Forgiving and Not Forgetting: Sergei Artemiev

By Robert Mladinich on June 25, 2014
Forgiving and Not Forgetting: Sergei Artemiev
“Two doctors said I would die,” recalled Artemiev. “But I have life.” (Robert Mladinich)

“I’m alive and I have a son,” said Artemiev. “My son has said to me, ‘I know you’re my dad, but you’re also my friend.’ I am a blessed man…”

On March 21, 1993, Sergei Artemiev, a red-hot lightweight prospect who hailed from St. Petersburg, Russia, but was fighting out of Brooklyn, New York, squared off against the capable Carl “Stuff” Griffith at the Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City.

The bout, which was televised live by ESPN on a Sunday night, was meant to be a springboard for the 24-year-old Artemiev. He was a longtime member of the lauded Soviet amateur program who, along with several other blue chip Russian prospects had been brought to the United States three years earlier by the late Lou Falcigno to make their marks in the professional ranks.

What should have been a showcase for Artemiev, who held an amateur victory over Shane Mosley and was 18-1-1 (12 KOs) as a pro, turned into a near tragedy of epic proportions.

In a contest that was much more spirited than it was intended to be, the 23-year-old Griffith, 25-2-2 (10 KOs), who had previously defeated former champions Harry Arroyo and Livingstone Bramble and was known for having everything but a big punch, stopped Artemiev in the 10th round of the 12-round bout for the vacant USBA lightweight title.

Within an hour of the stoppage, Artemiev was admitted to the Atlantic City Medical Center hospital, where surgeons worked feverishly to remove a blood clot from his brain. For 12 days Artemiev lay in a coma, teetering between life and death. There was no Internet or 24-hour news outlets at the time, which resulted in the Russian media erroneously reporting several times that the extremely popular Artemiev had passed away.

Artemiev survived his ordeal and on March 22, 2014, at the National restaurant, a Russian landmark in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, he and scores of friends and family members celebrated not only his life, but several important personal milestones.

“It was very important date for me,” said the now 45-year-old Artemiev, who speaks thickly-accented but articulate English and appears hail, hearty and eternally optimistic. It was 21 years since the fight, which was the 21st fight of my career, and I turned 21 that day.”

Artemiev went on to explain that because it had been so widely reported that he had died, and his neurologist still believes that it was a miracle that he survived, he commemorates the date on an annual basis. 

“My doctor, Dr. Pfeiffer, told me I should always recognize the day as my second birthday,” said Artemiev, “so that’s what I will always do.”

Referring to the team of neurosurgeons who assisted him, Dr. Pfeiffer has told Artemiev, “We are only doctors. God saved you. You are a miracle.”

Although Dr. Pfeiffer could not substantiate this theory with medical evidence, he has told Artemiev on numerous occasions that he believed the spiritual connection between father and son helped give Artemiev the strength to fight on while in the coma, despite the nature of his catastrophic injuries.

Peter had been born in December 1992, less than four months prior to the Griffith debacle. Because he was 21 on the night of his father’s anniversary, that provided yet another link to that kindred number.

After emerging from the coma, Artemiev spent more than a year in rehabilitation where he had to learn life’s most basic skills by starting from the beginning.

“I had to learn everything again,” he said. “Read, write, walk. I was born left-handed, but fought right-handed. When I come out of hospital, I was left-handed again.”

Artemiev permanently lost his peripheral vision and has difficulties coordinating his right side, but once he re-learned how to read he spent hours a day memorizing words from both Russian and English dictionaries in order, he says, to “re-train my brain.”

He also memorized poems and still keeps a daily ledger in a large calendar. Written neatly and tightly in the calendar are all of his activities from the past, as well reminders of what needs to be done in the future. He said the calendar was, and still is, like a lifeline for him, and he refers to it many times throughout an ordinary day.

Witnessing his father’s incredible strength, resilience and determination was not lost on son Peter, who lived with his mother throughout most of his youth but saw his father on a regular basis.

“My father is my idol,” said Peter, a tall, strapping good-looking young man who looks every inch an athlete but has a passion for photography. “He has told me that when he came out of the coma, I was the first person he thought about. We definitely have a connection.  We had one then, and we have one now. We’ve had one our whole life.”

Prior to coming to the United States along with heavyweight Yuri Vaulin and light heavyweight Sergey Kobozev, Artemiev had served in the Soviet army and also attended law school in his native country. A few days prior to the Griffith fight, his trainer, Tommy Gallagher, heaped an abundance of praise upon him.

“Sergei is special, a phenomenal athlete, he can definitely be champ and make a fortune,” Gallagher said. “He’s so bright and has so much character. He’s a real pleasure to work with. I love him.”

By that time Artemiev had grossed about $70,000 fighting in South Africa, as well as in such American states and cities as Philadelphia, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Miami Beach, California, Reno, Michigan, Wisconsin, Montana, and Mississippi.

He hoped to earn enough money to someday retire to Phoenix, which he had fallen in love with the second his plane hit the runway on a recent stopover. 

“It is so beautiful there and the oranges grow on trees,” he said back then.

Sadly, just days later, all of Artemiev’s grand plans were derailed when Griffith stopped him after landing several furious combinations. Bleeding from a deep cut under his right eye, Artemiev had arisen at the count of five. With the crowd of about 2,000 people screaming “Stop the fight, ref, what’s the matter with you?” referee James Condon did just that.

Condon later said that he was more influenced by the spacey look in Artemiev’s eyes than by the admonitions of the crowd. At the time of the stoppage, Artemiev was ahead on one scorecard and behind on the two others.

“Two doctors said I would die and another said that if I lived I would be paralyzed,” Artemiev said. “But I have life. When I come out of coma, the first thing I remember is opening my eyes and the room—all white. And my son, Peter, who was just a baby.”

In a photo of him and Peter in his hospital bed, Artemiev is smiling and looks alert but he still has no memory of the shot being taken. What he clearly recalls is later referring to his son as Peter the Great, in deference to the progressive Russian emperor of the 1700s who led a cultural revolution. He still uses that vernacular to describe his son today. 

In the months that followed, Artemiev endured grueling physical and mental rehabilitation. Insured for only $20,000, his medical bills topped out at more than five times that. Much of his expenses were paid for, without fanfare, by promoter Bob Arum.

Today, Artemiev is more of a middleweight than a lightweight, but with the exception of his splattered nose, most of his facial features are intact. His graying blond hair covers a jagged scar along his scalp, and his slate blue eyes are clear and animated. 

Despite a slight gait on his right side, as he works the room at his party he is nimble and graceful. He is always smiling, always positive, and there is no mistaking that he was once an elite athlete.

He carried a boxing belt that had been given to him by the late former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, which over the years he and his son have playfully argued over who its true owner is. Sergei says it is his, while Peter, as his father’s only child, believes it rightfully belongs to him.

“I hug him and kiss him for that,” said Artemiev. “The belt means a lot to me, so I’m glad it means so much to my son. It is the dream of any sportsman. A hockey player dreams of winning Stanley Cup. A boxer dreams of winning belt.”

Artemiev is a very emotional man who is secure enough in his manhood to wear those emotions on his sleeve. He says, for example, that he gets “shivers” whenever he thinks of a phone call that he received from Griffith several years ago.

“One time, in low voice, he call and say he sorry for what happened to me,” said Artemiev. “He said the first three rounds he felt my strong punches. The fourth round—so-so, the fifth round my punches soft, and since seventh round he felt nothing. He said I hope you forgive me.”

Artemiev not only forgives Griffith, he wishes that he had become a world champion and saw his own dreams come to fruition. In Griffith’s only world title bout, he was stopped by Oscar De La Hoya in the third round in 1994. 

It is obvious that Artemiev does not seek the sanctuary of perceived victimization. As easy as that might be for him, it is not in his nature. Moreover, he is more of a giver than a taker. That was clearly evident when he called numerous times to make sure I mentioned many of the people who have stood by him through thick and thin over the past two decades in this article.

They include, but are not limited to Peter the Great, his former mother-in-law, the lovely and elegant Svetlana Tumaian, the owners of the National restaurant, Mark Rakhman and his sisters Sofa and Fira, and the venue’s two managers Simon and Youri.

He also heaps much praise upon public relations guru Gina Andriolo, who was at the event and whom he described as a “beautiful, kind human being.” In the past, she had established a fund to help offset his expenses. 

Andriolo brought along a letter from the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA), where the president, Jack Hirsch, complimented Artemiev for his gallantry inside and outside of the ring and invited him as a special guest to the organization’s next annual event to be held in New York.

Artemiev also received a Certificate of Honor from the New York City Sergeants Benevolent Association, which is the fifth largest police union in the country. SBA President Ed Mullins praised him for his strength and endurance, and for being such a positive role model to New York’s immense Russian community. 

As easy as it is to view Artemiev’s situation as tragic and heartbreaking, he steadfastly refuses to see himself or his travails in that light. Making that even more impressive is the fact that Artemiev is in no way in denial or delusional about his situation. He is acutely aware of his limitations, which are few, and his abilities, which are many.

A fighter by nature, he refuses to do anything but make the best of a bad situation. He admits to sometimes getting depressed, but says that he is glad to be alive. Kobozev, with whom he came to the United States, was trained by Teddy Atlas. He won the USBA cruiserweight title but was murdered by Russian mobsters in 1995. 

And Vaulin, who showed so much promise early on, faded into obscurity after being stopped by the late Tommy Morrison in a fight he had been clearly winning in 1991. The high-profile bout was the lead-in to Evander Holyfield’s successful heavyweight title defense against George Foreman.

“I’m alive and I have a son,” said Artemiev. “My son has said to me, ‘I know you’re my dad, but you’re also my friend.’ I am a blessed man. I used to cry about my damage, and that I not fight again. Sometimes I get angry. I’m not rich. I don’t have a million in my account. But I’m alive, thinking and hoping, and I believe in God. As long as I have life, I have something to live for.”

“My father was an amazing influence on me my whole life,” said Peter the Great, who admits to not being particularly fond of boxing and says he would rather use his head than his fists to make a living.

“He was always there for me, whenever I needed him. He taught me how to say please and thank you. He’s a very genuine man. I’m fortunate to have him as my dad. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

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  1. peter 05:51pm, 06/26/2014

    This is a warm-hearted story replete with a number of memorable sentences: 1) Mladinich’s insight—-“It is obvious that Artemiev does not seek the sanctuary of perceived victimization.”  2) Artemiev’s son—-“I’m fortunate to have him as my dad. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”  3) Artemiev talking about Cal Griffith—“He said the first three rounds he felt my strong punches. The fourth round—so-so, the fifth round my punches soft, and since seventh round he felt nothing.” Thank you for remembering this excellent boxer.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:32am, 06/26/2014

    He won a split decision over a very nasty and hard core Ray Oliveira a couple of months prior to this bout….which to me means that Ray was dealing out punishing blows as he invariably did….the damage could have been cumulative from these two hard bouts in a fairly short period of time. In this bout Griffith was at his best landing hard shots to the body and the head throughout…..the most telling thing was that someone with Artemiev’s great amateur experience couldn’t seem to get out of the way of Carl’s straight and overhand rights….in the latter rounds his flurries had nothing on them. My question is….does he have any recall of the bout at all…..the commentator in the video remarked that Sergei at times was looking away from and was not focusing an Carl.

  3. Clarence George 03:54am, 06/26/2014

    I hadn’t heard of Sergei Artemiev, and appreciate this fine introduction.

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