From Russia With Glove

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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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia