Izuagbe Ugonoh: A Pole position like no other
Izuagbe Ugonoh’s first small step in America could be a giant leap in his career, attempting to rocket into title consideration on prime time tonight as the opener for Deontay Wilder’s WBC heavyweight title defense against Gerald Washington on FOX (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT). The heavyweight hopeful is one of boxing’s striking paradoxes given his unique background. An outlier as the only black heavyweight born and raised in Poland (his parents are Nigerian but Izuagbe proudly nicknamed and declares himself “The Black Pole”), he is now following a title path pioneered by fellow Polish heavyweights Tomasz Adamek and Andrew Golota, a road that lead all of them to the U.S.A. to launch title challenges and one Artur Szpilka traveled more recently, with less success. It is with excitement, and perhaps a little trepidation, given his unknowns, that Ugonoh makes his American debut against recent world title challenger Dominic Breazeale.
Ugonoh stands a perfectly proportioned and chiseled 6-foot-5, usually entering the ring at 230 pounds, with an 84-inch reach of which NBA players would be envious. He has learned his craft and matured off the radar; his first nine bouts took place in Poland before taking his act on the road, landing in New Zealand. There, Ugonoh was noticed for pushing current WBO champion Joseph Parker (Ugonoh has also been part of Wladimir Klitschko’s strict training camps) hard as his main sparring partner and probably needed that confidence booster, having never had an amateur boxing bout. Originally, Ugonoh was a martial artist and world champion kickboxer on the K-1 circuit. He has obviously made the transition to boxing well, scoring 14 stoppages in 17 victories.
At age 30, Ugonoh has again decided to test himself moving to Las Vegas and signing with influential kingpin Al Haymon. It was easy decision for an educated Ugonoh, who graduated from Gdansk University and is fluent in English, his native Polish, as well as a Nigerian tribal dialect to add to his conversational Russian. Now, his concentration is on breaking out of his role as a coveted sparring partner and prospect to a legitimate contender in the rapidly evolving heavyweight division. Ugonoh seemed content at the final press conference, “I am well prepared for this fight. I have been patient in learning my craft over the past two years and waiting for my opportunity. I believe that this is my year. I have a path to the world championship right in front of me and it starts with Dominic Breazeale on Saturday night.”
When watching Ugonoh, you are immediately drawn in and awed by his big right hand but, if watching for more than highlight reel KOs, a timely jab that is routinely doubled and tripled in the course of a round impresses as well. A jab made doubly dangerous, given his hand-speed, and it is a sign of his ambition that Ugonoh watches boxers like Errol Spence Jr. and unified middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin to emulate instead of heavyweights. He also pays more attention to body work than most prospects, really dipping and digging when he sees an opening worth taking a chance on. If Ugonoh can employ those attributes consistently at a higher level, this will be revealed against a capable Dominic Breazeale.
His team is cognizant of making the best use of Ugonoh’s near-perfect size. Trainer Kevin Barry (who just guided Joseph Parker to a heavyweight title and worked with David Tua) noted he wants to employ it to maximum effect like Lennox Lewis did, to create space with his legs and then fill the void with a ramrod jab or lead right. Barry told Bob Velin of USA Today, “I’m excited about this young guy, with his charisma and his looks. He’s a model-looking guy with brains, charisma, personality. He can fight like hell and he can go to the body better than any heavyweight in the world. We’ve spent the last two years working on his skills, developing him, and he’s been destroying the people we’ve put in front of him.”
Of course, Ugonoh is not perfect nor anything near the finished product. He still has a lot of catching up to do, given his lack of elite preparation at the amateur level. His mental strength is not to be questioned, however. Ugonoh is used to overcoming challenges as the only black person growing up in his region, never mind neighborhood, often having to fight for respect in a literal manner, given the communist-era Poland he experienced. A reflective Ugonoh said the experience made him who he is today, inside and out of the ring. “Because of the history of the country and all the oppression that has happened, it shaped people’s mentality.”
Given his iconoclast background, Ugonoh has a noticeable aura and is filled with ambition and exuberance, which has garnered him a sizable fan following in Poland and New Zealand. He appeared on the Polish version of “Dancing With the Stars,” making it to the semi-finals (appearing in eight of the 10 episodes), which he believes has helped him inside the ring. “It was a lot of work. I trained for 35 hours a week to dance for one minute 15 seconds on the show.” Ugonoh said with a rather ironic smile. “Dancing was more work than boxing. People laugh when I say that because they think I’m joking but it was as much work as training camp. One of the key benefits is it improved my footwork in the ring.”
Ugonoh’s focus has obviously shifted back to boxing over the last 10 weeks of his training camp for this important American debut. A self-assured Ugonoh says it has been the best camp of his career, which he believes represents the start of his rise to a title. “If I do what I’m supposed to do, I can see myself fighting for a world championship in the next 18 months. This is my moment and 2017 is my year. I want to challenge myself and show the world how good I am. I believe the heavyweight division is wide open right now and the top fighters are going to bring the best out of me.”
For that to happen, Ugonoh will have to overcome a motivated Dominic Breazeale, who fell short in his title challenge against IBF titleholder Anthony Joshua but put up a spirited fight. A defiant loss can make a boxer better and that is what Breazeale’s team is counting on to climb back up the rankings by taking on a tough challenge like Ugonoh. Breazeale’s confidence did not take a hit from his loss, “I’m going to give a boxing lesson. I’m going to throw the jab and pop the right hand and hopefully I can get the knockout I’m looking for. Training camp went really well. We had a hard 10 weeks and I’m in fantastic shape. I’m looking to put on a great performance and give the fans what they want to see.”
That large American audience is something Ugonoh is in tune with, as well, and motivates the ambitious Pole to put forth a great first impression. “I’m looking forward to displaying my skills and letting the U.S. boxing fans get a look at what I’m bringing to the heavyweight division. I know this is a big stage and I’m very excited to be here. Dominic Breazeale is a tough opponent but he is also the kind of boxer that will allow me to put on an entertaining show for the fans. The heavyweight division is on fire at the moment and I want in! On Saturday night, everyone will know who I am.”
One audience member Ugonoh may not have to win over is boxing insider Lou DiBella, who has watched him with interest from afar, to this point. “Izu is a big, physically imposing, strong heavyweight who, while virtually unknown here, has developed a reputation abroad.” Now, DiBella is intrigued to see if Ugonoh can bring those kind of performances to a bigger stage, “In his first fight on American soil, he will take on a legitimate heavyweight contender and world title challenger in Dominic Breazeale. We’re going to find out whether Izu is the real thing, if he’s able to shine, if the mystery man is an immediate factor in the heavyweight division.”
Most everyone is of the mind that this fight represents a make-or-break moment for Ugonoh, given the current upheaval and level of competition at heavyweight. Kevin Barry’s last gamble paid off with Joseph Parker winning the WBO title and he wants Ugonoh to deliver on his potential. “Now it’s Izu’s time to create his own path that takes him to a world title. He’s a very gifted fighter, a young man who’s very intelligent, who learns very well. He studies the game. He takes to the part and understands it. Over the last two years, his hand speed, his foot speed and his repertoire of skills have improved enormously.”
Tom Brown of TGB Promotions, who co-promotes this card and represents Dominic Breazeale, gave a quality evaluation of the task that lies ahead for both men. Saying of the pairing, “(Ugonoh’s) a big, strong athletic heavyweight with good power but Dominic isn’t a pushover. Plus, he is coming off his first loss. He is in a make-or-break type fight. It’s the classic case of a guy with something to prove against a guy with a lot to lose.” Ugonoh joked about the contrast of his skin color and traditional Polish upbringing in his most recent press conference, saying, when he looks in the mirror, he doesn’t ask, “What happened?”
And that’s exactly what Ugonoh hopes Dominic Breazeale will be asking himself tomorrow morning.