Friday, January 15, 2016

Artur Szpilka and Rocky Baboa: Life imitates art

By Peter Lim

If life mimics art, Artur Szpilka's world heavyweight title shot this Saturday sure bears some uncanny parallels to the 1977 academy award winning flick Rocky. And since Sylvester Stallone penned the screenplay loosely based on former fringe contender Chuck Wepner's valiant attempt at wresting the heavyweight championship from Mohammad Ali in 1975, this is actually a case of life imitating art imitating life.

Szpilka (20-1, 15 KOs) takes on WBC heavyweight titleholder Deontay Wilder (35-0, 34 KOs) in a Showtime-televised bout at the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, NY, on Saturday. A native of Warsaw, Poland, Szpilka, 26, moved to Houston last year to train at the Plex Gym under Ronnie Shields.

In the movie Stallone’s character Rocky Balboa found himself plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight for a chance at the most coveted prize in boxing when heavyweight champion Apollo Creed’s challenger pulled out at the last minute. The same scenario led to Szpilka being offered the WBC title shot when Wilder’s original opponent withdrew seven weeks prior to the fight. Despite the relative short notice, Szpilka did not hesitate to accept the challenge.

“When I was young I dreamed of this,” Szplilka said. “I know I can win. I’m hungry.”

Szpilka enters the ring a heavy underdog, as Balboa did in the movie against the physically bigger knockout artist that was Creed. While Creed had stopped every opponent he had faced, Wilder, 30, comes pretty darn close, sporting a 97 percent knockout rate. At six-foot-seven, Wilder towers over Szpilka who stands six-foot-three.

“He’s tall but he’s not big,” Szpilka said. “I don’t care (if) everybody thinks he has strong punch and everybody is scared of him. I love fighting tall guys.”

In the movie, Creed’s handlers cautioned him about venturing into unfamiliar southpaw turf. Guess what? Wilder’s pro experience against southpaws is limited to the one minute and 10 seconds it took him to dispatch badly faded former Olympic gold medalist Audley Harrison in 2013.

“He’s never fought with southpaw like me,” Szpilka said.

Shields, though, played down Szpilka’s left handedness as merely something incidental.

“It’s not the southpaw style that’s going to get him; Artur Szpilka is going to get him,” Shields said. “It’s not because of his style that he’s going to win the fight; he’s going to win the fight because he’s a better fighter.”

Mickey, Balboa’s grizzled trainer, conditioned him to rip the body with murderous intentions, a tactic Balboa successfully deployed that almost won him the fight in the final round against Creed.

Here’s what Shields had to say about his game plan: “We will get inside (Wilder’s reach) and we’re going to do something that a lot of people haven’t done and that is go to his body. Go look at all of his fights and see how many times he’s been hit to the body – not a whole lot.”

Rocky will not be the movie it is without Balboa’s love interest Adrienne, played by Talia Shire. Szpilka would not be the man he is without his girlfriend of four years Camila, whom he says keeps him grounded. And just like Adrienne gifted Balboa a dog named Butkus from her pet shop, Szpilka’s pooch Cycu came over from Poland along with Camila.

A pivotal moment in the movie occurs when Balboa comes to the realization that he is in over his head about dethroning the champion and strives instead for the lesser milestone of becoming the first man to last the distance against Creed. This is where the real life script diverges way off course from the fictional one. Artur Szpilka vows he is in it to win it, and not just go the distance.

"He talks shit every time, but he will have trouble," Szpilka said. "I have confidence and I will be champ.

“I will fight hard and after the fight you will hear, ‘the new heavyweight champion of the world.’”