MILAN, Italy – Stefano Zoff is one of the best Italian boxers of the last 16 years. His story could be the inspiration for a movie: from the humble beginnings in small Italian towns, to the big fights all over Europe. He built his reputation as a tough brawler, fighting top opposition in France, Belgium, Germany and Wales. Even when he was knocked out by the judges (you can always count on partisan verdicts, everywhere), Zoff kept being rated at the top of his division simply because he was one of the very best. He won titles in 3 weight classes. As a featherweight, he has been Italian champion (1993/4), European champion (1994/6) and IBF intercontinental champion (1996/7). In the super featherweight division, he won the Italian title (1998/9). Among lightweights, he became European champion and WBA world champion (from August 7 to November 13, 1999). His record comprises 43 wins (17 by KO), 10 losses and 2 draws. In Italy, he is very popular for his colorful persona – they call him “The Pirate” – and because he gives it all every time he steps into the ring. No matter the outcome of the fight, Zoff never disappoints the paying customers and the TV audience. On November 4, in Spain, he will face undefeated Juan Carlos Diaz Melero (29-0) for the vacant European lightweight belt.
Stefano, how are you preparing for the next match?
I’m doing my usual routine, which can be described by two words: working hard. I never considered my opponents as underdogs. That’s why I always trained very hard to face them. You cannot understand how badly I want to win; not for adding a belt to my collection or moving up the rankings, but for supporting my family. I have three daughters and I want them to go to college. That’s my motivation. As long as my health supports me, I will keep on fighting. I’m 39 now, but I can still be on top of my game.
In Spain, they think Diaz Melero will win because he is just 29 years old and this is his moment.
Being much younger than me, Diaz Melero cannot have my experience. I never saw him fight, but I know that he always fought in Spain and never faced dangerous boxers. He is gonna find out that I’m very dangerous, more than he thinks.
What strategy will you follow?
I’ll just fight my own way, throwing many punches and never taking a breath. If I’m in good physical condition, there’s no way he can win.
Inasmuch as you are fighting in Diaz Melero’s country, are you worried about a partisan verdict?
The judges always worry me. I had bad experiences fighting abroad. My match against Jason Cook (on January 25, 2003) is a perfect example: I knocked him down in the second round, I dominated most of the fight and … he got a split decision. Two judges ruled 115-113 in his favor, the third one had it 115-114 for me. This happened because we fought in Bridgend, Wales, where Cook was very popular. I’m sure that everywhere else, I would have won by a wide margin. By the way, I was European champion, but the title was on the line only for me because Cook couldn’t make the weight. When I lost, the title was declared vacant. Another example is my match against Julien Lorcy for the WBA world lightweight championship. It was August 7, 1999. We fought in Le Cannet, France, practically Lorcy’s backyard. One judge had the courage to consider Lorcy the winner (117-114). Thankfully, the other scorecards were in my favor (117-114 and 116-113). It was the biggest moment of my career.
Many people consider it your best performance.
I don’t agree. I performed much better against David Burke. We fought on 7 June, 2003 for the vacant European lightweight belt. I won by unanimous decision. When I lost to Jason Cook, my manager asked for another opportunity from the European Boxing Union and got it. I think that’s because the EBU officials knew that Cook’s victory was controversial (to say the least).
You lost the WBA belt to Gilberto Serrano in Las Vegas. Tell us about that.
I must recognize that he was the better man. I have to agree with the physician who stopped the fight during the 10th round due to a cut over my right eye. I got 20 stitches, 10 above the eye and 10 below. I never complain when I lose honestly. That’s boxing.
Would you like to go back to America?
Of course, because the real money is in the United States. When I faced Leavander Johnson for the vacant IBF world lightweight title, I knew that a win would have granted me a match against a major American star. I lost and that put me out of the picture.
Before getting KOed by Johnson, you were leading on points. Have you any regrets?
It is very difficult for me to talk about it because I was saddened by Johnson’s death. All I can say is that he knocked me out with a good punch and I wasn’t able to continue. If we didn’t fight, last June 17, probably we would have followed different routes to the world title and it would have been better for us. It all started the wrong way. I had fever and should have pulled out. I didn’t want to disappoint my fans and I desired to fight at the legendary Palalido in Milan. So many great champions fought there. It was a thrill just to enter the ring. I was a bit disappointed by the crowd: there were about 1200 people. That’s the reality of the Italian fight scene. Even with a big interest by the media – I got a front page photo in a national newspaper – the numbers are always the same: from 1000 to 2000 spectators.
Some journalists wrote that Jesus Chavez, coming from an inferior weight division, was supposed to be an easy prey of Johnson’s power. Do you agree?
No way. I don’t think that Leavander considered Chavez an easy opponent. Anybody who really knows boxing understands that there’s no such thing as an easy fight. Anything can happen anytime. You have to be careful and protect yourself. Besides, a few pounds less make no difference. If a guy can punch he will knock you out, even if he comes from an inferior weight division.
If you win the European belt, will you go after the world title?
Depends by many factors. I would be happy to defend the European belt, because it is far more prestigious than any alphabet title. Of course, I would like to fight for the world championship of a major organization (WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO). My main goal is to keep active until I can be competitive. I’m a prizefighter; that’s what I do best. If I can defend a title until I’m 45 years old, I will do it. In Italy, the national commission doesn’t grant a license to a boxer after he is 40 years old. If he has a title, they allow him to continue. If a boxer doesn’t have any belt and wants to keep on fighting, he must ask a license to another European country and fight outside of Italy. I hope I won’t have to do that. I want to become European champion on November 4.
Alias: The Pirate
Birthplace: Monfalcone, Italy (This city is a coin toss from the Slovenian border.)
Born: March 17, 1966
Manager: OPI 2000 Salvatore Cherchi
Trainer: Elio Tricarico