From Russia With Glove

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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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia