“When the Tiger Roared”! Vassiliy Jirov Olympic & IBF Champion - Doghouse Boxing Interview
By Ken Hissner, Doghouse Boxing (July 20, 2014)
|He was from Balqash, Kazakhstan and was about to fight in America against the game’s favorite in Antonio Tarver at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, GA!
Vassiliy “The Tiger” Jirov started winning titles back in 1992 at the Junior European Championships in Edinburgh while still in his teens. In 1993, he placed 3rd at the World Championships. In 1994, he placed 3rd again at the Asian Championships, and in 1995 he again placed 3rd this time at the World Championships in Berlin, Germany losing to Antonio “The Magic Man” Tarver who was the same man that stood across from him in the ring at these 1996 Olympics. They had two things in common. They were both 6’02”, and they were both southpaws. That is where it ended.
In the opening round, Jirov defeated Julio Cesar Gonzalez of Mexico RSC2. Gonzalez would go on to defeat Dariusz Michalczewski, 48-0, (1 win away from Marciano’s undefeated record of 49-0) for the WBO Light Heavyweight Title in Germany in 2003.
Next he defeated Pietro Aurino of Italy by 18-13, the fighter they called “Killer” who would win the European Title but failed in two World Title events. In the meantime, Tarver was defeating the Russian and scored two 1st round knockouts over boxers from Sierra Leone and Puerto Rico.
In the 3rd round, Jirov would defeat southpaw Troy Ross of Guyana fighting for Canada 14-8. Ross would go on to challenge for a world title in 2012. The stage was set for the rematch with Tarver.
This was the semi-finals, and a loss to Tarver would once again place Jirov in 3rd place. The score was 9-8 in favor of Jirov after the 2nd round with Tarver looking exhausted. In the 3rd and final round, Jirov outscored Tarver 6-1 to win 15-9 advancing him to the championship round.
Tarver would go on to win the IBF/WBC World Titles in 2003 defeating Montell Griffin. In his next fight, Tarver lost to Roy Jones, Jr. However, in the following year, Tarver knocked out Jones who was 49-1 at the time.
For the championship, Jirov would face South Korean Lee Seung Bae who was the Bronze medalist in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. In these Olympics, he defeated boxers from Western Samoa, Cuba, Croatia and Germany. Jirov defeated the southpaw Seung Bae 17-4 including a standing count in the 3rd round to win the Gold Medal. He also won the Val Barker Trophy for the most outstanding boxer!
In 1997, Jirov turned professional under manager Ivaylo Gotzev, a Bulgarian construction company owner who had companies in Arizona, Hawaii and California. Jirov won his first 14 fights by knockout before defeating Rich La Montagne, 19-1-1 for the vacant WBC International Cruiserweight Title in 12. In June of 1999 in his 21st fight, Jirov won the IBF Cruiserweight Title stopping “King” Arthur Williams, 30-4-1, in 7 rounds. “He was tough and could punch with his right hand” said Jirov.
Jirov made 6 successful title defenses over Dale Brown, 19-0-1, Saul Montana, 33-6, Alex Gonzales, 18-1, Terry McGroom, 19-2-2, Julian Letterlough, 17-1-1 and Jorge Castro, 119-7-3, former WBA Middleweight Champion. Only Castro went the distance. He also defeated former WBA cruiserweight champion Adolpho Washington in one of four non-title fights with the other three ending in KO. “Good guy (Jirov) and tough brave competitor in the ring,” said Top Rank’s Matchmaker, Bruce Trampler.
In his 7th title defense, he fought James “Lights Out” Toney, 65-4-2, the former IBF Middle and Super Middleweight Champion. It was Jirov’s first fight in 14 months. It was a difficult period in his life, and he was just coming out of major managerial problems.
After each round, both Toney and Jirov stared at one another. By the 5th round, Jirov’s face was showing signs of swelling. At the end of the 6th round, HBO Judge Harold Lederman had it 57-57 with neither fighter winning 2 rounds in a row until Jirov came back to take the 7th.
At the end of the 8th round, it looked like another good round for Jirov, but he was penalized a point for another low blow by referee Steve Smoger. At the halfway point in the 11th round, Toney rocked Jirov landing a pair of uppercuts on the chin and again just prior to the bell. After 11 rounds, Lederman had it 105-103 in favor of Jirov.
With only a minute left in the fight, Toney rocked Jirov with a left hook. Toney dropped Jirov with a right, left, right with 15 seconds left in the fight. Jirov courageously got to his feet to beat the count before the final bell. HBO Judge Harold Lederman had it 113-113. Losing a point and the knockdown hurt Jirov’s chances of winning per Lederman.
Jirov had his hands raised while Toney was laying over the ropes head down facing the fans seemingly in prayer. It seemed like a close fight, but the scores from Melvina Lathan and Glenn Feldman at 117-111 and Steve Weisfeld at 116-110 all for Toney didn’t reflect that.
Both fighters moved on to the heavyweight division. “Tremendous effort by both fighters, but Toney had his inside game going that night, plus a big 12th round and just couldn’t be beat. It was an honor to judge that fight, and it remains one of my all-time favorites,” said Steve Weisfeld.
“In the Toney fight, I should have boxed him more. It was a fight I thought I won. I respected everyone that I fought, especially Alex Gonzales who came to Kazakhstan even though it ended in the 1st round,” said Jirov.
“Excellent match-up and each fighter was in top condition and gave everything they had in the ring. Outstanding performance by Toney. Jirov was valiant in defeat. Considered one of the best fights ever held at Foxwoods, CT. The Fight of the Year 2003,” said Referee Steve Smoger.
Thell Torrence, Jirov’s trainer, said “Not to take anything away from James Toney, I have been in the opposing corner of a half dozen fights with Toney and have had many years working with Freddie Roach. I know how to beat James Toney. We had a plan. Unfortunately, the great fighter that James Toney is, he pulled a rabbit out of the hat in the last round and caught Jirov with a shot that dropped him. I still thought we had done enough to win, but the judges saw it differently. We were very disappointed. The Boxing Writers Association of America named this the “Fight of the Year” in 2003.
Jirov scored a pair of knockouts before meeting Joe Mesi, 28-0, in March of 2004. He took the 1st round but dropped the next 2. In the 4th round Mesi rocked Jirov but switched to southpaw and got rocked with a right hook to the head. In the 5th round, Mesi scored with several flurries. At this point, Lederman had it 49-46 in favor of Mesi.
In the 6th round, Jirov received a cut over his right eye due to an accidental head butt. Mesi was warned by referee Jay Nady for holding behind the head and punching. The blood was starting to run down the right side of Jirov’s face. Mesi was warned for a low blow that seemed to spur Jirov on. In the 7th round, Mesi was landing lead upper cuts.
In the 8th round, Mesi was the busier fighter, and at the end of the round had Jirov backed into a corner at the bell. In the 9th round, Mesi was controlling except for taking a solid left to the chin halfway through the round. Jirov threw a left to the chest that Mesi blocked but ducked into a right hook that Jirov landed on the side of Mesi’s head knocking him down. At the end of the round for the first time in the fight Mesi stared back at Jirov.
In the 10th and final round, a Jirov solid right hook and a tremendous left uppercut forced Mesi’s head back. Later a chopping right drops Mesi. He gets up and fights back until a lead left on the chin drops him again with just a minute left in the fight. Mesi does his best to tie up Jirov before taking a pair of left hooks to the head at the bell. All 3 judges and Lederman had it 94-93 in favor of Mesi.
Mesi would not fight again for over 2 years when an MRI indicated he had suffered at least one if not two subdural hematomas. It was pinpointed to the 9th round of the Jirov fight. He resumed his career after the Nevada suspension expired which he considered “black listing”. He won all of his 7 fights after the Jirov fight but was never the same.
It was 9 months after losing to Mesi that Jirov came back against the former WBO Light Heavyweight and WBO, WBA and IBF Heavyweight Champion Michael Moorer, 46-4-1. Jirov was now being managed by Al Haymon. He had been with Top Rank prior to this time. “He was full of promises that were not kept,” said Jirov.
Jirov was in control in the first 2 rounds until a clash of heads in the 3rd round forced Moorer to take a knee and caused a cut over the right eye of Jirov. In the 8th round, Jirov was deducted a point. At the end of the round, Jirov was ahead 78-71, 79-71 and 77-73 on the score cards. The bout was scheduled for 12 with the vacant WBC Continental Americas, NABA and WBA North American titles at stake.
In the 9th round a short left hand by Moorer dropped Jirov. He beat the count and backed into the ropes. Referee Pat Russell counted to 8, and Jirov put his hands up to show he is able to continue. Russell backed up and asked Jirov to step toward him which he did. Suddenly Russell waves the fight off at 2:08, and Jirov is in disbelief and so are the fans. “I knew I could continue and was upset when the referee stopped the fight,” said Jirov. He had a good reason to be upset.
After the Moorer fight Jirov fought at his highest weight of #227 stopping Forrest Neal, 16-5. He then decisioned Troy Beets, 12-5-1. He fought to a draw with former WBA Cruiserweight Champion Orlin Norris in July of 2005 after 8 rounds. One judge had Jirov ahead 78-74 and the other two scored the fight 76-76. In 2006 he fought once defeating Luke Munsen, 18-4, in 10. In 2007, he fought once stopping Kenny Craven, 28-18, in 2 rounds.
Jirov was inactive for over 2 years before returning to the ring stopping Jonathan Williams, 7-6-1, in Phoenix, AZ, in October of 2009. Jirov was knocked down in the 1st round. He would drop Williams 3 times in the 2nd ending it. Coming in at 198, this would be his last fight!
I asked World Boxing Hall of Fame Trainer Thell Torrence about the Gonzales fight in Kazakhstan. He said the Gonzales fight was a homecoming for Jirov. It brought everyone out from near and far. He was revered and respected. They traveled in a presidential car and were treated like dignitaries. The President was ringside at the fight. This was billed to be a great fight, but to everyone’s surprise, Jirov stopped Gonzales in the first round. Thell was impressed with the patriotism and respect shown to Vassiliy who was their first Cruiserweight Gold Medalist and first Russian Cruiserweight Champion. The fans loved him, the children had his picture on their lunch boxes, and the government had a stamp made in his honor.
”I was affiliated with Mat Tinley of America Presents in those days. We were not able to sign Vassiliy after the Olympics but did sign Duncan Dokiwari, David Defiagbon, Christophe Mendy and David Reid. Jirov would do anything I asked him to do. He is a very intelligent young man. He became one of the most loyal, courteous and hard-working fighters I have ever had the honor to train. I still feel proud to be associated with him and retain the same type of relationship to this day. He is truly one of a kind. Around the holidays every year, I receive a call from Vassiliy saying “I love you man, and I thank you for being in my life” said Torrence.
Jirov ended his career with a 38-3-1 record with 32 knockouts. Looking back, all 4 non-winning bouts were winnable, and the Toney fight could have at least been a draw like Lederman had it.
From a personal viewpoint, conversations with both Jirov and Torrence left me with the feeling “I’d like to be friends with both”.
KEN HISSNER: Did you feel anything special defeating Tarver in the Olympics since he won your first fight in 1995?
VASSILIY JIROV: I thought I beat him in Germany in our first fight. I was determined to beat him this time.
KEN HISSNER: What were your feelings when you received the Val Barker Trophy for the Outstanding Boxer in the Olympics?
VASSILIY JIROV: I felt it was a great achievement to be considered the best of the best.
KEN HISSNER: How special was it defending your IBF Cruiserweight Title in your home country of Kazakhstan against Alex Gonzales?
VASSILIY JIROV: I chose to go there. Lots of people asked me to come. It was a big crowd.
KEN HISSNER: Was winning the Gold Medal in the Olympics or winning the IBF title most thrilling for you?
VASSILIY JIROV: The Gold Medal.
KEN HISSNER: What made you decide to retire at age 35?
VASSILIY JIROV: I felt I achieved what I wanted. My body is important to me, and I wanted to spend more time with my family.
KEN HISSNER: Since the two of you are from Kazakhstan do you know the current WBA middleweight champion Gennady “GGG” Golovkin?
VASSILIY JIROV: Yes I do. We have talked and are friendly.
KEN HISSNER: Has there been any talk of you being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame or the World Boxing Hall of Fame? I believe you are more than qualified.
VASSILIY JIROV: No, I haven’t heard anything.
KEN HISSNER: I saw a video of you training someone. Are you doing any of that with professionals?
VASSILIY JIROV: Not really. I worked a little with Isa Akberbayev who is from Kazakhstan.
KEN HISSNER: I really enjoyed talking with you and hope to remain connected in the future. If I visit my friend and ring announcer Larry Tornambe who moved to Phoenix recently, I might look you up.
VASSILIY JIROV: You are more than welcome. I have been here for some time. I am considering moving to a place like Ecuador where it is greener, and there are lakes.
In closing: Vassiliy Jirov was a very exciting fighter who gave 100% in the ring. He won 5 of his last 6 fights with a lone draw. He went out a winner and deserves to be in both Boxing Halls of Fame!
Please send all questions and comments to Ken Hissner at: Kenhissner@gmail.com
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