By Lyle Fitzsimmons (photo by Tom Casino/Showtime)
It sounds a lot like bravado.
But when Johnathon Banks claims stepping into a ring with a cruiserweight – like IBF champion Tomasz Adamek this weekend, for example – is “a breath of fresh air,” he insists it’s not a slight toward his fellow world-class competitors in the 200-pound weight class.
Rather, it’s indicative of how tough the Detroit native’s “day job” really is.
Banks, who’s won 20 straight fights and scored 14 knockouts in a pro career that began in 2004, spends the bulk of his time between the ropes being hunted by much larger quarry – as the lead sparring partner for consensus world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko.
“Every day you get in the ring with him you know he’s going to push you to perform and push you to get better,” Banks said of the mammoth Klitschko, who stands a shade above 6-foot-6 and usually weighs in a few pounds north of 240.
“It’s the same as me preparing for an actual fight. You have to go in there ready to go or you’re going to get hurt. And by the time I’m done working with him I’m in the same or even better condition than I would be at my own training camp.”
A long-time protégé of Kronk guru Emanuel Steward, the 26-year-old Banks first began working with Klitschko when the heavyweight was preparing to meet DaVarryl Williamson back in 2004.
He became a regular member of Klitschko’s training team for the then-contender’s subsequent outing against Eliseo Castillo six months later, and has been there ever since.
Incidentally, with Banks on hand, Klitschko is 10-0 with eight KOs.
In his previous four fights, he was just 2-2 – with unsightly stoppage losses to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster.
“I don’t feel like just a sparring partner,” Banks said. “That’s not the way I view myself. We’ve gotten to be close friends and we’re helping each other out. It’s definitely a challenge and he always makes sure I’m ready to work to my full potential.”
So far, it’s been to the smaller man’s advantage as well.
A 6-foot-3 right-hander, Banks trained with Steward throughout an amateur career that got started when he was just 16 years old.
“I was down at the gym all the time and I started working in his program,” Banks said.
“I played other sports growing up, but boxing was all I was ever really serious about for as long as I can remember. I just wanted to be a world champion.
“Being with him is hard work. And he makes sure you have a dedication to the game. The whole environment that he exposes you to makes you want to do the best you can. You know the things he’s telling you didn’t just come from a book. He’s been around and his knowledge is unbelievable.”
Banks turned pro under Steward’s guidance just more than four years ago and began generating buzz when he climbed off the canvas twice in the first round to defeat Eliseo Castillo – yes, the same one – on a prospect-heavy show at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom in 2006.
A one-round blowout of ex-IBF cruiser champ Imamu Mayfield last February paved the way for Banks’s biggest fight to date, a majority decision win over Vincenzo Rossitto on the Klitschko-Thompson undercard in July that yielded his first world hardware – the vacant IBO title at 200.
With a win over Adamek on Friday in Newark, N.J., Banks would capture the IBF crown and keep his IBO belt. Adamek, however, cannot win the IBO title under any circumstance because he did not pay the Florida-based organization’s mandatory sanctioning fee.
“I do believe I’m one of the best cruiserweights in the world and I want to be thought of as the best,” Banks said. “And in order to reach that goal I’ve got to beat him. He’s one of the best out there and I’ve got to beat him to prove that I am what I believe I am.”
Adamek, who turned 32 in December, was a two-defense WBC champion at light heavyweight before dropping a decision to Chad Dawson in February 2007.
He moved up nearly 24 pounds and captured the IBO cruiserweight title in his next bout four months later, but truly staked a claim as the division’s best with a fight-of-the-year quality split decision over IBF belt-holder Steve Cunningham on Dec. 11.
Overall, the Polish import is 36-1 with 24 KOs in a career that began in 1999.
The IBF places Banks at No. 7 in its February cruiserweight rankings.
The IBO, whose computerized rankings list all active fighters in a division regardless of titles held, has Adamek at No. 1 and Banks at No. 11.
“His endurance and the way he puts pressure on guys is the first thing you notice about him,” Banks said. “He’s a very strong guy and he’s got a pretty good right hand, too.”
But compliments aside, Banks dismisses the notion that Adamek represents a significant step up in class from his previous opponents.
“I disagree with that assumption,” he said.
“Castillo was a good fighter. Mayfield was a good fighter. I think everyone I’ve fought has been a pretty good fighter. And if people say I haven’t been in with a guy as good as him, well, they won’t be able to say it anymore after Friday, and the results will speak for themselves.”
“I think certain things that I do will be effective against him, and my main plan is just to keep boxing and keep moving. I feel like whatever he does I’ll have an answer for it, and as long as I come into a fight in shape then I don’t have any worries. And I’m in shape for this one. I’m in shape and I’m confident.”
Lyle Fitzsimmons is a 20-year sports journalist and a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him via e-mail at [email protected].