Poles have their champion
Cruiserweight champ Tomasz Adamek (right), here cracking Steve Cunningham with a right cross during his title-winning victory last December, has replaced Andrew Golota as Poland's most popular boxer. Photo / Dan Waters-Hoganphotos.com
In the 1990s, on certain Sundays, the lights in homes throughout Poland would suddenly go on in the wee hours of the morning. This was when former heavyweight contender Andrew Golota fought during prime time in the U.S., often for a world title.
So the Poles watched on television. And hoped. And almost invariably were disappointed. The talented hulk lost his composure in his biggest fights and never won a championship.
Enter Tomasz Adamek. The small-town boy from the mountains of southern Poland, now 32, isn’t a bigger-than-life heavyweight with superhuman strength, as Golota was. However, in almost every other way, Adamek seems to have surpassed his ill-fated predecessor.
Golota had issues with the law; Adamek is a devoutly religious family man. Golota could be surly; Adamek is approachable. Golota fell apart in the ring when things got tough; Adamek is unflappable. And Golota could never bring home a major belt; Adamek has claimed two.
And for that, Polish fans both in the U.S. and back home seem to embrace him.
“When Andrew was fighting, people would get up at 4, 5 in the morning to watch him,” said Mateusz Borek, a broadcaster with Polsat TV in Poland who is in the U.S. for Adamek’s fight against Johnathon Banks on Friday in Newark, N.J. “Everybody woke up when he fought. And they waited and waited and waited for a championship belt. It didn’t happen.
“ÔÇª So we were still waiting for a Polish champion. And now we have one, Tomasz Adamek.”
Adamek (36-1, 24 knockouts) isn’t a newcomer. His break-out performance was a hard-fought majority decision over Paul Briggs for the vacant WBC light heavyweight title in 2005 in Chicago, which has the largest Polish population in the U.S.
However, his split-decision victory over favored Steve Cunningham in an unforgettable brawl to win THE RING cruiserweight championship and IBF title last December in Newark seems to have put him over the top among Polish fans.
And it wasn’t just that he won. It was how he won.
In his lowest moments, in 1996, Golota responded to adversity in two fights against Riddick Bowe by purposely landing blows below the belt and getting disqualified. Against Cunningham, Adamek, as tough as anyone, absorbed brutal punishment but responded by putting Cunningham down three times to pull out a victory.
The Poles who have followed the careers of their two most-accomplished professionals say a fighter who could combine Adamek’s heart with Golota’s skill would be a 10-time world champion.
Adamek has been called the Polish version of Arturo Gatti, a comparison with which he’s not entirely comfortable but one that might be apt.
“Tomasz says he doesn’t want to be another Gatti, that he wants to be Tomasz Adamek,” said Przemek Garczarczyk, Adamek’s publicist and a longtime boxing writer. “He has that never-say-die spirit that Poles love – that everybody loves, not just Poles.
“Johnathon Banks has said himself that he always loved to watch Adamek fight because of the way he fights, never thinking he would face him in the ring.”
Polish-Americans apparently are sold on Adamek, particularly after he recently moved his wife and two daughters to New Jersey. Tickets for the Banks fight reportedly are selling much faster than they did before the Cunningham fight.
And although soccer will always reign supreme back in Poland, Borek said, fans there are currently disillusioned with a relatively weak team (No. 28 in the world) and rampant corruption in the soccer program.
That leaves a sizeable opening for such a successful international athlete as Adamek.
“He’s a world champion. The people appreciate that,” Borek said.
The Polish media have taken notice.
Major television networks in Poland and those based in Chicago sent crews to Newark late last week to follow Adamek’s every move leading up to the Banks fight, including the presentation of THE RING belt on Saturday at a restaurant in North Bergen, N.J.
THE RING magazine Editor Nigel Collins said the event, which included Adamek’s family and friends, made it clear how important the fighter is to his countrymen.
“One moment struck me as memorable,” Collins said. “After the formal stuff was over with and people were milling around, hobnobbing, talking, a guy broke into an a cappella version of the Polish national anthem. Everybody stopped to listen and gave him a rousing applause when he was finished.
“It was a cool moment.”
Golota and Adamek weren’t the first important Polish boxers.
In the 1950s, ’60s and into the ’70s, Polish amateurs were among the most dominating in the world. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, for example, Poles won seven medals (three gold), second only to the Soviets.
However, today, that amateur program is in shambles for lack of funding and direction. That could mean that not many more Polish fighters as accomplished as Adamek and fellow cruiserweight contender Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, 27, will be coming onto the scene.
“Adamek might be the last of the Mohicans,” Borek said with a giggle in his thick Polish accent.
In the meantime, lights across Poland will be switched on in the early-morning hours Saturday to watch their champion take on Banks. Only with this native son, they know he will either win or go down trying.
Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]