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Kownacki Hopes to Land His Biggest Shots Inside the Fair Pole

As far as pugilistic heroes and role models go, the notorious heavyweight Andrew Golota, whose frequent in-ring indiscretions led to his being nicknamed

Bernard Fernandez

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As far as pugilistic heroes and role models go, the notorious heavyweight Andrew Golota, whose frequent in-ring indiscretions led to his being nicknamed the “Foul Pole,” might seem to be a curious choice. But Golota – a bronze medalist for Poland at the 1988 Seoul Olympics whose actual first name is Andrzej, Americanized for professional purposes after he moved from Warsaw to Chicago in 1990 – was successful and popular with his countrymen when he wasn’t mentally imploding.  For a frightened, seven-year-old child recently arrived in Brooklyn, N.Y., from the old country, idolization of Golota seemed perfectly reasonable to Adam Kownacki. If Golota could appear on television in America before large, enthusiastic crowds of Polish emigres waving their birth nation’s flag, little Adam determined, why shouldn’t he be able to do the same when he grew up?

Adam Kownacki (the proper pronunciation of his family name is KOZ-NOSKI) is 29 now and not so little anymore at 6-foot-3 and, depending on how many kielbasas he had for lunch, usually somewhere between 250 and 260 pounds on fight night.  Ranked No. 10 by the WBC and 12th by the IBF, Kownacki (17-0, 14 KOs) hopes to take another step toward the heavyweight championship of the world, or at least an alphabetized version of it — something never achieved by Golota, or by anyone else with similarly deep Polish roots – when he takes on former IBF titlist Charles Martin (25-1-1, 23 KOs) Saturday night in the co-featured 10-rounder on Showtime at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, in support of the main event which pits former 147-pound champions Danny Garcia (34-1, 20 KOs) and Shawn Porter (28-2-1, 17 KOs) for the vacant WBC welterweight title.

“I’m ready to make a statement on Sept. 8,” Kownacki said of a hazy, long-held dream that is beginning to come into somewhat clearer focus, and likely more so should he take care of business against Martin. “I hope after this fight, when I get the `W,’ I’ll be in line for a title shot.”

Those jostling for position behind the current best of the big men, WBA/IBF/WBO champ Anthony Joshua of England and WBC ruler Deontay Wilder from the college football capital of Tuscaloosa, Ala., are many, diverse of nationality and mostly impatient. In addition to Kownacki, the list of heavyweights-in-waiting include  New Zealand’s Joseph Parker (24-2, 18 KOs), England’s (by way of his native Jamaica) Dillian Whyte (24-1, 17 KOs), Cuba’s Luis “King Kong” Ortiz (29-1, 25 KOs), Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev (25-1, 13 KOs) and Americans Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller (20-0-1, 18 KOs), Bryant Jennings (24-2, 14 KOs) and Dominic Breazeale (19-1, 17 KOs). But it is largely a recycled group; Parker is a former WBO champ who lost on points in a unification matchup with Joshua, while Ortiz, Breazeale, Jennings and Kubrat all had previous shots at the title and came up short. Whyte still hasn’t fought for the big prize yet, but he was stopped in seven rounds by a pre-championship Joshua in a competitive and entertaining scrap on Dec. 12, 2015.

That leaves only Kownacki and Miller as truly fresh meat, which might make either or both more attractive to the survivors of the Sept. 22 pairing of Joshua (21-0, 20 KOs) and Russia’s Alexander Povetkin (34-1, 24 KOs) in London and that of Wilder (40-0, 39 KOs) and comebacking, still-lineal champ Tyson Fury (27-0, 19 KOs), which is expected to take place in November or December in Las Vegas, although no date has been announced.

So, exactly how good is Kownacki, or, perhaps more to the point, how good can he be if his progression proceeds as rapidly as his supporters believe?

Although Lou DiBella is not technically Kownacki’s promoter (the fighter is part of Al Haymon’s deep Premier Boxing Champions stable), he has staged many of Kownacki’s bouts, as will be the case on Saturday night, and he is firm in his belief that the kid who was first drawn to boxing through his fascination with Golota has a reasonable chance to go where no Polish or Polish-American heavyweight has gone before. And so what if Kownacki doesn’t have six-pack abs or a withering scowl that suggests he is always ready to rip an opponent’s lungs out?

“Adam’s not ripped, he doesn’t have the physique of an Adonis,” DiBella said. “He’s always had a little bit of baby fat on him. He has a baby face. He’s also not 6’7”. He looks less athletic than he really is, so people tend to sleep on him. But if I was another heavyweight contender, I wouldn’t want to fight Adam Kownacki. In my mind, he’s a legit heavyweight championship contender.”

Already a drawing card at the Barclays Center – the Martin fight will mark his seventh appearance there, where he is beginning to be greeted as enthusiastically as was Golota whenever and wherever he carried Poland’s boxing banner into action — the main knock on Kownacki to date is that his resume is a bit thin. The most recognizable opponent he has defeated is another Pole, Artur Szpilka, whom he stopped in four rounds on July 14, 2017, also at Barclays. Kownacki is quick to point out that he disposed of Szpilka quicker than did Wilder, who needed nine rounds to get Szpilka out there in their title bout on Jan. 16, 2016 at Barclays.

Now another litmus test of sorts presented by the 32-year-old Martin, a 6’5” southpaw who has the six-pack abs Kownacki doesn’t and, lest we forget, had brief possession of the IBF title, a vacant championship he won in somewhat dubious fashion on the undercard of Wilder-Szpilka when Ukraine’s Vyacheslav Glazkov badly injured his right ankle in the third round and was unable to continue. Martin’s reign lasted only 84 days, the second shortest in heavyweight championship history to Tony Tucker’s 64 days as IBF titlist in 1987. Nor was the way Martin relinquished his title pretty; he was blasted out in two rounds by Joshua in London, and he landed only three of 58 attempted punches before the finish. More than a few observers have called Martin’s feeble effort that night arguably the worst performance ever in a heavyweight title bout.

Martin has since won two fights in emphatic fashion against journeymen Byron Polley and Michael Marrone, and he insists he is not showing up to serve as anyone’s steppingstone on the way to bigger and better things. “My goal is to become a two-time world champion, man,” Martin, clearly miffed as being portrayed as a has-been or, worse, a never-really-was, said when asked how he viewed his role in this crossroads contest. “I’m here to show people I’m legit. I’m real. I got to prove all the haters wrong.”

And therein is the crux of a fight that might not really settle much, no matter what the outcome. Although Martin wants to prove all the haters wrong, Kownacki might not do much to prove all his supporters right even if he tunes up Martin, whose stock couldn’t have fallen any lower than it did after he served as a heavy bag to the vastly superior Joshua. It will probably take one, and possibly two or three, victories over a higher level of competition for Kownacki to snag the shot at the world title belt he dares to believe is his destiny.

If he someday makes it all the way to the top, it likely will establish him as the most iconic of Polish boxing icons. Although Krzysztof Wlodarczyk is a two-time former cruiserweight champion, Darius Michalczewski was a long-reigning super middleweight champ and Tomasz Adamek won titles as both a light heavyweight and cruiser, Polish fighters are 0-7 in bids to become king of the heavyweight hill. Golota lost all four of his title shots, coming up short against Lamon Brewster, John Ruiz, Chris Byrd and Lennox Lewis, but he is probably better known for his meltdowns in two non-title disqualification losses in fights he was winning against Riddick Bowe, as well as for quitting against Mike Tyson and Michael Grant, biting Samson Po’uha’s neck and flagrantly head-butting Danell Nicholson. That crazy-quilt career of highs and lows sets Golota apart from other Polish fighters who have lost heavyweight title bouts, a list that includes Szpilka, Adamek and Albert Sosnowski.

“Andrew is remembered, but for the wrong reasons,” Sam Colonna, one of the trainers who futilely tried to fit together the jumble of puzzle pieces in Golota’s mind, once said. “Nobody remembers the good, only the bad, and with Andrew there was a lot of bad. The rap on Andrew never has been that he couldn’t fight or didn’t have talent. It’s always been that he couldn’t handle pressure.”

Now along comes the nice-guy, even-keeled Kownacki, a veritable “Fair Pole” who would appear to be everything that the now-49-year-old Golota was not. Maybe, just maybe, the biggest difference of all could be Kownacki’s possible ascendance to ultimate heavyweight glory.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: ‘Stitch’ Duran at the Top Rank Gym and More

Arne K. Lang

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Jacob “Stitch” Duran is the most famous cutman in the world. But this past November, when he was working the first of the four Triller shows — the show in Los Angeles anchored by the Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones Jr exhibition – Duran realized for the first time that his renown wasn’t confined to the insular world of combat sports.

“Snoop Dogg came up to me and said, ‘man you’re a legend, may I take a picture with you?’ I was shocked. I had no idea that anyone knew me in that world. It was a memorable moment.”

Duran, who turned 70 this month and looks years younger, has had many memorable moments. The night that he plied his trade in London’s Wembley Stadium before 90,000 screaming fans is forever embedded in his memory. But that adventure was bittersweet. He worked the corner of Wladimir Klitschko, with whom he had a 12-year relationship, and that see-saw fight between Klitschko and Anthony Joshua ended with Klitschko on the receiving end of a barrage of punches, forcing the referee to step in and call off the contest in the 11th round.

Duran grew up in Planada, CA, an overwhelmingly Hispanic community where a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Planada is in the agriculturally fertile San Joaquin Valley. Most of the working adults are employed by the farms or in a food-related industry. Duran’s memoir, “From the Fields to the Garden” (as in Madison Square), written with Zac Robinson, was released in 2011 and spawned a sequel.

If there is ever a third book, one chapter will likely be titled “Life in the Bubble.” Duran and Mike Bazzel, and eventually Floyd Mayweather’s associate Bob Ware, were tabbed to be the house cutmen for all of Top Rank’s so-called Bubble Fights, 22 in all, a series that ran from June 23, 2020 to Feb. 20 of this year from the sterile MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas.

The cutmen and other essential employees were quarantined on the 12th floor of the hotel, departing only for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and for the weigh-in. Bazzel, who has a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, never left the hotel. Duran, who lived 20 minutes away, was able to go home between assignments but the better part of his week was still spent in his 12th-floor “crib.”

It was boxing’s version of the “Shawshank Redemption,” says Stitch, referencing the 1994 prison movie starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. “We were literally in solitary confinement.” But he is thankful that Top Rank COO Brad Jacobs called him and offered him the gig. Duran was one of the few people in boxing who was able to stay busy when things slowed to a crawl.

Duran, an Air Force veteran, came to Las Vegas in 1995. During his early years in the city, he prowled the boxing and MMA gyms, looking for work. Nowadays, he doesn’t have to look for work, it seeks him out, but Duran is still an insatiable gym rat of sorts.

Earlier this week he was at the Top Rank Gym which was bustling with activity. Tyson Fury was there being put through his paces by trainer SugarHill Steward, as was Scotland’s Josh Taylor, who has a big fight upcoming with Jose Ramirez. The winner will be the undisputed 140-pound champion owning all four meaningful belts.

Duran and the Gypsy King are well-acquainted. When Fury hooked up with Steward, the nephew of the late Emanuel Steward, Stitch Duran came along in what was something of a package deal. Their first fight together was Fury’s rematch with Deontay Wilder. Staged at the MGM Grand Garden on Feb. 22, 2020, it was a tour-de-force for the Gypsy King.

“Working with Fury was a seamless transition because I was so familiar with the Kronk way of doing things,” says Duran. The legendary Emanuel Steward handled Wladimir for 17 fights. When Steward died of colon cancer in 2012, the torch was passed to Emanuel’s longtime assistant Johnathan Banks.

One can number Stitch among those who thought that Emanuel Steward had no peer as a boxing coach: “Emanuel’s work with Wladimir in his first fight with Samuel Peter was the best corner work I ever saw. Emanuel’s instructions got him back in the fight.”

Klitschko looked like a cooked goose after Peter knocked him down twice in the fifth round, but the big Ukrainian went on to win a clear-cut unanimous decision.

There was a camera crew at the Top Rank Gym gathering up the final pieces for a Stitch Duran documentary that commenced filming in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It should prove interesting.

Nat Fleischer Award

The Boxing Writers Association of America has named Joe Maxse the 48th recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award. The award, which recognizes Excellence in Boxing Journalism, is voted on by previous honorees.

A Cleveland native, Maxse, 69, covered boxing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer from 1987 to 2013. Cleveland was an important fight town during most of those years. Don King built his empire there before relocating to New York City and eventually Deerfield Beach, Florida.

The Fleischer Award has been presented every year since 1973. The first recipient was Barney Nagler who went on to helm the BWAA from 1984 to 1989. Nagler was then the sports columnist for the Daily Racing Form. He had begun his journalism career with the Bronx Home News and was the author of two boxing books, most notably “James Norris and the Decline of Boxing,” a book that still appears on many lists of the best boxing books of all time.

Former recipients include two members of the TSS family: Bernard Fernandez (1998) and Thomas Hauser (2004). Last year’s winner was Graham Houston, the longtime North American correspondent and sometimes editor for several British boxing publications including the venerable Boxing News.

Maxse will be honored along with other award winners (a two-year supply) at the 95th BWAA awards dinner, the date and site of which have yet to be determined. Hopefully, when Maxse takes the podium, he won’t conclude his speech without tossing in an impression of the late Harry Carey. Maxse’s spot-on impersonation of the iconic baseball announcer endeared him to his peers.

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Canelo vs. BJ Saunders: Predictions and Analyses from the TSS Faculty

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More than 60,000 fight fans are expected to gather at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, on Saturday. The turnout for the fight between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Billy Joe Saunders represents a turning point in the COVID-19 era. Boxing has been pretty much walled-off to the general public since a sellout crowd of 15,816 witnessed the second encounter between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder on Feb. 20, 2020 in Las Vegas.

Canelo Alvarez (55-1-2, 37 KOs) holds the WBC and WBA world titles at 168 pounds. Billy Joe Saunders (30-0, 14 KOs) owns the WBO belt. However, the hardware is largely immaterial whenever Canelo steps in the ring as he is widely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. In Saunders he is meeting a slick southpaw bidding to become the second member of the Traveling community to hold multiple title belts simultaneously, joining his friend Tyson Fury. The bout headlines a 7-bout card that will air on DAZN in 200+ countries and territories worldwide and on TV Azteca in Mexico.

Whenever a fight of this magnitude comes down the pike, we invite members of our editorial staff to provide a quick analysis of the match and forecast the outcome. Their prognostications appear below with the respondents listed in alphabetical order.

The graphic is by Colorado comic book cover artist ROB AYALA, an honored guest whenever we perform this kind of exercise. Check out more of Rob’s cool illustrations at his web site fight posium.

PICKS and ANALYSIS

No gimme for Canelo here, as Saunders is a southpaw who can box, has a bit of pop in his punch, as well as a knack for making his opponents look not quite as impressive as they normally are. Still, Canelo is at the top of the boxing food chain for a reason. It’s all right for him to win some fights and not be spectacular in doing so. Figure the Mexican icon on scoring a knockdown or two along the way, but he may have to be satisfied with a win on points this time out. – BERNARD FERNANDEZ

I no longer pick against Canelo Alvarez. And certainly not against a boxing basket case like Billy Joe Saunders. There’s a huge difference in the level of maturity between these two fighters and that will be seen in the ring when Canelo becomes the first to corner the fleet-footed Saunders and put him on his back. Canelo KO in 10. – JEFFREY FREEMAN

Canelo by decision. He does everything better than Saunders, who will fight well enough to survive but not win. – THOMAS HAUSER

Billy Joe is formidable. You don’t lock in an Olympic berth at age 18 without natural talent. You don’t run circles around a big puncher like David Lemieux without a high ring IQ. But Saunders, despite his undefeated record, has been inconsistent. Canelo, as Kevin Iole noted in a recent column, doesn’t do one thing great, but he does everything well. How does one formulate a smart game plan for a boxer with no flaws to exploit? Canelo UD. – ARNE LANG

Much has been made by Saunders’ camp this week about the size of the ring that will be used in the fight. While it seems strange and even unruly that there can be such vast disparities in how large the boxing ring is or how spongy the mat can be for any professional fight card in our sport, the truth of the matter is that Saunders probably doesn’t have much hope in beating Alvarez no matter how those other factors play out. They could fight on a basketball court, and I’d still pick Alvarez. The best the cagey UK fighter will be able to muster is trying to go the distance with the Mexican. Callum Smith pulled it off back in December, but Saunders won’t quite get there. CANELO via 9th-round stoppage. – KELSEY McCARSON

There was a time, not that long ago, when I would have favoured Saunders to beat Canelo and stylistically I still feel Saunders holds all the aces. Canelo’s improvements in the last 30 months have astonished, though. He has found a meaningful fourth and fifth punch for his combinations and his strength, for whatever reason, is prestigious at whatever weight he fights. Saunders, something of a persona-non-grata here in his home country after a series of public relations disasters, is very much a man out of time.  Canelo, bodyshots, between the eighth and the tenth. – MATT McGRAIN

There is a case to be made that Canelo Alvarez has not faced a pure boxer on the level of Billy Joe Saunders since his do-si-do with Erislandy Lara in 2014, in a fight that still has some screaming robbery (Alvarez won by split decision). Of course, that was nearly seven years ago, back when Alvarez was still trading on his telenovela bonafides. Since then, he has gone on to distinguish himself as arguably the best boxer in the sport today. The same cannot be said for the erratic and self-sabotaging Saunders, who has squandered his impressive showing against David Lemieux in 2017 with consecutive lackluster outings against mostly middling opposition. The southpaw will find ways to frustrate Alvarez at times, to be sure, but expect Alvarez to slow down the jittery motions of the Brit by punishing him to the body en route to a mostly clear win on the cards. Canelo by majority decision. – SEAN NAM

I see a feeling-out type fight in the first two rounds and then Canelo begins the stalk. Saunders will be more elusive and more savvy than most of Canelo’s opponents, occasionally getting in some sharp counters. However, he will begin to tire late from an accumulation of Canelo’s body work and from backing up. This will allow the Mexican to increase the tempo looking for a way to close the show. The Traveler will survive. But Canelo will win with a dominating UD. – TED SARES

Two names come to mind for me when deciding how this fight will play out. First, Erislandy Lara, who I saw outbox but not outfight Alvarez. Second is Alexander Povetkin, whose horrible performance against Dillian Whyte was reportedly due to coronavirus residue, which Alvarez also claims to have been afflicted by. Can Saunders, another left-hander with a bit more of a reach advantage than Lara, take advantage of a possibly weakened Canelo? Don’t bet on it unless Cinco de Mayo weekend gets cancelled and nobody from Texas or Mexico shows up for the fight. Saunders seems capable of making it interesting, but Alvarez wins by wide decision or late TKO.  – PHIL WOOLEVER

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A Heinous Crime Will Likely Land Felix Verdejo in Prison for the Rest of His Life

Arne K. Lang

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“Felix has a sparkling personality, a flashy fighting style, and he’s good. He’s also f-a-s-t.” The quote is from Thomas Hauser who wrote those words in June of 2015 after Verdejo improved his record to 18-0 with a near-shutout of fellow unbeaten Ivan Nejara on an HBO card from the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

At this juncture it appeared that Verdejo, a former Olympian, was destined to become the next icon of Puerto Rican fight fans, the heir-apparent to Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto.

Today, news stories about Verdejo make no reference to his sparkling personality. It’s an attribute inconsistent with the portrait of a monster.

This past Saturday, as hardcore fight fans were glued to the telecast of a show in Manchester, England, it came to light that authorities in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had found the body of a young woman who had been reported missing after failing to turn up at her job at a dog grooming salon on Thursday morning, that the decedent was plainly the victim of foul play, that Verdejo was the primary suspect in her murder, and that he wasn’t cooperating with the authorities.

When the corpse of the missing woman was fished from a lagoon, her body was reportedly so mangled that forensic examiners had to consult dental records to confirm that the decedent was indeed Keishla Marlen Rodriguez Ortiz, the 27-year-old woman they were looking for. The boxer and Ms. Rodriguez had reportedly known each other since middle school. According to Rodriguez’s family members, she was pregnant with Verdejo’s child and the boxer, who was married with a 2-year-old daughter, wasn’t happy about it.

Keishla

Keishla Rodriguez

With each new detail, the story became more sordid.

It is alleged that the victim was thrown off a bridge after being punched in the face and injected with a syringe filled with an unidentified substance. Verdejo and an accomplice – who hasn’t been charged and is identified only as a witness – then tied her hands and feet with wire and weighed the body down with a cinderblock before tossing it into the water. When the body was slow to sink, Verdejo allegedly fired a bullet at it. A shell casing was found on the bridge and the authorities have corroborating evidence from toll booth cameras.

As first reported by veteran boxing writer Jake Donovan, the boxer surrendered to FBI agents yesterday evening (Sunday). He appeared this morning via zoom before federal magistrate Camille Velez Rive who ordered him returned to prison and held without bail.

Many of the headlines in the tabloids say that Verdejo is facing the death penalty. That’s technically true. The three crimes for which he has been charged — carjacking resulting in death, kidnapping resulting in death, and intentionally killing an unborn child – are federal crimes. As a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Rico is subject to U.S. federal laws. However, Puerto Rico abolished capitol punishment in 1929. The country hasn’t executed anyone since 1927 when a man named Pascual Ramos was hanged for killing his boss.

It’s doubtful that prosecutors would pursue the death penalty unless the trial were moved to the mainland. However, domestic violence has become a hot-button issue in Puerto Rico and the national mood toward crimes of this nature is trending toward harsher retribution. Yesterday, according to the Daily Mail, hundreds of people, mostly women, including Rodriguez’s sister, gathered at the bridge that spans the lagoon to pay their respects and demand justice for the victims of domestic violence.

Felix Verdejo turned pro  at age 19 after representing Puerto Rico in the 2012 London Olympics. He rose to #1 in the WBO lightweight rankings after defeating Oliver Flores in February of 2017, but was demoted for inactivity. There were extenuating circumstances including fights that fell out and a 6-day stay in a hospital following a motorcycle accident.

He returned to the ring after a 13 ½ month absence and suffered his first pro defeat. An unheralded Mexican, Antonio Lozada, stopped him in the final round, the 10th. Verdejo was ahead on two of the scorecards through the nine completed rounds. There were 23 seconds remaining in the contest when the bout was stopped.

Verdejo’s most recent fight came in December of last year. He was stopped in the ninth round by Masayoshi Nakatani at the MGM Bubble in Las Vegas, reducing his pro record to 27-2. As happened against Lozada, Verdejo faded late, squandering a big lead.

Verdejo photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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