Twenty-five years ago a former world champion and unhinged contender engaged in one of the most mind-boggling contests in heavyweight history. Elliot Worsell tells the story of their rivalry
THERE was a moment some 25 years ago when Lou Duva once again believed he had the best heavyweight in the world – but only, he said, if fights were fought in the street and not the ring. The heavyweight in question was Andrew Golota, a talented but troubled Pole who, in 1996, fought Riddick Bowe twice and conspired to lose both fights when in a winning position. Duva, Golota’s head coach at the time, watched helplessly from the corner on both occasions and struggled to understand how Golota had fouled his way to consecutive disqualification defeats. All he knew for certain was this: no two fights better exemplified how boxing is as much a battle of the mind as the body. Now, looking back at the Bowe vs Golota saga 25 years on, if we are to understand self-sabotage, we must first consider the background of the saboteur. Here, in the case of Andrew Golota, what Duva and the rest were dealing with was a 28-year-old man who was undefeated in 28 pro fights (25 knockouts) before meeting Bowe. He stood six-foot-four and weighed 240 pounds and had pedigree, too, having won a bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea.
But that, of course, is only the Golota skim-read. Instead, to truly understand the mind inside the man, we must also take into account the fact that Golota was born in Warsaw in 1968 to an alcoholic father – who committed suicide when Golota was just five – and a mother who would ultimately give him up to an orphanage because she was unable to cope. Hardly the best of starts, young Andrew would reconnect with his extended family when his aunt gained custody of him but there was only so much even his aunt could do to control the aggression bubbling up inside. Sure enough, Golota later found himself in trouble at school and on the streets and was eventually forced to attend a military training centre in Legia, where, against the wishes of his family, he learnt how to box.
Military training and boxing promised some routine, some structure, and some discipline, all of which Golota needed. Yet in 1990, two years after winning his Olympic medal, Golota threatened to go down an entirely different path when he engaged in a bar brawl with Piotr Bialostocki, a fellow Pole who challenged the boxer to a fight only to later wake up in a bin. Facing charges of assault and battery, Golota elected to flee Poland rather than risk serving five years in prison and, at 22, ended up in Chicago, Illinois, where he soon married an American citizen of Polish descent and began a pro boxing career.
Six years later, the police officers who were once after Golota had to accept the fact he was fighting Riddick ‘Big Daddy’ Bowe on HBO and potentially one win away from challenging for the heavyweight championship of the world. At home in Poland, he was both a hero and a wanted man, while in boxing circles Golota was an unproven contender described as a “bum” by his next opponent, Bowe.
It was true, there were few scalps of note on Golota’s record, nor much insight to be gleaned from his prior performances. However, given what was to follow, it is worth now noting that in Golota’s 24th pro fight he was accused of biting opponent Samson Po’uha shortly after the Samoan had hit and hurt him. This was a fight Golota still managed to win, stopping Po’uha in the fifth round, but more revealing than the victory was the speed with which Golota had resorted to the code of the street at the slightest hint of trouble.
Riddick Bowe, no stranger to the dark arts himself, was 38-1 (32) as a pro going into his first fight with Golota and had just completed his trilogy with Evander Holyfield the previous year (winning the third fight via eighth-round stoppage). That same year he also stopped former Cuban amateur star Jorge Luis Gonzalez and heavy-handed Brit Herbie Hide, from whom he took the WBO heavyweight title, and, at 29, was seen as a man with both momentum and miles on the clock.
“I think he had great physical ability and knew how to fight but, as they say, Riddick Bowe does not trip off the tongue of boxing knuckleheads, probably because he had such a compact career at the top,” said HBO’s Larry Merchant, who covered both Bowe-Golota fights from ringside. “Boxing insiders or sophisticates understood that Bowe was a serious heavyweight. His three fights with Holyfield, for example, were tremendous fights, and Golota had never competed at that level of the game.”
What became apparent early on in their first fight – held at Madison Square Garden on July 11, 1996 – was that any edge in experience Bowe may have enjoyed was cancelled out by Golota’s edge in freshness and ambition. The Pole appeared to be fiercely determined, too, possessing a hunger Bowe lacked, and exhibited a level of technical proficiency Bowe and his team had clearly not anticipated.
To that end, Golota’s jabs were straight and crisp, with jarring right crosses thrown whenever an opening emerged, and the first shots thrown towards Bowe’s body were well-picked crosses from a distance, each one neat and tidy. Everything about Golota, in fact, particularly early, appeared neat and tidy. His work was clean and precise and to flourish he required space and time, which he would secure by controlling the ring with his impressive footwork and jabbing hand.
Bowe, meanwhile, having been caught on his heels, didn’t wake up until the second round. He received a warning from referee Wayne Kelly for punching the back of Golota’s head, but then moments later landed a big hook and overhand right inside, both punches signalling his arrival. Undeterred, Golota returned fire with weighty shots of his own before punching below the belt for the first time in the fight. For this he was warned by Kelly but immediately Golota tried again, this time aiming his body attack just centimetres higher than the previous one. His next body shot received another warning from Kelly and prompted George Foreman, commentating for HBO, to say: “Bowe has a little flesh down there. He should take advantage of it.”
In the third, with Golota now well on top, Jim Lampley, working alongside Foreman that night, then added: “You wonder if Golota will remember to keep going to the body as the fight progresses. No question there is an opportunity there for him if he can remember to keep doing it.”
Little did either of them know, Golota would become fixated on Bowe’s body and would persist despite his sloppy accuracy and the attention of Wayne Kelly. “Next time it’s a point. Last warning,” Kelly informed Golota after he landed a stray uppercut with 40 seconds to go in the third. This triggered the briefest of timeouts, after which Golota displayed impressive composure when under attack, dipping beneath Bowe’s punches and catching him with a counter hook of his own. He also rallied bravely with a cross and hook combination, spinning Bowe’s head, after Bowe landed a right. “Folks, we’ve got a fight,” said Merchant.
The exact nature of the fight became clear in due course. Essentially, though, each time Golota did something sublime – which, believe it or not, was frequently – he would invariably follow it with something ridiculous. He would, for instance, out-jab Bowe, get the better of exchanges, and show movement slick enough to evade Bowe’s best attacks, but then, as seen in round four, Golota would hurt Bowe with clean head shots only to let his punches drift low, doing so sometimes on the blindside of the referee and sometimes in full view.
This habit curtailed Golota’s attempt to finish Bowe in the fourth and led to Bowe being issued with a five-minute time-out having been sent to his knees by the latest illegal blow. A point was rightly taken from Golota as punishment and Bowe, on his backside and wincing, milked the incident for all it was worth before resuming the action with 20 seconds to go.
Golota was cleaner in the fifth, thankfully, hurting Bowe with numerous combinations, but was then back to his old ways in the sixth. In that round, as he heard the crowd begin to chant, “Let’s go, Bowe,” Golota ruined more of his good work by whipping another left low and having Kelly warn him to “keep them up”. Bowe, in response, bent at the waist, ensuring another point was docked by Kelly, who told Golota, “Don’t do it again.”
Tellingly, Golota showed no emotion whenever reprimanded. He didn’t complain, he didn’t apologise, and he offered acknowledgment only in the form of a single nod of his head.
“What are you going to do about him hitting me low?” Bowe, sitting on his stool, asked Kelly in between rounds six and seven.
“You worry about fighting,” said Kelly. “I took two points off him, okay? Take care of your business.”
Sensing a shift in attitude and approach, Merchant suggested, “It almost sounds like Riddick Bowe was looking for a disqualification,” and Bowe, whether hurting or plotting, was indeed noticeably slow off his stool to begin the seventh.
Moreover, once up and fighting, Bowe was again out-jabbed by Golota and he was again hit low in exchanges – sometimes uppercuts, sometimes hooks. By now expecting it, Golota greeted his latest point deduction with another nod, then had to contend with Bowe hitting him behind the head, something like revenge, as he was held against the ropes. Not long after that, Golota went low with a left hand in close before staggering Bowe with rights upstairs, each carrying all the accuracy his body shots lacked.
Staying inside, Golota landed a combination to send the sweat spraying from Bowe’s head. He then ventured downstairs, risking it all, and nailed Bowe low with a left for the latest and last time, dropping the former heavyweight champion to the canvas, where he stayed on his back until hearing Kelly shout, “That’s it! That’s it!”
The fight ended at the 2-33 mark of the seventh round and the scorecards at the time of the disqualification read 66-67, 65-67 and 65-67, all in Golota’s favour. Academic, with the fight now over and the winner decided, a melee then erupted between members of Bowe’s team and Golota’s team, which left Duva, a man with a history of coronary issues, flat on the ring canvas and Lampley, protected by Foreman at ringside, declaring: “In 21 years of reporting as a sports reporter and a news anchor I’ve never been involved in a more personally terrifying situation as that one.”
In the end, Duva was removed from the ring on a stretcher and the rematch, considered necessary to clear up the chaos and confusion, was arranged for December 14 at the Convention Center, Atlantic City.
For the return there were, aside from the location change, two perceptible differences. One, Bowe had lost 17 pounds (he did in fact start camp at 282 before coming down to 235) for the rematch, and, two, his coach, Eddie Futch, had been replaced by Thell Torrence. “Futch walked away from Bowe after that,” said Wayne McCullough, a Futch disciple and Bowe stablemate. “He didn’t want him to do the rematch.” Neither, it should be said, did Bowe’s mother, Dorothy, who told her son following the first Golota fight, “If you’re going to get your ass whipped like that, you ought to retire.”
This appeared sage advice, particularly in the second round of the rematch when Golota, working from his own blueprint, landed a hard right on Bowe, which resulted in Bowe grabbing his head and falling to his knees. As usual, he rose bravely, up at the count of six, but Bowe had been wobbled badly by the shot and Golota, the one responsible, now went after him, targeting both head and body, though this time doing all he could to ensure he controlled the final destination of each punch.
When getting it right, which he did in round two, Golota’s attacks to head and body were a sight to behold, reminiscent of some of the very best heavyweights in history. Yet the moment Bowe landed a counter hook and held Golota, Golota immediately saw red, panicked, and regressed. He butted Bowe in retaliation and referee Eddie Cotton, alert to the early warning, docked a point from Golota.
Worse than this deduction, however, was the cut eye Golota suffered in the second round and the confidence the sight of blood pouring from the wound seemed to give Bowe. Buoyed by it, Bowe dragged himself back into the fight in the third, then dramatically shook and dropped Golota with a series of right hands in the fourth.
It was the first time Golota had been knocked down in his pro career and, by way of response, he punched low, a shot Cotton didn’t see, and continued doing so – right, left, right – until Cotton not only cottoned on but rushed in to stop the action. “That’s your first warning for low blows,” he said as Golota, exhausted, leaned on him for respite.
Too tired to listen, never mind understand, Golota wasted no time going low again, now with just the right, and Bowe promptly flopped to the floor, leading to Golota’s first point deduction for low blows. “He can’t stop himself,” said Lampley. “A fighter who simply cannot stop himself from throwing low blows.”
And yet, in the fifth, Golota did. He battered Bowe with right hands to the head, buckled the American’s legs, and finally dropped him flat on his face, at which point Bowe, grabbing whatever he could find, refused to let go of Golota’s right ankle.
This Golota dominance continued in rounds six, seven and eight, with the Pole seemingly always on the verge of making a breakthrough and Bowe seemingly always on the verge of collapse. But, crucially, for as much as he was hurting, Bowe knew that going into the ninth he had been there before (he had travelled beyond eight rounds four times, whereas Golota had seen the ninth round only once), and he knew, also, that Golota had self-destructed from a winning position before. It was reason enough to stay alive in the contest and stay alive Bowe did.
It then, alas, didn’t take long for history to repeat itself. This time, in the ninth, Golota’s demise started with him measuring Bowe in a corner and figuring a way to bring about the end of the fight. There were, from this position of control, vicious shots thrown to the head but also a variety of body shots, suspect-looking ones at that. “The referee is deciding not to even bring in those low shots now,” said Foreman as Golota began taking risks. “He’s not even talking about it. He’s allowing them to throw low if they happen to do it.” Yet, with just seconds left in the round, Cotton had both noticed and seen enough, the sight of Bowe dissolving to the canvas following another low blow all the impetus he required to end the fight (the scores, all in Golota’s favour, were as follows: 72-74, 73-75 and 71-75).
“I think it was all wrong. I can’t condone it but I guess he resorts to instinct as a fighter – a streetfighter,” said Lou Duva after the fight. “I thought we did a number, Roger Bloodworth and I, in teaching him for the past couple of months down in Florida to put his punches up. The last four rounds I kept telling him, Roger kept telling him, Ronnie Shields kept telling him, Pernell Whitaker kept telling him, ‘Go to the head, straight punches.’ All we wanted him to do was snap that jab and throw straight right hands. We wanted to keep the fight in the centre of the ring.
“He gets in trouble and his instinct makes him fight like a streetfighter. It’s like he’s fighting in a bar or on a street. How do you handle it? We had a couple of situations down in camp but we straightened it out and then maybe he wouldn’t do it for a week or two. I can’t explain it.”
Few can explain it, even 25 years after the fact.
“He beat the crap out of Bowe twice and somehow still lost to him twice,” said Wayne McCullough. “He looked fantastic. He could have been a world champion but ended up throwing all his combinations towards Bowe’s balls.
“He was very fluid for a European fighter, and he threw lovely combinations, but he had this switch in his head. He had this switch in his head that said, ‘I’m winning this fight easily and now I need to make it hard on myself. Now I’m going to punch you in the balls and ruin everything I have done.’”
“Golota was a very good heavyweight who was tough and could fight,” said Larry Merchant. “But Golota couldn’t deal with the fact that he was in with a superior guy and resorted to Plan C, I guess, which was to throw everything he could at Bowe and aim at every part of his body from his ankle to his ears. When he fell short, he looked to use dirty tactics. But it was a shame because he had a lot of ability.”
Should there ever be any doubt that ability only gets a fighter so far, look no further than the cautionary tale provided by Andrew Golota and Riddick Bowe in 1996. For if a single incident of self-sabotage can be deemed coincidence, or simply unfortunate, producing two of them within a five-month period must be viewed only as confirmation; confirmation that Andrew Golota, for all his ability, had the moves of a heavyweight champion but, sadly, not the mind.