They knew him as Tom, a boxing prodigy who rubbed elbows with the great Micky Ward, trained under Mike Tyson’s former coach, and fought his way to local glory by capturing the Rocky Marciano Trophy in 2010 as New England’s Golden Gloves heavyweight champ.
Tom was born Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and he struck the boxing coaches who knew him best as a budding Renaissance man.
“In the ring, he could knock a man out with one punch,’’ said Gene McCarthy, founder of the Somerville Boxing Club. “But when he sat at a piano, he could play classical music like you wouldn’t believe.’’
The boxing champ and piano man, it turned out to McCarthy’s horror, was also on his way to setting off a wave of violence that killed at least four people, wounded more than 170, and ended with his death early Friday morning in a firefight in Watertown with police.
Tsarnaev, 26, left his suspected accomplice, younger brother Dzhokhar, evading an extraordinary manhunt that paralyzed much of Greater Boston until Friday evening.
The older sibling also left the boxing community that once embraced him struggling to confront his acts of infamy.
“The Tom I knew was a sweetheart,’’ McCarthy said. “Now I’m ashamed of him for what he has done.’’
Tsarnaev, pursuing the great tradition of Russian prizefighting, began learning the sport from his father, Anzor Tsarnaev, in a region near the southern Russian republic of Chechnya. He went undefeated for several years as an amateur boxer in America, winning regional titles before he lost his biggest bout, in the heavyweight division of the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in Salt Lake City in 2009.
“He was an amazing boxer, one of the best in New England,’’ said John Allan, owner of the Wai Kru martial arts gym in Allston, where Tsarnaev often trained as a young fighter. “He wasn’t a professional, but he would floor the top professionals in New England’’ in unofficial boxing matches.
Allan said Tsarnaev often sparred with Dorchester native John “Doomsday’’ Howard, who has since become a force in the Ultimate Fighting Championship competition.
One observer said Tsarnaev, who stood an estimated 6-foot-3 and recently weighed more than 200 pounds, routinely defeated Howard, a polished practitioner of mixed martial arts.
By all accounts, Tsarnaev was an exceptional athlete, as capable of popping into a handstand as he was of pummeling a massive opponent in the ring. He began to gain prominence in local boxing circles in 2004, when he won the novice title in the 178-pound division of the Greater Lowell Golden Gloves competition.
“He fought in the European style, straight up, with a lot of power and finesse,’’ said Mike Joyce, who coached Lamar Fenner, the Chicago fighter who defeated Tsarnaev in Salt Lake City.
The bout became a matter of some dispute after Tsarnaev rocked Fenner with a punch in the first round, prompting the referee to count to eight before action resumed. The Lowell Sun reported that afterward it seemed as if “Tsarnaev was in control of the whole fight.’’
Joyce saw it differently, saying Fenner “roughed him up the rest of the way, smothered him.’’
Either way, Fenner won the three-round fight by unanimous decision. He died in December 2009 of complications of an enlarged heart.
“What I find hard to believe,’’ Joyce said of Tsarnaev, “is that the kid could take part in a sport that involves so much coaching and discipline and then throw his life away by doing something so evil. It’s insane.’’
Allan remembered Tsarnaev as “ultrarespectful and ultrareligious’’ and described him as a devout Muslim. “He always kept his shirt on, in and out of the ring, and he did not like swearing at all,’’ Allan said.
“In fact, he had a big problem with the boxing gyms where he was training because they used foul language and joked around a lot. They weren’t what he considered professional and respectful.’’
Tsarnaev, however, stunned workers at Allan’s gym in Allston within the last 10 days when he showed up exhibiting some behavior he previously might have found offensive.
“He walked on the jujitsu mats with his sneakers on, which is very disrespectful,’’
Allan said. “And he started using equipment that wasn’t his without asking anybody. In all the years I’ve known him, he was never like that.’’
Allen was traveling in the United Arab Emirates when he received word of Tsarnaev’s misbehavior in the gym earlier this month.
He said he wanted to call and tell him he was no longer welcome there, but was unable to reach him.
Next thing he knew, the boxing champ and piano man was dead.Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.