As Gene Schultz, the heavyweight, weaves through the crowd, he steps back in time. It has been 18 years--long, terrible years--since the boxer St. Paul fight fans once called "White Lightning" last climbed through the ropes. Since then he has talked about a comeback to anyone who would listen--his two younger brothers, his co-workers, his fellow barflies from years past, and friends from more recent sober times. And here he is tonight, October 22, at Grand Casino in Hinckley, entering the ring with a thousand fans as witnesses, and they're all on their feet, chanting his name, and he's making his professional debut, and it's all such a beautiful rush.
"Gene-O! Gene-O! Gene-O!" they shout, just like they did back in the late Seventies, when Schultz reigned as the best amateur heavyweight in the state and won back-to-back Golden Gloves Upper Midwest championships. Pumping his fists in the air, Schultz flashes a big toothy grin (revealing the ample labors of his dentist) and sops up the applause. His face is craggy, lined with creases and scars and graced with a flattened nose (not a product of his fistic career, but rather the result of a boot kick endured at a kegger on his 18th birthday). His eyes blaze pale blue, full of joy and almost young.
For a man his age--he's 44--Schultz is quite fit. His barrel chest is battened with muscle, and his arms are big and solid. Were it not for the fact that Schultz is missing his right leg, from the knee down, there would be little to distinguish him from the other fighters on the bill.
Those fighters are mostly veterans of the club circuit--tough, unpolished guys who've come from the Cities, Milwaukee, Chicago, and nearby Indian reservations. By and large the few fights preceding Schultz's dance down the aisle have been sloppy, as perhaps befits a card in which boxers are paid a mere hundred bucks a round. Most appear to have trained accordingly. One preliminary bout paired a flabby, slow-moving heavyweight from Pine City against a morbidly obese journeyman (311 pounds, with vertical stretch marks on his massive gut that made it look as if he'd been raked by a bear's claw). The duo had clubbed away at each other in a graceless, unscientific manner until the fellow from Pine City scored a second round TKO. No one seemed much impressed. By the time Schultz made his entrance--it was the fifth fight of the night--the spectacle of a one-legged fighter didn't seem so squalid.
Once in the ring, Schultz struts about to the strains of the Hank Williams sin-and-redemption number "I Saw the Light" and shucks off the Ralph Lauren bath towel that he'd draped over his shoulders in lieu of the traditional fighter's robe.
His opponent on this night is a corpulent pug from Milwaukee named Tory Martin--in the euphemistic words of promoter Ron Peterson, "not a known killer." Professional record? Zero wins, five losses, all coming in first-round knockouts. At 275, Martin's got more than 50 pounds on Schultz, but it's almost all fat.
At the opening bell, Schultz wastes no time. He shuffles to the center of the ring and commences throwing looping bombs. He sticks a few jabs, and he always moves forward. He hops on his good leg and pivots and plants off the fake one, a molded fiberglass and aluminum prosthetic built especially for boxing.
Then, 36 seconds into the fight, Schultz delivers a right to the body, followed by a swift right uppercut. Martin drops to the canvas, dazed by the blow and, perhaps, the uneasy distinction of having suffered a knockdown at the hands of a one-legged fighter. He's counted out by the referee and it's over.
The crowd loved Schultz when he came into the ring, and they love him more now. Everybody's on their feet, yelling his name, while the winning boxer thanks Jesus and smiles his biggest smile. "Nobody ever believed he'd make this comeback," says a beaming Dave Eckstrom, who drove up from the Cities to watch his longtime friend fight. "I always kept encouraging him. He always said God's been telling him to get back in the ring."
Like the handful of Schultz fans who've made the trip to Hinckley, Eckstrom is confined to a wheelchair. The two men are teammates from the St. Paul Rolling Thunder--a wheelchair softball team that has won national titles eight of the past nine years. That triumphant record, it turns out, has been one of the few bright spots in the last two decades of Gene Schultz's life.
A few days after his bout at the casino, Schultz is still flushed with the victory. He's just gotten home from his day job--he works as a pipe insulator at the University of Minnesota--and is relaxing in his three-room apartment over on the East Side of St. Paul. Settling in with a steaming cup of coffee, he lays out his tale, gritty and full of hardship and of Old Testament proportions in its epic suffering.
As a teenager growing up in this neighborhood, Schultz was always in trouble. It started, he figures, with his parents' divorce. He was 14 then, already a little wild. In short order he turned to the life of, as he puts it, "a junior hoodlum." Smash-and-grabs. Car thefts. Street fights. Any type of trouble, really--usually fueled by an unquenchable yen for alcohol and drugs and fast times. "I was a drinking, doping kid. I wanted to be a hit man for the Mafia," he recalls. At 17, he says, he accidentally shot a friend with a .22 caliber pistol in the basement of his mother's home. He got probation, but a year later he found himself in serious trouble again, this time for possession of a sawed-off shotgun.