The Thunder that left Asunder

By Ted Spoon - Two losses (each surprising and decisive) make Kostya Tszyu devilishly hard to rate.

Quarried rather than born, as some would claim, a unique mix of Korean and Mongolian blood when into the Aussie-based Russian. The result was a fighter who consolidated the spirit of a grunt with the scope and perfect indifference of a general..

Watching him carefully plot the position of his limbs you could see that heavy amateur background ingrained into his very muscle; the kind that helps the professional value percentages. Combinations didn’t flow, nor did single shots rule. An unsettling type of thumping distinguished his work, halfway between boxing and trying to take your head off.

When it came to the latter the superbly dubbed ‘Thunder from Down Under’ was one of the best at finding the ‘off’ switch. Wonderfully textbook clubs made that cinematic sound on contact, and twenty five out of thirty one times they isolated the judges.

Anyone with a basic grasp of maths may appreciate those statistics, but we do the man who unified the 140lbs title for the first time in thirty years a little disservice, for never was he in a rush. A punishing style though it was, Tzsyu was a classy operator.

He was one of those who liked to make each punch count, though he didn’t make a meal out of letting his hands go. Hard jabs, hard rights and hard hooks came at you after measured gaps. Carefully but firmly, Tszyu tweaked his wide stance, maintaining that homerun base while looking for cute punches. When dynamite wasn’t sufficient he could hog-tie you for twelve with sound boxing ability.

And this is what makes Kostya such a paradox. A solid compilation of strength, poise and tenacity had an X-factor about it. There was that completeness about him; a similar kind to Donald Curry before the svelte welterweight imploded. Tszyu didn’t suddenly crumble, but he did get his comeuppance; once in the middle of title hoarding, and again when expected to stitch a few more badges onto the pound-for-pound blazer he wore.

A 270 fight amateur career, winner of gold medals on the European and world stage, plus an IBF-studded 18 fight professional career brought Kostya into the path of ‘Cool’ Vince Phillips.

A former crack addict, Vince used boxing to pull himself together. When in full working order the American was a dangerous customer. Like Tszyu a big right was the pet punch but his long trajectory made it a deceptive slug.

With total belief in his power Kostya stood his ground and hit Phillips with shots that Cool Vince would later credit as the hardest he had ever taken. Problem being after a few rounds the champion began to eat Vince’s own right hand, and just as often. When fatigue took the sheen off the champions work the one generally on the receiving end took over, flooring and eventually stopping the unbeaten boxer. It was a superb fight.

In the tenth Kostya’s adamant legs (conditioned since the age of nine during self-appointed hikes around icy Serov) went all gooey and found a corner where Phillips tripled his right to put the finishing touches on a most deserved victory.

That first taste of defeat, especially when so thoroughly beaten, is one of the most bitter for a boxer to sample as Zab Judah would go overboard in demonstrating, but Tszyu’s attitude was one of logical serenity, positive he had made mistakes that could be rectified.

A super-fight with PPV Don Oscar De La Hoya was less likely than a rematch, but the world was destined to never get (as Ring magazine put it) "the answers to a handful of questions" when Vince and Kostya went their different ways. The Soviet star definitely did however "regain his momentum."

A fight with Diosbelys Hurtado went bumpier than expected and Tszyu did not score any brownie points for finishing off Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez. These instances would be hard to excuse had they not been merely sketchy moments in a brilliant surge.

It wasn’t easy but unanimous scores removed the zero from Oktay Urkal’s record. Next came another undefeated fighter from Brooklyn called Zab Judah who had looked quite spectacular wearing Tszyu’s old IBF belt. Now owner of the WBC and WBA titles, Kostya prepared himself for the first unification fight at light-welterweight since the championship fragmented and started floating around.

Quicker, much younger, and with a left hand to keep a stern eye on, Judah was the betting favourite. As much as 3-1 had the script set for a new ruler and the first round provided a blinding prelude.

After moving about for a minute, swivelling and popping the right, Judah assumed a crouch, pampering to Tszyu’s inquisitive nature. In a flash, as soon as Kostya took a peep he was smashed with a left uppercut on the point of the chin. It was the kind of shot from which there is no return but it did no more than cause a brief reverse. A couple more solid shots gave Zab a very positive 10-9 opener.

As if nothing had happened Tszyu took charge in the second, catching his slippery opponent with well timed jabs. With ten seconds to go he tried a right which scuffed Zab’s head. A second cracked his chin and inexperience caused two trips to the canvas forcing Jay Nady to stop it.

It was Tszyu’s magnum opus, and everyone knows that what goes up…

His activity spiralled, fighting once in 2002, once at the beginning of 2003, and then not again until the end of 2004 due to shoulder and Achilles injuries. After his 22 month hiatus the chance to settle a previously scrappy affair with Sharmba Mitchell presented itself. On the 6th November the world had their ears pricked for thunder.

Not even Tszyu expected the fight “to end so early”, but Mitchell was all done within three rounds on his fourth trip to the canvas. Never had Kostya looked so destructive. England’s unbeaten Ricky Hatton was still eager for his chance, but the safe prognosis was that the balls-to-the-wall fighter would walk into something ugly if let off the leash.

The small talk became a deafening reality on June 4th, 2005. Staging the fight in Manchester was no problem for the champ; Tszyu had dealt with some tough crowds throughout his career. There was a slight hiccup on the scales however when he was three ounces over on the first attempt; known for his meticulous preparation it was a little strange.

The fight went ahead and not a lot went to plan for Tszyu, apparently powerless to Hatton's endless smothering. The punches that landed did no more than bruise Ricky, but truth be told Kostya's timing was thrown completely thrown off and it was hard to count clean jolts on one hand. After eleven lively stanzas Tszyu was run ragged and did the unpopular thing, quitting on his stool.

It was Hatton’s signature win, but with it being thirty five year old Kostya’s last fight you can’t help but feel mileage and inactivity played a part. This takes nothing away from Hatton’s victory, of which the odds were stacked against him of achieving, though you get the sense the younger, more gung-ho version of Tszyu that lost to Phillips would have fared better.

Technicalities aside, the loss delivered a fine resume its second black mark. This wasn’t like Aaron Pryor getting clocked by Bobby Joe Young, or Chavez getting beaten up by De La Hoya; all the momentum was with Tszyu before he lost, and in both cases there was no revenge. When you think ‘all-time great’ it is a term generally inseparable from careers that righted previous wrongs which leaves us with a pressing question…where does that leave Australia’s finest since Les Darcy?

You’d have to say he is below Pryor and Chavez for reasons stated. Wilfred Benitez with his wins over Palomino, Cervantes and Duran has more going for him in terms of historical worth. Maybe Carlos Ortiz (a fighter better at lightweight) is a fair neighbour.

Though 34 fights is pretty slim, as records go there isn’t much gristle on it. Forgetting the losses the main problem was that convalescence which stalled him when he should have been filling his resume with quality wins; the likes of Vivian Harris or Arturo Gatti would have made nice additions. For a time a fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr was proposed, and this writer has always thought that Tszyu, with his patience and timing would have given Floyd a very tough one.

Inside fighting and head movement were Kostya’s primary cons. He was essentially a poor man’s Tony Canzoneri; powerful and tricky minus the litheness. Fights with Pryor and Chavez would have been the stuff of Hollywood. Somebody would not see the final bell but it’s consistent to assume that somebody would be Tszyu. Boxers were his favoured prey, vulnerable to that calculated hammering which flourished in ring centre.

Like his record, dirtied but brilliant, Kostya was an imperfect fighter with the ability to cause serious tremors. A hard fight is guaranteed either way, but if you didn’t steam roll into him and exploit that mid-close range vulnerability, the opponent would be balancing on a thin plank.

Speed kills as they say, but timing can lynch speed, and this is where Tszyu excelled. He didn’t have much time for range finders which made him a difficult study. Also, being one of the least gun-shy fighters you may care to watch allowed him to never let fighters drift out of range and catch a break.

Benitez (though owner of a shinier record) would have had anything but an easy time with Kostya. Today’s very best, Pacquiao and Cotto, along with Mayweather, would not have had much fun with him at 140lbs. Win, lose or draw, it's difficult to see anyone having it all their own way against one so tactically robust.

The possibility of a return was aired a couple of times, but so far the forty two year old has remained retired, and it's likely to stay that way. Sadly the lasting image we have of Tszyu is of a fighter we still expected plenty from sat deflated on his stool. Almost seven years on it says more than the loss itself that a believing public were disappointed.

Kostya conducted himself post-fight as he had conducted so many opponents to the canvas, faultlessly: “I have not been that tired or exhausted for years and years…something was wrong. He was the better man."

Article posted on 09.04.2012

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