The stories. As much as the action in the ring itself, it’s the stories that have drawn people to the sport of boxing for more than 100 years. And few stories are as compelling as that of Izuagbe Ugonoh.
A little-known, hard-hitting heavyweight prospect, Izuagbe Ugonoh (17-0, 14 KOs) is set to announce his presence on the national stage Saturday night when he makes his North American debut against former world title challenger Dominic Breazeale (17-1, 15 KOs) at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama.
The 10-round clash will be aired live in prime time on FOX (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. ET), at which point the national television audience will learn the following about the 30-year-old man who prefers to be called Izu (E-zoo):
• He was born on November 2, 1986, in Szczecin, Poland, to Nigerian parents who left Africa to attend college in Poland (his father studied navigation, his mother law).
• He grew up in the Eastern European nation, standing out not just because he usually was bigger than others his age, but because he was one of very few African kids living in that part of the world.
• He turned to kickboxing at age 19, quickly showing aptitude for the sport and eventually becoming a world champion.
• He was encouraged in his mid-20s to forego kickboxing for boxing, and went on to win his first nine pro fights (eight by knockout) in his home country, all while fighting at 201 pounds or less.
• He packed up and moved to the boxing capital of Las Vegas in January 2014 and began working under trainer Kevin Barry, a former 175-pound professional who won the silver medal for his native New Zealand in the 1984 Olympics.
• He bulked up under Barry’s guidance and headed to New Zealand for his next eight bouts, winning six of them inside of four rounds while weighing between 225 and 235 pounds
• He returned to Poland last year—as he’s done periodically since relocating to Las Vegas—and competed in his country’s version of Dancing With the Stars, advancing all the way to the final two rounds.
Yes, a compelling story, indeed. But that’s really just the abridged version.
Sitting in the office of a Las Vegas business complex, Izu’s smile is as wide and bright as his massive hands are strong.
Soft-spoken yet gregarious, he’s pressing his life’s rewind button, spinning all the way back to his early life in Poland when he was treated like a stranger in a strange land by schoolchildren whose Polish roots ran no deeper than Izu’s.
“Growing up in Poland was good,” Izu says. “Of course, it was very challenging because of the differences between me and all the people around me.
“We didn’t have many Africans at that time in Poland. It was the 1980s, so Poland was still a country that wasn’t [as progressive as] the rest of the world.”
“ On my way to school I would have to be ready for whatever. ... I was always preparing myself for, ‘What am I going to do when all hell breaks loose?’ ” Izuagbe Ugonoh, on growing up in Poland
Right now, you’re doing the mental translation: Obviously, this guy was the victim of racism. Izu chooses to categorize it a different way.
“I usually referred to it as ignorance,” he says. “To be a racist, you need to have someone to be a racist to. And there weren’t too many foreigners in Poland. So what you had was a group of people who just didn’t like any differences. You always had to constantly battle those people and fight them. It is what it is.”
And what it was for young Izu was a stark wake-up call: There are times when the only way to defend oneself against ignorance is with one’s fists.
Little did he know it then, but that’s where the fisticuff seeds were sown.
“On my way to school I would have to be ready for whatever,” Izu recalls. “It was something that made me always visualize fighting—I was always preparing myself for, ‘What am I going to do when all hell breaks loose?’ So it kind of became my hobby.
“I believe in that way I kind of attracted fighting to my life. So when I had the opportunity to jump into combat sports, which at the time was kickboxing, I felt like, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do.’”
Not exactly conventional pugilism and not exactly mixed martial arts, it’s a sport that frequently is met with eye rolls from most American fight fans. Izu answers those eye rolls with one of his own.
“Kickboxing is a very, very tough sport,” he says. “It’s so much different than boxing. You don’t have so many rules and regulations, so it can get really crazy.
“I did kickboxing mainly as an amateur, and you can have amateur fights against professionals who had hundreds of fights. So anything can happen. It’s something that really toughens you up. And the pain you can feel from kicking someone in the shin and having your shin all bruised up is one of the worst [pains] that I know.”
Izu grasped the sport quickly and soon was traveling all over Europe, testing himself against the best competition he could find until eventually winning a world kickboxing title in the under 91-kilogram (200-pound) weight class.
By now it was the late 2000s, and far as Izu was concerned, kickboxing would forever be his career path. But he says that path took an unexpected detour in 2008 and 2009, when two of Poland’s biggest boxing promoters started chirping in his ear:
Hey, buddy, you know what? You’d make one helluva boxer!
Other than adding some traditional boxing sparring to his regular kickboxing schedule, Izu more or less ignored the overtures. But as time went on and the promoters persisted, Izu decided to plant his feet on the ground and dive into boxing with both fists.
“I was so focused on my kickboxing, and I was good—I was comfortable in what I was doing,” he says. “But [the promoters] felt I could make a better boxer than I could a kickboxer. That’s when I made the decision, ‘OK, I’m going to go into boxing and focus fully and completely on that.
“With my personality, striving to be the best and working with the best, everything happened very fast.”
Alas, it didn’t take long for Izu to get punched in the face by the business side of boxing: Long story short, he and the promoters who wooed him began having differences and parted ways. That's when the raw boxer took his talents to the other side of the world.
“When I started having some promotional problems in Poland, I said to myself, ‘You know what? Let me just take another step,’ and I went to the mecca of boxing in January 2014: Las Vegas,” Izu says. “I started training with various coaches over here and finally ended up with a man who I believed was the best coach for me. That was Kevin Barry.”
Izu quickly refined his boxing skills under Barry, who won Olympic silver in 1984 when future four-time heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, who will be part of FOX's broadcast team Saturday, was infamously disqualified in their semifinal match for hitting on the break.
The union of Izu and Barry resulted in six early KOs in eight fights in New Zealand, including a second-round TKO of Gregory Tony (then 21-6) in Auckland in his most recent fight on October 1.
Now Izu is ready to introduce himself to the American boxing audience when he takes on Breazeale, a 6-foot-7 power puncher who won his first 17 pro fights before losing to British world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua last summer. And he can’t wait for that bell to ring Saturday night.
“This is really, really exciting for me,” Izu says. “I look at it like, in life we can take ourselves to places if we’re open and courageous enough. There’s a lot of good that can happen. I never would’ve planned this in my life. I never expected that I would come to live in Vegas. Or that I would fly to New Zealand to fight there eight times.
“So me being here and finally getting a chance to fight in America, I believe a lot of people can relate to this. Because everyone is looking for a better life, and everyone is working for an opportunity. And I think I’ve been pretty patient, I’ve done my work and this is why I’m here. So I’m very excited that I’m getting this chance.”
And should he make the most of the chance and topple Breazeale in convincing fashion? Well, then the Izu Ugonoh story becomes that much more compelling.
“For me, it’s all about making the steps,” he says. “The goal is obviously to be a world champion—that’s what the dream is. And it’s very reachable in my mind.”
- Izuagbe Ugonoh