Homecoming

BY Steve Kim ON January 14, 2003
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He comes from a 'Land Down Under'. No, I'm not talking about the band 'Men at Work' or their hit song of the 80's that became a second anthem for Australia. I'm speaking of one Kostya Tszyu who defends his undisputed jr. welterweight crown this weekend 'Down Under' in Melbourne at the Telstra Dome against veteran Jesse James Leija.

For the past several years Tszyu had fought exclusively in the United States. And while he was a critical success in unifying the 140-pound division, he was a failure at the box-office. His unification bouts against Sharmba Mitchell and Zab Judah failed to draw more than 3,500 paid, and his last bout against Ben Tackie drew less than 1000 paid customers.

It was like the New York Yankees having the attendance of the Montreal Expos. I was there, and I would've sworn I heard some crickets in the background at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas that night.

While his reception has been lukewarm (at best) in America, Tszyu now has an opportunity to show his skills in front of familiar faces. And he realizes that it's a chance for him to change the perception that he simply can't sell tickets.

" It's a great thing and we need to show the world that I can bring the big crowds to the stadium," he said on an international conference call last week." And we're expecting 30 - 35,000 people to be in the stadium. It's going to be a very, very special event which people will remember for a long, long time."

It should be a raucous and spirited audience at the Telstra Dome- where Azumah Nelson once knocked out another favorite son of the Australian people in Jeff Fenech over a decade ago- and one that appreciates the efforts of Tszyu. P erhaps the soft-spoken and measured Tszyu simply isn't cut out for American audiences. In an age of braggadocio and trash-talk, Tszyu follows the creed of one Teddy Roosevelt who believed in speaking softly and carrying a big stick. And being a foreigner certainly didn't help his cause either; and then when you factor in that most world-class fighters only fight two or three times a year, at the most nowadays, it's difficult to build up a fan base outside your immediate region.

Perhaps he would have also been aided by having a Don King or Bob Arum guiding his career instead of Vlad Wharton, a second tier promoter who seems incapable of pushing his product above and beyond the core fan base. But now he's home and one of the benefits is that he doesn't have to battle jet-lag.

" For the last few years I've been traveling to the States all the time," explained Tszyu;" and I got used to traveling and right now I feel great because you have to take five to seven days to adjust the time zones. This time I don't need to do this."

And not fighting in an arena that will be filled with empty seats and with some actual energy in it will only help his already laser sharp focus. And in Jesse James Leija, he's facing a respected veteran whom he respects.

" I never take any fight lightly," he says." That's the reason why I'm training so hard for this. I'm sure Jesse's going to be an aggressive and exciting fighter; he's a warrior. I've watched many of his fights and even when he's lost some of his fights, he never gives up. That's the reason why I think he's going to be a great fight for me in front of my people."

And while Leija seems to be cannon fodder, he shouldn't be taken lightly. Yeah, he's in his mid-30's and winding down his career- but so is Tszyu. And think about this, outside of Oscar De La Hoya in 1995, Leija has given a good account of himself against every other blue-chip boxer he has run up against. He would go 2-1-1 against future Hall of Famer Azumah Nelson, he would give a respectable effort against Shane Mosley in 1998 before getting stopped late, he downed Ivan Robinson convincingly in 2000, many thought he was robbed against highly ranked lightweight Juan Lazcano before that, then he was on the verge of downing Hector Camacho Jr. before Camacho decided to quit, and he beat Micky Ward in his only appearance of 2002.

For Tszyu, Leija represents another challenge to his jr. welterweight supremacy and his goal of being consistently good time and time again. At one time his goal was to unify his division, with that out of the way, he now focuses on staying king of the hill.

" I think you need to defend your title when you climb to the top of the mountain," he says." You have to stay there; one mistake and it's a long way down. It's extra pressure but I learned to control any pressure and learned to control all the emotions and I can focus on one thing."

And this time, there will actually be some people in the audience to witness it.

TAPIA TIME

I can honestly say I'm not the least bit surprised that Johnny Tapia has awakened from his coma after a weekend in intensive care and on a life support unit.

It was quite a week for Tapia. First, on Friday night, he was in a standoff against police with his cousin that ended with the arrest of two men and Tapia being given a citation for possession of drug paraphernalia. And then on early Saturday morning his wife Teresa had to call 911 after he fell in his Las Vegas home and lost consciousness.

At that point it was thought that his life was in jeopardy- but remember, this guys been pronounced clinically dead three time before, so it should be no surprise that he regained consciousness on Monday afternoon.

But do the math, Tapia, who has battled substance abuse for years, needs more help. Sorry, but it just sounds fishy that he would suddenly collapse and lose consciousness a day after having drug paraphernalia. And other sources tell me that Tapia had been going through some emotional distress since his bout with Marco Antonio Barrera in November.

From start to finish (whenever that may be), his life will always be a rocky road; hence the nickname,' Mi Vida Loca' (my crazy life). But it is clear that not only does he need more drug rehabilitation, but he could use also some psychiatric counseling.

LEWIS

Don't be stunned if Lennox Lewis decides to bypass a fight with Vitaly Klitschko and go right ahead to a rematch with Mike Tyson. Lewis and the Klitschko's promoter, Peter Kohl, are still far apart in consummating that deal, and if you really think about it, why would Lewis even agree to that bout?

After all, this is a guy that got knocked out by the likes of Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, why jeopardize a huge payday (in a much easier fight, no less) by taking on the hard-punching Klitschko? If McCall and Rahman can starch Lewis, it stands to reason so could Klitschko if he landed a big shot.

Also, Lewis has been waffling on his decision for quite awhile, so it's pretty clear that he himself is having second thoughts of facing the big Ukranian.

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