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It's a drab, sticky May afternoon in the thriving little tourist mecca of Baraboo, Wisconsin. In the parking lot of the Ho-Chunk Casino, situated in the farm country on the outskirts of town, an illuminated sign flashes the words Professional Boxing Tonite. Ron Peterson, the man in charge of the evening's entertainment, steps out of his weather-beaten GM conversion van and strides purposefully toward the casino entrance. It is crowded inside. As he makes his way through the neon-lighted aisles, a mechanical din--the sound of people losing money--fills the air. Endless rows of gamblers, mostly senior citizens, are pumping plastic buckets of change into the slot machines. Peterson abruptly stops and turns. "What's 35 feet long and smells like urine?" he asks. He pauses a beat and answers in a sly, well-practiced deadpan. "The conga line at a nursing home." Then a toothy, goblin's grin leaps out from behind his carefully trimmed beard, lighting up his craggy face. "Not too tasteful, huh? I've got thousands, and most are worse."
Ron Peterson, the busiest, most controversial promoter on the Minnesota fight scene, is a fireplug of a man. Standing five feet nine inches tall and weighing about 220 pounds, he still moves with the muscular swagger he honed in the Sixties as a hard-partying, bar-brawling professional wrestler. These days he wears his snow-white hair closely cropped, in the style of an A-Team-era George Peppard, but with an added rebel touch: a tightly braided, foot-long rat tail. On the subject of his precise age, Peterson is persistently coy ("You probably want to know my bra size, too," he says with mock indignity). Pressed, he will eventually allow that he is "in his 50s." As usual, he is dressed casually in jeans, sneakers, and a black T-shirt emblazoned with a boxing-glove logo.
As a strict matter of law, Peterson is not the promoter of tonight's show. In Wisconsin, only a state resident can apply for a license to put on professional boxing. In this case that license, formally known as a franchise, is held by a small-time promoter from Beloit. But, for all practical purposes, this is Peterson's card. He brought in the star fighters, made most of the matches, even supplied the ring. It is also the beginning of a busy spell: three shows in the next seven weeks, maybe eight by the end of summer. For the bigtime boxing promoters of the world--guys like Don King and Bob Arum--a similar schedule would involve lavishly catered meals with cable-television execs, a few rounds of negotiations with high-priced lawyers over burnished oak conference tables, and maybe a couple of press conferences. As a small-time operator, Peterson has more mundane matters to attend to. Right now the most pressing problem concerns his ring. A turnbuckle, a little oval piece of hardware that affixes the ropes to the posts, has disappeared. Peterson suspects it blew off the trailer during the windy four-hour drive from his home in the St. Paul suburb of Mounds View.
Driving down the billboard-laden streets of Baraboo in search of a hardware store, Peterson grumbles wearily. "I think the fucking flu shot is doing me in. I was feeling like King Kong this fall, really good, so I decided to get a flu shot. And I haven't been right since. It's kind of like I got a low-level virus that I can't shake." He has other aches and pains too, most of which he attributes to the rigors of training his small stable of fighters, three of whom will appear on tonight's card. "It's a nightmare the way they bang me around. A nightmare," he gripes. "My body's about shot."
After locating a Fleet Farm, Peterson deliberates over what size turnbuckle to buy, then remembers he has to pick up a clothesline to tie the ring ropes together and more foam padding for the turnbuckles. He stops at the local Kmart, makes his purchase, and returns to the casino with a bundle of merchandise. As he hustles through a back entrance to the bingo room, where the fights will take place, he bumps into a fighter from Milwaukee named Nelson Hernandez. Square-jawed with a freshly shaved head, the welterweight is leaning against the wall, baggy jeans low on his trim waist, a rueful look in his eyes.
"Hey there, Nelson, what do you weigh?"
"Well, good. You either must be drinking light beer or training."
"I've been training hard," Hernandez answers, as he peers out the fire exit into the drizzle. Peterson slaps him on the back, gives a quick shake of the hand, then delivers the inevitable wisecrack: "Well, just don't hit my guy in the chin or the belly."
Peterson's guy, in this case, is the 26-year-old Wayne Martell, who spent the first six years of his career bouncing from one Twin Cities' gym to the next, trainer to trainer, manager to manager. Disappointed with the number of fights he was getting, Martell started fishing around for a yet another manager last year. Acting on a tip from a fellow boxer, he contacted Peterson, who was quick to snap up the well-regarded prospect. He even let Martell stay in his home for a couple of months, where he bunked with Peterson's two young sons.
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