From Russia With Glove

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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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia