Polish heavyweight contender Adam Kownacki’s family would gather with friends in front of the TV to watch countryman star Andrew Golota’s fights. When Kownacki was 11, one of those viewing parties was to watch the four-time heavyweight title challenger’s bout against top contender Michael Grant in 1999.
Since childhood, Kownacki has used boxing as a primary way to celebrate his heritage.
“I remember watching [Golota’s] fights and getting excited. He brought the Polish community together to watch him fight. I watched him and that really excited me,” Kownacki said.
Golota, who is best known for his two disqualification losses to Riddick Bowe for low blows, might have lost the fight to Grant when he quit in the 10th round, but looking back, Kownacki says he believes it was a seminal moment of his life.
“Golota quit and it sucked. It was horrible, but knowing that he was like me — Polish, living in the United States, trying to make a better life for himself — I could relate,” Kownacki said. “Like a lot of people, I grew up where the people were blue-collar workers. They were doing construction; my mom was a house maid. So watching Golota made me realize I could do something else. He showed me you could make money a different way besides doing blue-collar work.”
Years later, Kownacki, who found his way into a boxing gym at age 15, met Golota in Chicago, where Golota lives, and had dinner with him. Now he hopes to follow in his footsteps as far as getting a shot at a world title.
Kownacki was also a big fan of former light heavyweight and cruiserweight titlist Tomasz Adamek, another Polish star who fought for a heavyweight title but lost. Adamek fought numerous times in the United States and filled the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey for a series of fights between 2008 and 2012. Kownacki was a regular at those events.
“I went to every one [of Adamek’s fights in Newark],” Kownacki said. “And I met him. I sparred with him a couple of times. I was in his camp a couple of times. So I probably have a closer relationship with Tomasz Adamek than I do with Andrew Golota, but Andrew is the one who got me hooked on boxing.”
Adamek, who retired last year after a 19-year pro career, says he believes Kownacki has what it takes to win a world title.
“To be a champion, you need to have heart, character. Adam, who I consider a friend, has that; one of these guys who cannot be denied,” Adamek said. “I know how hard it is to be there and not make it, but he really could. There’s no one absolutely dominant champ. Kownacki has intangibles, many of them, to succeed. I always pulled for him. It will be great to celebrate a championship, but Chris [Arreola] is first.”
But unlike Golota and Adamek, Kownacki says he hopes not only to challenge for boxing’s biggest prize, but to win it and become the first Polish fighter to win a heavyweight world title.
Kownacki is on the precipice of the opportunity, but to maintain his place near the head of the line he must defeat three-time title challenger Chris Arreola, who is in the twilight of his career and stands as the underdog in this fight, but whose all-out brawling style mirrors Kownacki’s.
They will meet in the 12-round main event of a Premier Boxing Champions tripleheader on Saturday (Fox and Fox Deportes, 8 p.m. ET) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, where Kownacki has a tremendous fan following and will be fighting for the ninth time. It will be his first opportunity in the main event.
Six Polish fighters have challenged for a heavyweight world title: Golota, Adamek, Artur Szpilka, Mariusz Wach, Albert Sosnowski and Andrzej Wawrzyk. All of them fell short.
“I’ll be lucky No. 7,” boasted Kownacki, who added that he is already something of a celebrity in Poland, where he visits family and friends every year. “So I just got to make sure I get past Chris Arreola and keep doing the right thing. That’s my dream — to become the first Polish heavyweight champion of the world. It would be huge. I’d probably be one of the top 10 most popular people in Poland.”
When Kownacki was 7, his family moved from Lomza, Poland to Brooklyn, but they always retained pride in its heritage.
Keith Connolly, Kownacki’s manager and a close friend, knows how much the distinction of being a heavyweight champion would mean to Kownacki.
“He’s talked about that. He’s expressed that his dream is more than just being a heavyweight champion. It’s being the first Polish heavyweight champion,” Connolly said. “It means more than anything. He has a burning desire to be the most famous Polish athlete of all time. He’s a humble guy, but I think being the first Polish heavyweight champion means more to him than the money.”
There was heavy discussion of Kownacki fighting titlist Deontay Wilder in early 2020, but that was before Wilder ironed out a deal for a rematch with lineal champion Tyson Fury in the same time frame. Even when the fight with Wilder did not materialize, Kownacki didn’t get too upset.
“It was definitely [a] topic, but how close was it? With boxing, you never know,” he said. “But my name was mentioned a few times. I beat some of the opponents Wilder faced in better fashion. I beat a former world champion in Charles Martin. My résumé is a lot better than a lot of these guys that already got title shots. So I should be in line for a shot.”
Kownacki, whose wife Justyna is due with their first child, a boy, on Aug. 29, was offered a world title shot earlier this year when Jarrell Miller failed four drug tests, causing him to be dropped from a June 1 fight with unified titleholder Anthony Joshua. However, Kownacki declined the fight because of the short notice, feeling he was not in the kind of condition he wanted to be in for such an enormous opportunity.
It’s a decision he said he does not regret, even though Andy Ruiz Jr. pulled the massive upset that night in New York by knocking out Joshua in the seventh round to become the first fighter of Mexican descent to win a heavyweight world title.
Kownacki (19-0, 15 KOs), 30, has seen the outpouring for Ruiz from Mexican fans and hopes that will be him someday when it comes to the Polish fans.
“The whole country backs him now,” Kownacki said. “It would be huge if I could do that also.”
When Arreola (38-5-1, 33 KOs), 38, of Riverside, California, got his title shots against Vitali Klitschko (2009), Bermane Stiverne (2014) and Wilder (2016) — all fights ended in knockout losses — he was aiming to become the first Mexican to win a heavyweight title and said he felt the pressure. He says he believes Kownacki will also feel it, should he get the title opportunity.
“He has the whole Polish nation behind him, and it is a bit of a burden,” Arreola said. “Not so much a burden, but it’s a big weight on your shoulders to be carrying around. As for myself, it was. It was a hard burden and a hard weight on my shoulders for me to carry around. And now that Andy did it, I feel like the weight is off my shoulders. Now I can just actually just fight.
“I think Adam just needs to just fight and not worry about first this or first that, because the main thing is getting that win and getting that fight and not getting caught up … because it’s a bit overwhelming if you let yourself be caught up in that situation.”
If Kownacki wins Saturday, he will be in a prime position for the title shot he wants. He said he was expecting a good, tough fight — just the kind of bout he needs to prepare for what he says he believes is an inevitable opportunity.
“I grew up watching Chris Arreola fight. I used to love watching him fight because he was one of the guys who came to fight. There was no boxing. He was in wars and always tried to get a knockout,” Kownacki said. “I always joke with everybody — I wish I was watching this fight sitting ringside because you have two guys who come forward and throw a lot of shots. It doesn’t get better than that.
“But Chris is a very nice guy and this is his last chance (in a major fight). I’ll be the younger guy taking the torch and eventually accomplishing the goal of being the first champion from my country.”