The Ring Cycle

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

 

"The Champ"

Not even Will Grigsby, the world's reigning junior flyweight champ, gets paid much notice. Grigsby lives in a modest, two-story home on Selby Avenue in St. Paul, over in the Summit-University area. A Beware of Dog sign hangs in a porch window, fair warning to anyone inclined to provoke the temperamental rottweiler inside. A well-tended Mustang convertible 5.0, with gleaming oversized hubs, sits in the gravel driveway. Grigsby grew up in this house, with his three older brothers and late mother Jennie. Her presence lingers in the ample cluster of family portraits on display in the living room. There have been a few recent additions to the décor: a signed proclamation from St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman honoring Grigsby, and, over in a darkened corner, two hard-shell suitcases. Grigsby lays them carefully on the dining room table and pops the locks. Inside each is a championship belt: one from the IBF, lovely and fat and gaudy, sporting a gilded eagle in bas-relief and a sparkling split-hemisphere map of the globe; the other, from a second-tier sanctioning body, the United States Boxing Association. He shows them off with just the hint of a smile.

Grigsby is a counterpuncher--meaning that he is fundamentally reactive, gauging his opponents, responding to their attacks. That quality spills over into his personal manner, a sort of streetwise cool flavored by dashes of shyness and deliberate reserve. When he boxes, his face is a mask. "I try and show no kind of emotion in the ring," Grigsby says. Didn't even tell his own corner about the bruised hand he suffered in the sixth round with Caceres. Didn't want to cause any worry. Early in his career, Grigsby's inscrutable demeanor earned him the moniker "Still Will." The nickname morphed into "Steel Will" because the ex-fighter who coined the tag had a slurred, easily misunderstood speech--the sorry product, the story goes, of too many fights. These days, Grigsby prefers "Steel."

Digging into a plate of pork chops over at Dixie's On Grand, the Southern-fried St. Paul eatery not far from his place, Grigsby is set to recount the wobbly trajectory of his career. He has brought along a pal, a lanky guy from the old days who goes by the name Peanut. A head taller than Grigsby, with rueful eyes, Peanut calls Grigsby "Champ." So do a lot of people around Selby, where Grigsby is the object of considerable pride. Growing up, though, Grigsby often found himself scrapping with other kids from the neighborhood. "It used to be a pretty bad block, one of the worst in the city," he recalls matter-of-factly. "Shootings. Stabbings. Whatever you didn't want going on, it was going on there." It wasn't just mean streets that drew Grigsby to boxing. His dad boxed. His seven uncles boxed; one of them made the U.S. Olympic team.

When Grigsby was 12, he wandered into the Inner City Youth Gym, where he met trainer Dennis Presley. Presley trains Grigsby to this day, and the two have the characteristically close bond of the best trainer-fighter relationships. "Dennis always stuck with me," Grigsby says, "even when we didn't always see eye to eye. All I'd have to do is call him up and say, like, 'Man, let's go to the gym.' He would come. Never turned his back on me or nothing." By the time young Will stepped foot in the gym, Presley had already worked with Grigsby's older brother, Richard, who was undefeated as an amateur fighter before giving up the sport for hoops. Presley saw similar promise in Will. "I've seen a lot of guys with great skill, as much skill," Presley remembers, "but they didn't have the heart."

From the outset, Grigsby had trouble finding sparring partners his size. Working with guys 20 or 30 pounds bigger, he learned to hit hard, to lean into his punches. At age 18, after an impressive amateur career that included three Upper Midwest Golden Gloves championships, he turned professional. At the time, Presley, who now works as an addiction counselor for African American Family Services, was in jail on traffic charges, so Grigsby was fighting for Tommy Brunette. Brunette, a trainer, manager, matchmaker, promoter, and cornerman, is a third-generation St. Paul fight-world guy. (Back in '86, Tommy's brother Brian challenged for a junior welterweight title. Brian is a referee these days, as is another brother, Bob Brunette). Soon enough, Tommy Brunette set up a tell-all match for Grigsby, with former Olympic gold medalist Michael Carbajol.

The bout was held in Atlantic City, as the undercard of a true big-time clash, the great Roberto Duran vs. Iran Barkley. No one expected much from the unknown 18-year-old from St. Paul, but Grigsby fought well. Still, he got careless in the fourth round. Got knocked down. Got up. The fight, a split decision, remains the only loss of his 16-bout pro career. "I took the fight because I wanted to see how good I was," Grigsby remembers. "But it did more bad than good, because after that people knew I could box."

As it turned out, Grigsby didn't fight again for nearly five years. He figured he couldn't get the sorts of matches and purses he deserved, having just enjoyed his moment in the bright lights of Atlantic City. He also experienced what he now calls "managerial difficulties" with Brunette, a dispute over the size of his take for the Carbajol fight--at $1,500, a decent payday for a club fighter, but a far cry from the $25,000 the bout netted Carbajol. So he quit.

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