From Russia With Glove

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"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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia