Highest of Highs, Lowest of Lows: Lunch with Diana Prazak
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Highest of Highs, Lowest of Lows: Lunch with Diana Prazak
By Anthony Cocks, Doghouse Boxing (July 26, 2013)

Diana Prazak
Diana Prazak & Lucia Rijker
Diana Prazak KO Win
Diana Prazak & Lucia Rijker
(Photos © Team Prazak)
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When Australian super featherweight Diana Prazak stepped into the ring at the Water Front Congress SAS Radisson in Stockholm, Sweden on 14th June 2013, she had every right to be confident.

Carrying an 11-2 (7) ledger at the time and with the famed Lucia Rijker in her corner, the 33 year-old was in her physical prime and career-best form after a gruelling seven week training camp in her adopted hometown of Los Angeles.

Standing across the ring from her was Frida “Golden Girl” Wallberg, the WBC super featherweight champion and hometown hero with an unblemished record of 11-0 (2).

At best, the fight represented a great opportunity for the pressure-fighting Prazak to wrest a genuine world title from a reigning champion. At worst, a defeat on points against the feather-fisted Wallberg.

What happened over the course of the next eight rounds would alter the direction of both their careers.

After fighting largely on auto-pilot for the first four rounds, Prazak shifted up a gear in the fifth and began to turn the tide. Chipping away as the rounds progressed, the tenacious Prazak found her moment in the 8th, manufacturing an opening for her savage left hook after a pair of right hands to the body momentarily left her opponent’s chin unguarded.

Despite 10oz gloves being used as per Swedish boxing regulations, the velocity of the blow swivelled Wallberg’s head and sent her crashing backwards to the canvas.

Wallberg was quickly to her feet to receive her mandatory 8-count from referee Bela Florian, but soon found her way back to the deck courtesy of a Prazak right hand.

This time, referee Florian waved off the fight.

Wallberg gingerly returned to her corner with claret leaking from her nose while Prazak and Rijker celebrated their victory.

Their celebrations would be short lived.

Draped uncomfortably over the top rope and with the ringside physician apparently already on his way to his car, it was left to Rijker and Prazak to call for medical attention for a fast-fading Wallberg.

The former champion was rushed to hospital and diagnosed with a subdural hematoma – or bleeding on the brain in layman’s terms – before undergoing emergency surgery to relieve pressure on the brain and being placed in an induced coma. Wallberg, who was ahead on all three cards 68-65 at the time of the knockout, is expected to make a full recovery but is unlikely to ever be licenced to fight again.

The circumstances of the win made for a hollow victory for Prazak and Rijker, who had only 15 seconds to savour their championship moment before the gravity of the situation set in.

While Wallberg was still in a coma, Prazak, a practising Buddhist, seriously considered giving away the sport she loved.

“Nobody wants to win this way,” a clearly shaken Prazak said in the immediate aftermath of the fight.

**********

Fast-forward one month and I am sitting in an inner city Italian café owned by former world kickboxing champion Sam Greco, waiting for my lunch date.

Don Camillo is a comfortable place that serves quality Italian food and coffee. Photos of various sporting personalities seem to cover every square inch of wall space.

I order a domestic beer and start to sip. There’s certainly worse places to wait.

After five minutes Diana Prazak arrives, WBC belt tucked under her arm. I spot her first and wave her over. She takes a seat, apologises for being late, and orders a local beer too.

I tell her she shouldn’t feel compelled to drink the same beer as me.

“I prefer VB,” she tells me.

I am quietly impressed.

Now that a month has passed since the fight and Frida is by all accounts on the road to recovery, Diana has had time to reflect on the win and the planning that went into it.

“We knew going into the fight that there was no chance we could win unless it was by knockout,” explains Prazak.

“Everyone knows when you go to someone’s hometown, their home country, you can only win by knockout. Unless you beat the crap out of them for ten, twelve rounds like Daniel Geale did [in Germany], like Sam Soliman did [in Germany]. And you still might only just win.

“With this fight it was pretty much made perfectly clear to us that you won’t win unless it’s by knockout – and there’s no way you win by knockout either. So we knew where we stood when we went there. Our whole game plan was all about the knockout. We trained for the knockout and nothing but. We didn’t care about winning each round, that never entered our thoughts.

“It was a WBC fight, so there was open scoring. Lucia was given scores but she threw then away because she didn’t care about them. They were non-existent, they didn’t mean anything to us. And we expected to lose every single round.

“So our game plan for this fight was really simple. And what we trained for was consistent body shots, consistent body work, to punch when she was punching and to always finish on the left hand.

“And that’s what won us the fight.”

After a slow start, Prazak’s bodywork began to pay dividends midway through the bout. A sweeping right hand early in the 7th stunned a slowing Wallberg. Prazak continued to apply pressure in the 8th and knew the moment would come for her to close the show.

“The knockout came from two right-hand body shots, roll with the punch, and finish with the left hand,” says a grinning Prazak as she shuffles in her seat to show how she set up the hook.

“That was the game plan the whole way through.

“That was the Lucia Rijker hook. We practiced that left hook a thousand times a day for seven weeks. Lucia had a counter and we literally did it for one thousand times a day, for seven weeks. We did that and we kept doing that.

“It worked perfectly. And if you watch the full fight the game plan was working. It took me probably four rounds to really get my rhythm and to relax in the fight.

“Sometimes, and especially for this fight, I was a robot for four rounds. And Lucia says to this day, ‘thank God your autopilot is one that keeps punching, takes punches, and does exactly what I yell’. Lucia says I’m not even present in the first four rounds. I have no recollection of the first four rounds. I’m on autopilot and my autopilot is to punch and it doesn’t stop.”

**********
We order lunch. I choose the chili prawns and another beer. Diana opts for lasagne, entrée size.

As we break a little bread as we wait for our meals to arrive, the conversation moves to the perception of Aussie boxers in the States.

“We’ve had so many great fighters,” enthuses Prazak, who trains out of Freddie Roach’s famed Wild Card Gym in Hollywood under the astute eye of Lucia Rijker. “Michael Katsidis, a pressure fighter. Robbie Peden. But we don’t celebrate any of our greats, it’s so sad.”

While Australia is renowned as a sports-mad country, it is this lack of recognition for our own sports stars that eventually prompted Prazak to relocate to Los Angeles, where many Australian boxers are held in higher regard than in their own country.

“I train at the Wild Card primarily, and the Aussie fighters have their photos up there. Sam Soliman has his photo up there. Katsidis. And Jeff Fenech. I have a lot of respect for all Australian fighters. I’m not going to stand here and diss an Australian fighter, ever. I don’t care who you fight, it takes a lot of guts to get in that ring.

“But if you fight somebody who is a nobody, there’s always that chance that that nobody is going to ring your bell. That’s what happened with me with Lindsay Garbatt.”

In the Garbatt bout Prazak unexpectedly found herself on the canvas in the first round, despite her notoriously reliable chin.

But it was Prazak who ultimately prevailed, closing the Canadian’s left eye to win by TKO9 in what was an even fight going into the 10th and final round.

“I wasn’t given a hope in hell. I’ve been an underdog in most of my fights. I’m not going to say ‘you’ve got a big mouth’ or ‘you don’t deserve it’. I may not appreciate the way they handle themselves before a fight, but I can’t take away the fact they get in the ring and the skill that they show. Because it does take a lot of courage to get in the ring.”

Along with the highs of winning, Prazak is also familiar with the lows of defeat, losing her pro debut to Sarah “Missy” Howett in 2010 and a world title tilt against American superstar Holly Holm last year. Both fights took place two weight divisions north of where she is most comfortable.

“When I lost to Sarah Howett, I felt like someone had died,” explains Prazak. “I didn’t leave my house for a week, I was inconsolable. I swore I would never lose again after I fought Sarah Howett and I did, against Holly Holm.

“But my only two losses in my career come fighting outside of my weight division. I don’t think many people can say that.

“What truly makes me cringe is when I see a fighter fight somebody who they are supposed to beat, then get up on the ropes in the corner talking about what a champion they are when it was never a true test. I swore I would never be one of those fighters.

“And that’s one of the primary reasons I moved to the U.S. I pride myself on fighting the best in the world. I haven’t got any issue losing to the greater fighter. I learned more from the Holly Holm loss and the loss to Sarah Howett than I’ve learned from my wins. And I will continue to do that.”

**********

As our lunch arrives I ask Diana how she feels about the lack of support for women’s boxing in Australia – from sponsors, promoters and the media – despite the great depth of talent in this country including WBC bantamweight champion Susie Ramadan and recent world title challengers Erin McGowan and Shannon O’Connell.

“We know we have to put it on the line every time we step in the ring,” she sighs, “and I think that’s the big difference between men and women. We have no choice because we don’t know when our next fight is coming. We’re never going to get paid like the men. A standard world title fight for a man who is unknown is $200,000. A woman is lucky to make $2-3 grand for a fight. There are champions out there, six-time, seven-time world champions who are getting $5,000 for world title fights. A man in the same position is offered over a million dollars. We can’t survive the way we are without day jobs. And even with the day jobs we struggle to survive. I know I do.

“Without the support of my family, and without me working six days a week, I mean, I just scrape through now.

“No-one is interested in sponsoring me. And part of the reason – and I can’t blame them for this – is because if it’s not getting media attention, what’s in it for them?”

It’s a classic catch-22 situation with no clear solution.

“I would love to come home and have my WBC title defence in my own country,” says Prazak of her ideal world. “To bring in a quality world champion like a Jelena Mrdjenovich or a Ronica Jeffrey and have my title defence at home. And to show the world that Australia is just as good as the rest of the world, and that we don’t fight bums, we fight champions. And that’s a misconception that the world has about us.

“In Europe, they have it all now. They love female boxing and they make it known they love female boxing. They are taking care of their champions. Argentina, Germany, Peru, they all take care of them and they are headline acts. In Australia, they are not interested in putting girls on.”

It’s a point I’d love to argue, if only it wasn’t true.

**********This is Part 1 of 2. Stay tuned to Doghouse Boxing for Part 2.
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