Albanian heavyweight Kristian Prenga is making his mark in America with heavy hands
There are some boxers who perform all of the punching mechanics correctly, but couldn’t bust a grape in a food fight. Then there are those who were born with dynamite in their hands, and only find out once they stumble upon the sport.
Kristian Prenga fits into the latter category. The Albanian heavyweight has a fear-inspiring record of 12-1 (12 knockouts), but his formidability extends beyond what’s on paper. The legitimacy of his punching power is something that sparring partners have quickly realized.
“There’s a lot of times where I punch them right on the forehead and then the boxers complain that they got hit on the back of the head,” said Prenga, a 6’5”, 250-pound big man.
Trainer Muhammad Abdul Salaam says there is usually no problem getting people to spar with the 32-year-old Prenga. His friendly personality and unassuming shadowboxing is disarming, but the shock his sparring partners experience makes it tough to get repeat sessions.
“If he was 120 pounds he would still have that power. It’s just in his genetics. It’s gotta be God given,” said Abdul Salaam.
Prenga will look to demonstrate that power once again this Saturday, March 25 when he faces Samuel Crossed (11-3-1, 7 KOs) in the ten-round main event of the Rising Star Promotions card at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
Prenga says he knows little about his opponent, a 35-year-old from Maryland who has fought exclusively as a cruiserweight. His biggest platform so far was a November 2021 matchup with current WBC cruiserweight titleholder Badou Jack in Dubai, where he lost by second round knockout.
If Prenga’s power has any roots in his upbringing, it may have come from his childhood growing up in Orosh, Albania. There in the small village in the country’s northern section, he helped his father collect lumber from the forest to keep food on the table.
He gravitated towards combat sports as a teenager, beginning with Taekwondo before trying out kickboxing as a 20-year-old. Prenga had about 40 kickboxing fights, winning European championships in 2016 and 2017, but realized early on that his passion was for The Sweet Science.
He had his first pro boxing fight in 2016, and won his first four fights in Germany. Without the advice of a manager, Prenga accepted a rematch against Giovanni Auriemma, whom he had previously stopped in four rounds in Auriemma’s home country of the Netherlands. This time, the bout went the eight-round distance, and Prenga suffered a broken right hand. The referee, who was also the lone judge, gave the fight to Auriemma in a decision that Prenga still disputes.
“I messed up his face, he was bleeding. He’s not doing anything. Maybe because in his country they gave him the decision even though he looked like he was in a bad car accident,” said Prenga.
The loss did not deter Lennox Lewis from showing interest in Prenga. The heavyweight boxing legend was working with a Canadian promotional company, Global Legacy Boxing, and offered Prenga a fight in Canada just four months later. Prenga relocated to Canada and won five fights there.
Prenga took advantage of the opportunity to soak up advice from the former undisputed heavyweight champion.
“One piece of advice that stuck with me is he told me you’ve gotta be like a fisherman. You have to be patient in boxing. You throw the hook in when you go fishing and you just leave it there and wait for the fish to come to you. You have to wait for the right moment for the catch,” said Prenga.
Lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, plus the lack of local sparring partners, convinced Prenga to look towards the United States for greater opportunities.
It’s there where he linked up with Abdul Salaam, who trains him out of the Lyndhurst Boxing Gym in Lyndhurst, N.J. Abdul Salaam, who previously trained Vito Mielnicki Jr., has worked for the past year and a half on preparing Prenga for the next level of the sport.
“It wasn’t that he was stiff, he was too much all over the place. We had to tighten him up. He’s a great athlete. He was using the athleticism too much instead of sitting on some of the punches,” said Abdul Salaam.
“He’s coming along faster than I thought, but there’s still a lot to clean up. But the one thing is that he’s willing to learn. You have to chase him out of the gym.”
Saturday’s fight will be his third in America, a feat he has accomplished without the benefit of a promoter or manager. Prenga has become one of the biggest local ticket sellers in New Jersey boxing thanks to the support he receives from the Albanian community, which packs ballrooms to watch his fights.
“All Albanians, we support one another. The fact that back home everybody knew my name and knew of me and how much I want to make them all proud, when I came here it was easier for them to support me,” said Prenga.
Among those supporters is Elvir Muriqi, a former light heavyweight contender who had once been the most popular Albanian fighter in America during his ascension two decades ago. He isn’t surprised that Prenga has caught on with his compatriots this quickly.
“Albanian people will embrace you if you are respectful person, a stand up person, patriotic and a gentleman, and that’s what KP is,” said Muriqi. “He is a hard worker, he is a talented fighter and very powerful. I think with his self belief he will go far.”
Abdul Salaam believes Prenga is right in his physical prime, and wants him to continue fighting as often as possible to stave off and continue his development.
For now, Prenga is heeding the advice he received from Lewis, being the patient fisherman in his career, waiting for the right time to reel in a big heavyweight opponent.
“I can be ready as soon as tomorrow. I’m not afraid to go in front of anyone, I just want to build my experience a little more. Maybe a year, maybe a little sooner than that, but I’m looking forward to fighting the top guys,” said Prenga.
Ryan Songalia has written for ESPN, the New York Daily News, Rappler and The Guardian, and is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected].