When Tim Tszyu was originally announced as Jermell Charlo's next opponent, I wasn't filled with a lot of confidence that the undefeated Australian prospect with the famous last name was ready to give the undisputed champion a run for his money. Yes, Tszyu featured a sterling record of 21-0 with 15 knockouts, but very few of his bouts were against top-level opposition. In his last fight, Tszyu had a rougher-than-expected outing against former title challenger Terrell Gausha. Gausha dropped him in the first round when Tszyu tried to come inside too recklessly. When Tszyu would unfurl his power-punching combinations, Gausha often countered him effectively. Even though Tszyu won the fight without controversy, he still seemed a little too green in the ring.
Nevertheless, Tszyu's title shot was announced. However, months later Charlo had to pull out of the fight with an injury. Tszyu and his team now had two options to consider: Take a stay-busy bout against a marginal opponent while he stayed on track for a title shot or fight a real challenger as a way to continue to improve in the ring. Tszyu's team opted for the latter approach, selecting former 154-lb. champion Tony Harrison as his next opponent. And it was a big risk. Harrison had just dominated the tricky Sergio Garcia in one of his best performances as a pro and he featured a cerebral and technical style that would be a completely different look than Tszyu's notable past opponents.
Despite the matchup being challenging on paper, Tszyu entered the ring with a clear understanding of how to fight and beat Harrison. As early as the first round, it was apparent that Tszyu had learned some valuable lessons from the Gausha bout. Instead of charging in irresponsibly, he patiently stalked Harrison looking to create openings. In fact, he had his earliest success in the fight, not leading, but as a counterpuncher. In the second round Harrison followed a jab with a straight right hand and Tszyu immediately countered with a hard right uppercut.
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This pattern continued throughout most of the early rounds of the fight. Whenever Harrison went to his power shots, whether it was a straight right hand or a left hook, Tszyu had an immediate counter ready and they landed frequently. Tszyu's counters weren't just scoring blows; they were so accurate, crisp and effective that they made Harrison reluctant to throw anything other than his jab.
It's here that Tszyu's team, led by uncle Igor Goloubev and grandfather Boris Tszyu, deserve a lot of credit. They noticed a specific flaw that Harrison made when he threw his power shots. He would lean a little too far over his front foot while throwing them, exposing his chin for a momentary second. As soon as Tszyu recognized the power punches coming his way, he knew exactly what to do. These sequences had been drilled into him during training camp. He had the right punches ready to go and his timing on the shots was exceptional.
Tszyu's team had clearly worked on this specifically for Harrison and as a result they helped create additional dimensions for Tim in the ring. No longer could he win only by front-foot aggression; he could now make opponents pay for their mistakes from distance.
Another aspect of Tszyu's performance that really impressed me was his poise. Fighting in front of a raucous home crowd, it would have been understandable, expected even, if he tried to force an early knockout to galvanize his fans. But Tszyu didn't succumb to that trap. He was patient. He didn't overcommit with his shots. He didn't gas himself trying to look spectacular early. He fought like a veteran who understood the task at hand. He needed to break down his opponent over time and he executed that game plan to perfection.
Now the fight wasn't all one-way traffic. Harrison's jab was terrific. And there were enough dead moments in the fight where Harrison's stick was enough to win rounds or at least make them very close. Of the eight completed rounds in the fight, I had Harrison winning three of them (the judges scored it the same way). But unlike Joe Joyce's jab against Daniel Dubois, Harrison's jab wasn't able to hurt Tszyu or cause real damage. It ultimately wasn't enough to thwart Tszyu's gameplan or stymie his aggression. Harrison needed something more and it wasn't until the second half of the fight, where he landed some short uppercuts, that he threw power punches on a consistent basis.
In Harrison's corner, his brother kept chiding him for overthinking things during the fight. Yes, Tszyu was following an expert game plan, but Harrison's self-inflicted errors in judgment played into Tszyu's hands. When Tony is at his best, take the first Charlo fight or against Sergio Garcia, his movement can be among the best in the sport. His ability to use lateral movement, foot feints and circling can force opponents into hesitancy or self-doubt.
But Harrison also had a history of fading in fights, and perhaps too much movement had been a contributing factor. To me, it was clear that Harrison tried to save his legs as much as possible in the early rounds of the fight and overcompensated in doing so. By not using any lateral movement, he remained too close to the pocket to evade trouble. So, in trying to solve one problem (preserving his gas tank) he created another (taking too many clean shots early). Perhaps the best answer was to mix in selective lateral movement to keep Tszyu guessing. Instead, Harrison moved in straight lines throughout the first half of the fight, making him an easier target.
The end of the fight in the ninth round was a power punching clinic by Tszyu, who mixed in devastating right uppercuts and straight right hands against a mostly defenseless Harrison. And in the final moments, Harrison once again demonstrated that he lacked the ability to survive rough moments. Similar to the Charlo rematch where he refused to hold or tie-up upon getting hurt, Harrison didn't engage in any tactics to break the momentum of Tszyu's onslaught. He stood there, almost motionless, unable to process what to do next.
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Perhaps like many fighters, Harrison held onto the belief that he could punch his way out of trouble. But he never was able to arrive at a crucial understanding throughout his career, that other people can hit hard and take you out in a moment's notice. Harrison's losses have all followed the same pattern – a quick unraveling as soon as he got seriously hurt.
Harrison is a student of the game and I'm sure that he's analyzed his fights over his career. Intellectually, I'm positive that he knows how important it is to tie-up when hurt. I bet he teaches the fighters he trains to do just that. But during those rough moments in his own career, he never had that instinct to tie-up, and it has cost him several fights, including a couple earlier in his career where he was clearly ahead before getting hurt.
Ultimately, Tszyu's decision to fight Harrison turned out to be the perfect step for his career. He has now beaten a top contender. And it wasn't just that he defeated Harrison, but the manner in which he did so. He didn't need a hometown scorecard to get the nod; he created clear separation. As he has waited for his title shot, Tszyu has taken advantage of this period and developed additional facets of his game. He is now a serious threat. Charlo beating him is no longer a formality. Tszyu will make him have to earn it. And if Tszyu continues his rapid improvement in the ring, who knows how far he can go?
Now there's intrigue. And now there's a great fight to sell.