In combat sports, there’s always that question hanging in the air for any fighter on a losing streak.
“Is this a must-win situation?”
It’s also the dumbest question to be asked of a fighter, right up there with, “How’s training going?” If a hot prospect loses to anyone, he or she moves backwards. If a champion loses to a challenger, mandatory or not, that belt and the perks and paydays that come with it are gone. In fact, the only fighters who don’t care about the outcome of a fight are the “opponents” that are there simply to be a body and pad records. If they win, it’s a bonus; if they lose, that’s expected, and they’ll get another payday without losing any “status.”
So, let’s get this out of the way – if a fighter has any designs on making a career out of this or becoming a champion, every bout is a must-win.
But there are asterisks to that statement, some fights that are more important than others, which brings us to heavyweight contender Adam Kownacki. Heading into his July 30 meeting with Ali Eren Demirezen at Barclays Center, the Polish-born Brooklynite has lost two straight, getting stopped both times by Robert Helenius. So when he talks about meeting Demirezen, there is an urgency in admitting that this is no ordinary bout.
“This is the biggest fight of my career,” said Kownacki recently. “I have to win to stay relevant in the heavyweight division. I’m training hard and I’m ready to win.”
Stay relevant. That’s the key phrase, because in boxing, heavyweights can seemingly stick around forever, lose a few, win a key one, and get back in the big fight mix. So if Kownacki loses a week from Saturday, his career isn’t over, but the 33-year-old’s immediate relevancy might be.
And he won’t have that. There’s still too much left to do for the father of two, who admitted that becoming a dad twice over may have kept him from being completely focused against an opponent in Helenius that he was expected to beat…twice.
“Having two kids these last few years has been life changing for me, but I can’t have everything with a cherry on top,” he said. “I had to make more sacrifices in my life for this training camp to make sure that I stayed focused.”
The focus for the Brooklyn brawler isn’t just on Turkey’s 16-1 (12 KOs) Demirezen, but on what he hasn’t been doing in recent fights. Never someone who would dazzle with Mayweather-esque defensive skills on fight night, Kownacki instead built his record, reputation and following behind an aggressive attack predicated on being able to take what was thrown at him before getting in his own shots. And it worked to the tune of a 20-0 record with 15 KOs and crowd-pleasing wins over the likes of Artur Szpilka, Charles Martin, Gerald Washington, and Chris Arreola. And while beating Helenius in March 2020 wasn’t going to get him a title shot, it was going to put him in the conversation before the Sweden native crashed the party. And then repeated that win 19 months later.
“I had a good 20 fights, I hit a bump in the road, but on July 30 I’m coming to get a win and then I’m back on the right track,” he said. “I want to get a world title shot in the next year or two, and with my team, I know that I can get that done.”
Fighting under the PBC banner and managed by Keith Connolly, Kownacki does have a power team behind him, even if the heavyweight championship belts owned by Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk are promoted elsewhere. So there is the distinct possibility that should he string together a few wins, he could be in range for a title fight. But first there is the business of Demirezen and sewing up the holes in his game that led him to two consecutive defeats.
“For a while, I could go blow for blow and come out on top,” Kownacki said. “The past couple fights didn’t end that way, so we went back to some of our basics. That’s what I have to do to take the next steps.”
“I just have had to work on my footwork and keeping my hands up,” he said. I have to be smart. One shot can change everything. It was some bad luck getting caught in each fight. I tried to make the best out of it and leave everything in the ring. It was a life lesson.
“The footwork is really what we’re focused on,” he continues. “I remember being in camp with Wladimir Klitschko and being amazed by his footwork. I worked on it a lot back then, but I got a little bit away from it.
The fans loved it when he got away from him and simply stood and slugged it out with willing foes, coming out on top more often than not. But losing makes a good fighter reevaluate everything, and that’s what Kownacki has done over the last nine months. And now he’s back, just like he always knew he would be.
“I never thought I was done after fighting Robert Helenius,” he said. “My goal is just to always go out there and do my best. My first boxing goal was to win the New York Golden Gloves, and I did that in my first year. My goal, now, is to win the world title, and that’s what I’m working toward.”
Sounds like a must-win situation.
“Right now, I’m just focused on Demirezen,” Kownacki said. “That’s the man in front of me. I have to tear down that wall that’s in front of me. That’s all I’m focused on.”