NEWARK — Upon arriving at the Prudential Center here last Friday night for a boxing match, I was greeted by an unboxinglike sight: dozens of fans clad in identical t-shirts and matching red and white scarves, pouring off a white chartered bus.
They looked like the cheering section for the Polish National Soccer Team, somehow woefully misrouted to this huge brick box in the middle of Newark's deserted downtown.
Turns out they knew exactly where they were. This was Team Kownacki: a 50-strong cheering section for Adam "Baby Face" Kownacki, a lumbering heavyweight from Brooklyn with only three fights under his belt. I'd seen posters around Greenpoint, my Polish-heavy neighborhood, declaring that "Adam Kownacki Is Back," as if that were a fact that would ring bells. I'd laughed at the sheer cockiness of this goofy unknown, and now I was staring down the evidence of my ignorance. Team Kownacki was the biggest, loudest team of all.
Every boxer has a team. For some, it's just a single trainer, the one guy in the building paid to believe in them. Those unfortunate fighters— the ones brought in from faraway states to serve as targets for up and coming stars and local favorites— often bolster their entourages with a cutman who might work five corners in a single night, trotting out again and again clad in a different t-shirt sporting the name of the next victim.
Other fighters are big on entourages. I'd gone to Newark to see the comeback of Zab Judah, one of the most gifted boxers to come out of Brooklyn in the last two decades, who'd decided after a year of retirement to make another (probably futile) run at the welterweight belt that he once held. Zab himself has always been a believer in entourages; you can find a video on YouTube of him and a bunch of friends whipping a guy's ass at a dice game, despite the man pleading, "I can't beat you, I know who you is, player." The fact that the fight was in Newark, rather than Brooklyn, made little sense, although considering the shape Newark is in these days, you'd hate to take anything away from them.
The undercard was not much of a lesson in boxing, but it was a lesson in entourages. In the first fight, Newark's own Angel Concepcion made his way to the ring with a team of supporters just about as large as the sparse crowd that had assembled in the stands. He went on to handily beat Coatesville, Pa.'s Shannon Anderson. Anderson looked downright scared, but you have to feel bad for the guy with "Coatesville" on his trunks facing a Newark kid in Newark.
Famous fighters have an entire nation of fans for their entourage. But for local fighters, ones getting their first big shot on an ESPN undercard, the image they create with their trunks, t-shirt, and crew is nearly as important as how well they fight. Patrick "Paddy Boy" Farrell, a Jersey boy with red hair and a Celtic cross tattooed on his back, made his way to the ring in green-trimmed trunks with a shamrock on them, cheered on by a boisterous crowd of Irish pals. He could not have gotten more Irish if he'd come in munching a boiled potato. Paddy Boy's thematic fervor was quite a contrast with that of his opponent, Newton "The Butcher" Kidd, whose humble cutoff t-shirt ensemble and tiny cheering section made you suspect that he might actually be a butcher, during the day. They battered the drool out of each other for six rounds and ended with a draw, proving all the "you can't take it with you in the ring" adages you hear about things like entourages.
Next came the mighty (?) Adam Kownacki, to the raucous shouts of his bused-in scarf-wearing supporters. Poland is still trying to recapture the wondrous heavyweight glory achieved by Andrew Golota, and Polish fans will pour barrels of hope into any Polish heavyweight prospect willing to embrace them back by wearing red and white trunks. Adam Kownacki is that patriotic young man, and his entourage and cheering section were the night's most impressive. Less impressive was Adam's physique, though he looked relatively svelte compared to his opponent, 243-pound Damian "Da Brick" Clement, a tubby, immobile punching bag given to pounding on his own belly like King Hippo. Damian's nickname was appropriate. He looked like a brick, he moved like a brick, and he fell like a brick in the second after a hook to the chin, and decided not to get back up.
Adam Kownacki fought a bum, and did not look as sharp or as powerful as you would hope for a young heavyweight, but no matter. That night, Team Kownacki went home happy.
The next bout would be the first to go live on ESPN, and, on cue, the douchebags who make up a disturbingly high percentage of boxing crowds arrived. Aviator shades were brashly displayed. Overly chunky wristwatches were waved ostentatiously. Tight t-shirts with sparkly letters (sample slogan: "RAWYALTY") were worn with no shame. Teddy Atlas, preparing to tape his standup, hocked some unseen phlegm inside his own throat twice, deeply. The nobility of professional boxing had arrived in Newark.
Alex "Brick City" Perez, an undefeated local, emerged wearing an ugly black-and-white camo outfit (with matching beanie) and carrying a belt. "What the hell belt is that?" I asked the reporter next to me. "The Newark Belt?" he guessed. Perez was a slick fighter but a terrible sport, pointedly refusing to tap gloves with his opponent at the end of several rounds, throwing angry looks over his shoulder, jawing after the bell. Why a boxer would feel the need to do any of that— you're already punching each other in the face, after all— is beyond me, but no matter. Perez won, though he looked like a petty bastard on national TV.
Next, Sadam Ali, a polished former Olympian and half-Yemeni Muslim from Brooklyn, spent two and half rounds murdering Julius "The North Philly Pit Bull" Edmonds with little effort. Sadam Ali is the motherfucking man.
Then came Zab Judah. He was, in many ways, the prototypical Brooklyn fighter: tough, spectacularly gifted, and prone to deathly cockiness and dirty tactics. Now, Zab has found Jesus. He has not lost his entourage, however, although they may be under orders to act more pious during future dice games. Zab was facing Jose Armando Santa Cruz, a Mexican with a 28-4 record who can't be counted as a pushover, though he is blessed mainly with tenacity and grit, whereas Zab is blessed with knockout power in two hands and world class quickness. Santa Cruz removed his robe to reveal beanpole-skinny legs and a positively delicate frame, and my hopes for his survival plummeted.
Instead of holding his two arms together touching from elbow to wrist in an impenetrable peek-a-boo defense, Santa Cruz tended to allow his elbows to wander outward, so that his arms formed an "A." And at the bottom of that "A," uncovered, was a nice soft portion of Santa Cruz's belly, just above the belly button. And that soft portion of belly is what Zab Judah repeatedly pounded with straight left hands throughout the first round and a half, steady as a metronome, bouncing a double jab off Santa Cruz's gloves up by his face and then bending quickly to hammer that left hand into a belly that had not looked all that washboard-y to begin with and was now being methodically whacked into a soft mousse covering a very angry and aching stomach. In the third round Santa Cruz was floored by a flash left uppercut and rose with glassy eyes. He lasted about five more seconds under Zab's onslaught before the ref called it.
Zab Judah was the best fighter in the building Friday night. But Adam Kownacki had the best posse. A belt is nice. Its precious aura, however, lasts only until you lose it. But a customized red and white scarf with your name on it? That's something no man can ever take away from you.
Photos via Fightnews.com