NEWARK — It's easy to see why people love heavyweight boxing. The size of the fighters, their power, their comforting, worship-worthy superhumanity. A good heavyweight fight is awe-inspiring. But first, you have to find two good heavyweights.
And that's not so easy. Are there two good heavyweights to be found? The decline of boxing as a sport of national prominence can be linked directly to the decline of its heavyweight division. The best athletes of that size all play football now, which is more readily available for brawny teenagers who like violence, or baseball or basketball, which are readily available for brawny teenagers who don't. The odd big kid who goes into boxing now has to have a boxing dad, or grow up in a rare neighborhood with a boxing gym. He also has to be willing to give up the camaraderie of team sports for long and lonely hours in the gym, with no cheerleaders in sight.
And why would he? American kids today are scarcely old enough to have been boxing fans when Mike Tyson, the last true world-conquering American heavyweight, was still something other than a punchline. So our heavyweights now are mostly cast-offs from other sports, or late bloomers, and none of them, truth be told, are very good, in a historical sense. The five best heavyweights in the world today include two Ukrainians (the Klitschko brothers, who refuse to fight one another), a Russian (Aleksandr Povetkin, a reformed kickboxer), an Englishman (David Haye, whose last fight, over a comically inept opponent, did nothing but set him up to be smashed by one of the Klitschkos this spring), and one Polish fighter.
That man is Tomasz Adamek, who is the greatest hero that Poland has. I mean, I don't really know that; Poland could have lots of heroes I'm not aware of. But judging purely by the proliferation of fight posters and front-page Polish newspaper photos around the bodegas of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Adamek is as close to Lebron James as you can get in the Polish expat boxing fan community. Which numbers at least several thousand, here in the Tristate area.
And they were all in Newark last Thursday night, waiting for Adamek to break a mild sweat in this, a tune-up fight before he (hopefully) gets a shot at a Klitschko. Adamek was fighting Vinny Maddalone, a stocky bouncer-type from Queens whose 33-6 career record belies the fact that he's essentially a Toughman contest winner who's been awarded a set of boxing gloves and set free to pound unskilled no-names. One of Maddalone's recent wins came over a guy named Jeff Yeoman, in a fight I assume was scheduled just to give writers an easy metaphor for Maddalone's level of opposition.
Seven fights on the card, with the first and last being heavyweight fights. The last was the main event; the first was the sort of never-should-have-been-scheduled rematch that makes you kind of queasy to watch. In his pro debut, the pasty, out of shape Randy "Wolf [Donuts? I feel guilty making jokes about this man and I apologize]" Smith was KO'd in the second round by an actual fighter. There should really be legal penalties for whichever promoter lured someone so clearly unqualified into a professional boxing ring. It's dangerous, and it leads to bad jokes that induce immediate guilt.
Next was the second pro debut of the night: Lekan Byfield, out of Yonkers, who was taking on Angel Concepcion, an undefeated young light heavyweight from right there in Newark. The unfortunate Byfield had two strikes against him as soon as he stepped in the right: the fact that hometown fighters on undercards are always set up to win, and the fact that promising young fighters always have their pro debuts against a patsy, for a guaranteed win. So here was the young Byfield, set up to lose in his pro debut, which is akin to having your own cornermen wearing t-shirts saying, "Your boxing career will amount to nothing."
Byfield didn't help his own cause, either. He came out in a style which was an inexact replica of Sugar Ray Leonard's, minus the talent. He let his lead hand dangle low by his waist and held his right hand back, set apart from his head, as if he were waving "hello" to his opponent, and sometimes he threw ineffective bolo punches that didn't land. Occasionally he would throw that right hand in a downward slapping motion, as if he were patting his opponent on the head. Concepcion, a very standard fighter but no fool, simply punched Byfield in the face, since Byfield's lead hand wasn't up, and he wasn't incredibly quick, and his punches didn't have enough sting to keep anyone off him. Instead of raising his hands to protect himself, Byfield began to turn away from Concepcion's punches in such an extreme fashion that he got himself hit in the back several times. By the third round Byfield was trying to disappear behind his own left shoulder. It didn't work. Concepcion just stood in front of him, with his guard high, waited for him to stop throwing his flashy, useless jabs, and then hit him in the head with the left, or the right, whichever he chose in the moment. Boxing isn't tricky unless you make it tricky.
One of the ring card girls used the lull before live TV coverage started as an opportunity to pose for a series of increasingly provocative pictures in the ring, stopping just before a full-scale strip show broke out, to much murmured disappointment. Tarvis Simms went the full six rounds with a determined but unskilled Willis "The Prophet" Lockett, whose facial features were permanently skewed a bit to the right and whose teeth were permanently clenched, a lifetime of taking punches to the head written on his visage. Gabriel Rosado, the most polished-looking fighter of the whole night, beat Jose Medina simply by punching straighter. Medina did not lack skill or aggression or guts or the perfect flattened boxer's nose, but he tended to reach back to throw his punches, like you would in a bar fight, whereas Rosado fired his right hand off his shoulder, in a direct line, which always reaches its target a little quicker than a punch with a whistling curve will. The advantage started out as just a millisecond and grew larger as the fighters tired and the arc on Medina's punches grew wider, and in the third a straight right from Rosado hit Medina while he was punching and knocked him down onto one knee, proving the point. If anyone ever tells you that you can't learn geometry from boxing, punch them right in the face.
Undefeated Brooklyn-by-way-of-Yemen Olympian and hot prospect Sadam Ali was taken the distance, surprisingly, by Manuel Guzman, who had no chance to win but did hang tough and caught Ali with several overhand rights, which actually made Ali smile; he looked like he was grateful to get some rounds of work in, since he generally knocks out this caliber of opponent in three rounds or so. The now-almost-full Polish crowd couldn't care less what Sadam Ali was doing, because after him came Poland's own Patrick Majewski, the nationalistic warm-up fight before Adamek. Majewski sported the official Polish haircut (a shaved semi-flat top) and his pale skin got very red upon exertion, which was sort of endearing. He was shockingly fatless. His skin clung so tightly to his abs that it was difficult to decide whether he was ripped, or a refugee. He fought a highly motivated but unrefined Eddie Caminero. Majewski was better, but he was high-strung, fighting on a big stage, and wearing himself out from tension; Caminero had much worse form, but he had clearly decided to fight until he dropped; by the sixth round, both men looked almost delirious, with Caminero reaching as far to the side as possible and then turning his entire body in a whiplash motion just to gather up enough steam to throw a punch. They both looked on the verge of falling over from exhaustion. Majewski finally dropped Caminero in the eighth and final round with a final rush of right hands over the top, and he looked very, very happy to have succeeded in front of his countrymen.
The half of the Prudential Center that had been reserved for the fight was now awash in red and white Polish scarves, t-shirts, and flags. One person waved a huge Polish flag with "New Jersey" written across its white bar. It was perfectly sensible there in that moment. Vinny Maddalone entered to the Rocky theme music, which seemed (and would prove to be) overly hopeful. Maddalone's entourage featured one guy rocking a cut-off hoodie with Arturo Gatti's name and picture on it, as if that were the closest thing he could find to a Vinny Maddalone sweatshirt. Maddalone himself has a thick (though not entirely muscular) body and the sloping shoulders of someone who used to do a lot of shrugs. He looks just like the type of guy who could kick any ordinary person's ass, but couldn't beat a decent boxer, ever.
Adamek entered to pounding strains of Polish rap. He, too, has the official Polish haircut. Adamek's face is hard to read; he has a bulbous nose and a constantly pensive look, which could mean he's a closet intellectual or could simply be misleading. I don't speak enough Polish to discern the nuance in Adamek's speech and tell you which is true. He is a good fighter, though; he cleaned up the cruiserweight division and then moved up to heavyweight, and now he's a top five contender.
After the steady diet of welterweights and middleweights on the undercard, Adamek and Maddalone looked enormous. One of the appeals of heavyweights is that they move slower than smaller fighters, and their actions are therefore more easily followed by the watching fans. Pulling apart the exact strands of a two-second-long eight-punch combo by a lightweight can be damn near impossible without slow-mo replay, even for the keenest boxing eye; with heavyweights, there are no eight-punch combos. Heavyweights, even fast ones, fight at a speed intelligible to the naked eye. And their size means that most decent heavyweights have knockout power with any given punch, which lends their fights an air of constant possibility. Whereas two flyweights can stand in the pocket and belt each other with full force in 10-second bursts, heavyweights tend to do a lot of strategizing before throwing any punches at all; once the hands of a 220-pound man start flying, any shot can be the end, and any defensive mistake can be doom.
Adamek fights like a smaller fighter. He steps in, throws 1-2-3 combos, pops back, circles. Against a big, powerful, and equally skilled Klitschko, this might be a problem, but against Vinny Maddalone, who has no boxing skills to speak of, it's just right. Adamek concentrated on body shots in the first round, then slowly expanded his repertoire, in no rush for the KO. Hard jab, straight right, circle. Left uppercut to the ribs underneath Maddalone's high guard, circle. Adamek was a cat toying with a rat. Maddalone was dangerous for his power alone, and he tried to crouch low and come into Adamek's chest, but he wasn't fast enough. His punches were fearsome, and Adamek respected them, but he would've had to fall asleep to be in any real danger. In the fifth, Adamek stepped in and landed a jab-right-hook combo, and Maddalone fell straight back like a big tree, scrrrrrrrrrrreeeecccccchhhh. Flat on his back. He got up looking sheepish, shaking his head. Adamek rushed back at him and Maddalone dropped his hands, clearly dazed; at that, two of Maddalone's cornermen jumped up on the ring and waved off the fight. Afterward, Vinny could be seen cussing in the air to no one in particular. Not his corner, I hope, who cared enough to save him another concussion.
Tomasz Adamek will go on to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. Vinny Maddalone will go back to Queens, where he owns a bar, and hopefully spend the rest of his years telling war stories from behind that bar. He's still just barely fit enough to show off his tattoo of a chain with a cross on his chest and a pair of boxing gloves on his back. He's not a good boxer, but he can be proud of being a tough man. And Adamek can be proud that he's a good enough boxer to beat a tough man. And that's how it should be. Boxing is not a free arena in which tough guys pound the rest of us into the ground. Boxing is a tool for the rest of us to learn how to knock the tough guys out.