VASSILIY JIROV achieved plenty as a boxer; at both amateur and pro level. The rough, tough and talented southpaw from Kazakhstan captured Olympic gold in 1996 and then won a world title three years later. One of the standout cruiserweights of recent years, “The Tiger” walked away with a fine 38-3-1(32) record in 2009.
Stopped only once, whilst campaigning as a heavyweight, Jirov engaged in a number of memorable fights. His 2003 points defeat to James Toney is recognised as one of the finest cruiserweight wars in the division’s history.
Here, Jirov, now aged 41 and running his own gym in Phoenix, Arizona, speaks exclusively with Boxing News:
Q: You achieved so much as an amateur, culminating with the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Does it seem so long ago to you, nearly 20 years ago?
Vassiliy Jirov: “It seems like yesterday to me [laughs]. Time flies by so quickly, you know. But yes, that was a great experience for me. Winning the gold medal is still the highest achievement of my boxing career I think. It was a dream come true for me. I knew I wanted to make this [boxing] my life, to be the best in the world. And to become Olympic champion, I did that.”
Q: And you of course had a great pro career. Do you remember well your pro debut, in January of 1997?
V.J: “Yes, I remember that well. I had been fighting a long time by then and I had got used to it [laughs]. I wanted to show people what I could do. I had prepared well, as I did for each and every single fight of my career.”
Q: And you fought at an active pace as you closed in on the world title. How much did it mean to you when you beat Arthur Williams in 1999?
V.J: “That was a big step in my career. I told people I would become the best in my division and I achieved it.”
Q: You had six successful title defences; when did we see you at your absolute best, at your peak?
V.J: “It’s tough to say. For each fight, I always prepared myself to be at my absolute best; for every fight. It’s hard to say just one fight.”
Q: You had one defence that took place in your homeland of Kazakhstan – when you stopped Alex Gonzalez inside a round in 2001. Do you wish you had more big fights in your home country?
V.J: “It was good to fight at home. I always wanted to do that; box before my home people. I had never boxed there before [as a pro]. So of course, it was better for me to fight in front of my home people. It gave them a chance to see what boxing is about. It was a good performance [I put on] and the people were happy.”
Q: The fight you had with James Toney, which you lost on points, is a truly great fight. First of all, do you think the decision he got over you was fair?
V.J: “No, I won the fight. I outworked him in every round apart from the last round. He [Toney] was not fighting in his usual division; he was bigger. In his next fight, he went up to heavyweight. I think he was on some kind of medication. Any time [before] when I hit [an opponent] with my punches, they went down. Now, he was taking everything. It’s impossible.
“[Toney] was a heavyweight in his very next fight. I would have loved a rematch, but for whatever reasons it never happened. I think maybe I never had the right people around me. They [my opponents] made a name by having me on their list [of wins]. But this is life!”
Q: You then moved up to heavyweight yourself, and you lost, officially at least, a ten-round decision to the unbeaten Joe Mesi in 2004. Most people say you were definitely robbed in that fight. In fact, you really hurt Mesi.
V.J: “His career was over after that fight! Sometimes, the judges never know when to stop a fight. They either stop it too late or they stop it too soon. This can be very dangerous. The reason this happens is money. They are happy to promote the next big name. But what happened, happened. I never want to hurt the other guy, I only want to win the fight, and I did win the fight! Of course, I am happy I am healthy and strong and able to live my life. The judges were not right in that fight.”
Q: Then you lost to Michael Moorer. You had won nearly every round before he knocked you down in the ninth-round and then the referee stopped it as you beat the count. A premature stoppage?
V.J: “Yes! They were looking for any excuse to step in, to stop the fight. He [Moorer] was definitely losing the fight. But they [the promoters] wanted his name; they wanted him to win. My career could definitely have been better, but, hey, that’s life.”
Q: Do you still follow boxing?
V.J: “I do sometimes, but not that much. I have my own gym, where I train people and I enjoy it. I enjoy passing on the knowledge I have. I like to help people make something of their lives, to achieve their goal. Whether they become the best fighters in the word or not, I really don’t care. I just want to help people become better and help themselves.”
Q: You achieved plenty as a fighter and are regularly listed in the top-10 greatest ever cruiserweights. You have now been retired the required amount of time: are you expecting to be indicted into The Hall of Fame one day?
V.J: “You know, if I go [in], good – if not, it is what it is. I know I was a great fighter and I showed people what I was made of; what kind of fighter I was. But it’s not so important to me. I don’t really care. I know who I am. It doesn’t matter what those people think of me. Life is all experience. I did my share [in boxing] and now I have moved on with my life. I told people I would become the best in the world and I did [that]. That’s enough for me. If people like what I did, good. If not, that’s okay too.”