Vassiliy Jirov is on his own.
Jirov, the International Boxing Federation cruiserweight champion of the world, is working without a trainer and without a sparring partner, shadowboxing in a makeshift boxing ring hidden in the back of the AZ Fitness gym in Mesa.
For the past two years, Jirov's been guided by Denver trainer Scott Ardrey, who helped take him to the top of the cruiserweight division. And in a few weeks, he will begin working with Emmanuel Steward, widely recognized as the greatest trainer in the world, a man who's molded 27 world champions, including Lennox Lewis, Tommy Hearns, Julio Cesar Chavez and Oscar de la Hoya. But for now, Jirov must rely on his own inner drive to push himself to greater stamina and skill.
The six-foot-two, 190-pound southpaw -- a native of Kazakhstan, who moved to Scottsdale after walking away with gold at the 1996 Olympic Games -- circles to his right, turning his shoulder as his clenched fists fire air jabs and uppercuts aimed squarely at the solar plexus. As he maneuvers the square canvas, Jirov's not exactly graceful, but he moves quickly and with military efficiency. With each dose of dress-rehearsal whup-ass that he doles out, he exhales a hard-earned whoosh of air. The sound fills the room.
The 26-year-old Jirov is an old-school, body-punching gladiator in the Jake La Motta mold, and he looks the part, decked out in black high-top Adidas and black socks, blue shorts and a white Ringside boxing equipment tee shirt that's soaked through to his skin. His chiseled hands are thickly wrapped in pink bandages. Ruggedly handsome in a classic Eastern European way, he has short-cropped, dirty blond hair, hazel eyes, high cheekbones, and a boxer's forehead that's bumpier than an unpaved country road.
Motivating himself has never been hard for the self-proclaimed "Russian Tiger." After all, he's had at least two great teachers. His mother, a talented distance runner, instilled the value of hard work by juggling two jobs, running a family farm and raising six kids on her own. And Jirov's first boxing trainer, Kazakhstani legend Alexander Apachinsky, pushed his protégé with a sadistic relentlessness that would make Bobby Knight blush.
Apachinsky forced Jirov to develop speed by outracing Army-trained German shepherds; he built the fighter's endurance by making him swim back from the middle of one of the world's largest lakes.Brutal as his methods were, Apachinsky achieved his objectives. Jirov is every bit the driven, take-no-prisoners brawler that Apachinsky dreamed he would become. In 26 professional fights, Jirov has a perfect record, with 24 knockouts, most of them in the first four rounds. And it doesn't seem to matter to him who the opponent is; the approach remains the same.
"He has no give-up in him," says Chuck McGregor, a local trainer who has observed Jirov up close in sparring situations. "He's like a truck with one gear: forward, no reverse. That constant pressure suffocates a guy. If you're claustrophobic, you don't want to fight Jirov, because he's not backing up."
But if Jirov controls the pace in the ring, he's had less command over the business side of boxing, and there, too, he's recently been on his own.
After nearly four years of being promoted by Bob Arum's Nevada-based Top Rank, Inc., Jirov and his manager, Ivaylo Gotzev, decided to leave the company in October. Although described by both sides as amicable, the split illustrates how frustrated Jirov and Gotzev are that even though this fighter has answered every challenge in the ring, he can't get the recognition or the big bucks that champions in lower weight classes are commanding.
Gotzev says that Top Rank wasn't providing the ever-eager Jirov with enough quality contests, and was overly preoccupied with its lucrative stable of Hispanic fighters.
But Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler says his company couldn't make money on Jirov because a Russian boxer, even one as talented as Jirov, is a hard sell with the American public.
"Even though he was an Olympic gold medalist, and even though he won a world title on HBO and remained undefeated, the bottom line is he's still a foreigner and he's still a Russian," Trampler says.
"It's hard to explain to a kid like him, and his manager, that there's no market for him here. The people here can't relate to him. He's learning English, and he's charming and cute in the way he does speak English, but he's not an American, and Americans aren't going to support him."
An equally large roadblock for Jirov is his weight division. Two decades after it was created, the cruiserweight division has yet to catch on with the public. That's why Jirov is considering going down to the 175-pound light-heavyweight division or moving up to compete for the heavyweight crown. In recent months, he and Gotzev have publicly goaded light-heavyweight champion Roy Jones Jr. (widely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world) and have haggled with Evander Holyfield's promoter Don King for a shot at Holyfield's WBA heavyweight title.
Like his fighter, Gotzev responds to adversity by pushing harder. That's why he sought out Steward as a trainer for Jirov. And on December 13, he inked a new promotional deal for Jirov, with the British company Panix Promotions. The plan is for Panix to introduce Jirov to British fans with some cruiserweight unification matches, while Jirov will help Panix crack the American market.
So Jirov is at a career crossroads: a dominating champion desperate for the epochal fight that could make him an icon.
Along those lines, Holyfield is the blueprint that Jirov wants to follow. Like Jirov, Holyfield was an Olympic light-heavyweight who went on to win the world cruiserweight title. And Holyfield used the cruiserweight crown as a springboard for the heavyweight championship, just as Jirov hopes to do.
But at a time when the heavyweight division is dominated by a new breed of mammoth fighters, who have four or five inches and 50 to 60 pounds on Jirov, boxing experts question whether he can ever make the leap. Jirov, for one, has no such doubts.
"Rocky Marciano was like 180, 190 pounds, and he beat guys twice as big as him, and he knocked them all out," Jirov says, in his patented, thick Russian accent. "It's all about your mentality, not how big you are."
Jirov's own boxing mentality was shaped by a hard-knock childhood in the Soviet Union.
Born on April 4, 1974, in Balkhash, Kazakhstan, Jirov was the third of six children brought into a volatile home environment.
"I know nothing about my dad," he says. "When I was about 3 years old, he left our family and I never saw him again. I never heard about him, and it was like he was not part of the family. He was an alcoholic, and the relationship between him and my mom was pretty horrible."
His mother, Nena, assumed the responsibility for feeding the kids, using her training as a welder, an electrician and a machinist.
Nena, now 55, has competed in running events for much of her adult life, and she instilled in Vassiliy a love for athletics. He remembers watching the Olympic Games with her when he was a child, and says she introduced him to the sport of boxing when he was 7.
"I was also into swimming, wrestling and karate," Jirov says. "The sport I was in longest was wrestling. I did it for four and a half years, and I was good, actually. I was second place in the city all the time."
Jirov was also an enthusiastic student of Russian folk dancing, a skill that he believes has enhanced his boxing footwork over the years.
A product of the twilight era of the Soviet empire, Jirov recalls that period with fondness, saying conditions in his oil-rich but poverty-ridden country were preferable before the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.
"When it was part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was a great place, because kids had many different places where they could participate in sports," he says. "Sports was really encouraged, and all the gyms and clubs were free. You could try different sports and figure out what you were good at. But now it's much worse. Someday it'll be stabilized, but when my country became independent, the economy was very bad."
In 1985, at the age of 11, Jirov decided to try boxing. He was immediately placed under the tutelage of Apachinsky, a mustachioed, muscle-bound former national boxing champion with a famously intimidating glare.
Apachinsky liked to test out his baby boxers from the beginning, putting them in hopeless situations to see if they were mentally tough enough to come back for more. In Jirov's case, Apachinsky himself got in the ring with the 11-year-old and mercilessly whaled away at his face, as if an Olympic gold medal was riding on each punch.
Jirov quickly found himself lying flat on the canvas. But unlike many young Apachinsky victims, who ran home crying, getting knocked out only made Jirov more determined to get revenge.
"The first couple of months were a very hard time for me," he recalls, "because I'd go home with a black eye or something, and my mom would say, 'Why are you doing this? Forget about boxing. Find another sport.' But having guys beating me up made me eager inside to be better. I'd push myself very hard.
"My style was kind of awkward," he adds. "For one thing, I was left-handed. My trainer looked at me and said, 'You look like you're not a good boxer. You don't have any style.' After a couple of months, he said, 'You better forget about boxing. Go and do something different.'"
But Jirov returned to the gym a week later and told the trainer he wasn't giving up. With hours of hard work every day, his skills steadily improved, but Apachinsky remained unsure about his future. Jirov was not only going to school, but working part-time jobs and helping his mother run their small family farm. Apachinsky believed that Jirov had too many distractions in his life, and again told him to give up boxing. But Jirov continued to show up at the gym.
"One day, I fought a friend of mine who was one of the leaders of our team," Jirov says. "My trainer specifically worked with him, and gave him most of his time. And I beat him up. [Apachinsky] brought him down from his camp and had him fight me. And after I beat him, my trainer started looking at me differently."
Winning Apachinsky's approval, however, meant being subjected to his bizarre training methods, which Jirov diplomatically calls "new type of exercises." Most infamously, Apachinsky put Jirov in a long hallway with a riled-up German shepherd, gave the young boxer a five-foot head start, and commanded him to outrun the dog to a door at the end of the hall. The experience, designed to give Jirov quicker feet, also left him with permanent scars on his back and wrists.
"The dog would be told to attack and would run behind me," Jirov says. "Sometimes the dog was faster than me. Usually I had some kind of rope in my hand, so I could try and push him away.
"I don't like to hit animals, but sometimes the situation made you do it. Because the trainer would make the dog mad, and he'd go crazy. It's definitely helped me, though, because when I go in the ring, I'm never scared. When you see those big teeth next to you, ready to bite you, you become quicker, and stronger in the brain."
Jirov says he occasionally objected to this dog race, but Apachinsky told him, "If you don't want to do it, go away." So Jirov stopped complaining.
Apachinsky also made a habit of taking his boxers out to the middle of Lake Balkhash -- at more than 7,000 square miles, it's one of the world's largest bodies of water -- and forcing them to swim for hours while he cruised nearby in a motorboat.
"After a while, you'd think he would take you back in his boat, but he'd leave you out there to swim back on your own," Jirov says.
One local boxer, who made the mistake of telling Apachinsky that he wanted to be just like Jirov, was immediately ushered out to Lake Balkhash, where he became so exhausted that he felt himself drowning. Jirov helped carry him back to shore.
Under Apachinsky's guidance, Jirov built an impressive record over the first half of the '90s, winning 207 of his 217 amateur fights. By 1996, Jirov, then 22, was the brightest hope of Kazakhstan's boxing team for Olympic gold.
But few international experts gave him much of a chance in the light-heavyweight division at the Atlanta Olympics. The smart money was on Antonio Tarver, a seasoned 27-year-old from Orlando, Florida.
Jirov routinely disposed of his early opponents, and met Tarver in the semifinals. Although Tarver's ring savvy was considered his biggest asset, Jirov wore him down and took control in the third -- and final -- round, winning a shocking 15-9 decision.
Jirov not only won the light-heavyweight gold medal, he was awarded the Val Barker Cup, presented to the outstanding boxer at the Olympic Games. He still refers to the Atlanta Olympics as "the greatest experience of my life."
Although most boxing aficionados paid little attention to Jirov before his upset victory over Tarver, Gotzev had his eye on the Kazakh sensation even before his first Olympic match. A Bulgarian fight fan who had settled in Scottsdale and slowly built a stable of young, up-and-coming boxers, Gotzev would soon transform Jirov's life.
Ivaylo Gotzev never intended to become a boxing manager.
Gotzev, a 32-year-old native of Bulgaria, had loved the sport as a kid, winning some county tournaments and making it to a few national events. "If you can imagine, I weighed 126 pounds," he says. "Now I'm at 220. That's how long ago it was."
In 1986, at the age of 18, Gotzev moved from Bulgaria to Los Angeles, landing a job as a construction worker on his second day in town. Within three years, he'd formed his own company, Stone Craft, doing marble subcontracting work. In 1991, he moved to Hawaii and established his company there.
But boxing had slowly begun to consume his time. In 1988, while watching the Olympics on television, he'd been inspired by the strong performances of his fellow Bulgarians in the boxing competition. Four years later, he went back to Bulgaria for a visit, and signed four fighters to professional contracts.
In 1996, just before heading out to the Atlanta Olympics, he decided to leave Hawaii and return to the mainland. He settled in Scottsdale.
"I was beginning to manage a lot of fighters," Gotzev says. "I worked with Hector Lopez, who fought for a title two times, and Stevie Johnston, who became the WBC lightweight champion of the world. So I was doing a lot of traveling from Hawaii. And Hawaii was a very difficult commute, so in 1996 I came to Scottsdale right before the Games, looked around, got an apartment, and I really liked the area, so I decided to move here."
At the 1996 Olympics, Gotzev made a point of watching all of Jirov's matches.
"He was someone I'd heard a lot about, but this was the first time I had a chance to actually see him," Gotzev recalls. "I'd heard he was an outstanding amateur, ranked at the top in the world in the light-heavyweight division. And I'd heard that he was a hard-punching southpaw. But then I had the chance to see him. In the first fight, he stopped the Mexican competitor in the third round. It was amazing. I was very, very excited about him."
Gotzev established contact with Jirov at the Games, and a month later he invited him to Scottsdale, where both Gotzev and promoter Bob Arum entertained the impressionable young fighter.
Although Jirov didn't speak English and had no friends in the United States, as an admirer of American champions like Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano and the young Mike Tyson, he couldn't resist the lure of boxing history.
"I looked at old boxing films and I saw that the mecca of boxing is here in the United States," Jirov says. "I thought it was better to come straight to the United States and learn more about boxing."
Jirov immediately established himself as the stud of the Eastern European stable that Gotzev was bringing to Arizona. Of the seven boxers Gotzev currently represents, five are from Eastern Europe (three Russians and two Bulgarians). Five of his seven fighters are also undefeated.
Because of the inevitable culture shock these boxers face, Gotzev is more than a manager; he's a friend, a translator, and a buffer against the harsh realities of leaving your family halfway across the globe.
A shrewd, highly ambitious man, Gotzev speaks five languages fluently (Russian, French, Bulgarian, Spanish and English), wields his cell phone like a light saber, and hobnobs with ease in the company of high-powered hustlers like Don King and Bob Arum.
Gotzev has not only established a colony of Eastern European boxers in the Valley, he also played a crucial role in setting up the most lucrative fight in Phoenix history, the July 29 match between Julio Cesar Chavez and Kostya Tszyu at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. John Montano, president of the Arizona Boxing Commission, says it was through Gotzev's "behind-the-scenes efforts that we got that fight."
The bout was controversial because Chavez was widely considered to be dangerously over the hill. But when the Nevada State Athletic Commission expressed doubts about licensing the match, Gotzev used his connection with promoter Vlade Wharton to bring the fight to the Valley. The fight drew more than 14,000 people and set a local record for biggest gate. To Gotzev, it was just the first step in his crusade to make Phoenix a recognized boxing haven.
"I want to see it happen in Arizona, because the environment is great, we're so close to Las Vegas, and we have a lot of great fighters coming up here," Gotzev says.
Chuck McGregor met Gotzev six and a half years ago at a California boxing event. They instantly hit it off.
"He's a very intelligent, very clean-cut, hardworking young man, and I was very impressed with his work ethic," says the 57-year-old McGregor, who grew up around boxing at his father's Chicago gym.
McGregor currently works with eight heavyweights at AZ Fitness, and after Jirov moved to Arizona, Gotzev began to bring him by McGregor's gym so he could spar with heavyweights. Last month, Gotzev also asked McGregor to train young heavyweight prospect Sergei Leyakovich, a promising Russian fighter who recently fought on the undercard of the Fernando Vargas-Felix Trinidad junior-middleweight title fight in Las Vegas.
"Ivaylo's having an impact here, just from the standpoint that he's making an honest effort," McGregor says. "And he showed with the Chavez fight that if you give people here a good event, they'll come out."
In December 1996, Gotzev set up Jirov at the San Paloma apartment complex in Scottsdale.
Jirov remembers feeling like "a bird in a golden cage," equipped with a nice apartment and stellar training facilities, but too limited in English to be able to communicate with anyone.
Alexander Apachinsky helped ease the transition by spending the first three months in Scottsdale with Jirov. Every morning at 6, Apachinsky made his boxer go down to the apartment pool for a brisk swim. Two days after moving into the apartment complex, Jirov spotted Rebecca Rawn, a tall, thin, pretty brunette swimming at the pool.
"I saw her, I met her eyes and it kind of hit me in the heart," he says. "Like somebody told me inside my heart, 'This is my girl.' I thought, 'Am I crazy? What am I thinking? Maybe she's married or something.'"
For two weeks, Jirov fixated on Rawn, and one night, from his apartment window, he saw her step into the Jacuzzi and decided to join her.
Though Jirov didn't know it at the time, she was starting over just like he was. Rawn, a Minnesota native with a Dutch-Irish father and a Mexican mother from Veracruz, had recently called off a nine-month wedding engagement, and moved out on her fiancé. She'd only been living at San Paloma for two months. All her friends were telling her she needed to start getting out, but she wasn't interested. Then she met Jirov.
"Vassiliy came down to the Jacuzzi, and after about 10 minutes of uncomfortable silence, we spoke a little," Rebecca says. "As I was leaving, I said, 'Well, Vassiliy, it was very nice to meet you. I'll probably see you here tomorrow since I've been seeing you here.' He said, 'Tomorrow? Okay, tomorrow.' And I guess he thought it was a date."
Jirov sheepishly explains that in Kazakhstan, showing up at neighbor's homes unannounced is a common occurrence.
"The next evening I was in my sweat pants watching TV," adds Rebecca, a skin-care specialist who specializes in facial peels. "The doorbell rang and it was Vassiliy, and he was all dressed up. It was the first time I saw him when he wasn't in his bathing suit. He looked very nice. We went out, and we just became friends, slowly."
In January 1999, the couple married, after making a trip to Kazakhstan to get the blessing of Jirov's family. Jirov's mother came to the Valley for the wedding, her first trip outside the boundaries of the old Soviet Union.
"I was worried about her," Rebecca says. "You know, you hear stories about people coming here and being shocked by all the opulence. She came and it was no problem at all. She endeared herself to everybody. She took charge and started cooking for us. It was wonderful.
"One morning I saw where Vassiliy gets all his strength. She was up early, at the crack of dawn, cooking. And Vassiliy yawned at the dinner table. And she told him that if he was tired he needed to do jumping jacks. So she got the whole family to go outside and do jumping jacks."
Unlike most boxers, Jirov doesn't spend much time thinking about his opponents. He rarely watches films of his upcoming adversaries, and doesn't worry too much about their particular strengths or weaknesses.
In Jirov's mind, it doesn't matter who his opponent is, or how he fights. Instead, he concentrates on himself, building up his endurance and toughness. To him, all opponents are the same: knockouts waiting to happen.
Jirov's theory is a variation on the old Joe Louis maxim, "They can run, but they can't hide."
As a result, Jirov's pro career has been remarkably consistent, with practically every fight assuming the same pattern. He bulls his way inside, firing vicious shots at his opponent's gut, until the opponent either crumbles to his knees in pain or lowers his hands enough so that Jirov can stagger him with a left hook or uppercut to the head.
Jirov's reliance on body shots is a throwback to the classic brawlers of the '40s and '50s, like Jake La Motta and Rocky Marciano, warriors who knew that blows to the body may not be exciting, but they take a massive toll on their opponents.
Cigar-champing boxing historian Bert Sugar attributes the near-demise of the body punch to the modern athlete's appetite for flashiness.
"Everyone's a headhunter these days, just like everyone in baseball wants to be a home-run hitter and every basketball player is a slam-dunker, or wants to be," Sugar says. "But the body punch is an investment that is repaid later."
Ironically, since Jirov now possesses the best knockout percentage of any reigning champion, some experts initially questioned whether he had a big enough punch to be a great pro fighter.
In his third professional fight, against Chuck "The Fighting Preacher" Miller, Jirov dominated the action, but when it took him four rounds to score a TKO, television analyst Gil Clancy wondered: "If he doesn't have that big punch, how far is he going to go?" Clancy concluded that Jirov could probably outhustle and wear down most of his adversaries, but his punching power could be a liability against heavyweights.
But McGregor argues that Jirov's power is deceptive.
"Jirov actually hits harder to the body than he does to the head," he says. "He can't hit you as hard on top as to the body, because he has such a mindset to hit your body. But in a 12-round fight, you have to hit that body, you have to take something away from that guy. You disable them. And he just wears guys out.
"You see the openings to hit Jirov. You want to pull the trigger, but your body won't respond, because of the beating he's put on you."
Sure enough, Jirov's body blows tend to do more damage than his head shots. In a 1998 fight against journeyman Jason Nicholson, Jirov landed a hard left to the body at the end of the first round. Nicholson turned to go to his corner, but, in a strange delayed reaction, he collapsed to his knees seconds after the bell rang and lost his mouthpiece.
Jirov's knack for the potent body shot again came into play on June 5, 1999, when he challenged "King" Arthur Williams for the IBF cruiserweight title, in the first cruiserweight match ever broadcast live on HBO.
The fight was even for two rounds, with Jirov landing stiff lefts, and Williams countering with right-hand leads to the head. But in the third round, Jirov's body assault turned the tide. A hard left to the stomach sent Williams to the canvas. By the seventh round, Williams was grimacing in obvious pain, and Jirov again nailed his midsection. Williams literally wilted to the canvas, barely surviving the count, and seconds later the fight was stopped.
Jirov, clad in his trademark baggy, tiger-stripe trunks, stoically held up his massive championship belt, only showing emotion when Rebecca joined him in the ring and gave him a kiss.
After the fight, HBO commentator Jim Lampley asked analyst -- and former heavyweight champion -- George Foreman if Jirov could contend for the heavyweight title with a few more pounds on his frame.
"I don't think he needs to put on any weight at all," Foreman said. "Just get ready to throw more punches, stand a little flatfooted when he's delivering the power -- he could be a great heavyweight."
Throughout the fight, Lampley noted that Bob Arum had been saying for two years that his goal was to take Jirov back to Kazakhstan, where big-money oil men were promising that they could deliver some hugely lucrative bouts.
No such fight has yet materialized, and according to Top Rank's Bruce Trampler, this issue became a source of discord between the Arum and Jirov camps.
"We're very fond of Vassiliy," Trampler says. "But when Vassiliy came to us, he and Ivaylo were led to believe by people in Kazakhstan that there was a lot of money over there, and Vassiliy would be promoted here with an eye toward returning him to Kazakhstan, and that's where he would really clean up financially. And there were a lot of Kazakhstani guys involved in the beginning; they were all over the place, mysterious figures purporting to represent great wealth, saying there'd be oil wells for Vassiliy and all that. Then, these guys all disappeared on him.
"Vassiliy did everything he was supposed to do in the ring, but the gold mine in his country never materialized. Normally in these cases, you find people jumping on the bandwagon, but in this case, the opposite happened -- his countrymen all deserted Vassiliy, and left us holding the bag."
Gotzev argues that "those fights were there in Kazakhstan, if Top Rank had been willing to work a little bit. They didn't realize that promoters are supposed to work to promote their fighters."
But Trampler says that Top Rank was also stymied in the United States, because Jirov's considerable boxing skills were not enough to captivate an American public that's naturally resistant to European fighters.
"It ended up where we couldn't promote him at anything resembling a profit," Trampler says. "It was just a matter of how much we were going to lose on each fight."
Trampler's theory is bolstered by the famously crusty Sugar, who praises Jirov's ring savvy, but adds, "He's another fighter whose name I can't spell. Vanna White would have a problem running around trying to find all the letters."
The Top Rank debacle demonstrates how the economics of boxing set it apart from all other professional sports. In team sports like football and basketball -- or, for that matter, individual sports like golf and tennis -- if you do your job well, you rake in the big money. All you have to worry about is blocking the opposing lineman, or sinking the winning putt.
But in boxing, it's not enough to be good. You also have to sell yourself to the public. In boxing, you need that marquee match-up to put you on the map. Some excellent fighters never get that match-up. Some, like light-heavyweight legend Archie Moore, have to wait until they're pushing 40 before they get their shot.
Jirov is a Russian émigré stuck in a division with nobodies, so he makes an estimated $125,000 to $150,000 for his title defenses. By most people's standards, this is hardly money to sneeze at, but consider the kind of dollars that are floating around for other boxers these days.
Johnny Tapia, as a challenger in the 122-pound weight division, recently made $500,000 for one fight. David Tua made $3.5 million -- plus a share of the pay-per-view revenue -- to get his butt kicked by heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis. Next month, unbeaten 130-pounders Diego Corrales and Floyd Mayweather are both expected to make considerably more than $1 million in a Top Rank-promoted title fight.
"Jirov could fight until he's 50, and he's probably never going to get a million-dollar payday in the cruiserweight division," McGregor says. "What would help is if he could get that defining fight. Hearns had his Ray Leonard fights and his Hagler fight, Hagler had his Duran fight. They had somebody to gauge themselves by. There is nobody in the cruiserweight division."
Like any professional boxer, Jirov also has to face the reality that he may only have a decade or so to earn his money, and he needs to maximize his opportunities.
Understandably, Gotzev has emerged from the split with Top Rank more determined than ever to make Jirov a household name. That's why he approached über-trainer Emmanuel Steward last month at the Lennox-Tua fight and asked if he'd train Jirov. Steward, who says he only works with fighters who demonstrate an "inner strength," worked out Jirov in Las Vegas and liked what he saw. He's expected to be in Jirov's corner for his next bout, a mandatory title defense against Alex Gonzalez, tentatively set for early February.
Gotzev is also lobbying to get that "defining fight" for Jirov. Since May 19, when Jirov scored a second-round TKO over Esteban Pizarro at the Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills, Gotzev has publicly challenged charismatic light-heavyweight Roy Jones Jr. into giving Jirov a title fight. Jirov has offered to fight at whatever weight Jones chooses, and Gotzev even says, "We're literally ready to set up a ring in his backyard in Pensacola, Florida."
While Jones has publicly described Jirov as "a good fighter," he's shown no inclination to tangle with the Russian Tiger.
Gotzev has also talked with Don King about setting up a possible match with Evander Holyfield next spring, a showdown that seems as uncertain as the aging Holyfield's boxing future.
Sugar contends that Jirov's best option would be to unify the cruiserweight title, as Roy Jones Jr. has done in the light-heavyweight division. "Roy Jones Jr. is the only unified champion we have, and everyone knows he's the only one. Once you do that, you can merchandise it."
But Chuck McGregor worries that Jirov may be a victim of bad luck, and never get a legitimate shot at boxing immortality. He says today's big heavyweights are probably too imposing for a 190-pounder like Jirov, and contends that losing 15 pounds to challenge for the light-heavyweight title would be damaging to Jirov's strength.
"He's in a Catch-22 situation," McGregor says. "He's probably too small to be a real heavyweight. And he doesn't have a credible opponent in his division. And the sad part of that is that it takes away from the fact that he's a tremendous fighter. He's just in a bad division at a bad time. And unless he gets somebody to step up, he's never going to garner the big payday."
As he walks the grounds of the lavish CopperWynd country club in Fountain Hills, Vassiliy Jirov is greeted with waves or handshakes from practically everyone he passes. Through it all, he is supremely laid-back and unassuming.
He and Rebecca just moved into an apartment at CopperWynd three months ago, after living temporarily with her parents in Paradise Valley, but already it seems that all his neighbors know Vassiliy and offer words of encouragement to him.
With its tennis courts, heated swimming pools, ritzy club and scenic mountain view, CopperWynd is the kind of place he could have only dreamed about back in Kazakhstan, and it's a healthy reminder that even if he's not yet at the top echelon of boxing breadwinners, he's certainly not in need of a benefit either.
Jirov loves CopperWynd because it's so quiet. He gets enough excitement in the ring, and he likes a calm environment around him when he's not fighting. Rebecca says that no matter how nervous his handlers get, Jirov is the perpetual eye of the storm.
"I've never seen him have a bad day," she says. "I think of myself as an easygoing person, but next to him I'm wacko. He creates a very serene environment around him. He's not a big-city person."
All his favorite hobbies are outdoor activities: swimming, going for long walks and, most recently, tennis. He and Rebecca occasionally play each other, and she marvels at the fact that even though he's a beginner, he's already racing across the court with abandon and firing lethal serves past her.
As Jirov passes through the apartment complex's club, he sees CopperWynd sales manager Neville Ginsberg, a white, middle-aged native of South Africa. Ginsberg asks him about his next fight, and congratulates him on his July victory over Earl Butler, on the undercard of the Chavez-Tszyu fight. Ginsberg took several friends with him to see the fight, and he even takes some credit for advising Jirov to attack Butler with body shots, apparently unaware that Jirov has won most of his pro fights the exact same way.
At one point, they discuss the impending Trinidad-Vargas showdown in Las Vegas, and Jirov says that although Gotzev will be in attendance, to talk business with Don King, he's not sure if he wants to go along.
"Trinidad is really tough," Ginsberg says. Jirov agrees, but predicts -- wrongly, it turns out -- that Vargas will win the fight.
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"Trinidad is good," Jirov says, "but Vargas is hungry."
Rebecca attended the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, three months ago with Jirov, where he was greeted like a conquering hero by the Kazakhstani boxing team. She says he would look in the eyes of each fighter before a match, and be able to tell her who had that hunger to win.
You get the feeling that Jirov's own hunger may never be satisfied.
"My trainer taught me that no matter how good you are in the ring, you should never be happy about it," he says. "If you relax, you'll never be good again. You'll go down and someone will beat you. So I always tell myself I'll do better next time."