Back then, more than 10 years ago, he was known in most American gyms as simply, "The Russian." That was because no one could pronounce his name, let alone spell "T-s-z-y-u."
But the word was that Konstatin (Kostya) Tszyu (pronounced "Zoo") was much more than phonetically tough.
He had won the 1991 world amateur championships in Sydney and Fast Eddie Schuyler of the Associated Press pronounced "Tszyu" the best amateur in the world, talking in wonderment how he outboxed the American kid, Vernon Forrest.
The Russian didn’t go to the Barcelona Olympics, instead staying in Sydney (where he now lives) and turning pro. His progress was followed closely from afar. In his fourth pro bout, he went 10 rounds and handily outpointed former world champion Juan LaPorte. In his sixth, he knocked out the tough Sammy Fuentes in the opening round. In his tenth, he went 10 again and outpointed another former champ, Livingston Bramble.
By his 14th start, he was in Vegas, knocking out the gallant Jake (The Snake) Rodriguez to win the IBF junior welterweight title. That was early 1995 and The Russian is still a junior welterweight. On June 4, he goes into Manchester, England, No. 4 in my personal pound-for-pound ratings, to defend against the hometown hero, Ricky Hatton, who is nowhere to be seen on that list.
But before you think I’m going to advocate laying 3-1 or 5-2 on The Russian, let me issue a warning: Hatton may not be as big a pushover as I think.
The well-protected Hatton (he’s promoted by Frank Warren, who’d probably demur from sending King Kong against your pet hamster) has the wrong style for a 35-year-old icon, even one who showed brilliantly last November against the capable Sharmba Mitchell that not even almost two years off for injuries has blunted his skills.
The Russian was able to go after Mitchell and quickly destroy him in three rounds. This time, he’ll have a little terror coming right at him, relentlessly throwing punches and trying to smother him. Hatton may be a lot quicker than Tszyu believes and I’m willing to bet a more solid chin than, say, that of Zab Judah.
It should make for another Showtime thriller, even if the combatants are working at 2 a.m. to satisfy American TV demands. Tszyu, of course, should win. He has been one of the best fighters in the world for a long while and, if anything, seems to be getting better with age. He is a remarkable conditioner. If the fight goes late, he may still be in better shape than Hatton, who regularly lets himself go between bouts. This time, though, Hatton was within four pounds of the 140 limit weeks in advance.
Hatton will have a mad crowd behind him. Mike Tyson, five years ago, sold out the 20,000-seat MEN Arena in Manchester in two days. The hometown hero did it in two hours! "Come into my parlor”¦."
I find something sly in the way Hatton has been dutifully paying his respects to The Russian. "He is coming over to Manchester and fighting at 2 o’clock in the morning and he has not batted an eyelid," said the Hit Man.
Hatton acknowledges also that he "deserves" to be the underdog, even with youth, passion and perhaps style on his side. "Not many people expect me to beat Kostya," he said, "and rightly so."
Yes, the spider sounds crafty. I wouldn’t bet "your" money against The Russian, even if I could get 3-1, maybe not even against Floyd Mayweather Jr. No one has more respect for Tszyu. But I’m not sure my heart could take the pounding that will surely ensue from Hatton’s spirited challenge.
Vince Phillips, the only man to beat Tszyu, and a loser more recently to Hatton, is certainly one who thinks The Russian will win. He says Tszyu, whom he beat eight years ago when The Russian obviously believed he could walk through anyone’s punches and forgot to play defense (which he can do magnificently), hits harder than even Ike Quartey and Forrest.
Hatton may have a terrific chin (we can not be sure as yet) but it will surely be tested to its limit by The Russian.
Many of my colleagues think Hatton will run into something quickly. The Russian has been known to come out swinging (Judah in two, Mitchell in three). But if there were any lean on my part to having action on this fight, it would be the "over" — no matter what it was set at.
I’ll be rooting for the "over" anyway because the more of this matchup I see, the more I certainly will like. Let’s leave getting rich for another time.