With his phone propped up against the turnbuckle of an empty ring, Andrzej Fonfara (30-5, 18 KOs) is all smiles. He’s far more relaxed and recognisable now in retirement than he was during the peak of his fighting career, when he was often grimacing, biting down on his gumshield, or cloaked in blood. Now, it’s a clean-cut appearance, respectable and far removed from his career as a relentless professional prize fighter – for better or for worse.
Fonfara caught up with Boxing Social ahead of the official opening of his own boxing facility in Chicago, Illinois, and before discussing the highs and lows of his tenure in the sport, he spoke of the future, and his aspirations from the safety of the corner, although safety had never really been a concern of his.
“The grand opening will maybe happen in November, alongside my birthday. I wanna get people from boxing, some famous fighters, famous trainers and members of the boxing community [down here],” Fonfara told Boxing Social.
“I’m opening the gym now and I want to be one of the greatest trainers ever, you know. I want to bethe best trainer ever. And the most famous trainer. I know a lot of fighters finish their career and stay in boxing; I know a lot of good trainers like Virgil Hunter, Sam Colonna, Joe Goossen. I have good connections throughout the boxing world. I think [through] my fights, my camps, I’ve really learned a lot and I want to give these experiences to some young fighters and older fighters, too.”
At just 33 years old, one could argue that Fonfara should still be competing as one of the aforementioned ‘older fighters,’ but he knows better. It was refreshing to see him wagging his finger dismissively when challenged about the appeal of a ring return. Categorically, not now, not ever. With one swift motion, that finger shutting down a comeback morphed into the rubbing together of thumb and index – these guys come back for money, and Fonfara doesn’t need it. He invested wisely with his brother operating as his manager, and now lives comfortably managing multiple businesses.
“You sell yourself, you know?” the former multiple-time world title challenger stated, when asked about the fighter’s desire to punch shadows long past their sell-by date. “First feelings after retirement? I felt great because boxing is really hard and, the camps and this life, it is like a small prison. But then I had my [first] son, then my daughter was born, my kids, so I said, ‘Maybe I need time to care for them, too’. I have some good businesses because of boxing; I invested some money and I said to myself, ‘Maybe that’s enough’. When I finished my career, I was happy. Then I had a little bit of depression because I didn’t have anything to do. I felt a little bit sad, and I missed boxing. But I know it was good decision for me to quit then.”
The Bialobrzegi-born fighter had started lacing up his gloves in the Gwardia Warszawa amateur club back in Poland before making the transition to Legia. It’s the club that remains linked to Poland’s most infamous, successful football team, and Fonfara informedBoxing Socialthat he remains very good friends with renowned, eccentric goalkeeper, Artur Boruc, who lit up British clubs such as Celtic, Bournemouth and Southampton with his erratic and brilliant displays.
It was always boxing for Fonfara, though. He loved fighting, whether it was for sport or to keep himself busy outside of school, though he makes sure to stave off any claims that he was a “bad kid from a bad family”. His family were business people working in the city of Warsaw and, after informing his father of a desire to compete as an amateur boxer, he went on to fight 120 times before turning professional and debuting in Ostroleka, beating Czech fighter Miroslav Kubik by majority decision. Remarkably, it was his only professional fight on home turf and the call of the United States became too loud to ignore.
“Within two weeks [of my debut] we flew to the United States, to Chicago. We trained in Sam Colonna’s boxing club – it was a fucking unbelievable gym. Old fighters in the city, the gym was very old school, it has a 40 or 50-year history by then,” said Fonfara. “That was you really feeling like a boxer. You had two rings, these old rings, old bags, old leather. That smell, oh my god. It was very, very nice. And I stayed here. And all my family moved to the United States to help with my career. Because of this, I have so many fans in America and here in Chicago. It’s one of the biggest Polish communities in the world, maybe over two million people. I won my first fight, the second [fight], more people came. First, I sold 10 tickets to my friends, then the next time I won, I sold 20 tickets, then 50, 100 tickets. The promoter would say, ‘Oh nice.’ I’d win another fight, somebody would say, ‘Oh, he’s the best’, Blah, blah, blah.”
Before he knew it, Andrzej Fonfara was becoming a popular, almost-hometown Chicago fighter. His professional trajectory would lead him to huge fights with champions such as Adonis Stevenson, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr and Chad Dawson. He’d win some, he’d lose some, but always gave a solid account of himself. When discussing his best nights at the top of the sport, he spoke of battling guys like reigning WBO light-heavyweight champion, Joe Smith Jr, fighting and trying to win – but falling short, nevertheless.
“I was an underdog in a couple of fights, like Chavez, with Stevenson, with a couple of other fights. I liked that because I wanted to show the people, and show those around the world that those guys make mistakes and that I’m the better fighter, you know what I mean? Then yeah, when I lost to Joe Smith, I was favourite. He was nobody at those times, but he’s a very nice person, Joe. I like him, too, I followed him that year, a great fighter, and I think in my career one of the hardest punchers [I faced]. Not even Adonis Stevenson punched as hard as him.”
“[Nathan] Cleverly was one of my good fights, too,” Fonfara concluded, reminiscing on what would become one of our generation’s bloody, unforgiving wars. It’s probably fair to say that neither man has been the same since, though the Polish victor has emerged the stronger of the two.“We broke two Guinness World Records for taking and giving the most punches in the light-heavyweight division. Tough motherfucker. I gave him a lot of good fucking punches, he threw some at me, too, but he’s not a big puncher. He was fast but he wasn’t powerful enough to break me. And I was happy I didn’t knock him out because it was a nice 12 rounds. I hit him so hard, and he was messing [with me], saying, ‘Come on, come on.’ I thought, ‘Good, I like this’.”
“With Chad Dawson, I had a great fight. Believe it or not, but for my second fight with [Adonis] Stevenson, that was one of my best camps. I had sparring, fucking 12-round sparring with Andre Ward, with all these top guys. Everything was good, but the weight killed me, you know. First time in my career, I stood up to make weight and I was a pound over. First time in my career. I was dehydrated and I don’t think too much about the fight, he caught me with a left hand, and it was over.”
“Virgil Hunter, my trainer at the time, he threw the towel. I always said to my trainers, ‘Never throw the towel, I want to die in the ring’. But never throw the towel. When I saw everything, I said, ‘Hey Virgil, thank you for throwing the towel, because maybe he could have killed me, or I could be in a coma’. I have family now,” Fonfara explained, slowly, soaking in the potential devastation that would have occurred if he’d been allowed to continue. It’s hard to understand unless you’ve been a fighter close to destructive loss or feeling the effects of a punishing career. Fonfara – despite sounding excellent – knows what may always lie sneakily around the corner. Strangely, it was the fighter who stopped him that night who suffered shortly after.
Boxing is like a cruel mugger, taking what its trusting participants value and never truly being held to account. Thankfully, Fonfara, for the moment, seems to have made it home safe with the guidance of street lights. The excitement surrounding the launch of his gym returns towards the end of our conversation and he moves the camera, panning around and showing off his space proudly. He no longer has to place himself in that mini-prison for 12 weeks at a time and, when asked what was the toughest part of his professional career, the Pole reflected on the pressure of fight night.
“Boxing is hard sport because everything goes down to that one day. You got 10 weeks [of camp] and you’re building up your shape, right? Boom, boom, boom. Let’s say you fight June 1, right. If it’s June 1 you musthave your lucky day; you must sleep good, you must eat good, everything in this one day has to be perfect, you know what I mean? I tried to always do this, from my first day to my last day. Nice breakfast, walk, not too much talking, focus, that’s the perfect day. That’s why this is the hardest part because in the normal world, you wake up in the morning some days and it’s your fucking bad day, you know? But in boxing this is must your best day.”
It was the first time the pressures of boxing had been described to me so simply by a fighter. Every bead of sacrifice means nothing unless you manage to reach top gear when the first bell rings. Bad days in almost every other job are bumps in the road, but in boxing, stumbling into an off-day can be career-defining, or worse. It’s little nuggets of wisdom like this which Fonfara intends on sharing with the next tranche of Chicago-based talent. Drawing from those experiences at the top of the sport, he mentions Freddie Roach as an inspiration. Roach, he explained, had a decent career as a fighter, but is an outstanding, proven trainer. He sees a bit of himself in the Wild Card Gym’s owner, comparing their trajectories.
His time as a fighter is over and, before he embarks on his next chapter, he summed up succinctly how he wanted fans of the sport to remember him as a boxer: “Good punches, blood, sweat, hard fights. I think that’s why fans will remember me. I was always a fighter; I fought for the fans, I didn’t fight for myself. I want fans to remember my best fights, I have couple of them. Like I say, I always went to the ring and fought; I just wanted the fans to see a good show. I’m happy about my career – I don’t need more.”
Main image: Stephanie Trapp/Showtime.