Vassiliy Jirov; The First Kazakh

By Cain Bradley on June 23, 2018
Vassiliy Jirov; The First Kazakh
Without Jirov, does the Kazakhstan revolution occur? Possibly, but we cannot be sure.

Jirov was one of five siblings, encouraged by his Mother, a runner, to try out all the sports he possibly could…

Kazakhstan has turned itself into somewhat of a boxing superpower. It produces brilliant results in the amateur scene whilst Gennady Golovkin is the trailblazer for some great young talents. Before Golovkin emerged though, there was a different man who represented Kazakh boxing admirably. That was Vassiliy Jirov, who in the early post-Soviet years was a shining light for Kazakhstan. It could be argued he never lost a bout..

Jirov himself was the main proponent of that theory. His first loss and defining bout came against James Toney. Jirov argues “I won that bout. I outworked him in every round apart from the last round.” He even suggested that Toney was on medication as he was the only man who took his shots. The second loss came after his move up to Heavyweight against Joe Mesi. It is seen by the majority as a robbery. Jirov knocked Mesi down three times and the decision was scored the other way. The final loss came against Michael Moorer, a fight he was dominating and ahead on all the scorecards. Moorer knocked down Jirov and the Kazakh beat the count but the referee decided to stop it anyway, a decision that Jirov still believes was unjust.

Jirov was one of five siblings, encouraged by his Mother, a runner, to try out all the sports he possibly could. He believes he tried maybe seven sports before picking up boxing at about twelve years old. He describes himself as having fights out in the street but never being very good. At a young age he found himself in the ring with older, bigger boys. Jirov couldn’t hit the head, so attacked the body. It changed his approach and Jirov would go through his career as a fierce body puncher.

Along with his Mother, a fierce determination was installed him by amateur trainer Alexander Apachinsky. Apachinsky was an unorthodox trainer who developed students that never gave up. He put them in tough situations such as dropping them off in the middle of lakes, leaving them to swim to survival. To build speed, he would give his fighters a head start before releasing German Shepherds whilst yelling “attack.” Jirov spoke of having to get a couple of stitches in his leg and now lives with scars on his back and wrists but this training method also reducing any fear. 

This determination highlighted the style that Jirov fought in. He was a southpaw pressure fighter, giving his opponents no breathing room, bullying his way to the inside. He could take a punch and land a big punch. At Cruiserweight his power was especially potent, stopping opponents in all but four of his victories. His aggression was tempered by an intelligence that his impressive amateur pedigree probably helped him with. He consistently attacked opponents to the body, slowly breaking them down with vicious left hooks that lowered the hands.

That style would perhaps cost him in his biggest fight, against James Toney. The pair begun as they meant to carry on, trading big shots on the inside. Jirov was putting the pressure on and doing more work, but Toney would land the cleaner work. Neither seemed fazed with the big punches landing despite the power that both men possessed. It was a must-see fight. The pace only got more relentless and the last three rounds were some of the best seen on HBO. Toney stunned Jirov with clean shots in the tenth, which only made the tiger more dangerous, as he came forward with a greater intensity. Jirov had become too far removed from his amateur roots. His continual pressure was merely putting him where Toney wanted him. The final round would be the best of the fight. Jirov poured the pressure on early, believing he had hurt Toney. It was a mistake, Toney was still one of the best counter punchers in the world. Toney got Jirov to drop his hands with a left hook to the body which hurt before dropping him with a right uppercut. Jirov lost for the first time that night, but he had upped his reputation with an incredible battle against one of the most naturally talented boxers ever and was arguably treated harshly by the scorecards.

That fight was seen as a long time coming for Jirov. The Kazakh had been desperate for big fights. He had repeatedly called out Roy Jones Jr., a Light Heavyweight, and been avoided by Johnny Nelson. Promotional difficulties kept him side-lined, he had only one bout in the eighteen months before the Toney bout. He was dropped by Top Rank who explained he was a tough sell to the American public. Personal issues also caused delays as Jirov postponed the fight to look after his wife who was having a difficult time through pregnancy.

Jirov was desperate to be a good Father, his own Father had abandoned him. He declared to Thomas Gerbasi “I want to be a great fighter and do anything to make my wife and kids happy.” Jirov was only three when abandoned by his Father but has been told he was an alcoholic who had a nasty relationship with his Mum. She worked two jobs and looked after the family farm. He grew up in the Soviet Union, describing himself it as a very free childhood, where he was encouraged to try many sports.

Boxing did become the one though, despite a decent wrestling ability. He would go on to represent the Unified Team, consisting of counties formerly under Soviet rule, as a teenager. Representing Kazakhstan in the 1993 World Championships he earned the first Kazakh medal by winning a bronze. He repeated this in the 1995 Championships where Antonio Tarver defeated him in the final.

Tarver was the heavy favourite for the ‘96 Olympics, a classy operator who was the first American to beat a Cuban since the ‘80s. He was heavy favourite for the gold medal and was drawn to face Jirov in the semi-finals. Tarver edged round before looking to turn up his attack and swarm Jirov in the second but Tarver ended the round looking spent. Jirov turned the tables in the third, against a tired Tarver. Jirov beat the favourite by six points. In the final he dominated Lee-Seung Bae, giving his opponent a standing count. Not only was he the first Olympic gold medallist from Kazakhstan, he also won the Val Barker Trophy awarded to the best boxer at an Olympics.

He looked to turn professional in the United States and backed by the promotional might of Top Rank, he chose to train with Scott Ardrey in Arizona. A fan friendly style should have helped Jirov reach the masses. Being out in Arizona, a Kazakh and fighting at Cruiserweight, the ugly sister of the heavyweight division, seemed to really hinder the fanfare he received. His debut came on an Oscar De La Hoya undercard, great exposure but difficult to make a mark alongside names like Floyd Mayweather Jr, Kostya Tszyu and Michael Carbajal.

He won his first 20 fights, 18 by stoppage and taking just over two years to earn a world title shot. Victims of his early run included Rich La Montaigne, who became the first man to last the distance with Jirov and Art Jimmerson, of UFC fame. That world title shot would come against Arthur Williams for the IBF Title in Mississippi. The bout was close early but from the third round, Jirov begun to wear down Williams to the body. By the seventh the grimace was obvious and Jirov finished him that round with a body shot to become the first Kazakh world champion.

His first defense came against former Olympian Dale Brown on the undercard of the Felix Trinidad vs. Oscar De La Hoya mega card. He dominated in a workmanlike fashion before landing a sensational body shot in the tenth which Brown couldn’t rise from. On the same card Johnny Nelson defended his WBO belt. A unification never came. Neither did any big marketable fight. The second defense was perhaps the one that Jirov has fondest memories of. He stopped Alex Gonzalez inside a round. What made it such an occasion for Jirov was that he boxed in Almaty, capital of Kazakhstan. He had never boxed there before as a pro and never did after.

The bout took a lot out of Jirov, mentally and physically. He returned to cruiserweight, winning two more bouts before heading up to heavyweight. Heavyweight was the money division and Jirov was determined to prove himself against the biggest names in the business. His first bout up at heavyweight came against unbeaten Joe Mesi. Mesi was never the same after the battle that he went through with Jirov. Following this he would take on comeback man, Michael Moorer. He led by at least four rounds on each card heading into the ninth round. Despite beating the count and following the instructions of the referee, it was inexplicably waved off. Jirov would win five more fights and draw against Orlin Norris but never get back to the top level of competition. Believing he had achieved what he wanted, he retired at 35.

Without Jirov, does the Kazakhstan revolution occur? Possibly, but we cannot be sure. He was the forebear though for the talent that boxing sees now from that nation. Jirov was an underappreciated boxer. Perhaps having most of his success at the cruiserweight level was a big reason for that. In a list of cruiserweights though, he deserves to go down as an all-time great. He would fit in perfectly now, imagine him in fights with any of the WBSS competitors. Promotional difficulties meant that Jirov never met the heights his ability probably deserved. His three losses also may sully his reputation but upon closer inspection, neither loss should be held against the great man. The Tiger deserves to be a man fondly remembered.

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James Toney vs Vasiliy Jirov (UK coverage - BBC)

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  1. Joe bats 03:50pm, 06/25/2018

    Jirov was one of my favorite fighters. I attended his bout against James Toney in.Connecticut. it was a tremendous fight. Very emotional to watch. I had Jirov winning the bout. I recently watched it on You Tube and changed my mind. Toney won that night but he knew he was in a fight. High level stuff.

  2. Peter 08:12pm, 06/24/2018

    I watched the James fight, I still think Jirov won it. the knockdown at the end was a shock, but Jirov banked too many rounds to lose the fight. Baby Joe Mesi was red hot when he fought Jirov and was never the same after. A great, highly underappreciated fighter.

  3. Ollie Downtown Brown 01:31pm, 06/24/2018

    This Alexander Apachinsky character just sounds like a sick f*ck who got his rocks off seeing people struggle or scared sh*tless. If the guy was training fighters in Florida, he would probably go for the whole kit and caboodle and drop them off in an alligator infested pond. Go ahead comrade, show me some heart. haha.  Honestly, I question the whole German Shepherd thingie. Could be a slight exaggeration.

  4. Balaamsass 10:49am, 06/23/2018

    Christina Hammer is Kazakh born….ethnic German fighters are all but extinct!

  5. Ollie Downtown Brown 09:19am, 06/23/2018

    You have to wonder how many good ALL AROUND athletes could be successful in boxing if they took up the sport in their late teens, or early enough where they wouldn’t be at such a disadvantage. Face it, a lot of boxers are terrible athletes. Granted it is hard to take a middle class kid and make him as tough as someone who grew up in a hard and violent world, but boxing still requires athletic abilities like speed, strength, endurance, agility, etc. Athletic guys like Marciano, Ken Norton, etc., neither who grew up in exceptionally tough environments,  took the sport up late in their lives and fared pretty well. I guess it is better to make millions playing in the NFL or NBA instead of risking your looks and brains in a crap shoot like a career in boxing.

  6. Ollie Downtown Brown 08:35am, 06/23/2018

    Having been bitten on the thigh by a 100lb brute of a German shepherd, let me tell you, that is a hurtful thing. My gawd, that was part of the “training routine?” A lot more dangerous than chasing chickens. I remember watching an old clip of Soviet boxers training that was filmed in the early 1980’s. At a time when the average American boxer was following the same old routine that Jack Dempsey followed, these guys were doing the stuff we commonly see today like plyometric training, sprints, sports specific weight training, working on agility and flexibility with advanced drills or calisthenics,etc. The great Olympic weightlifter, Vasily Alekseyev would often practice his Olympic lifts standing in waist deep water in some lake. And who can forget watching the monstrous Greco-Roman wrestler, Aleksandr Karelin, taking a page out of Rocky IV, sprinting through knee deep snow.

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