Fritz Sdunek: a boxing life
I have just returned from a trip to Germany that sadly coincided with the unexpected death of legendary German trainer Fritz Sdunek. The sudden passing of this boxing icon made national news; it did not just lead the sports section of evening news shows on ARD and ZDF networks (German equivalent of ABC, CBS or NBC) but the national news portion in the first few minutes of each telecast. It was a true show of respect on behalf of everyone in Germany for Sdunek, commonly referred to as “Papa Fritz” by the multitude of world-class boxers he trained and guided in decision-making beyond the ring. Even in the world of elite trainers, Sdunek was unique for guiding boxers to Olympic glory as well as professional championships. The void in knowledge, good will and experience left by Sdunek’s passing will be felt throughout German boxing for a long time.
Sdunek’s values and teachings will live on through the multitude of boxers, at various levels, whom Sdunek inspired throughout his career. Condolences on Sdunek’s premature passing (at age 67 of a heart attack, with no prior signs after successfully beating cancer in the past) of poured in. His most famous pupils, Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko (whom he guided from their pro debuts) told German media, “We will be thankful to him forever. To us, his death is a giant personal loss. Fritz was our first and most important mentor.” Felix Sturm echoed their thoughts, “Words can’t express this pain; Fritz I will never forget you.” Another of Sdunek’s world champions, Dariusz Michaelczewski said, “I cried. We were best friends and partners; he was a father for me.” Former heavyweight champion Ruslan Chagaev was similarly moved, “Fritz was not only the best boxing coach Germany has ever seen but also – and foremost – a great and unique human being and a role model in all aspects of life.” In many aspects, Sdunek, along with rival trainer Ulli Wegner, was the modern father of boxing in Germany.
If Vitali Klitschko was two bolts in the neck away from being a modern-day boxing Frankenstein Monster, as many American boxing writers liked to claim, then trainer Fritz Sdunek will be remembered as the genius behind the creation of the destructive monster. The man controlling the lightning contributive to renanimation was Sdunek, a soft-spoken father of two, who preferred to stay in the background and teach.
Talk to boxing experts on this side of the Atlantic Ocean and many say the European boxer and his “stand-up” style is inferior to the American or Latin brand. If true, this should do even more to elevate Sdunek’s reputation for what he achieved. Of course, both statements are oversimplifications. Sdunek was a versatile trainer, easily incorporating his methods and training techniques to the salsa-flavored rhythms of Cuban amateur Juan Carlos Gomez. Sdunek trained the Cuban expatriate from his debut through 10 defenses of the WBC cruiserweight title in the 1990s. Gomez did not hesitate in crediting Sdunek for his improvements and rapid rise to the title, “He made me a champion and was a like a father to me.”
Perhaps Fritz Sdunek will never be fully appreciated in America, mostly because he refused to send his boxers out in search of one-round knockouts. He taught patience and subtle skills that were likely to prolong a fight until a thoroughly beaten and frustrated opponent was given relief by a final coup de grâce. That should be viewed as a good thing since it gives time for the boxers to display the cleverness Sdunek ingrained into them, something not valued by today’s culture seeking instant gratification. It was valued by his champions, which included both Klitschko brothers, Michalczewski, Gomez, Grigory Drozd, Denis Boytsov, Ralf Rocchigiani, Károly Balzsay, Sturm, Zsolt Erdei, Sebastian Zbik, Akhmed Kotiev and Artur Grigorian.
It sounds strange but Fritz Sdunek was the Julio Iglesias of boxing. Like the famed Hispanic crooner (who picked up a guitar after a car accident prevented him fulfilling goaltendingduties with a Madrid soccer team), it was as a goalkeeper that Sdunek wanted to make his mark on the world. Instead, we have a drunk German to thank for delivering Sdunek to boxing. Fritz’s hidden talents were discovered after an East German boxer saw him knock out a drunk fan during a soccer match-turned-brawl. The interested bystander invited Sdunek to the boxing gym to expand on his skills. The rest, as they say, is boxing history. Sdunek became an amateur champion, boxing for his hometown club of BSG Lokomotive Greifswald from 1969 to 1972, where he won 99 of 129 bouts.
After retiring from active boxing, Sdunek started teaching others his philosophies on boxing. Sdunek’s first training success came in 1988, guiding East German lightweight Andreas Zülow to an Olympic gold medal win in Seoul, South Korea. Fritz was also an instrumental part of Henry Maske taking the gold medal at light heavyweight and Andreas Tews winning the flyweight silver medal at the same Olympics. Many Germans believe, as was the case with Roy Jones Jr. in the same Olympics, that Tews deserved to win against hometown boy Kim Kwang Sun. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of the two German nations, Sdunek moved his family to coach what became Germany’s most successful amateur boxing team at Bayer Leverkusen.
For a short period from 1991 to 1992, Sdunek left his beloved homeland, taking over as head trainer for the Netherlands national team. There, he took a team that had achieved virtually nothing to coaching up Arnold Vanderlijde to a bronze medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where Vamderlijde defeated future pro David Tua. Vanderlijide also won a silver medal at the 1991 World Amateur Championships; only Cuban legend Felix Savon prevented him from gaining the first world title for a boxer from the Netherlands. In 1993, Sdunek returned home and took over as the trainer of the national team for a short period. There he influenced fine amateurs like Marco Rudolph (best known for being the last man to beat Oscar De La Hoya in the amateurs) and Andreas Otto, as well as future pro title contenders Oktay Urkal, Zoltan Lunka, Markus Beyer and Thomas Ulrich.
During his time as amateur coach, Sdunek met and became mentor (as well as friend) to Dariusz Michalczewski. Ultimately, Michalczewski helped Sdunek, repaying his amateur debt by recommending him to Universum Box-Promotion, Germany’s largest and most influential promotional company. In 1994, Fritz began working with Universum’s stable of boxers in the pro ranks, taking on the unenviable job of bringing refinement to Ralf Rocchigiani. Fritz did his job expertly and was recognized for taking Rocchigiani to a WBO cruiserweight title. Rocchigiani readily admits, “Without him, I would never have made it.”
Sdunek was then given the huge responsibility of molding Universum’s prize signings from the 1996 Olympics, two talented, young Ukrainian brothers with aspirations of sharing the world heavyweight title. While there were bumps in the road (namely Chris Byrd for Vitali and Lamon Brewster for Wladimir), it is hard to argue against the success Fritz achieved with two brothers sporting different boxing techniques. Sdunek also showed class when asked to step aside after Universum brought in American trainers Emanuel Steward, Freddie Roach and Tommy Brooks to “refine” the Klitschko brothers. Sdunek never interfered with the new training regimes or methods taught to his prize pupils, choosing to assist and learn from the American trainers instead.
Vitali Klitschko returned to train solely with Sdunek and it is hard to argue that he did not look better after his attention was no longer divided by other trainers. However, when the Klitschkos left Universum Box-Promotion to promote themselves, it became a moral dilemma for Sdunek. At one point, Universum asked Sdunek to choose between the two. When it became clear Sdunek would choose people over a promotional company, Universum (who he never had a signed contract with) backed off and allowed Sdunek to remain Vitali Klitschko’s head trainer, even as the Klitschkos and Universum exchanged unpleasantries through lawyers.
Boxing insiders in America took notice of Sdunek when he came to America with the Klitschkos. Muhammad Ali’s former manager (from 1968 to 1980), Gene Kilroy liked what he saw,“[Sdunek] is a jewel, the big star behind the stars. Without him, the Klitschkos and Michalczewski would not be where they are.” Hall of Fame trainer Steward was not shy about praising his associate (and sometime training partner) either. “Sdunek is very proficient in his area, which is a lot of the physical things, the conditioning as well as techniques. I have actually learned a lot of things from him as far as the physical things I had never delved into myself.”
For a time, the German boxing community worried Sdunek would be poached by the American boxing enterprise. When asked about the subject at a press conference, Sdunek calmed fears, “Hamburg is holy to me and I would never leave my boys in a bind.” Sdunek did take one idea back to Germany from America: white-collar boxing and Sdunek actively endorsed and gave seminars on the subject. Calling up and offering employment to some of his retired boxing students to train company presidents and housewives in the finer points of fitness and mental strength through boxing.
From barren East German boxing academies during the Cold War to teaching executives at Mercedes Benz and BMW in state-of-the-art gyms how to throw left hooks, Sdunek happily thrived in any environment. The body is gone but the boxing and teaching philosophies of which Sdunek (as with other great trainers of the past) molded his students will live on as long as boxing does.