LAS VEGAS — The undercard for the Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns bout at Caesars Palace June 12 could turn out to be almost as interesting as the main event.
Four amateur boxers from the Soviet Union are about to leave for Las Vegas, and some of them may turn pro on the Leonard-Hearns card, according to promoter Bob Arum.
"I'm dealing with a Toronto-based trading company called Seabeco Group, Inc., which does a lot of business with the USSR," Arum said.
"They've received authorization from the Soviet Ministry of Sport to negotiate with me on a boxing deal, and we've done that. We've agreed on the financial part of it. There are no hitches that I'm aware of. The Seabeco people are in Moscow now, completing the deal. I was told that after that, the boxers could be here 'shortly.' "
The four boxers are world-class amateurs, three heavyweights and a welterweight.
The heavyweights are Alexander Yagubkin, 27; Alexander Miroshnichenko, 23, and Vyacheslav Yakovlev, 28. The welterweight is Vasily Shishov, 25.
Shishov and Yagubkin, both left-handers, are former world amateur champions. Miroshnichenko is the biggest, 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, and the only one who made the Soviet Olympic team in 1988. American Riddick Bowe beat him in the semifinals at Seoul, and Miroshnichenko won a bronze medal.
Yakovlev was a 1985 World Cup champion and boxed in the United States in 1987 in the USSR-USA series.
Arum said the Soviets will be in his Top Rank boxing stable for at least two years, and that he has a two-year option.
They will train in a new gym Arum's company is fashioning out of a warehouse in an industrial area of Las Vegas. There, they will learn to box, pro style, alongside Arum's three U.S. Olympic team medalists, heavyweight Ray Mercer, bantamweight Kennedy McKinney and light-flyweight Michael Carbajal. Those three turned pro themselves Friday night in Atlantic City, N.J.
Victor Karant, a Soviet emigre who has lived in New York City most of his life, serves as a translator for the USA Amateur Boxing Federation when U.S. boxing teams are in the Soviet Union. He has close sports contacts with the USSR Ministry of Sport.
"I have known for a while that some boxers would be allowed to come to the U.S. to turn professional," he said. "There was one plan I knew of where 10 of them would come to New York and train, but that deal fell through."
Karant said the once unheard-of notion of Soviet athletes turning pro is part of the Soviet Union's new economics.
"The Soviet ministry of sport spends a lot of money," he said. "But the bureaucrats there were told after Gorbachev came in that they would have to find new ways to fund sports programs, that unlimited amounts of money would no longer be available."
Arum said he has no idea how much of the money the four Soviets earn as pros here they will be allowed to keep, but he assumes a percentage of it will be sent to the Soviet Ministry of Sport.
The Soviet boxers will be trained by 1988 U.S. Olympic Coach Ken Adams, and his Olympic assistant, Hank Johnson, who are coaching Arum's three U.S. Olympic medalists, plus Kenyan gold medalist Robert Wangila.
Of the three heavyweights, Miroshnichenko is the hardest hitter. He has a potent left hook. Only three years ago, he was a lean light-heavyweight, but rapidly grew into a super-heavyweight frame.
Yakovlev is a plodder, not much of a puncher, but very strong and well conditioned.
Yagubkin may be a bit undersized as a pro. He was a world amateur champion at 201, but outgrew the weight class several years ago and apparently could not beat bigger boxers such as Miroshnichenko and Yakovlev. He no longer made trips with the USSR's varsity.
In the amateurs, 201 pounds is the heavyweight limit. The super-heavyweight class, over 201, was added in 1983.
Yagubkin does have great movement, however, and is a brilliant defensive boxer. He's an accurate puncher, though not a banger. After Adams brings him up to speed on the pro game, it's not hard to imagine Yagubkin running U.S. pro heavyweights ragged and piling up a lot of early wins on decisions.
In fact, all three Soviet heavyweights would figure to be in significantly better physical condition than many of the fat U.S. heavyweights on the scene.
Shishov, like Yagubkin, is swift afoot, hard to hit. The two of them may get some boos at the outset, and some might derisively call them runners.
But against low-level U.S. pros, they should win.
After that, it'll start getting interesting.