June 14, 2003

Winner Take All

Winner Take All

Winner Take All

Russian Boxing Champion Kostya Tszyu is one of the best there ever was. But he insists he wasn't born that way.

By Matt Lee

Asked to describe himself as a boy, when he first began boxing, undisputed super-lightweight champion Kostya Tszyu breathes one word: "Average." So--given his lofty ambitions in the sport--he had to get to work.

"When I start to get more serious about [boxing]," he said, "my day starts at five-thirty. Get up in the morning, train, then go to school. Finish school around two o'clock, training at four-thirty. Come home around six-thirty or seven o'clock, have a little dinner, a little homework, and go to bed. It's a very simple life in some respects. But very big sacrifice for the things I want to achieve."

Kostya Tszyu's story is one of discipline and decency. It is also a story of dreams realized: If he had not kept topping himself, and was not still boxing, one might say that his career has had a beautiful arch to it.

There are many who would dispute Tszyu's characterization of his raw boxing talent as "average." One such person is a former Soviet coach, who once called Tszyu's natural style, "A gift from God." How does an "average kid," after all, compile an amateur boxing record of 259-11, and, as a professional, win four world titles, going nearly undefeated in 31 fights?

Tszyu, however, holds firm, insisting that his success has been the result of discipline, not divinity. "It was something I trained to do," he said. "Lots of exercise, lots of preparation made it happen. You can't be successful without hard work. I can't believe in the 'gift' of things. If you're lazy, if you're not doing enough exercise, any 'gift from God' will spoil."

Like many boxers, Tszyu came from humble beginnings: Born in the industrial town of Serov, in the Ural Mountains, where his father Boris was a fitter and turner in a metal plant, Tszyu, Boris, his mother and sister Olga shared a two-bedroom apartment with another family. Tszyu slept on the floor. When Kostya turned nine, Boris began to worry that, with too much idle time on his hands, his son might be in danger of becoming a "street hoodlum." So one very fateful day, he took the energetic, smallish Kostya to the local boxing gym.

With reporters, Tszyu does not spend too much time traversing down Memory Lane. He is a bit cagey with details, but it is clear, nonetheless, that over the next few years he developed into a beautiful fighter. With switchblade-quick reflexes and devastating power in either hand, he was both an offensive and defensive nightmare for his opponents. He began collecting trophies like other people collect debt: Tszyu won the Soviet National Championships six times, the European Championships three times and was twice named Outstanding Boxer of the Tournament at the European Championships. He orchestrated a beautiful crescendo to his amateur career in 1991, at the World Amateur Championships in Sydney, Australia, with a highly publicized, lopsided points victory over heralded American Vernon Forrest.

"You feel great," Tszyu said, recalling the moment when the referee lifted his arm in victory. "You've achieved something that not everyone can do. I was the best amateur that year, and I felt great."

It was in Sydney that Tszyu met Australian promoter Bill Mordey, who, along with legendary trainer Johnny Lewis, convinced him to forego the next Olympics and stay in Australia to turn pro. Although Tszyu made some money as a member of the Soviet National Team, he wanted to box professionally--something that could not be easily accomplished from his native country. "It wasn't [a difficult decision]," he said. "I never left Russia because of anything political. I just wanted to continue my career, and [Australia] was one of the best options I can get."

Tszyu and his girlfriend, now wife, Natasha, emigrated Down Under with only $1,000 to their names. With Lewis as his trainer, Tszyu ripped through a roster of impressive competition and then, in only his 14th professional fight, easily demolished IBF champion Jake "The Snake" Rodriguez to capture a championship belt.

No boxer's story can be complete without a blemish, however. After capturing more and more of the boxing media's and fan's attention with title five defenses in which he looked largely unbeatable, Tszyu unexpectedly fell to hard-hitting American Vince Phillip's relentless right-hand attack in the 10th round of their 1997 championship fight.

Boxers, of course, make their livings out of being resilient. Tszyu quickly got back to work and put together a nice string of impressive victories. He earned a second title shot and, in 1999, battered respected Miguel Angel Gonzalez into submission for one of the world's three 140-pound championship belts. Not content to be simply one of three belt-holders, Tszyu made a bold declaration: He was going to be one of the very few men in boxing, and the first man in 40 years in his weight division, to unify all three belts.

Over the next two years, Kostya Tszyu proved to be a man of his word. In 2001, he knocked out WBA champ Sharmba Mitchell in seven rounds, so that only undefeated, flashy IBF champ Zab Judah stood in his way.

The fight could not have been better-scripted if it had been written down and called Rocky VI. Judah and Tszyu came off as exact opposites: As unassuming and polite as Tszyu was, Judah, in nearly direct proportion, was brash, rude and cocky.

In one of many insults he slung prior to the fight, Judah compared himself to "a Mercedes," while calling Tszyu, a "Toyota."

"I call [Tszyu] Swiss Cheese," Judah said on another occasion. "I see lots of holes in [his abilities]."

And again: "I wish this fight was winner take all."

Oddly, much of the American media seemed to ignore Tszyu's considerable accomplishments--number one heavyweight contender Chris Byrd had called him "maybe the best amateur ever"--and jumped on the Zab Judah bandwagon, as evidenced by Sports Illustrated's 11-page spread on Judah before the fight. No, that was not a typo: 11 pages, in a magazine that normally covers professional boxing only slightly more than badminton.

Come fight night, however, no words would matter. In his crowd-pleasing, relentless style, Tszyu did not waste much time in going after the quicker Judah. After losing the first round, Tszyu dominated the second, finally walloping Judah with a right so hard that the New Yorker fell down, tried to stand up and fell back on his face. Referee Jay Nady stopped the fight, prompting Judah, somewhat comically, to launch a kind of half-hearted attack on the enormous referee. Unhurt, Nady simply frowned. Security quickly defused the situation.

Across the ring, Tszyu celebrated quietly in his corner.

"Kostya Tszyu," Judah pronounced from his locker room, "is a legend."

Asked by New York Post writer Tim Smith if he would be willing to grant Judah a rematch, Tszyu smiled.

"You remember what he said at press conference?" he said. "'Winner take all.' I say it back to him. Like boomerang."

In a healthy display of snarkiness, Tszyu then launched a popular line of sports memorabilia from his website, KTboxing.com, also called "Winner Take All."

Today, family man and father of three, Tszyu is happily candid about his relationship with both the press and trash-talking opponents.

"I was underrated in America, I believe," he said. "But I've proven that I'm one of the best boxers in the world. I'm one of three boxers who have all three belts, and I never refuse to fight anybody who is a top contender. I'm happy to fight anybody. But I've got my personal beliefs regarding respect. Regarding what you do in the ring.

"There is a lot of [trash-talking], but it's got nothing to do with me. We're all human beings. Why should I hate anybody? It can come back in reverse to you."

On January 19th, Tszyu will defend his titles for the second time as the unified Super Lightweight champion, fighting in his adopted homeland of Australia for the first time in five years. Standing under the hot lights of the Telstra Dome in Melbourne, being cheered by tens of thousands live, and millions across the world on TV, he will be the furthest he has ever been from that first boxing gym in the freezing Ural mountains.

Still, one gets the impression that the disciplined, work-heavy life of Kostya Tszyu hasn't, in some respects, changed all that much since the very beginning. Reflecting on his early boxing days once more, Tszyu makes an important distinction--between starting out as a person of average abilities, and willing yourself to do something that could never, under any circumstances, be described as average.

"There was other boys who was much stronger than I am, who was much faster than I am," he said. "But, eventually, I start beating them. Because I train a little harder than they are. And I wanted it a little more than they wanted it." RL

(C) 2003, Russian Life magazine. All rights reserved.

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