SPORTS CORNER JCM

The Polish Puncher
by Jim Hague
Nov 17, 2009 | 3139 views | 0 0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo by Marcin Kondek/Press Chicago
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Last summer, Jersey City resident Tomasz Adamek, the current International Boxing Federation (IBF) world cruiserweight champion, defended his title at the Prudential Center in Newark against homegrown Hackensack fighter Bobby Gunn, who had a 21-3 record.

Adamek, a Polish native, used his signature speed, footwork, and jab as he scored a fourth-round technical knockout—with 8,000 adoring fans waving Polish flags and chanting his name.

For those not in the know, a cruiserweight is 169 to 175 pounds—otherwise known as a light heavyweight. The bout at “The Rock” on July 11 marked the third consecutive time Adamek had defended his world title. Now he’s making plans for a bigger payday and another title defense.

Tomasz Adamek was headed for the ring before he even left the womb. “My father told my mother before I was born that he wanted me to become a boxer,” Adamek said. “That was his dream. He had four daughters and wanted his son to box.”

Tragically, his father, Josef, didn’t live long enough to see his only son become a boxer. He was killed in a bus accident in the mountain village of Gilowice, about 40 miles from Krakow, when Tomasz was only two years old.

“I don’t remember him at all,” Adamek said. “But I wanted to make him proud.”

And he did just that, becoming a boxer at age 12: “I knew I liked it right away, but my father also wanted me to be a boxer, so I was doing it for him.”

Adamek worked his way up the amateur ranks in Poland and eventually became a professional fighter. But the opportunities for pro boxers in his country are very limited. Adamek began to get pro fights in 1996 and was a rising star in the light heavyweight ranks, when he met the late Ziggy Rozalski, an auto body repair shop owner from Jersey City.

Rozalski, also a native of Poland who arrived in Jersey City in 1973, was instrumental in bringing former heavyweight challenger Andrew Golota from Poland to the United States, giving Golota a place to stay in Jersey City. Golota fought three former heavyweight champs—Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, and Riddick Bowe.

“We did a show in Poland in 1998 and Tomasz knew about me,” said Rozalski, who owns the World Boxing and Fitness Center on Division Street in Jersey City, the training home for several up-and-coming local fighters.

“He kept calling me, saying that he knew what I did for Golota,” Rozalski said. “He said he was praying for me and saying, ‘Please help me.’ At first, I didn’t want to do it. I was busy with my body shop, doing 80 cars a week, plus I’m involved in real estate and I own the gym. I didn’t have the time. But Tomasz was such a nice guy, so I just had to help him. The only way he was going to make it was to get out of Poland.”

Adamek knew that to become a top-flight pro fighter he had to come to the U.S. Though he won all 21 of his pro fights in Poland, he had nothing to show for it—the big paydays were stateside.

“I love Poland, I love my country, but the United States is the Mecca of boxing,” Adamek said. “I knew I had to leave my family, America is where I wanted to be.”

Rozalski found him a place near his body shop, which is close to the World Boxing gym.

“It was a perfect setup for Tomasz,” Rozalski said.

He also found him a trainer—Polish native Andrew Gmitruk who has dual citizenship in Norway and Poland but for at least six months a year calls Jersey City home.

“I worked with a lot of other fighters in Poland,” Gmitruk said. “Ziggy has good contacts here and he knows everyone. But he knew that Tomasz has a very special style with good footwork and with a good jab. He also has good speed for a cruiserweight. He’s very good. He’s not like typical Europeans.”

Gmitruk had no doubts about Adamek’s boxing talents, but he was worried about transplanting a guy from the Polish mountains to the New York metropolitan area.

“I had been here before,” Gmitruk said. “Tomasz left a lot at home to come here. It wasn’t easy in his private life and social life. It’s not all about boxing. It’s a different culture, a different way of life. I knew what it was like and I also lived in Norway for 20 years, so I knew what it was like to leave my country. I was concerned for him.”

But Adamek, now 32, said that he felt comfortable in Jersey City, thanks to the hospitality of Rozalski.

“I like it here,” he said. “I have a beautiful gym to train in and I live close to the gym. It’s really nice. Jersey City is home now.”

Adamek gradually moved up the cruiserweight ranks, eventually earning a shot at Steve Cunningham’s IBF world title last December at the Prudential Center. It was the fight of the year. Adamek and Cunningham went toe to toe for 12 rounds. Adamek knocked Cunningham down four times and earned a split decision and the world title.

It didn’t take long for Adamek to become popular among local fight fans, especially in Polish communities in cities like Wallington, Clifton, Garfield, and Jersey City.

“They’ve all adopted him,” Rozalski said. “He’s their hero. It’s a great area for him, being close to New York, the capital of the world, with a lot of Polish people here.”

Said Adamek: “There are about two million Polish people in this area and they’ve taken to me, like I’m their own. I feel the support of the Polish people, in the ring, in private life. It’s not just in the ring.”

If you take a stroll through Garfield, you’ll see Adamek’s upcoming fight posters in practically every storefront. Clifton has a host of fight fans who follow Adamek’s every move. If he pays a visit to Wallington, Adamek is treated like a rock star.

“People meet me in the street and tell me that they’re so happy that I represent the Polish community,” Adamek said. “It’s the best.”

Adamek is now recognized in his new hometown of Jersey City, especially when he’s training at World Fitness. The other boxers who regularly train there wait for him to come in the door.

A little over a decade ago, a Canadian moved to Jersey City, quickly moved up the boxing ranks, and became one of the city’s own. Now, Adamek is becoming like the next Arturo Gatti. He’s the top fighter with Main Events, the organization that managed the late Gatti’s career during his heyday.

“Maybe I can be even more popular than him,” Adamek said. “You never know.”

He certainly has a legion of followers, who were in full force in February when he successfully defended his title at the Prudential Center against previously undefeated Johnathon Banks, knocking him out in the eighth round to bring his record to an amazing 37-1.

“I like when the fans get excited for me,” Adamek said. “I’ve been there so many times that it feels like home. I want them to leave with the same results as before. It’s safe to say that I do like it here.”

After fighting Gunn, Adamek is ready for the next step. He wants a bigger payday, facing someone like Bernard Hopkins or Roy Jones, Jr. Negotiations with the major cable networks like HBO are already underway for a possible bout with Hopkins, perhaps in January. Maybe a rematch with Cunningham. Maybe even a showdown with heavyweight champ Vitaly Klitchkow.

“I want to have the biggest fights in the world,” Adamek said. “I’m ready for the big fights.”

Rozalski said that once Adamek steps away from the ring, he’s done promoting fighters.

“He’s the last one,” Rozalski said. “I’m not getting involved anymore. We finally have a Polish world champion.”

And Jersey City has a new boxing hero.—JCM
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