By Thomas Gerbasi
Nearly six years ago, a teenager named Andrzej Fonfara arrived in the United States with several of his peers, talented former amateur boxers seeking greater glory in the pro ranks.
They left. He stayed, just 18 and a stranger in a strange land. But he knew from the moment he set foot in Chicago that this was the place for him.
“The first day I came to the United States, I thought I’d stay here, and after the first fight, I was sure I’d stay,” said Fonfara. “I met Sam Colonna, he’s my trainer now, and I like Chicago. I have my family here now, my girlfriend, friends, and I’m okay with that.”
Now 24, Fonfara hasn’t just acclimated to his new country and new language, but he’s gone from a gangly 6-foot-2 welterweight with raw talent and a lot to learn into a legit light heavyweight threat coming off a July win over Glen Johnson.
And Fonfara is still raw in some aspects of his game, but the potential is there, as evidenced by his second consecutive win over a former world champion this year. The first, a third round stoppage of Byron Mitchell, showed off his power and tough to match physical gifts. The win over Johnson displayed some of the still-learning Fonfara’s poise and ability to match wits and fists with someone who has forgotten more about the sweet science than most know.
“He had a lot of experience and better conditioning,” said Fonfara, who won a closely-contested but unanimous decision over The Road Warrior. “He also had a good chin because I threw a couple of good hard punches at him and he still moved and boxed. He gave me a lot of experience too in going ten rounds.”
That experience has also led to more confidence. As he approaches a November 16 IBO world light heavyweight bout with former world title challenger Tommy Karpency, he is feeling more strongly than ever that he’s ready for the next step in his career.
“I’m ready for a fight for the title with all the guys in the light heavyweight division, and fighting Glen Johnson I proved that I’m ready for a championship fight and for better fighters,” said Fonfara, whose second round TKO loss to Derrick Findley at super middleweight in 2008 was the first sign that it was time for him to move up to 175 pounds. That move didn’t come until 2010 though, one preceded by a win over Skyler Thompson that was overturned due to a positive post-fight test for steroids.
Once at 175 and not forcing himself to cut upwards of 20 pounds to make super middleweight, Fonfara began to mature and find a home in his new weight class.
“The light heavyweight division is my home and I feel very good,” he said. “Today I’m 185-187, but I feel good if I go ten pounds down because I’m a little bit faster, and I think this is my division now.”
Since the move, Fonfara is 10-0, with only Johnson making it the full distance. He’s also become a genuine attraction in his adopted hometown. The local Polish community has come out in droves to see him fight at the UIC Pavilion, a fitting a backdrop as any for his first ever world title fight when he will fight Karpency next Friday.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said of his local following, one that may someday rival countryman Tomasz Adamek’s dedicated fanbase in New Jersey. “Fight after fight I have more fans. Before for my fights, maybe 50 people came. Now it’s a thousand, two-three thousand, and last time even four thousand. Fight after fight I have more fans, and I’m happy about that.”
He’s not alone here either, as his family has relocated from Warsaw to the Windy City to be with their rising star.
“I came here at 18 years old, but I have family who help me,” said Fonfara. “My brother, my girlfriend, my parents, and my friends help me to be a good boxer and a good person. And I’m trying my best. Every day I think about boxing, I train hard, and now I’m training much harder.”
The results have been evident. But against Karpency, the stakes are higher than ever, because if he can be the first man to stop the Pennsylvania southpaw, something current WBO light heavyweight champ Nathan Cleverly couldn’t do, it would certainly give the number eight ranked Fonfara a good case for a shot at the Welshman’s belt.
“I think about that and it is my goal,” he said. “I want to knock out Karpency and show Cleverly I can beat him faster than he did. Then maybe someday we’ll fight for his belt.”
Fonfara isn’t looking past his foe though.
“He’s a southpaw and he has a good chin because nobody has ever knocked him out,” he said of Karpency, who was shutout by the unbeaten Cleverly in February. “Cleverly didn’t knock him out, and Karo Murat – he’s a good fighter from Germany - he beat him (Karpency) but he couldn’t knock him out. So he’s still dangerous every round and he has good conditioning. I’m okay with lefties and I think it’s a good fight for me. He’s young too and he wants to win the fight, so this is going to be a great fight.”
If he goes 3-0 for 2012 with wins over two former champs and a former world title challenger, it would be almost impossible to ignore the affable Fonfara, a young man who knows that it’s not just about winning these days, but how you win.
“I’m going to go to the ring to beat this guy and show that I’m the best in the world, and for sure, people will see a lot of good, solid boxing.”