The Ring Cycle

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

Grigsby dances his way down the aisle to the ring, a makeshift platform of scaffold and wire rigged up dead square in the middle of the ballroom, and ducks under the ropes. He loosens his taut, finely muscled body with jerky, frenetic movements. His foe, Carmelo Caceres, from the Philippines, was shipped in at the last second, after a more highly regarded fighter backed out. Visa troubles, King's people said. From the opening bell, the fight proceeds at a cautious tempo--a little surprising, considering that these are small fighters. Generally, boxers in the lower-weight classes are busier in the ring than their heavier counterparts, their greatest virtue from an aesthetician's perspective. As Grigsby's trainer, Dennis Presley, puts it, "You watch a heavyweight, they throw maybe 20 punches a round. Guys from 147 pounds down, they'll throw 150 punches a round." Caceres, however, doesn't throw much. He circles, backpedals, bobs furtively, and feints for most of the bout. Grigsby, meanwhile, flecks away at the Filipino with a stiff jab, landing occasional rights and racking up the points.

In the 12th and final round, Grigsby turns on, dropping Caceres to the canvas with a swift left hook to the body. Caceres, with a look of gunshot surprise, rises quickly to finish the fight. Unanimous decision. With the victory, Grigsby is all but assured a spot on yet another King bill, and another sweet payday. He thrusts his arms upward in the traditional "winner and still champ" pose, an oversized red-and-gold IBF belt draped across his midriff, his gold-capped incisor glinting in the spotlight.

 

Back in the Day

The decline of the popularity of boxing in Minnesota remains a subject of considerable debate, theorizing, and caterwauling among local fistic elites. "It used to be boxing was a big event," laments Jim O'Hara, the executive secretary of the seven-member state boxing board, which regulates both amateur and professional fights in Minnesota, except most of those held at casinos. "I guess it really changed when the Vikings and the Twins came to town." A former state heavyweight champ, O'Hara remembers the days when Twin Cities fight fans could take in 30 or more professional bouts a year--back in the 1930s. In the '40s and '50s, aficionados used to pay admission at the old Potts Gymnasium in downtown Minneapolis just to watch workouts featuring the renowned Del Flanagan--by most estimates, the greatest boxer the state ever produced. Through the '60s and into the early '70s, amateur fights, held under the auspices of the Golden Gloves, routinely packed the old Minneapolis Armory with as many as 10,000 spectators. These days a crowd of a thousand is deemed a big success.

Since its heyday, the Minnesota boxing scene has cycled through erratic peaks and abiding valleys. The occasional surges are contingent on the emergence of fighters with enough skill and charisma to fill the hotel ballrooms or tavern parking lots where most fights are put on. Lately, those boxers have been scarce. "The fighters you got headlining today would be the curtain-raisers back when Del fought. These kids today aren't hungry like they were before," says Jerry Flanagan, brother of both Del and Glen Flanagan, who was standout boxer as well. For many old-timers, the decline in the quality of both the boxers and the cards has been tough to swallow. Asked to provide photographs of Del for this article, Jerry declined, saying, "I don't want to mix Del and Glen with a bunch of punch-drunk palookas and four-round fighters."

According to O'Hara, there are just 20 active prizefighters in the state--down from some 200 in the 1930s. Still, O'Hara takes pains to note, the so-called golden age of boxing in Minnesota was not without its dark side. There weren't many regulations back then: no mandatory medicals, no requirement that fighters lay off for a month after suffering a knockout. Boxers fought too often, for too long, he says. "There was a lot of fighters around when I was young, and everyone had cauliflower ears and busted noses. I saw a lot of broken people. When they were through with boxing, there was nothing left for them. I buried some of those guys."

In the past decade, professional cards in Minnesota have been put on only sporadically, most often at outstate casinos far from the inner-city neighborhoods that produce the state's best fighters and remain home to their most avid fans. Some insiders blame it on the rise of televised boxing. Anyone with a decent cable package can watch prizefighting in his living room instead of shelling out $20 to $50 for live bouts in town. Some point to the explosion of major-league sports, which has eroded both the talent pool and the fan base for boxing. Some fault boxing's anarchic organization, what with three major sanctioning bodies (all with different champions) and an expanded field of weight divisions; the traditional eight classes have been blown up to a cumbersome seventeen, making it hard for all but the most astute fans to keep up on the current ring rulers. And some blame it on the print media, which they believe covers only the soiled-and-spoiled side of boxing or, worse yet, ignores it altogether. A watershed moment for local fistiana? Maybe in the early '70s, when the Minneapolis Star newspaper discontinued its sponsorship of the Upper Midwest Golden Gloves tournament, the annual showcase for amateur fighters and the forum in which most local pros cut their teeth. Coverage of the Upper Midwest finals in the dailies has dropped to near nil.

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