An Exclusive Interview With Cruiserweight Great Vassiliy Jirov

By James Slater - 03/19/2024 - Comments

20 years ago this month, a heavyweight battle took place, between a cruiserweight great and a man who some felt was the next big thing at heavyweight. Vassiliy Jirov rumbled with “Baby” Joe Mesi in Las Vegas, and the action proved memorable – for more than one reason.

Jirov, an aggressive, intelligent ring warrior who was capable of throwing around 100 punches a round in a fight, had ruled as IBF cruiserweight champ for just shy of four years, this from June of 1999 to April of 2003. The southpaw from Kazakhstan had also captured Olympic gold in Atlanta. Oh, and Jirov had more than played his part in one of the greatest cruiserweight fights of all-time, this his war with James Toney.

YouTube video

Messi was a 28-0 heavyweight hope/contender, who had brought on some fan following. And Mesi had acquired good wins over the likes of Bert Cooper (a faded version of “Smoke”), David Izon, and Monte Barrett. But the fight with Jirov would prove to be the New Yorker’s most testing fight, for a few reasons.

And Jirov, well, he might just have suffered a robbery that may have cost him $ milions.

For ten rounds, these two slugged it out, the action thrilling. But Jirov seemed to be on the brink of closing the show, this as he decked Mesi in the ninth, and twice again in the 10th and final round. Despite this, “Baby Joe” got the nod via razor-thin, debatable scores of 94-93, 94-93, 94-93.

Sadly, Mesi suffered a brain injury as a result of the hard fight, with him never to fight again. But who really deserved the decision that night 20 years ago?

Here, kindly, Vassiliy takes the time to recall that fight and others as he speaks with ESB:

Q: It’s 20 years since the fight you had with Joe Mesi. Firstly, it doesn’t seem like 20 years, does it?

Vassiliy Jirov: “No, it seems like just yesterday.”

Q: But Mesi was being groomed as one of the next big heavyweight stars…..

V.J: “Yeah, they called him The White Hope.”

Q: Had you fought at heavyweight before that fight?

V.J: “I was training as a heavyweight. I was training with heavyweights, so I knew what was involved. I was well-prepared for the fight, it was a good opportunity for me, and I used it. I did my best, you know?”

Q: Of course. It was a great action fight, but also, lots of people felt you won – you scored three knockdowns late on in the fight. You obviously thought then you had won. Do you still think so today?

V.J: “I believe so. I do. Anybody who watched the fight, they knew that was not right. Especially, if you look at it by points, I think I win the fight. Yes. It’s just, judges, I think they decided before the fight who won….you know?”

Q: When you had him down twice in that final round, were you surprised he got up? He showed heart. You must have felt you had the fight won?

V.J: “I was actually surprised the referee didn’t stop the fight. Because he could barely get up. He just stood there, with his mind strong. But I’m saying, it’s not a good thing, you know, to just be strong-willed. It’s about the right decision, and the referee was supposed to stop the fight, but….. He let it go, and the guy, after this fight, he couldn’t fight any more. He had to stop fighting because of this fight.”

Q: Yes, Mesi suffered blood clots on the brain and he wasn’t allowed to fight again. Of course, you didn’t want that?

V.J: “No, I didn’t want this. He was a good fighter, a good champion. I spoke with him after the fight, and I feel sorry for him. It is what it is. The referees and judges can sometimes make the decision a different way. It’s life.”

YouTube video

Q: You rank as one of the best cruiserweights. But you also made a real dent at heavyweight, even though you lost the big ones at heavyweight, unfairly perhaps – to Mesi and to Michael Moorer; which you feel was a premature stoppage?

V.J: “Well, he [Moorer] hit me in the back of the head! He hit me in the back of my head, and the referee is supposed to take action. I did get up, but he [the referee] just stopped the fight. It seemed [to me] that he saw this as his chance to stop the fight, because Moorer was losing the fight by points. You know, the boxing world had changed from how it was years before. Money played a big part.”

Q: You are not a sore loser, but is it fair to say you never got a fair shake at times? The James Toney fight, the Mesi fight, the Moorer fight, which you feel was prematurely stopped?

V.J: “Yes, well, I believe everything in life has a reason. I respect everyone who was there at my fights, my opponent, and this is a life experience for me. So, I say thank you to them and I just move on. I thank God everyone is still alive, and we move on.”

Q: A lot of fighters would have been far more bitter than you are!

V.J: “Yeah. I wanted to fight all the other champions [at cruiserweight], but no-one wanted to fight me. So, I said, let’s do something different and move up to heavyweight. It doesn’t make any difference, I thought, because I sparred heavyweights every day and I beat them up. So, I thought I’d just take the opportunity to go up and fight at heavyweight.”

YouTube video

Q: That’s interesting. Can you name some of the heavyweights you sparred?

V.J: “The guy called ‘Bigfoot’ Martin……

Q: Oh, yeah, Bigfoot, he passed away a couple of years ago. A really tough guy….

V.J: “Yeah. He sparred with me, and I put him down. He said to me, “Vassiliy, what are you doing to me! Mike Tyson couldn’t put me down.” I told him, “sorry, brother, this is a different game!” But he was great, I liked him a lot. He was a good guy.”

Q: Bigfoot fought George Foreman, and went the distance, didn’t he! And he fought Moorer, and he scored a knockdown or two before losing the decision. He really was one tough dude! It’s fascinating hearing how you sparred with Martin.

V.J: “Yeah, yeah. I always sparred with him. He wanted to fight me for real! I sparred a lot of big guys, actually.”

Q: I know you always wanted that rematch with James Toney, either at cruiserweight or at heavyweight?

V.J: “Yeah, but he kind of just slip away, and he didn’t want to fight, you know? He knew it, because our fight, I beat him up pretty badly….his face was sort of blue. So, he remembered, and he said to himself he didn’t want to fight that guy no more.”

Q: That rematch would have been big, at either weight. But as it is, Vassiliy, you had some fine career, and the fans still remember you for all the great action you gave us. Thanks so much for your time today.”

V.J: “Thank you. The Mesi fight was probably my last big fight. But it’s okay [that the decision went his way]. It’s part of the game. We’re just playing the game, and if the judges want to start playing, okay. Let it be. I’m not going to look back bad; life is a journey. We just play our game and we move on. It is just unfortunate that some [boxing] judges are crooks. It’s all part of the game. I won’t let it hold me back.”

YouTube video