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Is Polish Power Ready for Overload?

By Marty Mulcahey

Historically, it is fair to call Poland the whipping boy of European nations, suffering everything from historic military defeats to bad humor. Yes, Poland gave us a great Pope but has had little pop in the professional boxing ring. In the last decade, Poland has found a foothold with Tomasz Adamek and Krzysztof Wlodarczyk winning world titles. Those two, along with Dariusz Michalczewski, make up the entirety of the nation’s professional world titleholders, representing the zenith of Polish boxing over the country’s 100-plus years of pugilistic history. Then there’s Andrew Golota, a perpetual tease who lived down to Polish stereotypes when the lights shone brightest on him. However, just over the horizon, a golden age could loom with young talent like Grzegorz Proksa, Mateusz Masternak and American-based Pawel Wolak, all threats to win a world title in 2012.

Even in this age of fragmented world titles, Polish boxers have only netted three world titles, establishing Adamek, Michalczewski, and Wlodarczyk as the holy trinity of Polish boxing. Golota holds a special but dubious place as the first Polish heavyweight to challenge for a world title. 1940s southpaw stylist Benny Goldberg needs to be acknowledged as the first Pole to challenge for a world title, losing a 15 round decision to Hall of Fame bantamweight Manuel Ortiz in 1943. Goldberg never fought in Poland but was born in Warsaw and his career mirrors that of current world-rated Polish contender Wolak. Matt Zegan and Rafal Jackiewicz are the other two Polish boxers to unsuccessfully challenge for a world title; Zegan was bested by Artur Grigorian for the WBO lightweight strap in 2003 and Jackiewicz lost to then-IBF welterweight champion Jan Zaveck in 2010. Polish-American boxers have fared much better with Hall of Famers Stanley Ketchel, Joe Choynski, and Tony Zale claiming Polish heritage. Titleholders Eddie Risko, Teddy Yarosz, and more recently, Bobby Czyz could have entered the ring under an eagle encrusted red and white flag as well.

World history plays a large role in Poland’s inability to win professional world titles in boxing. The rise of communism and Poland’s subjugation by the Soviet Union hindered the proud nation’s progress in all areas of life. Poland did enjoy international success on the amateur level starting in the 1950s and registered solid medal counts for 50 years in European, World and Olympic games. Since the modern Olympic era began in 1904, seven Polish boxers have won eight gold medals with Zygmunt Chychia (1952), Kazimierz Pazdzior (1960), Josef Grudzien (1964), Jerzy Kulej (1964 and 1968), Marian Kasprzyk (1964), Jan Szczepanski (1972), and Jerzy Rybicki (1976) watching their flag raised highest in medal ceremonies. The Polish teams of the 1960s were the most successful, earning 19 medals with the 1964 team collecting three gold medals to tie Russia for the most. In all, Poland won 43 medals in boxing but has ironically been absent from the podium since 2000 as pro boxing began to rise in popularity?

The Polish footprint on professional boxing in Europe is virtually nonexistent for the entirety of the 20th century, a wasteland with no Polish boxer holding a European title from 1900 to 2000. The EBU (European Boxing Union, rising out of the ashes of International Boxing Union in 1946 and was instrumental in the WBA’s rise) is the continent’s most respected sanctioning body, tracing a lineage back to 1909, awarding its first title to heavyweight William Hague. Since the EBU’s establishment, only four Polish boxers have won titles with heavyweight Przemys┼éaw Saleta earning the distinction of being first in 2002. Jackiewicz followed in 2008 at lightweight but neither held the title for an extended period. The future is bright though with two of the four boxers to win an EBU title currently reigning as champions in Grzegorz Proksa and Piotr Wilczewski. The 26-year-old Proksa looked sensational winning the middleweight title by stopping Sebastian Sylvester and super-middleweight Wilczewski is a solid if unspectacular 31-year old who will be difficult to dethrone.

Krzysztof Wlodarczyk is the only Polish fighter currently holding a world title and the IBF champion is taking a risk traveling to Australia to face Danny Green in November. At 30, Wlodarczyk is in his prime, and rated the number four cruiserweight by The Ring magazine just behind Steve Cunningham whom he split a pair of fights with. A resourceful type, Wlodarczyk is not impressive in any one area, burdened by a bad habit of fighting up or down to the level of his opposition which makes every fight close and entertaining. A combination of good instincts and reflexes, combined with a willingness to brawl, make Wlodarczyk the most sidestepped cruiserweight in the world. Over the summer, there were unverified reports in the Polish media that Wlodarczyk attempted suicide after an argument with his wife. It is confirmed that Wlodarczyk was admitted to the hospital for an overdose of sleeping pills but he claims to be ready for his title defense against Green. “I’m very focused. I’m training hard and I’m prepared physically and mentally. I’ll be boxing aggressively and I’m not going to give up easily.”

The most exciting Polish prospect is Proksa and frankly became the inspiration for this article after watching his dismantling of former champion Sebastian Sylvester. Facing the number four-rated middleweight in the world, Proksa looked like a Sergio Martinez clone, bossing the fight with a combination of speed, an unorthodox hands-down offense, fluid combinations, and startling power based on sizzling speed. Proksa does not lack for confidence, announcing his arrival by calling out Martinez and any other 160-pounder willing to share a ring with him. Is willing to travel for a fight, defeating hometown favorites in Ireland, Spain, America, England, and Germany. The flashy Pole threw every punch in the book and some which have are not in standard textbooks but remains a mystery on the defensive end. Proksa has been boxing since age 13 (117-10-3 amateur record) and reportedly suffered from hand problems (required two surgeries) that he looks to have put behind him, stopping his last 11 opponents. Certainly cocky inside the ring, Proksa is a humble warrior outside it effusively complimenting and thanking Sylvester for the opportunity to fight him.

Heavyweights hold a special place in boxing and Krakow native Andrzej Wawrzyk is a 6’5”, 230 pounds heavyweight (23-0 with 12 stoppages) with a huge upside at age 23. A European junior champion in the amateurs, the Polish puncher could be a hit in America, judging by the support Tomasz Adamek has received. Sports an intuitive style, reflexively reacting to openings and shows swift feet to get him into proper punching position. Wawrzyk is still maturing physically with his power generated more by speed and accuracy than muscle for now. This is probably why he has not fought more than four times a year since 2007 which coincides with an improvement in opposition. He was knocked down by trial horse Harvey Jolly in his only fight in America but recovered quickly and pounded out a deserved decision win. In his last fight, stopped former American Olympian Devin Vargas and looks like a solid prospect if he continues to work and get stronger on the offensive side.

Pawel Wolak is a hard-charging Polish immigrant who garnered many fans on the East Coast even before a caveman war with Delvin Rodriguez. Sports Illustrated knocked on his door for an interview and Wolak has earned his reputation as a crowd pleaser. Rated in The Ring magazine’s top ten at junior middleweight, Wolak made his debut after some B-level wins and a sound drubbing of former champ Yuri Foreman. Says of his style, “There’s nothing beautiful in my boxing. It’s just a simple destruction.” Came to America at age nine and began boxing age 17 (wrestled and kickboxed first), compiling a 47-3 amateur record winning regional titles. Gained a solid reputation as a sparring partner of Zab Judah, rapidly improved by hiring trainer Tommy Brooks after his lone loss to Ishe Smith. When Wolak gets you in his sights, he unloads in bunches and goes after opponents by working his way from the body up to the head. Twice had scheduled fights against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. canceled on him, where a victory would have almost certainly elevated Wolak to a title shot.

The most familiar Polish fighter to American audiences is Tomasz Adamek and for the time being, he remains the most historically relevant of all-time. Adamek’s rise to heavyweight title challenger, in the wake of the frustrating loss to Chad Dawson at 175 pounds, has been as dramatic as it was unexpected. It began with a classic war with cruiserweight champion Steve Cunningham, turning Adamek into a star in America, able to fill Newark’s Prudential Center with thousands of passionate Polish compatriots. A passing of the heavyweight torch was sealed by a bloody stoppage of countryman Andrew Golota in Lodz that set Polish box-office records which were soon erased by Adamek’s unsuccessful challenge of Vitali Klitschko. Adamek’s speed, reflexes, movement, and timing had been doubly effective against large but lumbering opponents such as Michael Grant and Chris Arreola. The charismatic Adamek has vowed to return even stronger and age 34, remains a strong if physically smaller force at heavyweight.

Given Poland’s past in professional boxing, the future cannot be anything but positive and now has a transcendent figure in Adamek. Much like Germany (Henry Maske) and the Philippines (Manny Pacquiao), it only takes one big star to inspire a new generation of kids to follow in his footsteps. Given Tomasz Adamek’s popularity and Grzegorz Proksa’s potential…Polish power (on both sides of the Atlantic) is about to explode.
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