Changing of the Guard

06.06.05 - By Neil Goodman: In the early hours of Sunday morning the Ozzie, of Russian decent, Kostya Tszyu stepped out of his corner to defend his IBF light-welterweight title belt. In the opposing corner was the local boy and undefeated challenger Ricky Hatton. Tszyu stepped off the plane from Australia two weeks ago with a fearsome reputation.

To date the then reigning IBF Champion had overcome all but one challenger, only Vince Phillips the experienced and hard hitting American had managed to halt the Russian pugilistic hit man. As an amateur Tszyu competed in over 200 contests, of which, in all but a few instances, he came out on top.

Tszyu’s professional world class experience dates back over many years; in January 1995 Tszyu in his mid-twenties first laid claim to the IBF Title Belt. A little over two years later and Tszyu tasted the bitterness of defeat, a fight which won the Ring Magazine Upset of Year. Phillips managed, somehow, to outlast and finally out blast Kostya in a classic shootout.

It was not long before the tenacious Tszyu was back to winning ways; 6 months after the loss to Phillips, Tszyu won a WBC Eliminator bout against Ismael Armondo Chaves. Tszyu won his comeback bout in the third round and set himself firmly back on the track. The track in question led to a 13 fight win streak, against the upper echelons of the 10 stone division.

Tszyu was back in the world picture, albeit after a rocky first round, in November 1998, beating Diosbelys Hurtado for the WBC Title Belt. A year and half after the defeat to Phillips the rebuilding job was complete and for over seven years Kostya did not look back for a second.

Tszyu proved between November 1998 and 3 June 2005 he was man enough to take on call comers. He dealt out beatings to veterans, such as Chavez and Gonzalez; out boxed the fiery Ben Tackie. However without question the highlights of his rule were the unification defeats of Zab Judab and Shamba Mitchell (twice).

To conclude Kostya Tszyu was the Number One 140 lb champion and an ever present name on the top ten pound-for-pound list, for well over 5 years. Had it not been for two career threatening injures; which severely impacted his level of activity, we will never know exactly how high his star could have risen.

When the first bell rang out early Sunday morning Tszyu was a hot favourite to retain his title and move towards an inevitable clash against one of the other leading contenders in the 10 stone division i.e. Mayweather, Cotto or Harris. All the leading boxing scribes had Kostya down to handout a painful lesson to the younger and supposedly less experienced Hatton. The British public were informed by our favourite daily reads that Hatton would be cut, battered and stopped inside schedule, after which he could resume on his career on at a more suitable level.

Fortunately Hatton is clearly made of stern stuff; both mentally and physically Ricky was honed and ready for his date with the Grim Reaper. I always thought Hatton was going to have to deliver a Nigel Benn type of performance just to get out of the first few rounds, after which perhaps his youth and desire could take the fight close down the stretch. The opening two or three rounds gave many anxious moments to the hordes of Hatton fans, as time and against precise howitzers from Tszyu sought to separate Hatton from his senses.

Whilst Tszyu, noted as a slow starter, was blasting with the bigger single shots to head, Hatton was exacting his own kind of Chinese water torture. He chipped away time and again with his fabled body shots, upper cuts and even a classic looking jab. Nowhere in Hatton’s plans for victory did it state that this was going to be a pretty fight, but luckily there was no need for Plan B to be called into play (if there ever was one).

Hatton was coming out second best when the fighting took the form of a range war. In the trenches was where Hatton wanted it, pushing forward and pressuring the older fighter. In all honesty Tszyu did not make many mistakes, but sheer volume, unyielding desire and 22,000 cheering Manc’s were carrying Hatton towards the finishing line on an unstoppable wave of aggression.

As the round tally reached double figures Hatton was in front on the scorecards and the danger of a Tszyu one punch finish had drifted away; seemingly along his hopes of leaving the country with his title intact. For some reason, and I remember noting it down, Hatton was using less body shots than is normally the case to get the job done.

The pace had been torrid and for all his conditioning and knowledge of how to survive in the ring, the eleventh round was another draining round for Tszyu. Ricky’s ability to soak up punishment, without any apparent detriment to his stamina or punch output, was winning the day. As the round ended a weary looking Champion trudged back to his corner.

Billy Graham, Ricky’s trainer and mentor, urged his charge to ‘just’ give him 110% for three more minutes. Hatton was tired; of course he was; pushing Tszyu backwards for 33 minutes is never going to be easy for anyone. With just 180 seconds standing between him and a life long dream Hatton would have walked through walls in the final stanza (had he needed to).

As it transpired the walls remained standing (until next time). Tszyu’s corner men took the prudent decision to pull him out of the fight. Retaining the title was beyond him at this point, unfortunately many Tszyu fans have been a touch too myopic in respect of this fact. Boxing is the toughest sport going and discretion certainly was the better part of valour on Sunday morning.

Against the odds Britain and boxing has a new champion: Ricky ‘The Hitman’ Hatton.

As for Tszyu and his future plans, it is anyone’s guess what he will do next. There is always the possibility of a rematch, but in all honesty once Ricky looks back over the tape of the fight, he will know he actually could have fought better than he did. This seems a crazy thing to say, whilst the tactics worked, he will get better and continue to develop (just as Tszyu had done over the years).

Finally, maximum respect must be given to both combatants for their handling of the immediate aftermath of the fight. Tszyu was more than gracious in defeat and Hatton paid tribute to the old warrior.

Note: Whilst I won some money on Sunday morning (thank you Ricky), I did also write before the fight ‘it could all comedown to which fighter is able to execute their game plan on the night’. Well, much to the disgust of many quarters, Hatton executed his plan to perfection and moves onto 39-0.

Article posted on 06.06.2005

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