After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, several fighters of the Soviet Union boxing team migrated to countries in pursuit of a pro career. The most famous and talented of this bunch was Kostya Tszyu. Tszyu migrated to Australia and began a career that resulted in him being on not only the short list for the greatest Russian boxer of all-time, but also the 37th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.
Tszyu at 5’7 inches was deceptively tall at 140 pounds. Tszyu used a shotgun left jab to set up what I considered the greatest right cross in the history of the Super Lightweight division. Tszyu would walk you down until he eventually landed that nuclear right hand. In only his 14th pro fight, Tszyu battered IBF 140-pound champion Jake Rodriguez over six rounds on January 28, 1995 to win his first super lightweight world title. For the next 10 years, Tszyu would dominate the division like no other 140-pounder ever did in an entire decade.
After four successful defenses, one in which included a 12-round decision over Roger Mayweather, Tszyu fought the very dangerous Vince Phillips on May 31, 1997. Phillips style was very similar to the champion’s; a long, stiff left jab and a booming right cross. After surviving several rocky moments early on, Phillips recovered and began punishing Tszyu with one right hand after another, culminating in a 10th round TKO and one of the biggest upsets in the history of the division.
After his shocking loss to Phillips, Tszyu bounced back with four straight knockouts, earning him a fight with former 140-pound titleholder Miguel Angel Gonzalez for the vacant WBC version on August 21, 1999. Tszyu gave the former Mexican world champion a hellacious beating, resulting in Gonzalez’s trainer jumping on the ring apron in the 10th round to stop the fight. Tszyu was back on top. After battering an over the hill Julio Cesar Chavez, Tszyu would enter Don King and Showtime’s super lightweight tournament to crown the division’s first undisputed champion in over 30 years.
On February 3, 2001, Tszyu faced WBA 140-pound champ Sharmba Mitchell with the winner set to face IBF champ Zab Judah. Mitchell was a defensive minded southpaw who constantly moved and was very hard to hit. Tszyu knew this would be a tough fight against the fleet footed southpaw. He decided from the onset to attempt to rough up Mitchell. Mitchell had a habit of tying up his opponents when they got too close. Tszyu would retaliate by roughhousing Mitchell during the many clinches, resulting in Mitchell suffering an injury to his left knee early on in the contest. This caused Mitchell to try and hold on even more. Tszyu wisely added strain to Mitchell’s injury by pushing down on Mitchell’s head several times during the plethora of clinches. Tszyu won an ugly fight when Mitchell quit in his corner after the seventh round. After a lackluster successful defense against Oktay Urkal, Tszyu would fight Judah on November 3, 2001 in the most anticipated 140-pound fight since the June 1996 Oscar de la Hoya bludgeoning of Chavez. It would be the night Tszyu cemented his legacy in the the division.
In 2001, Judah, along with Floyd Mayweather, was considered the best young star in boxing. Judah was at the time 24-years-old with incredible hand speed and punching power. Add the fact that Judah was a southpaw and with a five inch reach advantage, Tszyu seemed to be in for a tough night. The first round confirmed many boxing experts’ beliefs that Judah was just too quick as he completely dominated Tszyu with lightning combinations and lateral movement. Then, early on in the second round, Tszyu began to time his right cross, landing a few that almost connected cleanly. Then, with less than 20 seconds left in the round, Tszyu connected with a shotgun of a right cross that sent Judah crashing to the canvas. Judah unwisely tried to get right back up, which resulted in Judah falling face first to the canvas while his legs seemingly did a version of the Harlem Shuffle. While Judah did beat the count, referee Jay Nady correctly ruled that Judah was in no condition to continue. With a single right hand, Tszyu changed the course of history. Judah, despite later on becoming an undisputed welterweight champion, never fulfilled his potential. Every time he fought an all-time great fighter, he’d lose. Meanwhile, Tszyu continued to reign as 140-pound king for another three and a half years.
After the monumental victory over Judah, Tszyu would only defend his title once a year between 2002-2005. It was his final fight on June 4, 2005 that saw Tszyu was no longer the fighter who ruled the division with an iron right hand for over 10 years. Tszyu ventured to Ricky Hatton’s hometown of Manchester, England and was completely out-hustled, outmanned and bullied for 11 rounds by the 26-year-old energetic Hatton. Tszyu, a few months shy of turning 36, just didn’t have what it took to neutralize Hatton, resulting in the Russian legend retiring in his corner before the start of the 12th and final round.
Tszyu would retire immediately after the Hatton loss with a final record of 31-2 with 25 knockouts. Despite several lucrative offers to return, Tszyu never wavered on his decision to stay retired. During his decade of dominance in the division, Tszyu would successfully defend his title 13 times while becoming the first undisputed 140-pound champion in over 30 years. Today, Tszyu is a huge celebrity in his adoptive homeland of Australia and is helping guide his son Tim in carrying the name Tszyu as one of the hottest prospects in boxing.