In part seven we look at a fighter who broke new ground for Kazakh boxing–The first fighter to win Olympic gold and a world title in the professional ranks.
By the second year of the new millennium there wasn’t much in the sport of boxing that Emanuel Steward hadn’t seen. The hall-of-fame trainer had passed on his knowledge of the sweet science to numerous greats–among them Thomas Hearns and Lennox Lewis.
As an announcer he was mild-mannered and shared his opinion only when he envisioned himself on the ring apron doing what he did best, suggesting tactical shifts for fighters better than anyone else could.
When he lost his cool, you could be sure something out of the ordinary was happening–the sage letting his mask slip and shouting out like a fan who has lost all his inhibitions.
On the 26th of April, 2003, Steward cried out to the almighty. Was it to beg for his intervention in bringing an end to what he was witnessing or in appreciation for the beauty his hand had made possible?
Whatever the reason, Manny Steward–the calm and calculated brain of a few dozen world champions–was exhilarated. So was everyone else who saw what he did. For once it didn’t take a keen eye for the technical details to process what was happening.
But this is the twelfth and final round. To understand just how we got there, we need to go back to the beginning.
“I actually grew up pretty happy. I was very free actually.”
For westerners that have read texts or heard horror stories about the living nightmare of the Soviet Union, the above statement should offer some perspective. For all the tales of poverty, famine and political repression, you migh night contemplate that anybody could be happy.
Vasily Jirov was, even though he didn’t have much in life. His story begins with as cliched a tale as you’ve ever heard. With he and his five siblings abandoned by his father, Jirov turned to sports. That is where this well-trodden tale ends.
Jirov’s mother was a long-distance runner, and she encouraged her son to try out as many athletic endeavors as he cared to,
“When I grew up when it was the Soviet Union there was a lot of different possibilities for the kids. I could go to any sports club. I tried probably–I don’t know–four, five, six, seven different sports until actually I became a boxer. I just try–Like it, don’t like it–move on next, next, next. I was a swimmer, a kayaker, I was a wrestler, I was a basketball player. I would try all different sports before I came a boxer.”
It is not uncommon for athletes to fall into fighting when they have exhausted all the ‘safe’ options. The movements of boxing can be acquired by someone naturally gifted in the art of sports just as much as a knockout blow can be harnessed by someone blessed with a brawny physicality.
For all the fun he got out of sports, games were a mere folly for Vasily Jirov. It became clear pretty early in his life that he was born to fight,
“Before it was more wrestling in Kazakhstan. Probably around seven or eight years old. Boxing gym came when I was twelve years old. I was like every kid–fighting out in the street. I was not very good–I got beaten up. But I was very determined.”
It was at a young age that Jirov found his niche. Still growing, he found himself trading blows with larger boys. Unable to circumnavigate them or land any sufficient blows to the head to ward them off, he changed tactics to devastating effect and setting the tone for the rest of his career.
“My coach put me with a guy who was bigger size with me…like a head above me. I couldn’t hit the head so I punched the body. One time I punched the guy in the body and he fell down–Actually it was a knockout. And I was like, ‘What’s going on.’ And my coach watched the sparring and said, ‘You know what you did’? I said, ‘No’. He said, ‘There’s places in the body that are very vulnerable.’ He explained to me, ‘The liver, the heart.’ I said, ‘Good’. So I became more (training for) the body punching. The head’s moving a lot. But when the body is there, it’s there.”
In his teens Jirov made his mark as an amateur, winning the European junior championships as a middleweight. In these games Jirov represented the ‘Unified Team’, which consisted of many of the countries formerly under Soviet rule.
While this team was a show of solidarity, it wouldn’t last. The Soviet Union was dead, and in all future boxing tournaments the Republic of Kazakhstan would field its own team.
At the 1993 World Amateur Championships, Vasily Jirov earned the Kazakh team their first major medal. Still far from his prime, he made an exceptional showing and took bronze. Filling out, he earned the same distinction at the 1995 World Championships as a light heavyweight–losing in the semifinals to the decorated American Antonio Tarver.
As the best light heavyweight in the region, Jirov qualified for the 1996 Olympic Games–which were to be held in Atlanta.
A content young man with a gift for fighting and a love for sport. Jirov was seemingly living the dream–Not the basis for a gripping pugilistic narrative.
Until you meet Alexander Apachinsky.
Breeding a Tiger
Alexander Apachinsky was a madman. Not in the true sense of the word–he was an incredible trainer who laid the foundations for Kazakhstan’s first wave of standalone amateurs–but his training methods were incredibly unorthodox.
He pushed his boys not just to the brink of exhaustion, but to serious injury. After finishing Apachinsky’s training sessions taking punches to the wind would feel like breathing clean air–a flush hook on the cheek like receiving a kiss from your mother.
The Kazakh coach forced his students not just to fight each other, but to fight nature. He would drop them off in the middle of lakes and row back to shore, leaving them to swim back, developing their muscle strength and stamina.
It was his methods of developing speed under pressure that would raise the eyebrows of even the most sadistic minds,
…to build speed and overcome fear in his fighters, Apachinsky would give them a running head start down a long corridor at the end of the hall at the training facility, then release German Shepherds and yell, “Attack!”–New York Daily News
Dodging punches would seem an easier task when you’d had to avoid being bitten by attack dogs. On a few occasions Jirov found it harder to avoid an attack when it came from two sets of teeth rather than two fists,
“I was in a long corridor, maybe 100 feet, and I was standing a few feet in front of the dog. I would just run and he would push the dog and tell him, ‘Attack’. At the end of the corridor was a small door. So I would have to run fast and get in the door. Sometimes I would get their fast enough, but other times the dog would attack me. I had a couple of stitches in my leg. Sometimes I would carry a rope in my hand, and if I ran quick enough I would try and catch the dog in the throat to make him slow down. We did it for speed, and I also lost my fear.”
Jirov would need to be fearless. In his division was arguably the best pound-for-pound amateur boxer in the world, and America’s best hope for a gold medal, and he’d beaten Jirov before. On home soil, Antonio Tarver was expected to do the business.
“How can I get beat when I don’t get hit?”, said Antonio Tarver after his gold medal triumph at the 1995 World Championships. And although he did get hit in his bouts, he was as classy a boxer as any in the unpaid ranks at that time.
A lanky boxer-puncher, Tarver had made a name for himself as a highly-skilled bomber, and with three national championships, Pan-Am gold (Tarver being the first American to defeat a Cuban boxer since the mid-80’s) and world recognition as the best in his division, it wasn’t much of a surprise that Sports Illustrated named him their favourite to win gold.
Vasily Jirov was tipped to win silver by the same publication.
Tarver was also well aware of his status–eating his way out of his division safe in the knowledge that his skill would get him through.
For all his hype–wholly justified–Tarver did not impress in his opening bout, outpointing his Russian opponent in what the Associated Press called a ‘dismal’ showing, before bouncing back with two stoppage victories.
Jirov had been decidedly more workmanlike in his early bouts. Aside from forcing a stoppage over future professional light heavyweight champ Julio Cesar Gonzalez, Jirov had been made to work in his decision victories over Canada and Italy’s representatives.
The prediction of Sports Illustrated that Tarver and Jirov would finish as the top two fighters in the division never had a chance to come true. They would meet in the semi-finals instead, and one of them would have to wear the least shiny medal on the podium.
Tarver started off the bout well–showing the same skills he’d used to outpoint Jirov in the previous years World Amateur Championships–and after the first round led the Kazakh by two points. Whether he was trying to better his chances of scoring points in the button-based scoring system of the time–or through sheer confidence of being the man–Tarver decided to swarm Jirov with both hands in the second stanza.
Tarver was no German Shepard.
Jirov absorbed Tarver’s best in the second, and turned the tables on his flagging opponent in the third, backing him into the corners and letting fly with both fists. Tarver openly sucked in air and tried to catch a break by grabbing onto Jirov. Neither man did much in the way of clean eye-catching work–but that wasn’t important with this method of scoring. The more you threw, the more chance you had of racking up points.
Jirov won the decision by six points, a truly flabbergasting total. Veteran announcer Al Bernstein criticised the scoring system, and rightly so–hardly any of Tarver’s blows in the second round had been scored, whereas Jirov’s similar method of attack in the third had seen him through to a comfortable victory that didn’t reflect the true nature of the contest.
Not that the decision itself was seen as unjust. The American press shot Tarver down for resting on his laurels and making a poor tactical decision,
After a somnambulant first round and a frenzied second, this fight was destined to come down to who had the most left in the third. And it wasn’t Tarver. As the last three minutes flitted by, his blows came slower and slower and…slower. When the 15-9 decision was announced, there wasn’t much Tarver could say about it.–Sports Illustrated
In the gold medal match Jirov out-boxed, outfought and completely outclassed the game and skilled former Olympic bronze medalist Lee-Seung Bae of South Korea. Jirov forced a standing count in the third round and won the bout with a 13-point lead, becoming the first ever Olympic gold medalist from Kazakhstan.
For his momentous victory over the well-respected Tarver and his display of skillful superiority over his opponent in the final, Jirov joined true Olympic royalty–names such as Valeri Popenchenko, Teofilo Stevenson and Roy Jones Jr–as the recipient of the Val Barker Trophy, awarded to the most stylish boxer of the tournament.
Vasily Jirov had reached the top of the amateur boxing mountain. There were bigger climbs ahead.
Living In America
There was a chance that Vasily Jirov could avoid languishing in his homeland unseen to the larger boxing public, and that was by capitalising on his biggest success taking part in the United States.
Backed by promotional powerhouse Top Rank, Jirov would find no end to the A-list trainers who would want to show him the ropes of the pro ranks.
Instead Jirov set up camp in Scottsdale, Arizona, with experienced but unheralded Scott Ardrey assigned with taking him to the top.
If being out the way hurt Jirov’s marketability a tad, his decision to compete at cruiserweight–boxing’s least glamorous division–would hamper his chances of super-stardom even more.
A fan friendly style and being marketed as ‘The Russian Tiger’ might have helped–Kazakhstan was barely recognised in the West at this time–but Jirov was up against it.
He was given a chance for exposure on his debut, landing on the undercard of the biggest name in boxing Oscar De La Hoya. But with Floyd Mayweather Jr, Kostya Tszyu, Stevie Johnston and the ever-popular Michael Carbajal further up the bill, who would remember the cruiserweight with the unpronounceable name?
Especially when the bout–a second round stoppage of club fighter Vincent Brown–was not televised.
Jirov was active in his first few years, and somewhat of a road warrior–fighting all around America as well as in the Ukraine–without stepping up. He’d also ditched the boxer-puncher style of his amateur days and became a more straight-forward pressure fighter. The well-schooled upper body movement was still there, but now now he only moved forward like a body-snatching juggernaut.
An undefeated record in a fractured division such as cruiserweight–with only two of twenty opponents lasting the distance–was enough to earn Jirov a title shot.
Even in the wasteland that was the 190lb division Arthur Williams was not the most impressive titlist and Jirov showed it, bringing and end to the contest in the seventh round with a patented body shot.
Vasily Jirov was the first of his people to win a world championship in professional boxing. A landmark event, but given Williams’ lack of star quality, not a landmark victory.
Jirov did make his first defence against a fighter of real quality, former Olympian Dale Brown. Brown was a tidy boxer and posed a real threat to Jirov who–reminiscent of a popular Kazakh from the present day–had forgone a lot of the science that had made him a multifaceted threat. Jirov had not become a brawler–he still had some nous, as you’d expect of a decorated amateur–but he had increasingly relied on forward movement and aggression.
On the under card of the Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad super fight, Jirov won his rounds in workmanlike fashion. HBO broadcaster Larry Merchant has always had a habit of unintentionally prophetic statements–such as his proclamation that Naseem Hamed hadn’t shown much evidence of being a power puncher when he faced off with Kevin Kelley–and he pulled out another gem in the tenth round here,
“Jirov doesn’t quite look like a tiger here anymore, but he does seem to be winning the fight. He’s very, very stubborn–very driven–and he’s fighting a very game and well-schooled opponent.”
As Merchant finished up, Jirov wasted Brown with a gut-busting shot, causing the challenger to writhe around–not once looking like it would translate into rising.
WBO cruiserweight titlist Johnny Nelson had successfully defended his title on the same card, and a potential unification might have given the division the popularity boost it needed in the United States.
Alas, it didn’t happen, and never would for either Jirov, Nelson or WBC titlist Juan Carlos Gomez. Perhaps the blame lies with broadcasters unwilling to put up the kind of money needed to coax these ‘champions’ into riskier bouts. Perhaps the blame lies with Jirov’s advisor, who was at this point fairly unknown–Al Haymon.
Jirov made a string of defences, some of them against fairly poor opposition. Jorge Fernando Castro was one of the best fighters around and above the middleweight limit in the early 90’s. By the time Jirov beat him–in first gear–he was an overweight thirty something with a terrible pink dye job.
Before Jirov’s defence against an average contender–Julian Letterlough–HBO stalwart Jim Lampley tried his hardest to hype up Vasily Jirov whilst conceding that the cruiserweight division was not at all attractive,
“Even though the cruiserweight division may rank just south of the federal witness protection program as a way of staying totally anonymous in the world of boxing and in general, tonight we have cruiserweights worth watching.”
Letterlough may have been a generally average fighter, but he was a renowned banger at the lower level, albeit down at light heavyweight. He’d hurt and dropped world-class Julio Cesar Gonzalez, but showed his ceiling when he was unable to finish him.
New York Daily News wrote,
It should be a bout with a lot of action, but there are few intriguing matches in the cruiserweight division, which hasn’t had a popular figure since Evander Holyfield moved away. Now, being the best cruiserweight is like being the fattest elephant in the circus.
Predictably Jirov was too smart for Letterlough, and beat him up inside of eight rounds.
Jirov craved big fights and unification bouts, not just for the money they would bring but for the recognition. But there were other stumbling blocks in the way besides fighting in boxing’s least loved division.
Veteran Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler, speaking to the Phoenix New Times in 2001,
“It’s hard to explain to a kid like him, and his manager, that there’s no market for him here. The people here can’t relate to him. He’s learning English, and he’s charming and cute in the way he does speak English, but he’s not an American, and Americans aren’t going to support him.”
Jirov toyed with making the cut to light heavyweight. He tried to goad pound-for-pound superstar Roy Jones–who had skipped cruiserweight to take a lucrative super fight with John Ruiz for a heavyweight bauble–to journey south again and meet him. Jirov even considered moving to heavyweight himself.
The Kazakh was undefeated in thirty one bouts, and he’d stopped twenty seven of his opponents, making defences of his IBF title along the way. What he needed was a breakout performance, one that would give him a name despite the anonymity that came hand in hand with fighting in the 190lb division.
But for that he’d need an opponent that would not only force a great performance out of him, but one whose name was well known.
If Roy Jones was unwilling, then his old rival–and fellow legend–James Toney would be.
James Toney was a naturally gifted fighter. Not in the sense that he was born to slug it out, or athletic enough that he could circumnavigate the most persistent of foes. Toney was lead-footed, not too skilled in either the art of cutting off the ring nor of dancing around in it.
But he was gifted. Try and stick a jab on him and you’d find it sail over his shoulder. He’d see you coming–his defensive radar was off the charts–and even if you managed to feint him out of position his chin could absorb a Dresden-level shelling.
Try and get up in his face and he was in his element.
Toney’s ability to roll with shots and find himself in the perfect position to counter was unparalleled in his era. His technical in-fighting didn’t belong in his time–he was a relic of the 30’s and 40’s, cut from the same cloth as Archie Moore, Jimmy Bivins, Holman Williams, Lloyd Marshall and Charley Burley. He would’ve had the same kind of record against those legends as they had with each other.
What he wasn’t was dedicated. As skilled as he was, his tendency to blow up between fights saw Toney turn in numerous uninspiring performances. In the mid to late 90’s it was hard to believe you were watching the same man who’d gone tit-for-tat with some of his finest technical contemporaries–Mike McCallum and Reggie Johnson–and been voted The Ring magazine’s fighter of the year for 1991 after chopping down the majestic middleweight champ Michael Nunn.
Toney was hardly an enigma, the root of his problems were plain to see. He could outfight anyone in close, but gluttony got the better of him every time.
At cruiserweight–then set at at 190lbs–Toney found a division he could eat as much as he wanted to whilst training hard enough to stay in reasonable shape. He had put together eleven wins in a row, the longest unblemished streak he’d had since he was a middleweight a decade before. And under Freddie Roach’s stern tutelage Toney found himself more dedicated to his craft than he had been in years.
Jirov and Toney were first due to meet in July of 2000, but Jirov pulled out of the bout to care for his wife, who was having a difficult time with her first pregnancy. By the time they finally met in the ring Jirov had been dumped by Top Rank, faced threats of having his title stripped by the IBF, and had been out of the ring for fourteen months–a long time for a fighter who had fought over thirty times in six years.
Toney meanwhile, was in vintage form. Never short for words, the man known as ‘Lights Out’ told some of his tricks of the trade to Doug Fischer before the bout,
“I still don’t play. If you’re a manager and you think you have the next big thing in boxing, the next prospect or whatever, you know, the next ‘Golden Boy’, don’t put him the ring with me ’cause I will hurt his body, then I will hurt his feelings. I will make him cry. If you’re a heavyweight, don’t get in the ring with me. I’ll break you down and talk about yo momma. I will make you cry.”
Toney says he’ll make Jirov’s family cry, after he makes the 6-foot-2 cruiserweight champ run around the ring in fear this Saturday at the Foxwoods Resort & Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut.
“I don’t care about Chris Byrd! Don’t talk to me about Roy Jones! I’m only thinkin’ about Vassiliy Jirov!” Toney proclaimed. “It’s gonna be hard stayin’ civilized once I get to Foxwoods. I’ll be lookin’ for Jirov and his trainer Tommy Brooks. I’ll whup they asses on sight. They think this is a game.”
“I talk shit to fighters because it fires me up, but I also want to see where they heart is at,” Toney said after hitting the shower after another good day of hard work. “I’ll talk about they momma and I don’t care if she alive or dead. I tell them how ugly they momma is. I don’t care. I wanna see if they can take it.”
Jirov was indeed working with Tommy Brooks–the man who had initially guided all-time great amateur Mark Breland’s caree–Toney was right about that. But he was wrong about one thing.
Vasily Jirov hadn’t run since Alexander Apachinsky set his dogs on him.
The Greatest Fight of 2002
“Both guys have a strategy of coming out and taking control and that means it’s gonna’ be an interesting fight. Jirov is a much bigger puncher than I think a lot of us realise. I had the privilege of training him for a short period of time and I was amazed at his punching power, and he throws a body punch from a weird angle–that you think you’re blocking it and you’re not blocking it. But the main thing in this fight is that Toney has a good chin and Jirov I have saw hurt before and that could be a big neutraliser.”
Emanuel Steward had briefly worked with Jirov, and knew him well. As astute an analyst as you would ever find, Steward’s prediction proved prophetic, as did Jim Lampley’s,
“Let’s get ready for what could be an early contender for fight of the year.”
Referee Steve Smoger had to demand Toney touch gloves with Jirov before the bout–Toney could make a grudge in an empty room. Jirov was respectful and offered his hand despite Toney’s unwillingness, but the Kazakh showed little respect for the legend once the first bell rang out, stalking in his usual style.
In the first round both went for the body, digging trenches they would occupy until the end of the fight. A pattern was quickly established: Jirov would press forward and work harder, Toney would take the edge off and languidly move around the ring until he saw his opportunity to strike with clean and meaningful shots. Jirov was waking through Toney’s spiteful shots and upping his game on the inside. As he did, Toney would see more opportunities to slip and counter. They worked in the same office but ran different businesses.
“Lest you think that Vasily Jirov will wilt under this punishment–won’t like the pain of what James Toney’s dealing out to him. Just remember that Kazakh national boxing coach Alex Apachinsky raised Jirov on a diet of strange exercises as putting him in a closed hallway with German Shepherds piped to the gills or dropping him in the middle of a lake tthree miles from shore and paddling away. These are the kind of things Jirov learned on and it’s hard to imagine that’s going to wilt under any punishment”, said Jim Lampley.
“Yeah, but one solid right hand to the head can change all of that”, Manny Steward chimed in.
In the eighth round Jirov was deducted a point for landing one of his brutal body blows south of its intended target. It seemed to energise him, and he piled it on Toney–who needed all of his nous to deflect the downpour.
In the tenth they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of the ring–Toney produced some of the best work he had for rounds. He stunned Jirov–timing him with an array of clean shots–but the Kazakh simply got closer to him, wailing away, trying to fend off the cute counter puncher with aggression, which only led to Toney finding him more. Repeat.
In the eleventh a weary Jirov fell back on his amateur background. He popped his jab, forced Toney on the front foot and only burst forward when Toney found him. Jirov–tired from spamming Toney with body shots for nearly half an hour–sloppily attacked once Toney occupied his comfort zone, back to the ropes. Toney would land clean hooks and uppercuts, back Jirov up then retreat once he realised his legs were too weary to carry his weight. It was chaos of the best kind, a prizefight from another era.
If the first eleven rounds were epic, the twelfth and final stanza turned the bout into a classic.
“Three minutes–The fight of the year comes down to the twelth round”.–Jim Lampley
We are back where we started.
The 12th Round
Jirov continued to walk into the wood chipper that was James Toney’s inside game, and paid the price. After being shelled with right hands for the majority of the contest, the Kazakh southpaw spun himself into a left hook from James Toney.
Emanuel Steward spotted its effect right away, and vehemently implored those sat next to him–and watching at home–to watch the special sequence that was unfolding.
“Jirov is hurt”, shouted Steward, and not just once. Lampley echoed him.
Toney chewed Jirov up like the hamburgers he loved so much, but found Jirov hard to digest.The Kazakh kept coming.
“He’s still smothering James he won’t let James get any punching room”, said Steward as Jirov wailed away with both hands.
Of course, James Toney didn’t need to be given any room. He was at his best when an opponent tried to suffocate him. Toney shifted through his entire arsenal. Jirov reeled like a stilt walker caught in a gale.
“Oh, my God look at this! Look at this!”, Steward bellowed as the violence kept coming.
Jirov provided just as much of it as he desperately tried to stay in the fight. Toney spun a right uppercut into his jaw that sent the champ sprawling to the canvas.
“He’d better run across the ring right away”, said Steward as Jirov rose at the count of four with just a few seconds left in the fight.
Jirov didn’t try and bolt out the door. He turned and ran back down the corridor, swinging a body shot towards Toney as the final bell tolled.
“Both fighters elevate their careers in an extraordinary fight”, said Jim Lampley.
Jirov’s name might have been more recognisable than ever before, but he lost the fight–and his title–in a unanimous decision with scorecards that were too wide to accurately represent the ebb and flow of the bout.
Had the famous Arturo Gatti-Mickey Ward trilogy not had its concluding installment the same year, James Toney and Vasily Jirov’s battle would have surely won fight off the year honours from any respectable publication. It stands up not just with that famous rubber match, but with any of the decade.
For Jirov, the fight he’d been craving–the one to make him a star–had come at a price. His physical prime was over. Like many talented fighters before him, he’d left his best in the ring during a bout that required everything he had learned, everything he had and all he had in reserve.
He came close to past glories up at heavyweight where he used his experience against highly-touted prospect Joe Mesi in much the same way James Toney had to him–dropping the younger fighter late in the fight–but lost a close decision.
His name will always be in the Kazakh record books. It’s first Olympic gold medalist and recipient of the Val Barker Trophy. The first of his people to wear a world title from the pro ranks.
He will always be one half of one of the greatest cruiserweight title fights of all time. Remember him in those last moments–out on his feet but finding the strength to plant his feet and throw to the wind.
In part eight we’ll meet the brightest star Kazakh boxing has produced to date. The fighter that made you read this series in the first place. This doesn’t bring us into the present day–not yet anyway–but back into the past. In part eight, we meet a 15 year old chasing down the toughest kids in the country–Gennady Gennadyavich Golovkin.