Exactly 15 years ago today, on July 11, 1996, a match happened that will forever have a place in the annals of boxing history. It was a non-title bout between Riddick “Big Daddy” Bowe and Andrew “Powerful Pole” Golota. Bowe was returning to his backyard—fighting in New York’s Madison Square Garden—to prove that he was the best heavyweight in boxing. Golota was an undefeated pugilist from Chicago by way of Warsaw. The rest is history….
The predominant belief was that this was just a tune-up fight for Bowe, who at the time was widely regarded as the best heavyweight. Experts thought “Big Daddy’s” handlers were matching him against a guy who would make him look good before a mega-fight with Mike Tyson. Bowe himself believed that Golota would last no more than three rounds. However, he and everybody else were mistaken. From the opening bell, it was clear that Golota had the size and the skill to compete with Bowe. As the rounds progressed, all in the arena were shocked, amazed, and perplexed. Shocked and amazed that Golota was so good, perplexed as to why he kept throwing low blows.
Bowe had clearly underestimated Golota coming into their first fight. The Brownsville native viewed his opponent as a Polish joke. The actual seven rounds of the contest were no joke, however, as Bowe painfully discovered. He was in there against a guy who at moments resembled Jack Dempsey. Bowe would never have imagined in his worst nightmare how tough Golota would turn out to be. In preparation for the match, Bowe even questioned why he had to train so hard for the Warsaw native….
Surprising, Bowe’s underestimation, because Golota was 28-0 with 25 KO’s, and making noise on USA’s Tuesday Night Fights, particularly versus hard-punching Tongan Samson Po’uha (W TKO 5). Golota had also decisioned Marion Wilson twice, and knocked out Emanuel Steward-trained Danell “Doc” Nicholson. Against Po’uha and Nicholson, Golota seized back the momentum after taking a vicious neck bite and throwing a fierce head-butt, respectively. When Bowe realized it, it was too late, because the 28-year-old Golota was already out-jabbing him. Golota out-jabbed a Riddick Bowe who was considered to have the best jab in the heavyweight division. Unfortunately, the Pole did not keep his punches up. Round seven, boom, another low blow, boom, down goes Bowe, boom, in comes Rock Newman, and finally boom…we have just witnessed one of the biggest boxing riots ever.
What transpired on the night of July 11, 1996, was amazing and unbelievable, which is why it got so much attention. Bowe-Golota I immediately became the subject of well-known television shows. Notably, the fight was featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter. The entertainment industry got a kick out of Golota, who was invited to be a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The Pole was offered roles in films, such as the The Day of the Jackal, where he was supposed to play a Russian mafia goon. The November 1996 cover of Ring Magazine pictured Bowe down in pain after that final low blow, with the headline reading “POLE-AXED.” The Ring named Bowe-Golota I the 1996 Event of the Year, calling it “Riot at the Garden.” In the December 1997 issue of Ring, the match was ranked #8 on the Top 10 Dirtiest Fights of All-Time. In 2003, HBO included the Bowe-Golota fights in its Legendary Nights series, which chronicled the 12 most memorable boxing matches on the network within the last 30 years.
Why did Golota get disqualified, and was it on purpose? According to the Polish-born pugilist, the only intentional south of the border punch was in round two, “The first low blow was real,” adding “Bowe hit me behind the head and in the kidney, and I said, ‘You’ve got to feel something too. Here’s something back.’ ” When Golota was penalized one point for borderline shots in rounds four, six, and seven, he had not been looking at where he was throwing his punches, same goes for the second low blow in the seventh round, which ultimately got him disqualified. This means that those low blows were not on purpose, just as George Foreman’s analysis suggested on the fight’s HBO telecast during the riot, “I think it was really an accident.” “He’s fighting a taller guy, he’s not accustomed to it.” “It wasn’t intentional, he’s winning the fight…” However, most people condone or do not believe that Golota did not purposely throw those low blows. It seems as though Golota unwillingly developed a bad reputation due to low blows that were unintentional (although the rematch was a different story…). Lou Duva, legendary Italian-American trainer, said afterwards, “I’ve looked at the last low blow on tape 20 times, and you couldn’t knock over my grandmother with that punch.” “Bowe was losing, so he put on an act, and it was an Academy Award performance.” Both Bowe and his manager, Rock Newman, refused to respond to these comments. Lou stood in Golota’s corner for both Bowe battles and during the peak of the Pole’s career in the 90s. In the midst of the riot, Lou got too emotional because he knew the fight belonged to his man, so got caught up in the unfolding mayhem, where he became weak and was rushed to the hospital. A ring full of “thugs and hooligans” (Jim Lampley, 1996) was certainly the last place for a 74-year-old man to be. It all started when Bowe fell to the canvas and began rolling around in apparent anguish….
The post-fight melee felt like such a cultural clash—between white Poles and Brownsville blacks. The disorder was comparable to a soccer riot, which usually takes a turn for the violent worst (as you soccer junkies are aware). When the riot erupted, it was Brooklyn black and brown versus Polish white and red. It was an ethnic tribal duel that felt very personal, after all, two opposite worlds collided where there was no love lost to begin with. The white-and-red flag was ripped from the Polish faithful by Bowe supporters. People were getting hit over the head with steel chairs—nothing can come closer to WWE—pounded to the ground, shoved, kicked, punched, thrown, etc. The ring, surrounding areas, and stands were a complete mess. Fourteen people were arrested, all mostly of African-American and Polish background. One of the arrestees was Jason Harris, a member of Bowe’s security staff who attacked Golota by clubbing him with a walkie-talkie on the back of the head (which required 13 stitches to Golota’s scalp). A total of 22 people suffered injuries. Order was restored about 23 minutes after the fight ended. Trouble was, safer security force had not arrived until about 15 minutes after Golota was attacked.
It seems everything was just wrong that night. There was not an adequate security task force, so is it surprising that what transpired was uncontrollable havoc? The crowd was exceptionally energetic. The intensity could be felt even before the first bell rang, when half of the arena was packed with fans of the Polish fighter, waving the national flag, which did not cheer the Brownsville contingent. Also, two fighters with bad tendencies were matched in the ring. Golota needs no further elaboration, but Bowe himself was no stranger to foul antics. He did a 360 on Elijah Tillery in their fight and sucker-punched Larry Donald at the pre-fight press conference. So “Big Daddy” was not an angel who required lamenting after he was sunk with those low blows. That does not mean what Golota did was right or that Bowe deserved it, it simply implies that karma eventually caught up with Bowe. However, it was ultimately Golota who led this affair to a disastrous climax.
Golota’s biography is filled with action and adventure (literally). Andrew came to the U.S. in 1990 after fleeing Poland while still facing assault and robbery charges that could carry five years behind bars. He says that he first thought about boxing after getting punched in the face in fourth grade. He had stuttered in his youth, and therefore took some teasing from classmates, which led to after-school fights. Andrew was a street kid, and sooner or later his aggressiveness would have to be put to productive use. Recognizing the true grit in his 12-year-old nephew, his uncle Zdzisław, a watchmaker, brought him to a boxing club. Ten years later Golota was capping off a stellar amateur career that included winning a bronze medal at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul (which still remains his biggest achievement). In the spring of ’90, Golota would go so far as to steal another man’s clothes, which he decided to deposit into a trash receptacle. This resulted at a disco when a gentleman confronted the 22-year-old Golota to move out of his path. Andrew refused, and did God only knows what to the poor guy, who was found wearing only a shiner, one shoe, and his underwear. Golota, who was unbeaten in barroom brawls, said of the incident, “I didn’t want to hurt the guy.” “I just wanted to make him look silly.” Golota surely succeeded with that (but had the help of several boxing buddies). If only Riddick Bowe had done his research and discovered Andrew’s mean street persona, maybe “Big Daddy” would not have looked so flabby and out-matched. Bowe was smarter in the rematch, coming in much lighter and looser.
“Big Daddy” and the “Powerful Pole” were the two best fighters on the planet at the time of their first bout in Madison Square Garden. At that time, no one questioned that Bowe was better than titleholders Michael Moorer and Bruce Seldon, and most felt that Bowe would easily whoop Tyson because “Iron Mike” was not the same after being released from prison and was knocked out by Holyfield (who Bowe brutally kayoed in November ’95). As for Golota, well, he thrashed Bowe from pillar-to-post, throwing some ferocious combos and body shots, out-jabbing “Big Daddy” handily. In short, he was beating Bowe in every way fathomable, looking so superior to the uncrowned king of the heavyweight division. Holyfield’s 1992 defeat of Riddick was no match to the sound beating by Golota, which was in less than seven rounds! If you are dominating Riddick Bowe, you are more than just good, you are better than good. Nobody ever gave Bowe such a thrashing before. If only the Pole did not hit Bowe with those “banana cream pies,” (Larry Merchant, 1999) maybe he would have gone on to earn the accolades he deserved. It was also Merchant who said after their rematch that neither Bowe nor Golota would ever be the same again. This proved true, especially for Bowe, both physically and mentally. He was obviously never the same after December ’96, and the comeback that began in 2004 was too sad to watch—the former champ was extremely overweight. Prior, he was in serious legal trouble after kidnapping his wife and kids, which his defense lawyers argued was due to brain damage suffered in boxing (and it was versus Golota that the Brooklyn brawler absorbed the most punishment). He was even criticized by his own mother, Dorothy Bowe, who before the Dec. 14, 1996, rematch told him that if he was going to get his ass whooped like that again, he might as well retire. This likely took a mental toll on the 6’5’’ Bowe.
Where are they today? After receiving a second vicious beating by Golota, Bowe unexpectedly announced that he was joining the United States Marine Corps (where he lasted not even a week). After came an 18-month stint in prison, followed by a surprising return to the ring (3 wins, 1 TKO). Currently, Bowe is trying to rebuild his life by working as a trainer in health centers around wealthy regions of Washington D.C. Golota meanwhile has been much more active in the ring. The Chicago-based heavyweight has resumed training under the watchful eye of longtime trainer Sam Colonna. Colonna said that he will be with Andrew until the Pole hangs up his gloves. Rumor has is that Golota will fight just once more in his career, in a farewell fight, possibly in Poland. Interestingly, Jameel McCline (former four-time world heavyweight title challenger) has said he wants to fight Andrew. More interesting, however, is that “Big Daddy” called out his Polish foe a couple of times in the past few years. Their first two classic wars were among the most exciting heavyweight bouts in history. Thus, a trilogy would certainly be enticing to watch. Bowe-Golota III? Hey, this is boxing, anything can happen….
All in all, July 11, 1996, will forever be remembered as a night of infamy.