Traditionally, a shot at the world heavyweight title comes as a reward for a series of impressive wins. Not so for Andrzej Golota, the Chicago- based Pole who challenges Lennox Lewis for the World Boxing Council title here on Saturday. But Golota is nothing if not different.
The 29-year-old Warsaw native has risen to prominence on the back of consecutive disqualifications in his last two fights, both against the former undisputed champion, Riddick Bowe. In July 1996, persistent low punching resulted in Golota being thrown out in the seventh round. Last December, the same offence saw him disqualified in the ninth.
But in both bouts, Golota was a revelation: that rarity in heavyweight boxing, a white boxer who can actually fight. Even after points had been deducted for his infringements, Golota led by convincing margins.
Before the first fight, many rated Bowe the best heavyweight in the world. Golota was undefeated in 28 fights, with 25 knock-outs, but remained a 12-1 underdog none the less.
Yet Bowe was battered from pillar to post, mostly by legitimate means. In the rematch, Golota impressed even more, flooring and almost stopping Bowe. And Golota proved his durability in two of the most brutal fights in recent heavyweight history, recovering from a knock-down in the rematch. Not only could this white guy fight, he had a solid chin.
Perhaps Golota's effectiveness was not that surprising. He was a successful amateur heavyweight in Poland before moving to Chicago in 1991. He won seven Polish national titles, took the silver medal at the 1985 world junior championships, and won gold and bronze respectively in the 1986 and 1988 European championships before winning Olympic bronze in 1988.
He has pedigree and talent. But twice throwing away almost certain victory suggests a psychological fragility. Previously, Golota had bitten and butted in order to gain the upper hand, but against Bowe, with the biggest wins of his career there for the taking, Golota's behaviour was inexplicable. Bowe's rare moments of success brought swift, brutal retaliation: powerful, deliberate blows below the belt.
Whether Golota is capable of keeping his punches legal is open to question. Noticeably, his final punch of an open sparring session here yesterday, a left hook, strayed desperately low. "I'm more experienced now," he claimed. But asked whether he could guarantee a clean fight against Lewis, he said: "Don't put money on it."
Arguably, though, controversy has raised Golota's public profile more than beating Bowe ever could have done. A riot broke out at Madison Square Garden, New York, after the first Bowe fight, with 16 people taken to hospital and 22 arrested. Winning a boxing match impresses the sports fans, but causing a riot gets the attention of the entire nation.
With his broken English, Ivan Drago hairstyle and a mean streak as wide as the Volga, Golota is the perfect boxing bogeyman for a country that is still paranoid about the eastern bloc. It came as no surprise that Golota was screen-tested for the role of the Russian hit-man, Slashchev, in the remake of Day of the Jackal starring Richard Gere and Bruce Willis.
Infamy in America is a relatively new development in Golota's life, but not so in his homeland. Run-ins with the Polish authorities had already given him a reputation for bad behaviour before he was accused of stripping and robbing a man at gunpoint following a night-club altercation. With a trial date set, Golota and his wife, Mariola (Polish-born but a US citizen), left for Chicago in 1991. Only this year, secure in his status as a national hero following the Bowe fights, did Golota return to Poland.
With his homeland having suffered major flood damage recently, Golota is keen to give national morale a boost by beating Lewis. "I am now a role model for my countrymen and have a responsibility towards them," he said yesterday. "Maybe my winning the world title will help things a little."
Initially, Golota had no desire to box professionally in America. He considered becoming a truck driver, but fate deigned that the US customs agent who handled Golota's immigration, Dick Trindle, was an amateur boxing official who recognised the Seoul Olympian and pointed him towards the Windy City Gym in Chicago.
There, the gym owner, Bob O'Donnell, persuaded him to turn professional and a link was soon formed with the powerful promotional group, Main Event. The New Jersey outfit's patriarch, Lou Duva, became Golota's trainer and co-manager, a role shared with the Polish-American businessman Ziggy Rozalski, O'Donnell having been replaced after the second Bowe fight.
John DeFendis, a former Mr USA, has been employed as a strength coach for Golota's challenge to Lewis, leading to further controversy. Some doubt that the 6ft 4in, 17 and a half stone fighter's bulk comes solely as a result of strenuous sessions in the weights room and the swimming pool. Golota has refused to be drug tested for this fight. "I'm tired of all this media bullshit," he said. "I just want to fight and get my crown."
Mike Boorman, spokesman for Main Event, said: "These accusations can be attributed to one thing, ignorance. As soon as a white guy can fight a little bit, there must be some reason other than the fact he can fight."
Quite how well Golota can fight remains to be seen. But the question should soon be answered.