If you're a regular attendee of Top Rank's boxing events, then you've probably had a chance to witness the progression of Mikael Zewski.
The 25-year-old welterweight prospect from Trois-Rivières, Canada has appeared on a number of big events in recent years, like in 2012 when he disposed of John Ryan Grimaldo in three rounds on the undercard of the first Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley fight, or when he stopped Alberto Herrera in five rounds on last year's Bradley-Juan Manuel Marquez card.
Before Adonis Stevenson defends his RING light heavyweight title against Andrzej Fonfara on Saturday at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Canada, Zewski (23-0, 18 knockouts) will have his third straight start in his native country when he faces Prince Doku Jr. (18-5, 12 KOs).
The Stevenson-Fonfara undercard bout will be Zewski's first fight scheduled for 10 round and another chance to showcase his talents in front of a large audience, but he feels the time is coming for him to step out of the shadows and stand out on his own.
“I feel the days of just having regular fights and fighting on undercards to be active are behind me,” said Zewski, who speaks with a pronounced French-Canadian accent. “This fight will be for the NABF title and the NABF will put me in the top 15 in the world. After this I feel I'm ready for a big TV fight. I told [manager Cameron Dunkin] ‘I've been waiting and you told me it's going to come.’”
Brad Goodman, a matchmaker with Top Rank, is tasked with picking opponents for Zewski. He has heard Zewski’s pleas for the big fights but also knows there is wisdom in not forcing matters in a sport where one can go from prized prospect to damaged goods in a single fight.
“I think he’s very well-schooled, he’s a guy that’s willing to fight anybody. Anybody that we’ve ever offered him he’s never turned down,” says Goodman.
“He wants to get to that next level, we're a little bit more cautious, that’s how we handle things at our company. But this year he’s going to be fighting much better and stiffer opposition.”
If Zewski seems restless, it's because he has long been hungry for the attention that comes with being a standout athlete.
Zewski was born to a Canadian mother and a father whose parents immigrated to Canada from Poland following World War II. Growing up, Zewski played various team sports, including Canada’s national sport, hockey, as well as soccer and basketball. Zewski concedes that he was a selfish player in each team sport, and the individuality of boxing best suited his personality.
Zewski's father, himself a former boxer, first brought Mikael to the boxing gym at age nine, and from there he knew he had found his calling in life.
“When I was walking up the stairways to the gym I knew I was going to walk those stairs forever,” said Zewski. “I knew this was the sport I wanted to be in.
“My Dad used to be a boxer, when he was younger he would fight in the streets but that's not my type. He had his trophy and old gloves around the house.”
Due to age restrictions, Zewski couldn't have his first fight until he was 11. As he waited for his chance to rumble, he sharpened his skills with older boys in the gym who would take advantage and beat on him. Those type of experiences often drive soft-hearted children away, but Zewski wasn't discouraged by the sight of his own blood.
“I was 9 and I was getting beaten by older guys because there weren’t any other kids my age. They were too tall and too strong for me, I was crying and my nose is bleeding. My dad would be like ‘Stop crying, next time step it up.’ I took the summer off and I came back to the gym and it was the other way around. It was great to overcome them. My dad told me I was faster and when you’re faster nothing is impossible.”
When Zewski was finally allowed to fight, he did so often, once a week at times with his father/trainer as his companion criss-crossing the Great White North in search of opposition.
By the age of 15 he was on the Canadian national team, traveling around the world. It was on one such journey – the 2009 World Amateur Boxing Championships in Italy – that the scouts began to notice him. There he defeat Cuban Olympian Carlos Banteux, finishing fifth in the welterweight division and ending his amateur career with a reported record of 132-28.
Before turning professional, Zewski signed with manager Cameron Dunkin, who at the time had been signing fighters to an upstart promotional company named TKO Promotions. Led by Texas-based businessman Chet Koerner and boxing veteran Chris Middendorf, the company had long arms and deep pockets, with an ambition for promoting small shows in fighters' hometowns to create local followings.
By the end of 2010 the company was down and out and Zewski found himself with Golden Boy Promotions. After a short run with Golden Boy, Zewski signed with Top Rank.
Boxing in Canada
Zewski has fought on big cards in Las Vegas, but says that there's nothing like fighting in front of a home crowd. Well, save for New York City, where he has fought four times.
“When there's boxing in Montreal it's always a big event,” says Zewski of the city that has spurred popular champions Stevenson, Lucian Bute and Jean Pascal in recent years. “When it's hockey it's big, but I think the Montreal, the Quebec fans are so intense, they love you or they hate you.
“In the Garden it's kinda the same kind of fans we have here, they go there for the first fights. In Las Vegas it's gonna be packed, but the fans are there for the main event, they don't care about the remaining fights. Montreal is the same as in New York, the place is packed early. Of course in Montreal it’s my crowd, here I’m already known so it's different.”
Goodman thinks there is a good chance that Zewski could develop into an attraction like the aforementioned champions in due time because of his willingness to entertain the crowd.
“He has a fan friendly style, he’s not the kind of guy thats gonna go right ou there and try to knock your block off, he thinks and sets stuff up, he works the body,” said Goodman. “What's impressive is he has that killer instinct and he doesn’t let you off the hook, and he can punch.”
Zewski stands 5-foot-11 and can set up punches with his jab and foot feints with equal effectiveness. Despite his height he is adept at using uppercuts inside and working the body and has a counter left hook that would make you think twice about letting your right hand go. He tends to wing his right hand at times but has shown he can throw it straight as an arrow in combination.
He lists Carlos Monzon, James Toney and Willie Pep as his influences, and says he admires the old-school fighters for their ability to relax under fire.
“Those guys, the fight was just like a walk in the park for them," says Zewski. “They didn't need strength coaches, they just relaxed, learned how to fight, be in control and use your jab. Now the guys need to train so hard but I feel if you can be relaxed in the ring and train hard, you’ll be your best.”
He also lists current WBO welterweight titleholder Manny Pacquiao as a guy he hopes to emulate, primarily because of his ability to entertain.
“I feel like this is a sport but this is a show, too,” he said. “If you’re a fighter and you’re not exciting you’re not going to sell. It's like if you’re a standup comic and you don’t make people laugh, you need to keep your day job. I don’t want to be a guy who wins and has a good record, undefeated, I don’t want to be just a guy. I want to be entertaining like Pacquiao. I want to give back to the fans who pay for the show and give them the show they want and be as entertaining as I can be.”
Task at hand
“He’s a tall guy, he’s probably the tallest guy I’ve ever fought, the first guy I’m fighting who will be taller than me,” Zewski said of Doku Jr., who is listed on Boxrec as being the same height. “He has a long jab, he has 12 knockouts in 18 victories so he can punch a little bit. There is not so many tapes on him.”
Doku, 27, is a Ghanaian fighter who is now based in the States. In his first fight in North America last December he was knocked out in the first round by Frankie Gomez but went the six-round distance with Jose Benavidez in March on short notice.
“I want to trap him in the ropes,” says Zewski. “I feel like Benavidez couldn’t cut the ring and make him uncomfortable because Doku was just running around. I want to get closer to him with him my jab.”
Goodman says Doku Jr. has had a full six weeks to prepare for this fight. Though he isn't considered to be the dangerous type of opponent who would give Zewski the test he's been begging to face, there is still something that can be proven in this bout.
“[Doku] is probably in the best shape of his whole career; if Mikael stops him that will be very impressive.”
Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]. An archive of his work can be found at ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.