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Turkish-Armenian boxing legend Zakaryan and his dear country

Alin Ozinian

Garbis Zakaryan, professional boxer first to represent Turkey on a national level and the man nicknamed Iron Fist, passed away on Jan. 25 at the age of 90. Turkish newspapers reported the death of the Armenian-origin boxer, who embodied the sport for Turks in the 1950s and 1960s, under headlines saying that he had asked to be buried in the Turkish flag years before he passed away.

Zakaryan was born in 1930 in the eastern province of Bitlis, but moved to Istanbul to attend the Armenian Esayan school, which he later dropped out to take a variety of menial jobs.

But his real story began in 1944 when he fell under boxing’s spell after watching competitions at the city’s famous Galatasaray Sports Club.

At first, he was told he was too thin to become a boxer, but through sheer perseverance, Zakaryan eventually found a place at a club in the central Beyoğlu district.

He would go on with to join Taksim Sports Club, a club founded by the Armenians of Istanbul, before finding success fighting for Galatasaray as the champion of the city in 1948 and of Turkey the following two years running.

It was at this point that Zakaryan took heed of veteran boxer Mehmut Kefeli’s advice and turned pro. At the time, Galatasaray did not issue professional licences, so he applied to the European Boxing Union. Wherever he had to go to get a fight, he would go.

Zakaryan held onto that attitude when he was called up for his military service, and he won the First Army’s championship in Istanbul and then became the champion of the armed forces as a whole.

He fought in Lebanon, Egypt, France, Germany, Argentina, Brazil and many other countries, always working with the same trainer, Kalust Çarkçı, an experienced boxer himself who honed Zakaryan’s strong left jab and bob-and-weave style into match-winning assets.

By 1964, Zakaryan had risen to become the champion of the Middle East, defeating the French champion boxer Titi Clavel in the same year.

But back when he started boxing, his parents wanted him to quit the sport, and he would go on to warn his own sons off the rough trade. The first time his mother came to one of his fights was after the death of his father, and it was also the last time. His wife, the Italian-origin Istanbulite Hersilia, was so dismayed when she witnessed her husband taking a knockout blow to the chin that she leapt out of her seat, accidentally sending their baby children flying. After that, she, too, kept her distance from Zakaryan’s fights.

In 1966, Zakaryan in his own words left fighting on a high, moving on to training. Among his proteges was Cemal Kamacı, whose star would shine just as bright as Zakaryan’s when he became European champion.

I had the chance to meet Zakaryan once, years ago, thanks to my grandfather who knew him from the time he spent lifting weights as a young man. I could not believe that such a kind and gentle man had made his name as a boxer, as I remarked to him. Then he explained to me the nobility of the sport.

He spoke wonderful Armenian, and he said this was the language he used at home. I asked him whether it had been hard to reach the heights he had reached as an Armenian.

“I went as far as boxing goes in Turkey, there was nowhere else,” he said, sidestepping the question. But he did share some of his memories.

For one thing, the federation chief had suggested that he change his name to the Turkish Galip Sakarya in 1948, but he declined, and the pair laughed it off.

Zakaryan laughed again when he recalled the Armenians who would flood in from other countries to watch him fight, cheering him on in their own language, perhaps unaware that in doing so they were cheering for the Turkish national team.

That he fought under the national colours did not mean that he was always treated equally by Turks, though. In 1950, when Zakaryan fought the famous boxer Сaptain Kenan Yargan at the military academy, all the soldiers in the audience cheered on his opponent.

“Every time the captain went down, the referee would be encouraging him to get up while he did the count, telling him he couldn’t lose to an Armenian pipsqueak,” Zakaryan told me.

He earned the crowd’s respect when he knocked Yargan out, though, and they proudly applauded his power after the match. The two boxers would go on to have a friendly relationship for many years afterwards.

Zakaryan would continue performing in Turkey’s colours throughout his lifetime, bringing the country a range of prizes for the first time and winning the Istanbul, Turkish and Middle Eastern championships throughout an illustrious career. His love for his country kept him in Turkey despite offers to fight abroad in Argentina and elsewhere. Yet throughout his life, he was apparently never able to prove that love – not a single stadium or sports centre was named after him.

I watched videos of his funeral, and finally, the journalists spoke of his “love for his country, devotion to the flag, patriotism and pride in the star and crescent.”

They said he asked to be buried in the Turkish flag years before he passed away. It was good that he did, because those who had ignored him for years finally understood the love and devotion of one of the country’s most skilled and dedicated sportsmen.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

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