From Russia With Glove

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"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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia