The Ring Cycle

Can Twin Cities boxing fight its way back into the fistic spotlight?

The Homecoming--March 6, University of Minnesota Sports Pavilion

It's showtime, and the arena is crawling with busty blondes, tattooed tough guys, rat-faced loners, raspy old-timers, rascals, saints, and a lot of working stiffs just off the day shift. High-amp rock cranks from the public-address system. Flashpots burst like exploding suns. The ring announcer, Jimmy Lennon Jr., is roiling the crowd for the entrance of tonight's star. "Ladies and gentlemen," he bellows in a polished basso profundo, "Don 'Only in America' King!" King glides out of the black haze and into the spotlight--the world's freakiest, most famous boxing promoter: Convicted killer (pardoned by Ohio's lame-duck governor in '83), onetime Cleveland numbers racket kingpin, maker of champions, ruthless spoiler of sucker fighters; the man whose upswept electroshock hairdo, heavyweight hero Larry Holmes once joked, hides devil's horns.

People have said a lot of nasty things about King over the years, in private, in public, sometimes in lawsuits. But not on this night. Striding through the crowd, a diamond-studded crucifix dangling in the V of his tuxedo, the beaming promoter passes a bevy of bikini-clad card girls (courtesy of the Déjà Vu strip club). He surveys the crowd with signature cool, flashes the practiced grin that has served him so well for most of his 66 years, and grabs the mic. All the big boxing promotions have names. This one, the great hustler barks, will forever be known as "The Homecoming." At that, he snakes his way to a ringside seat, right next to Minnesota's most famous ex-professional athlete, Jesse Ventura. By the measure of introductory bombast, King is indeed the brightest luminary of the evening. In boxing, the most powerful men usually are.

The card, a nine-bout, pay-per-view deal put on in conjunction with U.S. Satellite Broadcasting (a subsidiary of locally owned Hubbard Broadcasting), represents a rare moment of exposure for the state's beleaguered, nearly invisible fight scene. More than 4,000 fans have turned out--not a full house, but a respectable showing, considering that the card is competing with the high school hockey tournament across the street at Mariucci Arena. In fact, this is the largest fight crowd the state has produced since 1980, when some 8,000 folks flocked to the old Met Sports Center to watch reigning world champion Larry Holmes batter native son Scott LeDoux to a stump. LeDoux had his 15 minutes of pop-culture glory as the man who knocked off Howard Cosell's toupee on live TV (during a melee in a scandal-plagued Don King tournament back in 1977). But he's remembered around here as the guy who took on, and lost to, a lion's share of the era's heavyweights. Now age 50 and a commissioner with Minnesota's State Board of Boxing, LeDoux is on hand tonight--still trim, with a beefy mug straight out of central casting and a big barrel chest. For that matter, just about everyone with a claim to membership in Minnesota's small, contentious boxing fraternity is here. The Pooh-Bahs. The gym sages. The worn-out warriors. The up-and-comers. The promoters. The trainers. All bathing in the rare glow of a TV fight on home turf.

In the chump-change bouts, before King's grand entrance, Mark "Two Gun" Tang, a welterweight out of South Minneapolis, swaggered into the ring to the boisterous approval of his ragtag following. Tang had wangled his way onto the card, the story goes, by pure serendipity--the stuff of boxing lore: Tang's working at a Warehouse District steak joint, where he waits on King. He introduces himself as a fighter, with eight wins, four losses, and one draw under his belt. King, in a good mood from what he calls "the gustatory delight" of the cuisine, grants Tang a spot on the bill. (At a press conference earlier in the week, King digressed from a rambling soliloquy about the history of Minnesota, dotted with astonishing references to obscure figures like nineteenth-century explorer Zebulon Pike, to offer this assessment of Tang: "If he can fight as well as he can wait tables, somebody's gonna have a rough night!") A former amateur champ, Tang is a classic banger, the sort of boxer who eschews both the sweetness and the science of the "sweet science" in the interest of exchanging as many blows as humanly possible--a crowd-pleasing métier, if a touch artless, that earns him up another win tonight.

For the national TV audience, the big attractions are a pair of ranked heavyweights, Larry "The Legend" Donald, regarded as a competent but uninspired craftsman, and Henry Akinwande, the World Boxing Association's number one contender. Both Donald and Akinwande are King fighters and thus they did not fight one another--an apt illustration of the peculiar calculus of a sport in which the interests of the fan and the business seldom intersect. Instead, they pair up with a couple of out-of-town club fighters trucked in to provide their more prominent foes a routine tuneup and another no-brainer win. The Akinwande fight, in particular, proves to be an embarrassment: a second-round technical knockout of a plump, defenseless tomato can from the Bahamas.

For local fans, though, the 17 other boxers on the bill are really beside the point. Everyone has come to see "Steel" Will Grigsby. At five-foot-four, with a fighting weight of just 106 pounds, the 29-year-old St. Paul native established himself as the most formidable figure on the Minnesota scene last December, when he claimed the International Boxing Federation's vacant junior flyweight title. The Homecoming is Grigsby's first defense of his belt.

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