Out of the shadows: Even as a champion, Tszyu trying to set his own course


LAS VEGAS — Tim Tszyu shadowboxes at the Split T Boxing Club just off The Strip on a Friday morning in February, seven weeks before his name flashes all over the marquee in the fight capital of the world.

That Tszyu surname is a well-known commodity to fight fans, of course. His father, Kostya, is a Hall of Famer, but these days it’s Tim who is charting his own path in boxing to prove he’s far more than simply the son of a legend.

There’s a striking resemblance to Kostya, the explosive puncher who tore through the junior welterweight division throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. And as Tim Tszyu hits the heavy bag on this day, he’s guided by the same coach who trained his father in the Soviet school of boxing. Igor Goloubevk is Tim’s uncle and Kostya’s brother-in-law, a man who helped develop Tim’s fierce discipline as a child running the dunes in Australia.

If Tim grew to prominence in Australia years ago due to his familiar name, he’s since shown he’s a serious fighter worth keeping an eye on all his own. The aggressive pursuit of his opponents both inside and outside the ring. The confident demeanor. The way he strings together combinations seamlessly. The power.

It was all on display last year in his breakthrough campaign that began with a ninth-round TKO win over Tony Harrison and ended in October with a decision victory over Brian Mendoza.

With each fight that passes, Tszyu appears to improve just a little bit more and inch just a bit closer to his goal of genuine stardom the world over. The opportunity to add a recognizable name like Keith Thurman to his resume — and a victory no doubt — would have bolstered his credentials.

However, Thurman suffered a biceps injury and was forced to withdraw. In his place steps Sebastian Fundora, a 6-foot-5½, 154-pounder with a vastly different frame and style from the one Tszyu was preparing for.

Fight cancellations aren’t anything new to Tszyu. The 29-year-old (24-0, 17 KOs) was set to challenge for the undisputed junior middleweight championship last January before Jermell Charlo suffered a hand injury. That fight being scrapped was a disappointment, but it afforded Tszyu the opportunity to continue to build his own brand, displaying his fighting spirit by staying active against tough opposition rather than waiting for the champion to heal.

After Thurman’s withdrawal, delaying his career longer wasn’t an option. Taking this fight on 11 days’ notice, Tszyu is primed to establish himself as a star, beginning with his first major fight in the U.S. for the WBC and WBO junior middleweight titles. He’ll headline PBC’s inaugural PPV on Prime Video (8 p.m. ET).

“It’s a great launching pad,” Tszyu tells ESPN. “It’s a big [Las Vegas] debut, T-Mobile Arena. For me, it’s always been a big dream of mine, but the possibilities after this are endless. The sky’s the limit. The super fights are waiting, and that’s what I’ve been wanting my whole life.”

TSZYU HAS BEEN surrounded by boxing for as long as he can remember. He was born in Sydney, Australia, in November 1994, two months before Kostya challenged for his first world title, a sixth-round TKO victory over Jake Rodriguez in Las Vegas, to become the IBF junior welterweight champion.

The elder Tszyu defeated Roger Mayweather, Floyd Mayweather’s uncle and longtime trainer, in his first defense back in Australia and went on to star in the division as a pound-for-pound boxer until his final fight in 2005, when he was stopped by Ricky Hatton in Manchester, England.

“”I want to be a throwback fighter, man. Just keep it old school. I look up to those guys that actually fought in the ring a lot of the times…. I still remember [Juan Manuel] Marquez, [Manny] Pacquiao, [Erik] Morales, [Marco Antonio] Barrera, [Marvin] Hagler, Tommy [Hearns]. These are the types of things that you don’t forget. And I want to be one of those types of things that you don’t forget.”

All the indelible moments, from Las Vegas to England, from the stoppage victory over the great Julio Cesar Chavez and the second-round TKO over Zab Judah, left a big impression on Tim. He was six for the Chavez bout in Phoenix and seven for the Judah bout in Vegas, an infamous fight for Judah’s stool toss and intimidation of referee Jay Nady.

“Sunday daytime was just — I remember the Roy Joneses, and I remember just when they used to walk out and I used to just visualize even at a really young age, six, seven — it’s crazy to think that I still got the memories of that,” says Tszyu, ESPN’s No. 2 junior middleweight. “And then we’d go in the backyard and me and my brother [8-0 junior middleweight Nikita] would punch on, or me and my cousin would punch on and there’d be blood and broken teeth and broken noses, even at a young age. So I think the dream started then, and it’s led to where I’m at now.”

AS TIM CONTINUED to thrive as a young boxer, there was one man who was not actually literally in his corner — his father. Sure, he had his father’s support as he pursued the sport, but from a training standpoint, it was Igor who took the lead.

“I feel like a lot of the times dad would suffocate the kids, and I know that if my dad was in my corner, he would be suffocating,” says Tszyu, whose father was born in the Soviet Union. “My dad lives in Russia, I live in Australia. He’s never really been my coach, but we keep our relationship as just father and son rather than trainer and student. It’s a conflict of interest. It’s one thing being a trainer, one thing’s being a father.”

The father-son, trainer-coach dynamic is common in boxing but can come with serious issues and a fractured relationship. Kostya, Tim says, gives him advice, “but he usually says the same thing. It’s quite generic. He just tells me ‘don’t get hit.’ Yeah, that’s the biggest pointer.”

Tszyu recalls cold showers each morning at age seven and 48-hour fasting challenges at that age, too, practices from his father, which he says he’s maintained ever since.

“He grew up in Soviet Russia where the mentality is different,” Tszyu says of his father. “Now I’m jumping in the pool every morning. I don’t want to do it, but I still do it just because of the fact that every day has to be some sort of challenge. Something has to be difficult and there’s no silver spoon here.”Kostya Tszyu competed five times in Las Vegas, but he won’t be ringside Saturday for his son’s Sin City debut. In fact, Tim’s father has attended only one of his pro fights in person: his professional debut in December 2016 in Sydney. When Tszyu was asked if he was happy with his relationship with his father, Tim simply said “for sure.”

The elder Tszyu and his family moved back to Moscow in 2008, but they later returned to Sydney. Four years later, Kostya Tszyu relocated full time to Russia and is now remarried with two children. He owns and operates a restaurant in Russia’s capital.

“He’s the man,” Kostya told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2023. “He has proven to the world, to all the people that never believed in him, that believed it was only his name. I’m proud of it.”

Tszyu’s own rise in the fight game has far more to do with hard work and dedication than his last name, but his father still impacted his character in ways that continue to pay dividends.

“Discipline the same way [as his father],” says Goloubev, who began working with Kostya in 1997. “Always on time. … Really disciplined and hard worker. Exactly the same. … Vegas, it’s mother of boxing. That’s it. We’re here … now we just have to be the best.”

TSZYU WAS WEEKS away from a career-defining showdown in Dec. 2022, a shot at Charlo and his undisputed junior middleweight championship. Then came the news on Christmas Eve — Charlo suffered a broken left hand and the fight was canceled.

A choice laid before Tszyu: maintain his mandatory position with the WBO and wait for Charlo to recover, or look for another fight. Waiting is the route most boxers likely would have selected in today’s risk-averse era, where fighters often compete once every 12 months. Especially boxers who are major draws like Tszyu is in Australia.

Only Tszyu had other ideas. Instead, he decided to fight former champion Tony Harrison — a boxer who owned a win over Charlo — and put his title shot on the line. Many observers thought it was a mistake to fight a legitimate, slick-boxing opponent rather than wait for Charlo and the career-high payday.

Tszyu delivered his best performance yet and scored a ninth-round TKO victory over Harrison in March 2023 in Sydney.

“A lot of fighters these days are lazy,” Tszyu says. “Now I feel like every day for me is growth, growth, growth. A lot of people, they remain in the same position. Yes, they’ve got talent, but they just think that they can’t get better … and you see a lot of it. I think that’s the difference between us.

“I want to be a throwback fighter, man,” he adds. “Just keep it old school. I look up to those guys that actually fought in the ring a lot of the times. … I still remember [Juan Manuel] Marquez, [Manny] Pacquiao, [Erik] Morales, [Marco Antonio] Barrera, [Marvin] Hagler, Tommy [Hearns]. These are the types of things that you don’t forget. And I want to be one of those types of things that you don’t forget.”

After the victory over Harrison, Tszyu stayed busy with a first-round KO over Carlos Ocampo in Australia. Charlo, meanwhile, signed to fight Canelo Alvarez in September in a jump to 168 pounds. If Tszyu had sidelined himself to wait for Charlo, he would have missed out on two fights that not only built his profile but improved his ring game.

With Tszyu now elevated from WBO interim champ to full recognition, he made his first title defense in October with a unanimous decision win over Brian Mendoza, whom Tszyu battered with his relentless pressure.

“When I see something in their eyes, that’s when you go for the kill,” Tszyu says. “You just see a sign of weakness and it’s mad because before the press conferences and weigh-ins and all of that, you see that they’re ready. And then once the fight happens and you hit them with a certain shot, you just see the drainage from [their eyes].”

Tszyu’s all-action style endeared him to fans throughout Australia, where he’s a genuine attraction. But Tszyu is far from content with his status as arguably the sport’s top star on the entire continent.

After he dispensed with Mendoza, who was coming off an upset KO win over Fundora, Tszyu announced that he would compete in the U.S. going forward. His only stateside fight came in March 2022, when he was dropped by Terrell Gausha but rallied to win via unanimous decision.

Now, he plans to campaign exclusively in the U.S., but still seeks the sort of high-profile opponent Charlo would have represented. Thurman, too, fit the bill, but he’s also out, leaving Tszyu to adjust on the fly to Fundora, a southpaw pressure fighter who will enjoy a nine-inch height advantage.

Fundora argues that he’s a tougher opponent than Thurman, and there’s merit to that claim considering the latter’s inactivity level and the fact Thurman has been a welterweight most of his career. All the same, Fundora isn’t the sort of recognizable opponent that will help raise Tszyu’s profile considerably. Adding to it: Fundora is coming off a brutal KO loss to Mendoza, Tszyu’s most-recent opponent.

Despite that, it’s still an adjustment for Tszyu. He was preparing to fight a 5-foot-8 orthodox boxer who uses lots of movement, while Fundora was preparing for Serhii Bohachuk, who possesses a similar style and build to Tszyu.

“It’s very clear that the kid doesn’t give a single f– about who he fights,” says Hall of Fame promoter Lou DiBella, who has staged multiple boxing events in Australia with former undisputed lightweight champion George Kambosos Jr. but has no ties to Tszyu. ” … You want to put a Charlo in front of him, he’ll fight him.

“You want to give him Keith Thurman, he’ll fight him. He understood he’s a favorite in that fight. But Keith Thurman’s a real fighter, man. Keith Thurman has a real pedigree. This kid didn’t hesitate. OK, Thurman’s out, Fundora’s 7-feet tall, he still punches like a mule. … Tszyu is not avoiding fire. Tszyu is saying bring it to me. … The kid is behaving very much like a champion.”

WITH AN EXPECTED victory over Fundora on Saturday — Tszyu is a -550 favorite, per ESPN BET — the Aussie star could be looking at a fight with Terence Crawford next.

ESPN’s No. 1 pound-for-pound boxer, Crawford, is the undisputed welterweight champion but is the mandatory challenger to Tszyu’s WBO after the American used his status as a super champion to position himself for an automatic title shot at a new weight.

WBO president Francisco “Paco” Valcarcel said negotiations between the winner of Tszyu-Fundora and Crawford must begin within five days of Saturday’s bout. The winner will also hold the WBC title vacated by Charlo. Fundora was set to fight Bohahcuk for the strap on the PPV undercard, but it’s now on the line in the main event.

There’s also the possibility of a bout with Errol Spence Jr., whom Crawford stopped in nine rounds in July. Whomever Tszyu faces next, it appears the sort of marquee opponent that has now eluded him twice is on the horizon — and it will take place in the U.S.

“As soon as my fight with Mendoza finished, I told my manager, I told my promoters, I’m a big fish in a small pond now, and it’s time to let me fly my wings and let me explore the big wide universe and go for the very top of the mountain,” Tszyu says. “I’ve reached what I’ve wanted to reach there and we’ve done what we’ve done. But it’s time for growth. It’s time for doing things a bit different.

“And in the meantime, I’ll just keep fighting, keep establishing myself, and then keep doing what I’m doing. … I’m not looking for attention. I’m just looking at the very top of the mountain.”

The aspirations are different now. He’s made his way out of his father’s shadow. He’s proved to those who believed he was only receiving attention because of his father that there’s much more to him. There’s championship mettle. And in 2024, with all eyes on him, he’s just getting started. There’s no longer a desire to keep “proving them wrong,” — those who believed he was only receiving attention because of his father.

“After the Tony Harrison [TKO], I go, ‘what’s my motherf—ing name now? Remember the name. …And that was my whole goal from Day 1, was to prove my own self to everyone.”

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