How Tim Tszyu shook off the 'son of Kostya' tag and forged his own path

BRONZE STATUES OF cricket, Aussie rules and rugby league royalty line the footpaths that snake and intertwine their way to the main entrance of the Sydney Cricket Ground [SCG]; frequent reminders that this iconic, 172-year-old venue is steeped in sporting history.

Set foot inside the revamped concourse and your eyes aren't quite sure where to look. The elegant Ladies' Pavilion, which sits adjacent to the members' area, immediately jumps out, as does the scoreboard perched on the eastern side of the ground. But it gets better.

Take the escalator up to Level 3 of the Bradman Stand and you'll uncover a shortlisted candidate for greatest place in Australia to witness live sports: the Noble Dining Room. Throughout cricket and football seasons, this grand ballroom -- with spectacular floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the majestic grandstands that cradle the hallowed green turf -- entertains the who's who of Australia's most populous city. It's a place where bigwigs rub shoulders while sipping top-shelf spirits. A place where reflections glisten in the finest French silverware.

But on a warm summer evening in 2016, sandwiched somewhere between two cricket matches -- an Australia-New Zealand ODI and the opener of a new Big Bash season -- the Noble Dining Room unlocked its doors for something totally unique. Something totally out of character. The champagne and oysters were substituted for beer stubbies and meat pies, stools took the place of royal dining chairs and black drapes covered the windows, all in preparation for a modestly publicized pro-am boxing card, which was to feature the reincarnation of the legendary Tszyu name.

Seven hundred people, the majority of whom were family, friends and local media, crammed in to witness 21-year-old Tim Tszyu, son of boxing icon and former world champion Kostya, make his professional fight debut. The baby-faced bruiser from Rockdale, an inner-city Sydney suburb just a dozen kilometres southwest of the SCG, emerged from the hall's shadows in an all-white attire, flanked by his trainer and father, who had flown in from his home in Russia earlier in the week.

A ring announcer, who looked straight out of a 1980s boxing flick, introduced Tszyu to the blue corner as "fighting out of Tszyu Boxing Academy," while applause reigned in both encouragement and expectation.

Tszyu made light work of his little-known opponent, Zorran Cassady, showcasing heavy hands and an aggressiveness that had him coming forward at every opportunity. He was calm, measured, yet precise, knowing when to attack and when to retreat. It was a performance eerily reminiscent of his father, who was stationed ringside, barking instructions and recording every punch on his cellphone. After six rounds, the judges' scorecards confirmed a unanimous victory for Tszyu. His career was underway.

Six years and 20 fights later, Tszyu remains unbeaten and is preparing for his career to come full circle. He's back fighting in his hometown of Sydney, battling former world champion Tony Harrison. But this time, the world will be watching. And this time, a world title is at stake.

Tim Tszyu's early years

As the son of one of boxing's all-time greats, you'd imagine Tszyu would have had his heart set on fighting for a world title from the moment he could walk. But that wasn't the case.

As a child, Tszyu was far more interested in gymnastics. He began competing in a wide range of disciplines at age 6, learning the fundamentals of strength, conditioning and flexibility, principles that would eventually underpin his boxing career. Tszyu also excelled at soccer as a junior, playing at representative level for St. George and Bankstown in New South Wales.

It wasn't until he became a teenager and had spent time in his father's homeland of Russia that he began contemplating his future, beginning to entertain the idea of forging a professional boxing career of his own. It had flippantly entered his mind, but quickly morphed into a dream. It then became a full-blown obsession. Soon, every ounce of mental and physical energy was poured into it.

Tszyu would sit in the family living room feeding tapes of his father's fights into the family VHS player for hours on end. From his father's early brawls in Australia to the big-time lights of Las Vegas, the younger Tszyu "watched his entire career," absorbing every detail and memorising each punch sequence. He would often close his eyes and imagine an older version of himself replicating the achievements on the sport's grandest stages.

By the time he was 18, Tszyu was juggling his amateur boxing career with university studies and the management of his father's Sydney-based gym. He compiled a 33-1 amateur record before approaching his father and coach about raising the stakes and turning professional. It's a "tough industry," Kostya warned, insisting that 100 percent dedication was required if he were to begin a journey down that path. There were to be no half measures.

Tszyu wasn't to be deterred and soon adopted the same legendary training regime his grandfather had devised for his father in the 1980s; a meticulous diet, stringent sleep timings and gym sessions which would leave even the fittest athletes on the planet gasping for air. He calls it the "blueprint" for success.

"My first session with my coach tested every ounce of my commitment," Tszyu recalls on his website. "In the midst of throwing up from the intensity of our session, I was forced to ask myself if I truly wanted to continue down this path. I didn't stop. After a month of hard training, I was more excited and full of anticipation."

Climbing the ladder

Eight weeks after his debut win over Cassady at the SCG, Tszyu returned to the ring, this time on the Anthony Mundine-Danny Green undercard at Adelaide Oval. He turned in another impressive showing, flattening South Australian veteran Mark Dalby multiple times -- first with a left hook and then an overhand right -- en route to his first victory by way of knockout.

"It's such an addictive feeling," Tszyu claimed in the aftermath, before vowing to take as many fights as possible. He was desperate to microwave his experience and, in a sign of supreme confidence, wasn't particularly concerned with the prospect of an early loss, which would have raised serious questions about the legitimacy of his career. As it were, many had already formed the belief that his opportunity was coming as a result of his surname, rather than his talent.

After a monthlong, technology-free training camp with his father in the Russian desert, Tszyu returned to Australia and fought three times in the space of six weeks. On each occasion, he emerged victorious. By mid-2017, his eyes were firmly focused on climbing the light-middleweight ranks and becoming world champion. As a "self-motivated" athlete, Tszyu was never searching for extra inspiration, but a significant dose of it was just around the corner as Brisbane took centre stage in the world of boxing.

On a scorching-hot afternoon at Suncorp Stadium, Filipino icon and boxing's only eight-division champion Manny Pacquiao put his world welterweight title on the line, fighting local hero and former school teacher, Jeff Horn. A real David and Goliath-type battle. The pair traded blows for 12 enthralling rounds before ringside announcer Michael Buffer declared a bloody and battered Horn the new champion of the world.

Very few would have recognised him, but in among the 50,000 spectators was the unassuming Tszyu. It's a day he remembers vividly, one in which he soaked up the sights, sounds, smells and atmosphere of one of his home nation's proudest boxing moments. And just as he did as a teenager when he watched his father's old fight tapes in the family lounge, Tszyu again dared to dream that his time in the spotlight would one day come.

"It was an inspiration," Tszyu told ESPN. "[Horn] probably would have never thought he would fight against Pacquiao, but it happened and he won. It's a true example of what any fighter can achieve. It inspired me to go to that next level."

Tszyu fought twice more in the back half of 2017, the latter being against Wade Ryan in Sydney for his maiden belt; the WBC-ABCO Continental light-middleweight title. It would be the first time since turning professional that he didn't utterly dominate proceedings.

Ryan took advantage of Tszyu's sluggish start, knocking him down in the opening round -- the first time in his career he had hit the canvas. But in a sign of his maturity and professionalism, Tszyu didn't panic. Instead, he brushed it off, recovered and then began dictating the contest. By the time the bell had rung to end the 10th and final round, it was obvious he had kept his winning streak intact. The judges agreed, granting Tszyu his second unanimous decision and first title.

"I think we saw something special in there tonight," declared legendary Australian boxing trainer, Johnny Lewis. "I like the way he composes himself [and] I thought he handled the situation very comfortably. If you look at that performance tonight, I'd say Tim has a great future in the sport of boxing."

Stepping out of his father's shadow

Tszyu's reputation and winning streak continued to grow throughout a jam-packed 2018. He defended his title twice and added the vacant WBA Oceania interim light-middleweight title to his resume, before setting up a showdown with Joel Camilleri for the Australian light-middleweight title. Even with a nasty cut under his left eye, Tszyu bossed the fight. He outworked his highly respected opponent, landed the majority of clean shots and looked to be doing it all without breaking a sweat. Two judges scored the 10-round contest 99-91, one marked it 98-92.

Moments after having another belt strapped around his waist, Tszyu called out Horn. The man he'd watched become world champion two years earlier was stationed just metres away, Horn having provided broadcast commentary during the fight. Horn had since lost his title to American Terence Crawford in a one-sided encounter and eventually agreed to an August, 2020 fight date, but not before Tszyu had recorded wins over Dwight Ritchie and Jack Brubaker, which saw him clinch the inaugural IBF Australasian and WBO Global light-middleweight titles.

Despite his unbeaten record swelling to 15-0, and the impressive nature of his wins, that ongoing narrative around Tszyu's career progression coming via his surname continued to irk him. He was determined to make a statement against Horn, in a bout that was sure to have more eyeballs on it than any of his previous fights.

An aggressive Horn came out swinging from the opening bell but Tszyu was able to remain composed and fend off the early flurry. By the end of the third round, Tszyu was humiliating Horn, knocking him down twice and landing shot after shot with pinpoint precision. With each passing minute, Tszyu's admirers multiplied. He was proving to the world he was far more than the son of a boxing legend. He was someone who could potentially carry the torch for Australian boxing.

"I just want to let everyone know my name is Tim -- not the son," Tszyu declared after stopping Horn in the eighth round. "I am my own man and I have accomplished stuff my last name hasn't given me."

Horn was full of praise for the man he claimed was the "new No. 1 in Australia."

"Tim was young, hungry ... he's an absolute champion. I can't put anything past him," Horn said. "He's very good. He was on his game and was outboxing me. He's got that young blood. He's got that champion spirit in him and he can fly that flag for Australia. I can feel it."

Welcome to America

The aura and expectation around Tszyu continued to swell over the next 12 months with further dominant wins over Bowyn Morgan, Dennis Hogan, Steve Spark and Takeshi Inoue, paving the way for an opportunity to fight for the first time on American soil. Tszyu took on Terrell Gausha at The Armory in Minnesota, a fight which felt eerily similar to his battle with Ryan in Sydney five years earlier, albeit with far greater stakes, given it was essentially a world title eliminator.

Gausha connected with a lightning right-hand in the first round, sending Tszyu stumbling to the floor, but once again the Australian was able to shake it off and turn in a boxing masterclass. Gausha had no answer for Tszyu's combination attacks. He would continually back him down before throwing power shots at the body and head. Yet again, his fitness and stamina were on full display.

The win, via unanimous decision, didn't just improve Tszyu's record to 21-0 but it also made him the division's top challenger. The next month, after Jermell Charlo had defended his quartet of belts against Brian Castano, negotiations got underway for Tszyu's maiden title fight. Eventually, a Jan. 28, 2023 date was set, with the pair to fight in Las Vegas. That boyhood dream was beginning to look like a reality.

But a spanner was thrown in the works one month out when Charlo suffered a broken left hand during training camp, forcing him to withdraw from the fight. Once again, Tszyu refused to remain dormant, and weeks later, the bout against Harrison was announced, with the winner to secure the interim WBO junior middleweight strap.

What's at stake for Tszyu?

Six-and-a-half years on from that summer night at the SCG where he first stepped into the ring as a professional, Tszyu returns to his hometown, but this time he's firmly in the spotlight as the entire world of boxing watches in both anticipation and expectation.

The pressure is firmly on him. Tszyu's not only hunting his first world title but a win over former WBC title holder Harrison will revive his clash with Charlo later this year, where all four junior middleweight titles would be on the line. If Charlo is unable to defend his WBO title within 180 days, per the organisation's rules, he would be stripped and the interim champion, potentially Tszyu, elevated.

On the flip side, a loss for Tszyu would be shattering. Harrison would then be entitled to a third crack at Charlo, and the Australian would slip down the division's pecking order. His lifelong aspiration of becoming world champion indefinitely put on ice. As Tszyu says, "losing is just not an option."

Despite the gravity of the occasion, Tszyu remains surprisingly relaxed. He's not letting himself be overwhelmed, knowing this is a stage where he belongs. His confidence is sky high, too.

"The other day, when we went to the press conference ... a year-and-a-half ago I would have been like 'man, this is insane. I can't believe I've gotten to this position' but now, it's like, I know what I can go to. It's not intimidating," Tszyu told ESPN. "I really do feel like this is just the beginning and it's not something where I'm like 'wow, this is crazy.'

"I just want to be a winner. There's no such thing as losing in my head. I will do anything, by any means, for victory. I'm a very competitive person. If Dad's there, if Dad's not there. If it's Charlo, if it's Harrison, if it's, f---ing, the Hulk, I don't care. I've got one objective, and that's to win."

The significance of Sunday afternoon extends far beyond the world title fight Tszyu has been working toward for two decades, it will also be the first time he and brother Nikita share a card. The 25-year-old light-middleweight is unbeaten in four fights and will face another Australian in Bo Belbin as part of the seven-bout program.

A proud Tszyu says it will be a "special moment" for the brothers but it won't provide any extra motivation. Instead, he's taking confidence from the "best training camp of his career."

"It's been a long camp but a lot of progress and growth has been made, and that excites me," he says. "I'm in the best physical shape of my life [and] I'm just itching to get into the ring now and do some damage. [I will be] punching him as hard as I possibly can, and then keep punching him. Hopefully he starts bleeding from his nose and breathing from his mouth. Watch out, Harrison."

Should Tszyu prevail over Harrison, and then get the better of Charlo later in the year, there's only one fighter he's zeroing in on.

"The target in mind is [unified welterweight champion] Errol Spence," Tszyu said. "I don't like that bloke."