By Mitch Abramson
It was a rare moment in a boxer’s career. Pawel Wolak and Delvin Rodriguez were both being honored for their dramatic fight on July 15. The charitable boxing organization, Ring 8, presented them with a 2011 “Fight of the Year” award at the annual awards luncheon on Dec. 18. There was just one glitch, however: only one-half of the award-winning duo bothered to show, with Wolak not attending. While he was flattered to garner such an honor, Wolak wasn’t in the mood to attend a boxing function. Just two weeks prior, Wolak stunned the boxing community by announcing his retirement from the sport, releasing a statement on his Facebook page and Twitter account.
The announcement came just four days after he lost a one-sided decision to Rodriguez in a rematch of their summer thriller on Dec. 3 at Madison Square Garden. It was a disappointing performance for Wolak, who seemed subdued, and didn’t have his usual intensity. Wolak (29-2-1, 19 knockouts) has kept a low profile since, sleeking back into the shadows, leaving it to others to surmise why someone who was still in their athletic prime would abruptly walk away. But on Thursday, in his first public comments since his retirement, Wolak spoke to BoxingScene about his announcement, providing a window and timeline into his decision to walk away from a sport that had brought him legions of fans and only recently had made him famous.
In the end, he says, he just didn’t have the fire to box anymore, a conclusion he reached back in training camp while he was preparing for the second fight with Rodriguez.
“The will to destroy my opponent just wasn’t there anymore,” he says.
And he understood it again when he was sitting in the corner in between rounds on Dec. 3. Instead of boiling with anticipation, he felt numb. He didn’t want to be there. While his trainer, Tommy Brooks was imploring him to throw more punches between rounds, Wolak felt strangely detached from the situation.
“I was just sitting in the corner. I understood the words but the fire wasn’t there anymore,” he told Boxingscene. “I was just disinterested. It was strange. My style isn’t pretty. I’m not the most athletic fighter there is. I’m not a Mayweather where I can rely on my talent. I’m not the hardest hitting guy. I’m a guy that relies on my guts and courage. If you hit me twice, I’m going to hit you three times. And it wasn’t there that night. I was just throwing one-punch combinations. And I don’t fight that way.
“If my heart isn’t in this then what am I doing this for?” he went on. “My heart has to be in it. And I just don’t have that desire anymore.”
He wasn’t injured, or sick with the flue, or going though some personal turmoil. To his credit, he never tried to sugarcoat his performance with an excuse to buy him sympathy.
No, while Wolak was sitting in the corner round after round, listening to Brooks, his life couldn’t have been better outside the ring. And that, he admits, with a laugh, could have been his undoing in a boxing ring. Outside of boxing, Wolak had grown comfortable, with his family, with his job as a construction worker. He was happy, and it was dulling the primal urge a boxer needs to hurt another human being in the ring, he says. He had fallen victim to the spoils of the good life, something Marvelous Marvin Hagler once colorfully explained, relating the labors of roadwork with sleeping in satin sheets.
“Life has been pretty good- outside of boxing,” Wolak says. “I’m married. I have a nice son. I live in a nice house in a nice community. I just turned 30. Everything is going the way it’s supposed to be going for someone who’s in my situation. I make good money at work. I have no enemies. There’s no turmoil in my life, and I think I just got comfortable. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing to be a boxer. A lot of fighters live a very turbulent lifestyle and that works for them. And for me, I don’t live my life that way. I’m very easygoing.”
So in the week after he lost to Rodriguez, Wolak sat at home and tried to figure out what went wrong in the fight. He tried to work out in his mind why he didn’t have the same passion to mull an opponent that he did in his previous fights. He tried to figure out why he didn’t train for the fight with his usual intensity and dedication. He was tired of the daily grind of boxing, he concluded. He didn’t have the same passion for the sport, anymore. It was something he felt as a wrestler in high school after his last match. He was relieved more than upset. He had grown sick of wrestling, of having to rise early in the morning to lift weights before school, of having to go to wrestling practice after classes, of having to lose weight for matches, of having to skip parties and hang out with friends to focus on wrestling. It had gotten that way with boxing, he says.
“That’s the only thing that I could compare it to,” he said. “The way I felt at the end of my wrestling career is how I feel with boxing.”
During his rise up the boxing ranks, Wolak, who started boxing when he was 18, never had a problem with motivation. He was always in supreme shape. He was a pressure fighter, running headfirst into the punches of his opponent to deliver his own. Sometimes the style worked, as when he stunned the former junior middleweight titlist Yuri Foreman. And sometimes it didn’t, like when he was beaten by Ishe Smith.
But Wolak, a junior middleweight for most of his career, was always ready to engage, slapping his gloves together in the corner, eagerly anticipating the start of the next round. And most observers agree, he got the most out of his talents and was able to find success through sheer will and force of his personality. He fought the second-half of his bout with Rodriguez on July 15 nearly blind, his right eye completely shut from a grotesque hematoma that distorted the entire side of his face. It didn’t matter. He fought as if he was being pushed across the ring by a huge breeze at his back, stalking Rodriguez for the duration of the bout. The fight was ruled a majority draw, and earned both men “Fight of the Year” honors from Ring 8, as well as from Sports Illustrated, an award that Wolak calls “bittersweet” because of his decision to retire.
“I didn’t go to the Ring 8 awards,” he says. “I’m just trying to get away from boxing right now. I don’t read about boxing anymore. It’s been three weeks, and I’m just trying to get away from it. I know it’s a great honor to win that award. But I just didn’t want to deal with all the people who would have been asking me about why I retired. I just didn’t want to deal with that.”
He still works out at a local gym near his home in Warren County, N.J. And he hasn’t shut the door completely on a comeback in boxing if he gets the urge in the future. He even talked about maybe one day training fighters. But for now, he’s happy with his decision to retire, happy to spend Christmas with his wife and two-and-a-half-year-old son, at home for the holidays, happy he doesn’t have to worry about his next move in boxing. He has few regrets: not winning a world title is one. But he feels blessed to have developed a loyal fan base, and he’s happy to start the next chapter in his life.
“There’s so much crap you have to deal with,” he says of boxing. “I’m just trying to enjoy the holidays. I just want to hang out. I just want to relax. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the gym. Nobody’s going to say, ‘You’ve missed two days in the gym.’ I’m retired. I don’t have to do a damn thing.”
Mitch Abramson covers boxing for the New York Daily News and BoxingScene.com.