CHICAGO - While wolfing down a steak with my wife at a hotel near downtown Milwaukee, a very large human being entered the cafe, creating a stir on what had been a quiet breakfast.
As the other diners curiously watched and wondered, I knew exactly who the giant was.
He used to be a murderous puncher who fought for the heavyweight title four times from 1997 to 2005. He also brawled with Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, separately of course.
It was Andrew Golota.
As a sports fan growing up, boxing was my first love, basketball a beloved mistress. The sight of Golota in the flesh gave me the urge to eject from my seat and meet him, but I was restrained by the unwritten rules of etiquette and common courtesy.
So I asked a waitress instead, gave her a few bucks to do my bidding.
Luckily, Golota gave me a look, not a hook. He stood and walked briskly toward my direction. "What's up?" he asked, his dark, penetrating blue eyes darting mine. His hands were huge and thick and it swallowed mine like a cave when he shook it.
A stratospheric 6-foot-4, Golota weighed 240 pounds during his prime. He won a bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics and fought professionally for 21 years. He retired in 2013 with a record of 41 wins (33 KOs), 9 defeats and a draw.
Upon retirement, most fighters take care of their bodies with loving neglect, choosing the buffet table over the punching bag. Golota, who appears to love joy food instead of junk food, is a rare exception.
"I still train everyday," he said. "Why?" I marveled. "I die if I don't," he jabbed back.
Here's another exception - Golota is not financially broken as most retired boxers are.
"We always made sure his taxes were paid," Andrew's wife Mariola, a lawyer in Chicago, told me after I sat and joined them in their table. Taxes from big purses incur heavy penalties when left unpaid, eventually drowning a fighter in debt.
"It's fu##ed up," Golota said of the heavyweight division.
Indeed, the division, once prowled by legends like Ali and Frazier, Tyson and Lewis, is just heavy now. It has lost its weight in gold. Boxing in general is dying from a dearth in talent. The only demands that pay-per-view fights get are for refunds, not repeats.
"He is great. Very exciting to watch," Golota said of Manny Pacquiao, who carried boxing on his back for many years, plowing through eight divisions with ruthless dominance before age and politics slowed him down.
Against Lennox Lewis (October 1997), Chris Byrd (April 2004), John Ruiz (November 2005) and Lamon Brewster (May 2000), Golota lost all four bids to win the WBC, IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight titles.
But he still had one heck of a career. Some fighters spend a lifetime without even getting a whiff of a championship fight.
And this much I can say, he was a champ during the ambush interview. Thoughtful in his responses and generous with his time. In other words, he was a knockout.
Postscript. Andrew Golota will always be remembered for his two fights against Riddick Bowe in July 11 and December 14 of 1996. He was leading in both encounters before being disqualified for repeated low blows. It earned him the monicker "The Foul Pole."
"I've spent a lot of time thinking about what happened....I've just got to control myself," Golota told the New York Times in June 17, 1997. In that article, writer Gerald Eskenazi penned that Golota's penchant for low blows could be traced back to his days fighting in the mean streets of Warsaw, Poland where he was orphaned in his early teens.
I was tempted to ask Golota about this episode in his career but prudence dictated otherwise. By granting me a surprise interview and then inviting me to join his table, I felt like Andrew invited me to his home. It would have been stupid and disrespectful to pee on the carpet.