NEW YORK – One-on-one with a heavy bag, Zsolt Erdei is the best-looking Hungarian cruiserweight we’ve ever seen.
Five days ahead of his appearance on Saturday night’s Sergio Martinez-Paul Williams card in Atlantic City, the former WBC cruiserweight and WBO light-heavyweight champion went through his paces in a spirited workout arranged by Lou DiBella’s publicity minions at the Trinity Gym in lower Manhattan.
A 36 year-old Hungarian and undefeated as a professional, Erdei has done most of his fighting in Europe, although the bout against Kenyan Samson Onyango does not represent his American, or even his Atlantic City, debut. In 2001 in Las Vegas, he stopped Dennis Mathews (6-16 at the time, on the way to a 9-32 career record) in the third round of a scheduled 4-rounder on the Wladimir Klitschko-Charles Shufford undercard. A year later he fought on another Klitschko undercard, this one vs. Ray Mercer at the Taj Majal, and won a six-round decision over Darren Whitley. The less-talented of Massachusetts Whitley Twins, Darren was 12-17-6 then, 13-24-7 now, so the result was unsurprising.
Although Saturday’s bout is nominally the co-feature, it is not scheduled to be part of the HBO telecast, but DiBella, who signed Erdei last month after Zsolt’s career-long indenture to German promoter Klaus-Peter Kohl had lapsed, is hopeful that the network might show clips of his fight Saturday night. To that end, Zsolt was allowed to bring his own opponent.
Onyango’s 20-6 record might present an illusion of competitiveness, but in truth he doesn’t figure to give Erdei any more trouble than did Matthews or Whitley, or for that matter, the heavy bag at the Trinity. Venturing outside Africa appears to have the same effect on Samson that a haircut produced in his Biblical namesake: Onyango is 21-1 in fights on the Dark Continent, 0-5 elsewhere. Maybe after Zsolt’s “Open Workout Monday they should have taken Onyango to the same gym so he could practice falling down.
Zsolt is smallish as light-heavyweights go, even more so for a cruiserweight. (He weighed just 178 ¾ when he beat Giaccobe Fragomeni for the WBC title last year, and says he has no illusions about campaigning in the 200-lb. division again.) Erdei is listed at 5’10, but probably isn’t even that tall; DiBella compared his stature to that of another light-heavy/cruiserweight champ, Dwight Muhammad Qawi.
“I saw his fight against Fragomeni, and was very impressed, said DiBella, who waited out Erdei’s “retirement and was waiting, checkbook in hand, once the Hungarian’s deal with Universum expired. “He doesn’t fight at all like a typical European boxer. He relies more on speed.
From what was on display at the Trinity Gym, we’d have to agree that in terms of hand-speed, Erdei seems much quicker than any European light-heavy we can recall. He does seem to favor the traditionally European upright stance, but that may be of necessity, owing to his diminutive height. Put Zsolt in a crouch and he’d come up to some opponents’ waists.
If Erdei’s American career takes off with anything approaching the success DiBella’s PR campaign has achieved thus far, Zsolt is probably destined for the Boxing Hall of Fame. His inspirational tale has already produced a prominently-placed feature in last Sunday’s New York Times, which overcame its well-chronicled boxing animus to run a story that described Erdei as “Hungary’s most famous athlete and, noting that Zsolt is here and his wife in Budapest, even commiserated over the difficulty of toilet-training his 4 year-old son via transatlantic telephone.
“Végbélsár a vécécsésze, Fiam!
Erdei has one of those classic Magyar noses, rather like a miniature ski-jump, and mindful of the schnozzes of Pete and Charley Gogoloak, the Hungarian-born NFL placekickers of the 1960s and 70s, one which seems to have survived more or less intact despite 294 amateur and professional fights.
“Actually my nose was broken just once, Zsolt revealed through an interpreter. “By Yuri Barashian. He butted me with his head.
As is the case with most any Hungarian who ever boxed, Erdei grew up idolizing Laszlo Papp (“I have tapes of many of his fights, and I even met him, said Erdei of the legendary three-time Olympic Champion). “Papp was so much his hero that Zsolt tried to turn himself into a southpaw to be like him, said manager Christof Hawerkamp.
Hamstrung by governmental regulations, Papp didn’t turn pro until he was 31, shortly after he outpointed Jose Torres in Melbourne to win his third gold medal. Although he won all 27 of his fights in Europe over the next eight years, when he finally signed for a championship fight, the Hungarian government denied him an exit visa, and he retired without ever fighting for the title.
If bureaucratic red tape frustrated Papp’s career, Erdei blames Universum for minimizing his own chances. Although he defended his WBO title a dozen times, all of the fights were in Europe, mostly in Germany, and fights against the likes of Roy Jones, Antonio Tarver, and Glencoffe Johnson remained the stuff of dreams.
“He wanted to fight the best and he still does,’ said DiBella. “He made plenty of money in his career, so that isn’t what this is about. He wants to fight in America to showcase what he hopes will be his legacy.
Erdei fights under the Nom de Ring “Firebird, which derives not from the Stravinsky composition but from his boyhood fascination with things avian. His theme song is a catchy Hungarian ditty called Szállj el kismadár by the band Republic, and Zsolt enters the arena flapping his arms like a bird, much in the manner of Jack Nicholson on the back of Peter Fonda’s Harley in Easy Rider.
If, as DIBella hopes, the next step in the Americanization of Zsolt Erdei is a role in a televised fight, you might see him into the ring to the Holy Modal Rounders singing “If You Want To Be A Bird.