By Keith Idec, photo by Ryan Hafey/PBC
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Izuagbe Ugonoh understands that he isn’t exactly who comes to mind when boxing fans think of Polish heavyweights.
There was Andrew Golota. And Tomasz Adamek. And Artur Szpilka.
Ugonoh definitely doesn’t look like them. The 6-feet-3, 230-pound Ugonoh has a perfectly sculpted physique, something straight from the cover of Muscle & Fitness.
What most sets him apart from Golota, Adamek, Szpilka and virtually everyone else born and raised in Poland is Ugonoh is black. If you have questions, you’re far from alone.
Even Polish people don’t believe Ugonoh is one of their own.
“I understand it,” Ugonoh told BoxingScene.com. “I get it. If I told me I was from Poland, I would say, ‘Nah. Get out of here! There’s no way. How are you from Poland?’ So I understand it. There aren’t many people who are 30 years old at the moment, which means they were born in communist Poland, that are black or can speak Polish. Whenever people meet me in Poland and they hear that I speak fluent Polish, without any accent, they’re surprised. At first, they’re like, ‘OK, how did this happen?’ They look for a solution. They ask, ‘Well, is your mom Polish? Is your dad Polish?’ When they look at me, in their head they should know that one of my parents isn’t white.
“But they’re still trying to find a solution to this situation. And I just say, ‘No, my parents are both black. They’re both Nigerians.’ So, you know, they ask the same questions I would ask myself when I was growing up. ‘How did this happen?’ Looking around and seeing everyone is different, I feel like the first words I wanted to speak when I was kid were, ‘Mom, what are we doing here?’ But with time, I stopped asking and I found my way in those situations.”
Ugonoh often fought his way out of those situations, especially when it came to protecting his four sisters while growing up in Gdansk, Poland. That’s were Ugonoh’s parents settled in then-Communist Poland, a place that afforded them opportunities to study and work.
They stressed education to their children, which led Ugonoh to earn a masters degree from the School of Physical Education and Sports in Gdansk. Ugonoh and his sisters were the only black kids in their neighborhood, but he was charismatic and friendly, which made him popular.
The 30-year-old Ugonoh will try to endear himself to another group of skeptical people Saturday night. The unbeaten Ugonoh is scheduled to box contender Dominic Breazeale (17-1, 15 KOs), of Eastvale, California, in a 10-round heavyweight fight that’ll give American fight fans their first real look at the hard-hitting prospect.
Ugonoh is 17-0 and has knocked out 14 of his professional foes. Breazeale clearly is the best opponent of the former kickboxer’s career, though, and the outcome of a fight FOX will televise from Legacy Arena largely will determine Ugonoh’s legitimacy.
“Izu Ugonoh is pretty much unknown to American fight fans,” said Lou DiBella, the promoter of Saturday’s card. “This is his first fight in America. He’s better known abroad. He’s really the unknown commodity in the heavyweight division. … If he can get past the seasoned contender Breazeale, then he’s gonna prove himself to be a major factor in heavyweight boxing. So that’s a really significant fight.”
Eager to prove himself, Ugonoh moved from Poland to Las Vegas in 2014. That’s when Ugonoh, who is cerebral and athletic in the ring, began working with trainer Kevin Barry and became a stablemate of newly crowned WBO heavyweight champion Joseph Parker (22-0, 18 KOs).
His past eight fights have taken place in Parker’s native New Zealand, but Ugonoh signed late last year with influential manager Al Haymon. Ugonoh’s first fight with Haymon will come as part of a nationally televised card that’ll feature a heavyweight title bout between WBC champion Deontay Wilder (37-0, 36 KOs) and former USC football player Gerald Washington (18-0-1, 12 KOs) in the main event (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT).
After fighting mostly in obscurity since making his pro debut in October 2010, the enormity of this opportunity against the 6-7, 263-pound Breazeale isn’t lost on Ugonoh.
“In boxing, one fight can change everything,” said Ugonoh, who speaks Polish, English, multiple Nigerian dialects and some Russian. “You have one good fight, and the next thing you know you’re fighting for the title. We’ll find out soon enough.”
Whatever happens when he battles Breazeale, Ugonoh knows he is ready for the pressure.
He was half of one of the last couples eliminated last year from Poland’s version of “Dancing With the Stars.” Growing up in an all-white neighborhood also taught Ugonoh how to deal with adversity on virtually a daily basis.
“I definitely had my tough times growing up in Poland,” Ugonoh said. “I was basically the only black kid growing up in the neighborhood, apart from my older sister. That came with a lot of challenges. I had to face them and I did. Obviously, it wasn’t all bad. It was challenging, but whenever I talk about Poland, I always say I love it because it made me who I am today.”
If Ugonoh’s grand plan unfolds by design, he’ll become the first Polish heavyweight champion in boxing history.
“That would be a dream come true,” Ugonoh said. “I feel like a lot of people can relate to me. So it would be amazing for me, but I also feel people could relate with that because I’ve come a long way. My parents were immigrants from Nigeria, who came to Poland. I was born and raised in Poland. I came to America to pursue my dreams.
“Then, being in America, fighting in New Zealand, at the other end of the world, then going back to Poland, coming back to America and finally making it in the States, I’ve met a lot of people on this journey. I think a lot of people want to see me win. And, of course, a lot of people want to see me lose as well. But ultimately, I believe I’ll get where I’m supposed to be and I want the whole world to see it.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.