A Polish guy with Nigerian parents walks into a gym in New Zealand….it sounds like the beginnings of a good joke but it is merely proof once again how the sport of boxing can uplift a fighter from everything they know and transport them halfway around the world as they seek to take their tools of trade on the road, mapping out a journey to championship belts and a better life.
I meet Polish Heavyweight fighter Izu (pronounced ‘E-zoo’) Ugonoh at a boxing gym in East Auckland as he prepares to take on the ever dangerous ‘TBA’ as one of the featured undercard bouts for the upcoming Joseph Parker/Sherman Williams fight at Trusts Stadium on October 16th.
Ugonoh is a former kickboxing champion who has dabbled in boxing since 2010 compiling a 9-0 record in the process. However as James Toney once famously remarked, “you can play other sports but you can’t play boxing” and it is perhaps that colonel of truth that has seen Ugonoh pass on a career in kickboxing to focus solely on science of pugilism having now moved to Las Vegas and seeking out Kevin Barry to train him.
I ask Izu, who proudly fights under the moniker ‘The Black Pole’ how different it is to move from the glacial blasts of Poland to the suffocating arid heat of Nevada. Does the sunshine and warmth compensate for missing his family and leaving behind everything he has come to know? Or does being raised in a Polish culture so massively different from his family origins of Nigeria already embed in him a kind of gypsy DNA that makes him adaptable to change?
The heat he says has taken some getting used to, swapping snow for sun. He remarks that he naturally misses his family but he also understands the importance of the moment and embracing life’s opportunities when they are on offer. He doesn’t want his story to be one of regret and chances not taken. The notion of being the best you can be is something he mentions several times over the course of our conversation. Moving to such a completely different part of the world in order to chase his dreams is something of a no-brainer.
Standing 6,4” he possesses the type of height almost mandatory by today’s heavyweight standards and lending him a not dissimilar appearance to that of a more muscular version of Paul Williams. His height and leaner muscle has already seen him tabbed by Bermane Stiverne’s camp as a potential sparring partner in preparation for the Deontay Wilder fight should it get finalized.
And while there is a lot to learn about striking, foot work and ring generalship one has to assume that some of the components that made for a successful career in kickboxing will transition handily over to the fists-only variety. Certainly the athleticism and foot speed will be useful in the big man’s division.
I ask Izu what was it that made him decide to finally take the leap into boxing fulltime. Is it the lure of better financial inducements, a wider variety of fight opportunities or just a greater passion for the sport? A greater passion for the sport is his answer which doesn’t seem surprising as Izu appears to be nothing if not a passionate individual.
Often the need to fight emanates from a dark place, sometimes even a place of weakness as Mike Tyson’s story illustrates, that of a bullied child that learned to fight as a coping mechanism. Was this the case with Izu? Did the strangeness of growing up so distinctly different to the other children around him have any bearing on his desire to fight? Did schoolyard taunts and brawls find their outlet in combat sports?
He answers yes to this but is also quick to add that times have changed markedly in Poland and there now exists a far greater tolerance of different cultures and ethnicities. It’s why he proudly fights as Polish and is keen to represent and extend Poland’s illustrious history in the sport of boxing.
Whilst for the longest time when America remained the standard bearer of the sport there often seemed to be a well worn formula for identifying a prospective young talent: Find a kid from the projects, dirt poor and hungry, uneducated but with a fire within, a fire to fight their way out of their current circumstances to a better life. This narrative of rags to riches certainly holds true for Floyd Mayweather the current king of sport, as well as many other notable American fighters. But then perhaps it holds just as true to many of the Latino, Puerto Ricans and Filipino fighters to have also excelled in the sport.
Most notably in Eastern Europe in recent years a different type of trend in the sport has been emerging. Quality boxers have begun to surface who are often multilingual and highly educated. The Klitschko brothers both famously have doctorate degrees; while ex-WBA Light Heavyweight champ Beibut Shumenov is a qualified lawyer. Ugonoh also holds a degree in professional education and sport and speaks two languages. What it does demonstrate is just how cerebral the sport is, and while an internal fire is an important component, it isn’t the only component for success.
I ask him then where does the motivation come from? Holding a degree as well as media opportunities (already having had a cameo part in a Polish film,) why put himself through it? Surely the punishment of ring can’t be fun?
In his answer we return to the theme of no regrets and of wanting to extract every ounce of talent he has before it is too late and life’s pathway takes him on other journeys.
Izu puts it simply, “There is a time to do those other things but my time to box is now.”
In boxing like any business you need only follow the money to get a feel as to what directions the sport is moving in and in boxing the industry’s primary mover and shaker right now is Al Haymon. Haymon is already in charge of Light Heavyweight Andrzej Fonfara’s career as well as recently signing two additional Polish prospects Featherweight Kamil Laszczyk and Junior Middleweight Patryk Szymanski. Whilst in the past the likes of Andrew Golota and Tomasz Adamek have fought in America with a strong Polish support base, now along with other Eastern European counties such as Russia and the Ukraine, fighters from the old Soviet Bloc are beginning to flourish in niche markets such as Germany and Canada. Haymon’s recent signings indicate that a reboot of the American market may not be far behind. Could this see an endorsement of more Polish fighters?
Certainly with the market now lying wide open a Polish Heavyweight with potential would be a welcome addition to the division. The time spent sparring with the likes of Bermane and Parker can only help but accelerate the learning curve and help hone his technique. To be the best you have to face the best.
Like other kick boxers and mixed martial arts fighters before him there is a lot to learn and a lot to unlearn, something Ugonoh is working overtime with trainer Kevin Barry on, looking to absorb his knowledge and experience. The learning curve will be steep, there will be nowhere to hide but that’s the way he likes it.
Boxing has its own unique way of throwing up these characters of interest, international travellers who tell their story in the ring without smoke and mirrors or special effects. It is as it has always been, two men in a ring, a referee and the Marquis of Queensberry rules. And you feel that only in a sport like boxing would you find a Nigerian Pole fighting for his future in a place like Auckland, New Zealand. We engage not just in the sport to hear the bell ring and watch their fists fly but to also learn more about the men who engage in this strangest of occupations.