateur boxing.

As a child, little Volodya was calm and reserved. During his school years, he was fond of gymnastics. Engibaryan spent his after-school hours training in the gymnasium. Equipment like rings, pommel horse, logs, ropes, horizontal bars, parallel bars, and the Swedish wall helped the future champion develop strength, agility, and athleticism, teaching him to masterfully control his body. Engibaryan experienced all the hardships faced by those in the rear lines during World War II. In 1947, he enrolled in a vocational communication school.

The school building’s basement housed a boxing hall. Under the guidance of the physical education teacher and sports master candidate, Artem Arutyunov, the young men learned the basics of the pugilistic art. Volodya began attending boxing classes. His gymnastics training and natural speed paved the way for his development in this new sport. In 1951, Engibaryan won a bronze medal at the USSR Youth Championship in the lightweight category.

Engibaryan was a southpaw in life, but boxed in a classic orthodox stance. The foundation of his fighting style was the work of his lead hand and constant movement. Volodya operated unconventionally. He boxed with his hands down, executing 90% of his actions in the ring with his lead hand. His long left hook and corresponding straight punch became Engibaryan’s “calling cards.”

Vladimir Engibaryan’s fighting style was built on extraordinary speed, phenomenal reaction time, and remarkable flexibility. To these natural talents were added a technique honed through years of rigorous training and excellent tactical understanding. Due to this, Engibaryan, who was already a difficult opponent because of his natural southpaw style yet boxing in an orthodox stance, often fought with his hands down. He effortlessly dodged or evaded attacks while catching his opponents with devastating counterpunches.

He was rightfully called the founder of the intellectual style in Soviet boxing. Moreover, Engibaryan, unlike most quick and technical fighters, had powerful punches from both hands. Many of the world’s strongest boxers felt the power of his signature punch, nicknamed “the battering ram.” His unconventional left hook while leaping forward entered international boxing lexicon as the “killing blow.”

It seemed as if there was a seal on the knuckles of his left fist, and Volodya aimed to imprint it on his opponent’s face. A quick, precise jab, like a spear thrust. He had a strong, well-placed punch but did not aim to end the fight by knockout. For Engibaryan, it was important to outsmart the opponent, expose him as an unskilled fighter, and avoid any counterpunch. For a long time, Vladimir did not receive the recognition he deserved. In the USSR national team, his style was met with skepticism; they tried to retrain him and force him to fight in a more conventional style, with his hands raised. Engibaryan proved to the world the practicality of a boxing style focused on defense. To avoid the opponent’s punch and land one accurately in return—this was the principle by which the Armenian boxer operated.

Years later, this style was adopted by such renowned ring masters as Roy Jones Jr., Sergio Gabriel Martinez, Muhammad Ali, Naseem Hamed, and many others. The father of this “playful” boxing style was the great Vladimir Engibaryan.

Vladimir did not receive the recognition he deserved from the USSR’s sports committee. Coaches were skeptical of his unconventional fighting style. For this reason, Engibaryan was not included in the Olympic team for the Helsinki Games in 1952. The USSR was a country of templates and dogmas, where people were “fit” into a single mold. Little Volodya experienced firsthand all the patterns of the Soviet upbringing system.

He was taught to hold a pencil and spoon with his right hand, even though he was more comfortable using his left hand for all actions. When he took up boxing, they put him in a classic orthodox stance. In trade school, all the tools were designed for right-handed use. At every step of his life, he encountered templates. Boxing allowed him to express his individuality. During a USSR championship, the unconventional young man caught the attention of the coach Eduard Aristakesyan, an Honored Master of Sports. Instead of retraining Engibaryan, the mentor focused on enhancing his strong qualities. In 1952, Volodya repeated his previous year’s success.

He became a bronze medalist in the USSR championship, this time in the lightweight division. In 1953, thanks to the efforts and initiative of Eduard Aristakesyan, Engibaryan went to the first European Championship attended by the USSR national team, which took place in Warsaw. On the Polish rings, the whole world witnessed firsthand the boxing grace of this Armenian virtuoso. Vladimir defeated opponents from East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, and Istvan Juhasz of Hungary in the final. Engibaryan became the first-ever European Boxing Champion from the USSR.

In 1954 and 1955, Engibaryan was the best at the USSR Championship. The second European Championship, which took place in West Germany in 1955, ended for Vladimir in the semi-finals. He lost a close match to the experienced Polish boxer Leszek Drogosz and became a bronze medalist in the tournament in the junior middleweight division.

A year later, at the Melbourne Olympics, the two best boxers in the division “crossed gloves” in the first round of the competition. Volodya took revenge on his arch-rival. The Soviet athlete sliced through opponents from France and South Africa like a hot knife through butter. In the final, he defeated the famous Italian Franco Nenci. Engibaryan reached the pinnacle of world boxing; he became an Olympic champion.

Volodya continued to win Soviet championships and confirmed his status as the world’s best boxer on the international stage. In 1957, he conquered the European Championship held in Prague. At the end of the tournament, Engibaryan received a crystal cup for the best boxing technique among fighters of all weight classes.

In 1959, Vladimir became a three-time European Champion. The third gold medal from the Swiss tournament in Lucerne added to the collection of awards for the Armenian master. It seemed that with his inherent ease and grace, Engibaryan would become a two-time Olympic champion. But fate had other plans. An injury, the end of his athletic career, and a move into coaching followed. Going into the Rome Olympics, Vladimir was considered the main favorite of the tournament. In the 1/8 finals, Engibaryan defeated the South African athlete, Willem Ludik. His success was marred by an injury to his striking left hand. Pain in the wrist had begun to trouble the Olympic champion a few weeks before the tournament started, and the injury worsened during the bouts. The result was two fractures in his metacarpal bone. Volodya lost in the quarter-final match to the Polish boxer Marian Kasprzyk.

Immediately after the tournament, Engibaryan announced his retirement from competitive boxing. In the amateur ring, he achieved 255 victories and suffered only 12 defeats. After ending his athletic career, Engibaryan turned to coaching. Thanks to his efforts, many talented Armenians made it into the Soviet Union’s national team. Vladimir opened the first children’s and youth boxing school in the USSR, later named in honor of its founder.

Vladimir Nikolaevich was a true innovator in boxing. He was always striving for something new: developing individuality in his students, practicing unconventional approaches in the training process, and successfully combining gymnastics and boxing in the preparation system. He became the first AIBA International Category A referee in the history of the USSR.

Engibaryan frequently visited America, absorbing foreign experience. As a coach, he was not averse to entering the ring for exhibition sparring matches, showcasing his skills and excellent physical shape. The USSR did not appreciate the aspirations and initiatives of the great boxer.

Everything new was perceived as something foreign, unnecessary, a product of the West. Engibaryan made a significant contribution to the development of Soviet boxing. However, in his coaching role, he received only a modest salary and had to juggle multiple roles to support his family. The Soviet government did not appreciate its national heroes. He was an idol in Armenia, but the “ruling machine” of the USSR considered the Olympic champion a maverick, someone who was trying to bring Western culture into the Soviet Union.

Words like “development” and “innovations” were nipped in the bud. Eventually, Vladimir grew tired of banging his head against the closed door of mythical communism. In 1990, he moved to California with his family, where his work and merits were duly appreciated. Engibaryan successfully engaged in coaching, teaching the art of boxing to foreign fighters. He became wealthy and received the highest pension from the U.S. government.

On February 1, 2013, Vladimir Nikolaevich Engibaryan passed away from advanced-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

He was 80 years old. The body of the great boxer was returned to his historical homeland at the request of the Armenian government. A farewell ceremony took place on February 3, 2013, in Yerevan, in the Cathedral of St. Sarkis. The ceremony was attended by the Minister of Sport of Armenia and the president of the National Olympic Committee.

With his Olympic victory, Engibaryan seemed to connect the threads of epochs, becoming the successor of the legendary Armenian King Varazdat, who was the winner of the 291st ancient Olympic Games in 385 AD in pugilism. Armenians were genuinely proud of their outstanding compatriot. During his time living in exile, Vladimir Nikolaevich made several visits to his homeland, where he was received with all kinds of honors and awarded by high-ranking state officials, including the President of Armenia.

Since 2013, an annual boxing tournament has been held in honor of Vladimir Engibaryan. Vladimir Nikolaevich Engibaryan is one of the greatest fighters in the history of amateur boxing. An innovator and founder of a unique fighting style, he demonstrated the practicality of his approach and made a significant contribution to the development of boxing in the USSR.

Article prepared by: Marina Galoyan radiovan.fm

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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