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Zeljko Mavrovic

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I've already written about the best Croatian light heavy of the recent times, now it's time to write about their best heavyweight, not just in recent times but ever. Zeljko Mavrovic is so far the last and only Croat to fight for a world heavyweight title. He's in fact also the only ex-Yugoslav to do that as well. Unfortunately, his 1998 WBC-title fight against Lennox Lewis was ruined by a wrong diet-Mavrovic falsely believed eating Macrobiotic food would make him better prepared for the fight. He lost but still gave Lewis what Lewis himself described later as his toughest fight ever. Zeljko, known as "Zed", was simply as tough as they come and could not be stopped. He was also a knockout artist who had everything to make it big on the professional scene at the time. Up until the fight with Lewis, he seemed damn near invincible and he stopped 22 out of his first 27 opponents. This is the story about "The Fist from Srednjaci", Zeljko Mavrovic.


His aforementioned nickname comes from the neighborhood where he grew up, in Zagreb, capital of Croatia. He was born on 17 February 1969 and started training boxing at the age of 15, for the famous club Metalac, where also Ivan Prebeg had trained. He stayed there for three years until he moved first to Lokomotiva and finally Rijeka, in the city of the same name. He represented Yugoslavia at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul but was eliminated in the first round by Baik-Hyun Man, the silver-medallist. He also competed in the 1989 European Championships in Athens and lost by 2-3 to Axel Schulz. His first success came in 1990, when he won the gold medal at the Copenhagen Cup in the Danish capital. He also won the 1991 Mediterranean Games gold in Athens. In 1992, he represented Croatia for the first and only time at the Barcelona Olympics, where he first beat Mark Hullstrom of Denmark on points but then lost on points to Danell Nicholson of USA; himself a notable pro contender later. Mavrovic turned pro in early 1993, while the war was still going on in parts of his homeland. He was promoted by Wilfried Sauerland and trained by John "Darkie" Smith, a Romani gypsy from England. He won most of his early fights by quick stoppages. He won first the German title in November 1994 by KO 3 against Oleg Savenkov and then in April next year he beat Christophe Bizot by TKO11 to win the vacant European title. In his first defense in December, he demolished the Polish contender Przemyslaw Saleta inside one round. In the rematch with Bizot, he won on points to make his second defense. He stopped the British hopes Clifton Mitchell (TKO2) and Julius Francis (TKO8) to make two more defenses. He then stopped the Hungarian journeyman Lajos Eros by TKO 5 and finally the future European cruiserweight champion Vincenzo Cantatore by TKO 4 in his sixth and last defense as the European champion.


Now was the time to aim higher and Mavrovic vacated the European belt to challenge Lennox Lewis for the WBC belt. It was 26 September 1998 and Lewis had been the champion for 19 months. Previously that year, he had stopped Shannon Briggs in a rather short but climactic war. The 6'3 Mavrovic weighed in at 214 1/4, his lowest weight since he became the European champion. He typically weighed around 220 and his highest weight was 223 1/4. 6'5 Lewis weighed in significantly higher at 243 and naturally, he had a major physical advantage. Not only that, but Mavrovic had in the meantime started a Macrobiotic diet which was to blame for the low weight. He was convinced however that it would help him gain an advantage in durability and vitality. But, the opposite happened that night at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, USA. Even though he had his moments and had Lewis hurt and in trouble against the ropes in round 7, Mavrovic just looked like he had lost his steam and was unable to follow up his success properly. He later faded and took a beating, but never took a backwards step and finished the fight without problems. Naturally, he lost by slightly too wide scores, especially the one given by Tom Kaczmarek-119-109. Lewis hugged him after the fight and praised his courage and toughness. So, he lost the fight but won the popularity contest and sympathies of the crowd. Unfortunately, that turned out to be his last fight. He was scheduled to face Hasim Rahman, then still just a promising contender, in 1999, but had to pull out after a knee injury. It forced him to retire at the age of 30 and with a record of 27-1, 22 ko's as mentioned earlier. Thus, he was never really bested by any man other than himself, one might say.


He planned a comeback in 2013, as a cruiserweight even and was supposed to fight Enad Licina (a Serbian based in Germany), but during the training he injured his ribs and that fell through. He was already 44 by then, so maybe it was for the better. He started his own company after the retirement in 1999, producing health food and also opened his own Eco-centre near the town of Pozega in Slavonia, eastern Croatia. In 2014 he became a sports director at the prestigious VERN college. Recently however, his daughter's illness forced him to sell his business and even his trophies that he won as amateur, in order to provide for her treatment. As a fighter, Mavrovic was an offensive, destroyer-type fighter who could knock you out quickly or wear you down and stop you. Many believe he could have achieved more.

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