It’s the crossover we never knew we wanted until we got it.
A duo pretty high up on the list of ‘two people you wouldn’t want to start a fight with’ went toe-to-toe on Tuesday as Tim Tszyu and Rob Whittaker shared the ring.
It was the second time in two weeks that Australia’s No. 1 boxer, Tszyu, and the nation’s first-ever UFC champion, Whittaker, had trained together at Tszyu Boxing Academy in Rockdale.
And while there was a group of reporters eager to find out exactly what happened, for the two fighters, it was more about the work that happened behind closed doors.
“It’s got nothing to do with PR for me,” Tszyu said after the session that was shut off to the media.
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Both men are preparing for upcoming fights — Tszyu at the end of this month against Dennis Hogan and Whittaker in April against the human fridge that is Paulo Costa — and both are benefiting from working with one another.
“I do believe iron sharpens iron,” Whittaker told reporters. “So, to get in there with his speed, and his reactions, and his presence in the ring, it’s great to work my eyes, and reaction speeds, and muscle memory.”
The pair went five rounds, with both brawlers sporting a couple bumps and bruises afterwards; Whittaker joking that the cause “could have been my wife this morning”.
Still, Whittaker did better than the poor bloke who followed. Foxsports.com.au understands that Tszyu had another sparring partner come in shortly after. He didn’t fare as well; dropping twice to body shots.
Whittaker represents an “unorthodox” puzzle for Tszyu; one that gives him exactly what he needs in order to prepare for his March 31 super welterweight bout on Main Event.
“Aussie fighters [boxers] are like MMA fighters,” Tszyu told foxsports.com.au. “There’s no boxing school here.
“That’s why we sort of need to find someone who is unorthodox and has got such a different style to spar.
“Those are the kinds of fighters I’ve been fighting. Dennis Hogan is one of them.”
Of course, for Whittaker, who uses boxing as just one weapon in his mixed martial arts arsenal, Tszyu is a test he hasn’t really dealt with before. One that despite the sizeable weight disparity — Whittaker about 15-20kgs heavier — pushes him to his limits.
“His speed and his presence, his ability to take up the space and always be in your face but out of punching range is a trick in itself,” Whittaker, who labelled Tszyu’s control of space a “gift”, told foxsports.com.au.
“I get quality rounds with him and I can only get better going up against him and putting in that work.”
The theory is simple: if Whittaker can mix it with Tszyu’s speed and movement, then a much slower — albeit bigger and scarier — Costa should be an easier task.
According to Whittaker’s manager, Titus Day, the 30-year-old came into the second session with a much more traditional boxing approach; keeping his hands up as he tried to leave his mixed martial arts flavoured striking outside the ring.
“The striking dynamic in MMA is completely different to boxing,” Whittaker said.
“You can’t fight a boxer. I go into a session like this trying to box. I leave my comfort zone, that’s for certain. But that’s where people start to rise and excel.”
One of the UFC’s most dynamic strikers, Whittaker is coming off a successful 2020 — with wins over Darren Till and Jared Cannonier — that has set him up with a “nightmare” challenge in Costa, and the potential for another middleweight title shot on the other end.
“He’s coming into my office, so it’s a bit different,” Tszyu, who was impressed with Whittaker’s movement, explained.
“If I was to step into his office, I’m sure I would have got pumped.”
But at its core, Tszyu added: “If I’m able to put these boys under pressure, imagine what I’ll do to someone my own weight.”
The decision to work together was a mutual one. And for Tszyu, an opportunity that has only further clarified the need to head overseas soon.
“[It’s] starting to get hard with sparring partners,” Tszyu said.
While there’s a “few boys” that test the 26-year-old in Australia, he admitted he’d love to return to the US for a bit where sparring partners — that can push him — are easier to find.
For now, though, a third session is in the works.
“As long as I can give him good rounds, and he gives me great rounds, that’s all that matters,” Tszyu said.
“We’re both trying to progress in our careers and it’s helping both of us out.”