Andrzej Fonfara has come a long way from his native Poland in pursuit of a world title, and now the exciting 175-pound contender is getting his second shot at the top.
The 29-year-old “Polish Prince” found a home in the U.S. when he moved from Warsaw to Chicago in 2006 to advance his fledgling career after making his pro debut in his homeland earlier that year.
Since then, Fonfara has fought almost exclusively in Illinois, including 20 times in Chicago, where he is 17-2 with 12 KOs and a no decision. He entered his last fight in the Windy City last June on the verge of a world championship rematch, but instead was knocked out by relatively unknown Joe Smith Jr. in the first round of the 2016 Upset of the Year.
Fonfara rebounded from that loss in March, when he gained a 10th-round TKO of former three-time 175-pound champion Chad Dawson in Brooklyn, New York, and improved to 6-1 with four KOs in fights against former or current world titleholders.
That win landed Andrzej Fonfara (29-4, 17 KOs) his second opportunity to dethrone reigning 175-pound champion Adonis Stevenson (28-1, 23 KOs) in a world title rematch Saturday night at Montreal’s Bell Centre (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
Stevenson gained a hard-fought unanimous decision over Fonfara at the Bell Centre in May 2014 to successfully defend his title for the third time. Fonfara pushed the southpaw champion to the final bell after being knocked down in the third and fifth rounds, and even dropped Stevenson in Round 9, but came up well short on the scorecards.
Now training in Oakland, California, for his second fight under Virgil Hunter, Fonfara took a timeout recently to discuss dealing with setbacks, analyze his first fight with Stevenson and explain why he’s going to walk away with the championship this time around.
How difficult was it, mentally and physically, to deal with being knocked out by Joe Smith Jr. in front of your home crowd in Chicago?
No doubt that was very difficult, but I already knew that feeling because I had lost in a similar way to Derrick Findley [in July 2008].
I was winning against Joe Smith, I had him hurt, but I got a little careless and he landed a very good shot. I just got caught.
Joe Smith was a good lesson for me. I’ve come back stronger, which is what a true champion does. I’ve beaten Chad Dawson since then, and now I’m ready for Stevenson.
Why after losing to Smith did you decide to break from your longtime Chicago-based trainer, Sam Colonna, in favor of Virgil Hunter?
I had a great connection with Sam Colonna. He had trained me for a long time, but it was time for a change, a different source of motivation and a different voice to talk to me. We asked Virgil Hunter if we could work with him and he said yes. This was a good move.
There’s a difference in the way I’m preparing [at Hunter’s gym] in Oakland, California. I’ve been here since September. You will see a difference between me as a fighter now, and me as the fighter you saw when I fought Adonis Stevenson the first time.
How much did it benefit you to spar with Andre Ward in advance of his November victory over Sergey Kovalev and your own win over Chad Dawson in March?
It was very helpful training with him before his fight with Kovalev, but this time we have southpaw sparring partners.
I do see Andre in the gym a little bit. He believes that I will beat Stevenson, and I think he’s going to beat Kovalev even better [in their June rematch].
How important was your win over Dawson?
Well, that was my first fight with Virgil Hunter, and I was trying some new things, so that was a good matchup to try new things out. It was two fighters who really needed that win, and that’s why Chad Dawson was so prepared and ready for me.
I was losing, but this was a very important fight and a good experience for me. Dawson is not so much a heavy puncher, but he knew that this was maybe his last [fight], and he is very slick and very technical. He moved well for six or seven rounds and was ahead on the cards.
I was throwing the heavy punches and I needed a knockout in the 10th (and final) round to win, and I was able to finish him. Again, Chad Dawson fought really well, but I showed that I have character and the perseverance of a champion by coming back and winning the way that I did.
Virgil and I had our first fight together, but now we know each other much better. I’m a warrior and I like to fight inside, but my technical skills are much better right now. I understand Virgil better. For Stevenson, I just need to stick to the game plan and I know I can win the fight.
“ Day after day, week after week, we worked on my positioning, my balance and other skills. I showed some of those changes in the Dawson fight, but ... I’ll be even better against Stevenson. ” 175-pound world title challenger Andrzej Fonfara, on entering his second fight with trainer Virgil Hunter
What do you need to change from your first fight with Stevenson?
The big thing is how much better I’ve gotten, and I want to prove that I’m better, even though I lost to Joe Smith. Virgil told me when I arrived that I’m still a good fighter and that I have all the tools. He didn’t want to change me right away.
But we did slowly adjust some things. Day after day, week after week, we worked on my positioning, my balance and other skills. I showed some of those changes in the Dawson fight, but now that Dawson is behind me, I’ll be even better against Stevenson.
Going back to my first fight with Stevenson, that was my first time on the big stage with a champion like him. I proved that I belong. But for this fight, I can’t get knocked down, and he must get knocked down. I have to stay away from his left hand, which is his most dangerous punch. We have to neutralize it.
With Stevenson being 39 years old and idle since last July, might we see the same type of approach from you as we did in your October 2015 win over Nathan Cleverly that set CompuBox records for punches thrown and landed in a 175-pound fight?
I’m in great shape and Stevenson is a little older, so we’ll see if that’s a factor, but it would be risky to fight the same way that I did against Cleverly because Cleverly is not so much the big puncher as Stevenson.
I could take Cleverly’s punches to the head and trade with him, but I have to be more careful with Stevenson. Stevenson is a very basic fighter, but he does everything well.
I want to hit him and not get hit. I’m fresh off my fight with Chad Dawson and I’m having my second camp right away, and Stevenson hasn’t fight for almost a year. I’ll win whether by decision or knockout.
How do you rank the top fighters in your division?
Andre Ward is No. 1. No. 2 is Adonis Stevenson. No. 3 is Sergey Kovalev. I’m No. 4, and No. 5 is Eleider Alvarez. There are some other good contenders, too, like Artur Beterbiev.
Nathan Cleverly has a title now because he knocked out Juergen Braehmer, so we really have a solid top-15 fighters in the division.
What fighter in history would you most like to have fought, and what would be the result?
The fighter I would want to fight is Bernard Hopkins. I would have liked it even before Joe Smith knocked him out. He was a great fighter and a champion. He’s a big name. I believe that I would win.
I think I would knock him out in the same way that Joe Smith did. It’s good for me that Smith won that fight. If I could get a rematch with Smith one day, then I would like that, too, because he beat a legend in Hopkins.
If Hollywood made a movie about your life, what actor would do the best job portraying you?
I recently went and saw the King Arthur movie and I think it’s very good. I think the actor who played King Arthur, Charlie Hunnam, he looks a little like me, so he would be the guy.
Finish this sentence: If not for boxing, I would be …
… a soccer player and a goalkeeper. Before I started my journey into boxing, I played soccer a little bit and I was a goalie. When I have free time between camps, I still play soccer.
If you could have dinner with four people in the history of the world, who would be on your guest list?
The first one I would say is the Polish pope, John Paul II. Then I would say Neil Armstrong because he was the first man to walk on the moon.
The other two guys would be Barack Obama and Bruce Lee. I would want to ask Bruce Lee about his 1-inch punch.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
No war. No terrorism and no war.
“12 Rounds With …” is published Wednesdays at PremierBoxingChampions.com. Next week: undefeated 140-pound prospect Mario Barrios.