From Russia With Glove

Vassiliy Jirov is on his own.

Jirov, the International Boxing Federation cruiserweight champion of the world, is working without a trainer and without a sparring partner, shadowboxing in a makeshift boxing ring hidden in the back of the AZ Fitness gym in Mesa.

For the past two years, Jirov's been guided by Denver trainer Scott Ardrey, who helped take him to the top of the cruiserweight division. And in a few weeks, he will begin working with Emmanuel Steward, widely recognized as the greatest trainer in the world, a man who's molded 27 world champions, including Lennox Lewis, Tommy Hearns, Julio Cesar Chavez and Oscar de la Hoya. But for now, Jirov must rely on his own inner drive to push himself to greater stamina and skill.

The six-foot-two, 190-pound southpaw -- a native of Kazakhstan, who moved to Scottsdale after walking away with gold at the 1996 Olympic Games -- circles to his right, turning his shoulder as his clenched fists fire air jabs and uppercuts aimed squarely at the solar plexus. As he maneuvers the square canvas, Jirov's not exactly graceful, but he moves quickly and with military efficiency. With each dose of dress-rehearsal whup-ass that he doles out, he exhales a hard-earned whoosh of air. The sound fills the room.

"Phoomp! Phoomp!"

The 26-year-old Jirov is an old-school, body-punching gladiator in the Jake La Motta mold, and he looks the part, decked out in black high-top Adidas and black socks, blue shorts and a white Ringside boxing equipment tee shirt that's soaked through to his skin. His chiseled hands are thickly wrapped in pink bandages. Ruggedly handsome in a classic Eastern European way, he has short-cropped, dirty blond hair, hazel eyes, high cheekbones, and a boxer's forehead that's bumpier than an unpaved country road.

Motivating himself has never been hard for the self-proclaimed "Russian Tiger." After all, he's had at least two great teachers. His mother, a talented distance runner, instilled the value of hard work by juggling two jobs, running a family farm and raising six kids on her own. And Jirov's first boxing trainer, Kazakhstani legend Alexander Apachinsky, pushed his protégé with a sadistic relentlessness that would make Bobby Knight blush.

Apachinsky forced Jirov to develop speed by outracing Army-trained German shepherds; he built the fighter's endurance by making him swim back from the middle of one of the world's largest lakes.Brutal as his methods were, Apachinsky achieved his objectives. Jirov is every bit the driven, take-no-prisoners brawler that Apachinsky dreamed he would become. In 26 professional fights, Jirov has a perfect record, with 24 knockouts, most of them in the first four rounds. And it doesn't seem to matter to him who the opponent is; the approach remains the same.

"He has no give-up in him," says Chuck McGregor, a local trainer who has observed Jirov up close in sparring situations. "He's like a truck with one gear: forward, no reverse. That constant pressure suffocates a guy. If you're claustrophobic, you don't want to fight Jirov, because he's not backing up."

But if Jirov controls the pace in the ring, he's had less command over the business side of boxing, and there, too, he's recently been on his own.

After nearly four years of being promoted by Bob Arum's Nevada-based Top Rank, Inc., Jirov and his manager, Ivaylo Gotzev, decided to leave the company in October. Although described by both sides as amicable, the split illustrates how frustrated Jirov and Gotzev are that even though this fighter has answered every challenge in the ring, he can't get the recognition or the big bucks that champions in lower weight classes are commanding.

Gotzev says that Top Rank wasn't providing the ever-eager Jirov with enough quality contests, and was overly preoccupied with its lucrative stable of Hispanic fighters.

But Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler says his company couldn't make money on Jirov because a Russian boxer, even one as talented as Jirov, is a hard sell with the American public.

"Even though he was an Olympic gold medalist, and even though he won a world title on HBO and remained undefeated, the bottom line is he's still a foreigner and he's still a Russian," Trampler says.

"It's hard to explain to a kid like him, and his manager, that there's no market for him here. The people here can't relate to him. He's learning English, and he's charming and cute in the way he does speak English, but he's not an American, and Americans aren't going to support him."

An equally large roadblock for Jirov is his weight division. Two decades after it was created, the cruiserweight division has yet to catch on with the public. That's why Jirov is considering going down to the 175-pound light-heavyweight division or moving up to compete for the heavyweight crown. In recent months, he and Gotzev have publicly goaded light-heavyweight champion Roy Jones Jr. (widely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world) and have haggled with Evander Holyfield's promoter Don King for a shot at Holyfield's WBA heavyweight title.