Scrabble Anyone

BY Rick Folstad ON January 10, 2003
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Despite the tough spelling of his name, Kostya Tszyu is an easy guy to listen to. He doesn’t toss out loud adjectives or make false promises or spit out bold predictions. He sounds like a nice, normal guy, though there’s nothing nice or normal about him when it comes time to go to work. Kostya Tszyu (pronounce it Kosta Zoo) is the undisputed junior-welterweight champion of the world, and that puts him in a heady class in the fight game. Not many champions can brag about holding all three major belts at the same time. It’s a short list. Alphabetically, it goes like this: Bernard Hopkins, Kostya Tszyu. Or, you could start with the lighter weight classes: Kostya Tszyu, Bernard Hopkins. Backwards? Hopkins Bernard, Tszyu Kostya.

That’s it. The well is dry, the party over. There are no more names on the list, no more lonely guys at the top. Roy Jones Jr. would make it a happy trio if he hadn’t been stripped of the IBF title for failure to meet certain obligations, like continuing to fight as a light-heavyweight instead of a heavyweight. He’s an undisputed champ; but he’s only got two belts now, and he really shouldn’t be in the undisputed champions class photo if he’s fighting as a heavyweight.

As for Tszyu (29-1, 23 KOs), he fights Jesse James Leija (43-5-2, 17 KOs) in Melbourne, Australia on Saturday night, though it will be Sunday afternoon in Australia. Barring a big upset, Tszyu will still be an undisputed champ regardless of what day of the week he wakes up after the fight.

Still, Leija has played giant killer before. He was never supposed to beat Azumah Nelson, but he’s 2-1-1 against the former champion in four fights. “Jesse thinks he has a chance or he wouldn’t have taken this fight,’’ said Leija’s manager, Lester Bedford, on a conference call late last week promoting the fight on Showtime. “He was an underdog to Zumah and there have been probably 20 fights in his career that he wasn’t supposed to win. This is a great opportunity Kostya Tszyu has given him.’’

Leija, who missed the conference call because he was given the wrong time, isn’t a walk-over and Tszyu knows it.

“When you are the undisputed champion you can chose who you want to fight. There is not a mandatory defense,’’ Tszyu said. “That’s why we chose Jesse James. He is a great fighter and he’s going to give me a great fight.’’

Giving great fights is Leija’s trademark. A former super-featherweight champion, he’s not known to go away easy. Tszyu knows it. He also knows Leija doesn’t have the natural gifts Tszyu was blessed with. Leija’s biggest weapon is his will. Heart is a great tiebreaker, but it can't throw a right hand. Sometimes it just isn’t enough.

“I never take a fight lightly. That’s why I have been training so hard,’’ Tszyu said.

“Jesse is a warrior. He never gives up.’’

Respect. That’s what you like about Tszyu. He’d never make it on the pro wrestling circuit. He doesn’t trash talk any of the guys he fights. He just removes them of their senses and then helps them back to their corner.

So how come your neighbor across the street knows who Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr., are, but he’s never heard of Kosta Who? Because Tszyu is a Russian now living in Australia and if you’re a fighter and you don’t have a U.S. zip code, no one really cares who you are.

On top of that, nice guys don’t make great headlines. Sometimes, they just make great champions.

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