Thursday, January 23, 2014
Szpilka: No excuses despite snafu
By Dan Rafael
Heavyweight Artur Szpilka had just landed at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on Jan. 12 after a 12-hour flight from Poland. He was tired but excited to be in the United States and counting down the days until the biggest fight of his career, a showdown with fellow unbeaten rising contender Bryant Jennings.
But the 24-year-old Szpilka was held up at customs and informed that he did not have the proper visa to enter the United States, at which point the Department of Homeland Security turned him away and put him on a flight back to Poland a couple of hours later.
Talk about an unexpected -- and wholly unwelcome -- development.
While Szpilka's team, including trainer Fioder Lapin, had their paperwork in order and entered the country with no issues, Szpilka was back on a plane while leaving his team behind to hope for the best.
Ultimately, with the hard work of Warriors Boxing promoter Leon Margules, who is also an attorney, as well as assistance from the United States embassy in Poland, Szpilka (16-0, 12 KOs) was granted the waiver that he needed -- a process done in almost record time -- and he returned to the U.S. on Jan. 17.
It meant yet another long flight, but he is here now and ready to fight Philadelphia's 29-year-old Jennings (17-0, 9) on Saturday night (HBO, 9:45 p.m. ET/PT) at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York in the co-feature to junior lightweight titlist Mikey Garcia's mandatory defense against Juan Carlos Burgos.
"The first moment after I arrived was the most confusing," Szpilka told ESPN.com through a translator on Thursday. "I didn't know what was going on or why or how it happened. The confusion of not knowing was the worst part. I was not mad but I was confused and did not know what was going on.
"There was a translator [at customs] and he mentioned I needed this certain waiver but they could not explain what kind until I landed back in Poland. The whole time flying back to Poland I didn't know what they wanted."
Szpilka had fought six previous times in the United States, including two of his four bouts in 2013 (both exciting knockout victories in brawls in Chicago against Mike Mollo), without any visa issues. So Szpilka was obviously concerned that his biggest fight was in jeopardy. But he said he stayed calm and believed the situation would be ironed out.
"It was craziness from the beginning but the only time I was down was when I was on the plane going back to Poland," he said. "But what I was thinking was there must be some reason behind this and we would figure it out."
Once Szpilka got back to Poland, he continued to train. He stayed in touch with Lapin via Skype and the trainer laid out a specific hour-by-hour schedule for Szpilka to follow each day until they were reunited.
"I was able to do the training I was supposed to do," Szpilka said. "Basically the only training time I missed was flying in and out."
To many fighters the massive disruption to their schedule, not to mention so much flying and crossing so many times zones, would be difficult to overcome. Szpilka, however, was upbeat. He said what happened will have zero impact on his fight with Jennings.
"No, no, no, no, no excuses. I will have no excuses," Szpilka said. "It will have no bearing whatsoever on this fight. I am not a guy looking for excuses. It will be Bryant Jennings looking for excuses after our fight."