The Ring Cycle

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

Long layoffs are not uncommon among fighters. Some get disgusted with their pay, or the promoters, or their managers. Or they get tired of being hit. Sometimes, their lives just go to hell. During his down spell, Grigsby had a few minor scrapes with the law--possession of marijuana, traffic offenses. He worked in a mailroom and, as he puts it, "got into my dogs." From the time he was 14, Grigsby has made a hobby of breeding pit bulls and rottweilers. He now keeps a stable of pit bulls on 35 acres he owns near Askov, Minnesota. He fancied piranhas for a time as well. "I guess I just like aggressive animals," he admits with a shrug. "It's real relaxing to watch them, to see 'em eat."

In '94, he came back. The purses were meager, sometimes as little as $400, but Grigsby honed his skills. Before long, he handed the managerial reins to Rory Rowe, a longtime fight fan from St. Paul with an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport and a yen to become a player. Rowe had been promoting cards down in Rochester, learning the peculiar intricacies of the business. He proved a quick study. In 1996, Rowe engineered a minor title shot--for the U.S.B.A. belt--that Grigsby won by decision after a grueling, 12-round body-buster.

After four successful defenses of that title, Grigsby landed the biggest fight of his career: a December 1998 12-rounder in Florida, in a King-produced "Little Giants" special for the then-vacant IBF junior flyweight title. When Grigsby routed his more experienced opponent, Ratanapol Vorapin, he became the first Minnesotan to capture a major belt since another St. Paul fighter, Mike "The Harp" O'Dowd, held the middleweight title back in 1920.

"I think this is a time that the good-fortune side of boxing is tapping us on the shoulder, saying, 'Are you interested?'" Rowe says of Grigsby's ascendance. Presley is similarly optimistic. "I think we're in a position over the next four or five years to really bring boxing to Minnesota on a large scale," he says. "I want to tell all those assholes that say Minnesota kids can't fight to kiss my ass. Now that Will's the champion, these guys are gonna get their chance."

 

Peanuts and Pride

For his first title defense, Grigsby netted, by his estimate, some $55,000. It was a colossal payday by Minnesota standards--and the biggest, by far, of his career. For most pro boxers in the state, purses typically run no more than $600 for appearances on an undercard, $3,000 tops for headliners. As a result, in recent years some of Minnesota's most promising boxers have drifted away in search of more recognition and more lucrative fights.

It's boxing, so, of course, there are sad stories. None is sadder than that of Johnny Montantes, the state's most popular fighter of the mid-'90s. A handsome, sweet-natured lightweight from St. Paul, Montantes lived and breathed boxing. He even named his kid "Marciano" in honor of the late champ. After knockouts, Montantes would do a back flip in the ring, earning him the moniker "Jumping Johnny." In '97, he left St. Paul, where he'd headlined scads of shows put together by Tommy Brunette at the downtown Radisson, and headed for Vegas and bigger paydays. With a 29-3 record, he was looking for a shot at a match that mattered, maybe even a belt. Then one night he ran into a tough journeyman--James Crayton--who delivered a terrible right to Montantes's head in the sixth round. He went down hard and out cold. His brain swelled. Two days later, the doctors shut off Montantes's life support and harvested his organs.

Minnesota fighters, including Grigsby, still dedicate fights to Jumping Johnny, and his death remains the wellspring of complicated feelings. Just about everyone--trainers, boxers, managers--is quick to assert that Montantes's death was freakish, not the result of cumulative battering or a carelessly managed career but rather a horrible accident caused by the unpredictable physics of a single blow. But there was another lesson: Fighters who leave town--fighters who strike out on their own, like Montantes--are the ones most easily ruined by a sport in which "I have no one to trust" is the most common refrain among its participants. Pull up stakes in search of the elusive pot of gold, and you could wind up dead.

Old greats like Del Flanagan never worked at anything but their boxing. These days, just about all Minnesota boxers have a day job; they are, in short, semipros. Perhaps it is the lack of much in the way of real money that contributes to the nearly medieval preoccupation with respect that floats around the local gyms. Like money, respect is in short supply in the state's fight circles, guarded zealously and doled out in meager portions.

"Why? I don't know--petty jealousies, bullshit people. It doesn't make sense," Brunette says of the feuding culture. "Local kids don't like to lose to other local kids. Local trainers don't like to lose to local trainers. There's a lot of pride at stake." And with that pride, everybody's got their own version of the truth--the lowdown on the bums, the robberies, the setups, the steroid users, the scammers, and the warriors. Rumors spread. Grudges last. Animosities build. Bill Corrigan, a journeyman heavyweight from St. Paul who has been on a losing skid (10 of his last 11 fights), puts it in succinct terms. "In this business," he says, "everybody hates everybody. It's almost like a code."

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