One of the more torturous quirks of Tim Tszyu’s training involves a 16-kilogram kettlebell. The drill here is not to swing, thrust or snatch the bell; Tszyu simply has to hold onto it . . . for 60 unbroken minutes. He can swap the weight from hand to hand or plonk it on either shoulder, but he can’t let go of it until the hour is up. For the last 15 minutes his arms and shoulders are marshmallow. But it’s not really a physical exercise, Tszyu explains: “It’s more to do with mental strength”.
It’s a comment that takes you back 20-plus years, to when Tszyu’s father, Kostya, was the best light welterweight in the world, a magician of the ring. “Mind is gym,” Kostya used to say. Mind is gym? He meant training was more than dawn runs
and jumping rope. It could be exploring and expanding the limits of one’s will, by whatever means.
Tim Tszyu is his own man. His unbeaten (18-0) professional record – which he puts on the line in a super-welterweight bout with compatriot Michael Zerafa in Newcastle on July 7 – is his achievement. If journalists and fight fans are preoccupied with his famous dad, it’s only because certain father-son similarities (starting with the face and extending to certain peculiarities of ringcraft and punching style) are impossible to ignore. Tim’s pedigree doesn’t win him fights. But it does make his nostalgic rise through the ranks all the more captivating.
Tszyu is speaking to Men’s Health from the Gold Coast, where he’s having what he calls a “change of scenery” from his usual training habitat – the Tszyu Boxing Academy in Rockdale in southern Sydney. As we speak, Sydney is in the grip of an icy snap, and you wonder out loud whether he’s escaping the cold.
“Nooo,” he says, dismissively. “I couldn’t care less about the cold.” While Tsyzu is a born-and-bred Sydneysider, both sides
of his family hail from the Russian industrial town of Serov on the eastern foothills of the Ural Mountains, where the mercury in winter plunges to minus 40. Tszyu has spent enough time in Serov to know the difference between chilly and freezing. Along the way he’s also gleaned the distinction between training hard and training demonically. Unlike many in the fight game, Tszyu hasn’t emerged from a childhood of hardship or deprivation. Schooled at Newington College, he presents as polite and thoroughly civilised. His fighting fuel is neither anger nor resentment, but something much closer to a pure pursuit of excellence. In his Quicksilver hands, boxing looks less like savagery and more like the sweet science.
“I think a lot of boxers these days . . . everyone trains quite soft,” says Tszyu, whose team expects him to be fighting for a world title before the end of the year. “They don’t push themselves. And there’s too many new things – people getting into technology and all of that stuff. At the end of the day, it’s the old school stuff that works, especially in boxing.”
Tszyu, 26, starts most days with a 6-8-kilometre run. He follows up that with a range of activities that includes sprints, footwork drills, medicine-ball throws, push-ups and chin-ups.
You ask whether this is a snapshot of his routine when he’s between fights or when he’s closing in on one. “Nonstop. It doesn’t end,” he says. “A week out from the fight, it changes. The intensity goes down because you have to let your body peak.”
Shortly after a fight, the emphasis shifts to strength – building more of it through the big lifts: squat, deadlift, bench press. In
the 18 months he’s been working with strength and conditioning coach David Barker, Tszyu reports, he’s doubled his maximum squat, from 60 kilograms to 120.
And what does that translate to in the ring?
“People getting stopped,” he says.
Because punching power comes from the legs?
“It comes from everywhere.”
Tszyu’s dad Kostya was a Russian boxer to his bootstraps, fighting 270 times as an amateur before a trip to Sydney in 1991
for the World Amateur Championships altered the course of his life. The event’s standout fighter by the length of the Hume Highway, Kostya had a minimalist approach to movement, yet his opponents could scarcely lay a glove on him while he coolly picked them off with crisp combinations.
Taken with the Australian way of life, Tszyu emigrated here in 1992 with his girlfriend/soon-to-be-wife Natalia, who brought Tim into the world on November 2, 1994. The boy had a grounding in gymnastics and was a proficient footballer. But boxing seems to exert a magnetic force over those who have it in their bloodline, and in his late teens, Tim was pulled in. He’d already spent countless hours watching his dad train. And for dedication, a preparedness to suffer and an aversion to shortcuts, the father set a peerless example.
“My dad taught me that your brain will say no, but you just push through it,” says Tszyu, whose head trainer, Igor Goloubev, is his uncle (Kostya’s brother-in-law) and his cornerman and rock, Boris Tszyu, is his grandpa (Kostya’s father). “Everything about the way I train is Soviet touched,” he says. Every part of your body has to be worked. Everything has to be strengthened. Because once you get in the boxing ring, it’s a whole-body test.”
To build shock-absorbing neck strength, Tszyu will hold a headstand (freestanding) for two minutes at a time. An array of medicine-ball exercises is his route to impregnable core strength; the simplest of these has Tszyu supine on the floor while someone repeatedly drives a med ball into his abdomen. For a change of pace, a handler will flick five coins into the air from a tray. Tszyu’s task is to catch all of them in mid-air. He makes it look easy, like popping bubbles.
In the lead-up to the Zerafa fight, Tszyu is training for four hours a day, six days a week. This includes three sparring sessions and endless hitting of pads and the heavy bag. “Putting myself through hell, basically,” he says.
You wonder what kind of man this Uncle Igor is – a pitiless inflictor of pain or a kindly servant doing what he must to keep his nephew safe?
“He’s all about giving me a reality check,” Tszyu says. “In boxing, there are a lot of yes men. Fortunately, I don’t have any of those. I’ve got people who tell you stuff that sometimes you don’t want to hear. If something’s not going good, if I’m not training hard enough, not pushing myself, [Igor’s] the man who gives me the reality check. Old school, you know? This is how it is.”
Real boxing training is not a Rocky film – simulated suffering set to music. It’s just plain suffering. You ask Tszyu whether there’s any part of him that loves it.
“No, I hate training,” he says. “I hate it. Look, I couldn’t live without it, but, at the time, it’s hell. But I understand that this is what I have to do.” Tszyu pauses before revisiting the theme. “I love fighting. I love being in the ring and being able to fight, but all the other stuff . . . look, I don’t hate it. But if you love it, then you’re not training hard enough.”
RIPPED AND READY
Tszyu reckons that if he ate and worked out like a regular guy, he would weigh about 82 kilograms. To make the weight as a super welterweight, however, he needs to tip the scales 12 kilograms lighter than that. “Every time is a challenge – I wouldn’t say it’s easy,” Tszyu says. “I’ll be going up to middleweight eventually because I’m growing. I’m getting thicker and stronger.” His approach to making weight centres on never allowing himself to blow out.
“I eat not to lose weight but for performance,” he says. “Enough carbs. Good proteins. And good salads. It’s quite simple. I’m not too strict in terms of having 200 grams of chicken breast or whatever. I used to be like that, but this isn’t a bodybuilding contest. For me, it’s all about feeling good, so I eat enough carbs and enough protein – get myself some nice steak at times, some nice fish. And I’m quite flexible with what I eat, but nothing deep-fried. No burgers, no pizza – none of that stuff. And I drink a lot of water.”
The sparring sessions cease about 10 days out from a fight, and it’s then Tszyu will cut back on the carbs and strip down into the chiselled warrior we’ll see go to work on July 7. Shortly before he steps into the ring, he’ll speak on the phone with his father, who lives in Moscow now with his second wife, Tatiana. In these pre-fight chats, Kostya generally doesn’t say a lot about strategy. His advice boils down to three words: don’t get hit.
You like Tszyu’s chances against Zerafa. Just like his father used to, he exudes a supreme confidence in his ability to beat any man who stands before him– supreme, and doubtless unnerving if that man happens to be you. When it’s over, and let’s say Tszyu wins, there will be no wild celebration. Insiders say Tszyu will drink nothing stronger than a mineral water. He’s a man happiest in the company of his tight circle, which includes Igor, Boris and his manager Glen Jennings – a Novocastrian and one of the fight game’s most honourable men – whose links with the Tszyu family extend back to Kostya’s heyday.
Tszyu’s day of rest and recuperation is Sunday, when he and his partner, Alexandra, head out for a café breakfast. “I’ll take my car out,” he says. “I’m into my old school muscle classics. My dream is to have a collection of them one day.”
As for boxing, “I guess the main thing is to live a life without regret,” he says, “and to influence and motivate anyone to have a go. With that comes world titles in multiple divisions. We all live one life. We all make choices. It’s a fun journey and I just want to make the most of it.”
Tim Tszyu workout
Do 4 rounds of this Tszyu-inspired workout, taking 2 minutes’ rest between rounds
1/ Sprint 50 metres; jog back
2/ Do 50 push-ups (as many sets as it takes)
3/ Shadowbox for 90 seconds, throwing jabs, hooks, crosses and uppercuts while dancing and weaving.
4/ Do 20 chin-ups (as many sets as it takes)
5/ Do 50 sit-ups (as many sets as it takes)