Aussie Imports Series: Kostya Tszyu By Sean Castle
Feature writer, Sean Castle, follows on his from his popular story on “Aussie Joe Bugner” with a reflection on the career of the legendary Kostya Tszyu. With Kostya’s son, Tim Tszyu, now cutting a swathe through the professional ranks as he gets closer to his own world title shot, it is timely to look at the career of the former Undisputed Junior Welterweight Champion of the World.
The early to mid-1990s was a transitional time for boxing in Australia. The nation’s two biggest international stars, triple world champion Jeff Fenech and WBC Light heavyweight champion Jeff “The Hitman” Harding, were both coming to the end of their illustrious careers and were past their best. This came on top of the retirement of former IBF world champion Barry Michael along with the continuing difficulties faced by the young man he dethroned, Lester Ellis.
The year of 1991 provided a turning point for the fortunes of Australian boxing. It saw the great Jeff Fenech robbed of a deserved fourth world title against Ghanaian legend Azumah Nelson in Las Vegas. In the rort of the decade, the three judges unbelievably called the fight a draw, and Fenech was knocked out in the rematch, beginning the downward spiral that concluded his career. Importantly for Australia, 1991 was also the year when Sydney hosted the world amateur boxing championships with the best young talent the world had to offer on display. One fighter, in particular, caught the expert eye of Master Trainer Johnny Lewis and his protégé, Fenech, as well as promoter “Break Even” Bill Mordey as he punched his way to world championship glory. That fighter was of course Konstantin Borisvich Tszyu, the Soviet champion who easily disposed of future world professional champion Vernon Forrest, creating such an impression that Lewis and Mordey arranged to meet the Russian over lunch at Sydney’s iconic Watson Bay. The topic of conversation was an offer for the Russian fighter to turn professional under the tutelage of Lewis and relocate to Sydney.
History shows that Tszyu accepted the offer and made the move with his Russian girlfriend and future wife, Natasha Anikina, leaving behind his family and friends and all he ever knew in Serov, Russia. Russia itself was rapidly changing with the collapse of the communist Soviet empire and the of Iron Curtain and for Tszyu, this required a massive leap of faith to establish himself on the other side of the world where he knew no one and could not speak the language. Not long after his arrival, word started to spread amongst the boxing community that Lewis had something special in his gym and it was on the undercard of Fenech-Nelson II at Melbourne’s Princess Park that Tszyu made his professional debut in March 1992. Lewis told Sean Castle that “It became clear very quickly that in Kostya we had something very special. He could do things that other fighters could only dream of. And he was very tough”.
In the lead up to his debut against Seoul Olympian Darrell Hiles, Tszyu was given a massive wrap in the press by Fenech who urged fans to “come along and watch the next Aussie win a world title”. As boxing legend tells us Tszyu, with his very limited understanding of the English language, famously mistook Lewis’s instructions of “win the first round” for “win the fight in the first round” and poor Darrell Hiles had no idea what hit him, being knocked out in 58 seconds. Reflecting upon this with Sean Castle, Tszyu said “I thought Johnny wanted me to knock him out in the first round. So I did. My English in those days was quick limited”.
The praise and expectations quickly started to flow, with even the usually coy Lewis declaring that he wouldn’t “be surprised if Kostya won a world title within 18 months”. Unbelievably, Tszyu fought and disposed of seasoned professional Juan La Porte, the former WBC Featherweight world champion, in just his fourth professional fight. Tszyu was undaunted fighting a boxer of La Porte’s calibre who was more than 10 years his senior and a veteran of 9 world title fights. The Puerto Rican became the first in a long line of high calibre opponents to vastly underestimate the Russian-born Aussie stating: “I can’t believe a kid with only 3 fights could have a chance against me”. How wrong he was, providing valuable experience for Tszyu in making him go the full distance over 10 rounds for the first time in his short career and teaching Tszyu what was required when fighting against a world-class opponent, one who had never been stopped in 330 rounds as a professional. Lewis was impressed with the workout for his young charge, commenting to Sean Castle:
“La Porte felt Kostya’s power and strength and knew by the second round he couldn’t win. He then basically pulled down the shutters and made sure he didn’t get hurt. For Kostya, it was good, his first marathon and you don’t know you can run one until you do it”.
Tszyu continued to work hard in the gym and develop throughout 1994, moving past some well-credentialed fighters and moving into the IBF’s Top 5 rankings. This put him in the frame for a shot at IBF Junior-Welterweight champion Jake “The Snake” Rodriguez in January 1995. Supremely confident leading into the fight, Tszyu disposed of the world champion in a dominating performance capped with a 6th round stoppage victory and flying back to Australia with the famous red IBF belt wrapped around his waist. Tszyu’s career progressed as expected throughout the next two years with some exciting fights against some classy opponents, with the highlight being the title defence against Colombian Hugo Pineada at Sydney’s Parramatta Stadium. He told Sean Castle that “fighting in Sydney in from of all the fans was very special. A great memory. For me it was giving the fans a present in having a world title fight at home”.
However, it was what was happening outside the ring that was causing great concern for those close to the Tszyu camp. An ugly split with promoter Bill Mordey ended with a costly loss in the Supreme Court, resulting in a massive monetary penalty being imposed and the stripping away of Tszyu’s renowned focus. This culminated in Tszyu losing his title in May 1997 against rank underdog Vince Phillips via a late stoppage loss. Many expert judges believe this became the turning point in Tszyu’s career. Questions were rightly asked about how the now former IBF champion would respond. Fight fans soon had the answer. In his first fight back after the Phillip’s loss, Tszyu destroyed Ismael Chaves in three rounds before taking on Calvin Grove, a fighter well-known in this nation for effectively ending the career of two of Australia’s most recent world champions in Fenech and Ellis. Coming not long after being found in breach of his contract to Mordey and with a $4 million payout figure having the potential to bankrupt him, Tszyu took out a lot of his frustration on Grove, dropping the American twenty seconds into the fight before destroying him in the third.
It was clear straight after the fight, which was held at the Newcastle Entertainment Centre, that Tszyu had developed a special rapport within the Australian sporting community. The fans embraced him, appreciating Tszyu’s humble, no-nonsense manner and were keen to support him on the long road back to the top. An opportunity to fast track that journey back came via an official “WBC eliminator” in August 1998 against tough Mexican Rafael Ruelas in El Paso, Texas. As is often the case in boxing, things aren’t always as they seem. The Tszyu camp was wary because the fight against Chaves was also listed as an “eliminator” yet no title shot ever eventuated from it. Showing a tonne of steel and guts, Tszyu and his team ventured into hostile territory, very close to the Mexican border to fight the former IBF world champion Ruelas, whose reign only ended via a brave loss to the great Oscar De La Hoya, .
Tszyu was merciless in the bout, continually punishing the tough Mexican from early in Round One and giving the proud former champion the beating of his life until the fight was eventually stopped in the 9th round. Ruelas never recovered physically or mentally from the beating and was a shadow of the great fighter he once was due to Tszyu’s ferocity. Tszyu reflected Sean Castle “that I felt his spirit and determination go in this fight. When that happens fighter rarely ever recover”.
This victory brought with it the reward of a shot at the vacant WBC Junior Welterweight title against another Mexican in Miguel Angel Gonzalez. The belt was still vacant after Gonzalez was robbed of the title when his showdown with Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez was scored a draw in Mexico City. Close to the scheduled fight date more fun and games occurred for the Aussie with Gonzalez pulling out of the fight citing a dubious injury. Some fast work by Tszyu’s promoter Vlad Warton saw a late replacement in Cuban Diobley’s Hurtado step in for what was now classified as an “interim title” bout, conditional on the winner fighting Gonzalez in their first defence.
The fight against Hurtado, who twice knocked down Pernell Whitaker in a WBC welterweight title fight, would prove exciting and action-packed. From the opening bell, the fight was explosive with both fighters hitting the deck in the first round and exchanging heavy shots until Tszyu struck with a couple of big bombs in the fifth, stopping the Cuban and taking home the famous bright green WBC belt as his prize. Tszyu told Sean Castle “that I was disappointed to get caught. It was never the plan but I always felt strong and that I could close him out”.
The long-waited fight between Tszyu and Gonzalez finally took place in August 1999 after another series of delays due to the dubious management practices of the Mexican’s camp. As in many of his fights in the USA, Tszyu was listed as the heavy outsider by American “experts” going into the fight. This always seemed to suit the Aussie perfectly fine, acting as an extra spur for Tszyu in his preparation. Gonzalez, with his only loss in 45 fights coming at the hands of Oscar De La Hoya, was supremely confident going in but as was often the case, such over-confidence was quickly exposed once the power of Tszyu was felt. From the opening bell, it became obvious why Tszyu would become known as the “Mexican Killer”, brutally giving Gonzalez the beating of his career until the referee finally stopped the pain in the 10th round.
The year 2000 brought another two Mexicans eager to take Tszyu’s WBC belt. First up was Ahmed Santos, the top ten ranked fighter who was totally outclassed by the champion before finally being removed midway through the 8th round. Tszyu was thankful for the workout having only two fights in the preceding 18 months. Significantly for Tszyu, the bout helped set the future course of what he deemed his “destiny”. On the undercard was big-mouthed Brooklyn local Zab “Super” Judah who claimed the vacant IBF version of the title earlier in the evening. Judah jumped into the ring after Tszyu disposed of Santos to “congratulate” him on his victory. It quickly became apparent that a rivalry would soon develop between the two champions, especially when Tszyu saw straight threw Judah’s feigned congratulations and glared right at him telling the brash American to show some respect, making Judah aware that he knew all about Judah bagging him out in the press. Tszyu, in comments to Sean Castle, said “I always believed deep down he was putting on a show and had real fear in him and I planned on exploiting that when we finally fought”.
Sensing the fear in an opponent has been one of Tszyu’s strengths throughout his career and it was evident again in this situation, with Judah taken aback and responding to Tszyu’s demand for respect with a lame “I do, I do”. Proving to the world the lack of class that he possesses, Judah waited for Tszyu to exit before saying to the assembled press:
“I respect him. But nothing like he’s gonna respect me after I whip him and take his belt. He’s not a champ, he’s a chump”.
This was the first real step towards their future unification bout, a match up Tszyu was extremely confident of winning. Next up though was a mandatory July title defence against the stupendous Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez. Chavez was well past his best but Tszyu was ordered to take the fight by the WBC or risk being stripped of his title. Tszyu’s camp was determined the fight against the 109-fight veteran would not take place in his native Mexico, the scene of some very dubious past officiating in favour of Chavez, coupled with the fact that Chavez was promoted by none other than Don King, whose antics need no further explanation. Originally scheduled for Las Vegas the fight had to be switched to Phoenix, Arizona due to Nevada officials refusing to sanction the bout out of concern for Chavez. Come fight night, the venue, less than 300 miles from the Mexican border, was brimming with Mexican’s keen to see their hero finish his career in style. Chavez’s career had spanned an incredible 109 fights and 6 world titles across four weight divisions but that was all to no avail as Tszyu dominated the veteran from the beginning of the fight with Chavez being stopped for only the second time in his career early in the 6th round.
Following this triumph, Tszyu rejected the chance to fight another big mouth in Hector Camacho Jr opting instead to pursue the path of title unification with a bout against WBA Champion Sharmba Mitchell, with the winner to take on IBF Champion Judah for the three major belts. Mitchell, as seems to be the American way, went down the path of mouthing off about himself while denigrating Tszyu’s status. The Australian, as is his way, just absorbed the insults, knowing they would be of no use once they were both in the ring.
“I knew he was worried about my power. He had the Middleweight World Champion William Joppy in for sparring to simulate my power and get him used to the heavy hits he knew I would deliver. He was gone mentally” Tszyu recalled to Sean Castle.
Tszyu was amused in the lead up to the fight when Mitchell started comparing himself to the great Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali, and Roy Jones Jr in an attempt to build up his fragile state of mind. Mitchell’s camp tried to play silly games on fight night sending through two messages that the fight was off due firstly to illness then secondly a knee injury. Tszyu’s people just ignored this rubbish and basically sent back the message that they would see them at the ring. Early in the fight Mitchell was moving well and showing no sign of his supposed knee injury. The fight was an ugly affair and Mitchell ended up on the deck four times due to the fighters getting tangled. Not helping the situation was controversial referee Joe Cortez, the man in the centre of Fenech vs Nelson I, docking Tszyu a point for wrestling.
Come the fourth round, Tszyu was clearly getting on top and was having the better exchanges, landing some heavy shots that slowed Mitchell up, with his face showing the evidence of his misfortune. Surprisingly, the fight came to a swift conclusion in the 7th round with Mitchell hitting the deck and then retiring claiming a knee injury, with Tszyu walking away with the WBA belt to add to his WBC title. Sitting ringside was Judah, who could not resist reflecting on Tszyu’s performance with some typical trash-talking stating that Tszyu was “slow” and that he would “punch holes in him like Swiss cheese”. The fuse was lit for some unification fireworks but before such a super fight could take place Tszyu was obliged to fight the unbeaten Oktay Urkel who was the №1 contender for Tszyu’s WBC belt. It was not a great performance on reflection but as Tszyu told Sean Castle “it was a good workout against a tough, difficult opponent and was about banking some solid rounds”.
Again Judah was present giving his views on Tszyu’s performance to all that were present after having earlier fought on the undercard. Tszyu laboured for a tough 12 round decision against the durable German, with Judah again stirring the pot in labelling the Australian a “slow, one dimensional fighter”. Finally, fight fans had a date for what Tszyu claimed was to be his “destiny”. Come 2nd November 2001, the three major belts (WBC, WBA, IBF) of the junior welterweight division were up for grabs and in a promoter’s dream, Judah continued to talk himself up and create unprecedented interest.
“Tszyu’s finished. He’s made for me like a three-piece suit” Judah exclaimed. Pointedly, Judah came out with the one line that more than any other came back to haunt him:
“If I had it my way this fight with Tszyu would be winner takes all — all the belts, all the money. The loser can go home and cry. And get a job”.
As was his custom the Aussie was his usual reserved, polite self in the lead up when pushed for a response to Judah’s ridiculous outbursts, politely saying that he thought that “Judah is a good fighter but I believe it is my destiny to be undisputed champion of the world”. As is the way in the United States, the American boxing and mainstream media lapped up all of Judah’s big talking and curiously had him the overwhelming favourite to win the fight. Come fight night, the tension at the Las Vegas MGM Grand was tense and awaiting the promised fireworks. Back home in Australia, pubs and clubs were packed with excited fans ready to cheer on their man, and pay-per-view records were smashed.
Judah entered the ring in typical hip-hop trash-talking style with his entourage led by disgraced heavyweight champion Mike Tyson whispering words of “encouragement” in his ears. Tszyu noted later that he saw the contrived cockiness that was evident in Judah in the lead up to the bout had disappeared, recalling: “I could see in his eyes that he was a beaten man. You could see the fear coming out of him”. When the bell rang to get proceedings underway, Judah was super quick as expected, moving in and out with quick punches and not wanting to engage with Tszyu’s noted power. Midway through the first round Judah put a flash move on the Australian and caught him open, unleashing a great left hand that connected flush with Tszyu’s jaw, sending the American ringside commentator’s into a frenzy of anticipation of an early finish. Tszyu’s legs remained steady as he took to limiting the damage with some good defensive measures. However, the first round clearly belonged to Judah despite Tszyu responding with some solid body shots late in the round.
The second round started similar to the first, with Judah again moving quickly and proving evasive. Midway through the round Tszyu was clearly getting into his rhythm and was starting to cut the American off as he pursued him across the ring, connecting with some clean shots. Then the moment that is now forever etched into Australian sporting history happened. In the last twenty seconds of the round, Tszyu feigned a movement that caught Judah by surprise allowing the Aussie to crash a solid left hand to Judah’s neck positioning perfectly for the massive right-hand bomb that Tszyu then unleashed that hit Judah flush on the button. Judah instantly hit the canvas then comically attempted to get up and argue with referee Jay Nady as he stumbled across the ring like a drunken sailor and with eyes spinning like poker machines. He then fell to the deck again and Nady waved the fight off with barely a second left in the second round. And so it was, Kostya Tszyu the Australian fighter via Serov, Russia, was now the undisputed junior welterweight champion of the world.
After coming around, Judah and his corner went bezerk throwing chairs and threatening the referee. There was no doubting that Tszyu had exposed Judah for being the overrated brat that he undoubtedly is. Upon reflecting on Tszyu’s stellar career it is obvious that this was the pinnacle although he did successfully defend his unified titles twice against Ben Tackie in 2002 and Jessie James Leija in Melbourne in January 2003. Serious injury cut him down after this but he did fight his way back to easily dispose of Mitchell again in three rounds after more than 22 months out of the ring. Mid 2005 saw Tszyu accept the biggest payday of his career against Briton Ricky Hatton. Fighting in front of Hatton’s home crowd in Manchester’s MEN Arena at the ridiculous time of 2 am to satisfy American Pay TV audiences, Tszyu lost a brutal fight with Hatton employing and getting away with a litany of illegal and low blows, the fight being stopped at the end of the 11th round.
The fight may have ended Tszyu’s career but his legacy as a legend of world boxing is assured.