Low Blows

He manages wannabes, has-beens, and more than a few palookas, just like the big-money promoters do. But the ho-chunk casino is a long way from Caesar's Palace. and Ron Peterson is no Don King.

Peterson has high hopes for Martell and little doubt about the outcome of tonight's bout. "Nelson can be a tough kid. He's durable," Peterson says once Hernandez is out of earshot. "But Wayne's gonna take him out." His confidence is not surprising, nor is it misplaced. The ring announcer will later list Hernandez's record at a respectable 12 wins and 7 losses. But Fight Fax, Inc., the New Jersey-based firm which serves as professional boxing's official record keeper, tallies Hernandez's numbers a little differently. One win. Twenty-six losses. One draw. Hernandez is what is known in the boxing world as an "opponent." Or, less charitable, a tomato can. Or a palooka. Or a stiff. Whatever they are called, Hernandez and his ilk are part of the fabric of professional boxing, top to bottom. Simply put, opponents are guys with limited skills who are brought in by promoters to lose to prospects, to build winning records for hometown heroes, or to give someone else a shot at a lucrative fight on cable television. Most of the time they know their role. It doesn't mean they plan to lose. It just means they probably will. "Nelson does the best he can," Peterson says later. "He just doesn't have that little extra it takes to win."

As it happens, Hernandez has already fattened the records of two other Peterson fighters on tonight's card. Jonathan "JJ" Corn, a well-traveled junior middleweight from Wisconsin's Menomonie Nation defeated Hernandez back in 1998. And Damion LaPrairie, a lightweight from the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation outside Duluth has beaten Hernandez twice. Tonight it's Martell's turn. "Right now, I want to keep everybody winning," Peterson explains. "I get my guy 10, 15 wins in a row, then I can take them to Canada or Vegas or Italy or France and we can make some real money."

As he tends to his various pre-fight duties, Peterson is at ease, full of gab. He has spent a lot of time in casinos in recent years. Typically he puts on between four and ten cards annually, journeying from reservation to reservation in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas. Back in the early Seventies, when Peterson started training, managing, and promoting local boxers, there weren't any casinos in the Midwest. In those days he worked the Twin Cities. Hotel banquet rooms. Gymnasiums. Auditoriums. Whatever he could afford. Praying that he wouldn't lose too much money. But in the early Nineties, Peterson discovered that casino managers looking for new ways to attract patrons were willing to provide both the venue and front money for his cards, which typically cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000. "With the local shows in the Cities, the best a guy could hope for was to break even," Peterson says. "At the casinos, they do a lot of the hard part of promoting and they put up money. So you're almost guaranteed to break even. Maybe even make a few bucks. Plus you're building your fighters. What's not to like?" His niche found, Peterson hit the road and never looked back.

A little after 7:00 p.m. a crowd of nearly 700 begins to filter into the Ho-Chunk bingo room, taking their places in the metal folding chairs that circle the ring. Like many Indian casinos, Ho-Chunk offers free tickets to its tribal members, so the crowd is a relatively even mix of Indian and non-Indian fight fans. There are five preliminary bouts on tonight's card, followed by two main events. The first two fights, both four-rounders, are sloppy, energetic affairs. A novice welterweight from Auburndale, Wisconsin, decisions a scrappy but overwhelmed Puerto Rican. Then a rugged-looking middleweight gets the nod over a 29-year-old bartender from Minneapolis with just one professional fight to his credit.

Peterson doesn't see either of the first two bouts. He's sitting in a cramped storage space off the back of the bingo room with Wayne Martell. As he carefully wraps Martell's hands with athletic tape, Peterson speaks in calm, soothing tones. "Just be patient out there, Wayne," he advises. "Be patient and take your time." Before Martell dons his gloves, he tucks a sprig of cedar into his shoes. That, the fighter explains, will make him fleet of foot.

Like many of the fighters Peterson has managed, trained, and promoted in recent years, Martell is Native American, an Ojibwe originally from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. "I don't mess with a fighter unless he can help get me a casino show. And these guys draw," Peterson explains. "I like Native American fighters. They fight like they're willing to die, like you've got to kill 'em to win."

Since taking over his career, Peterson has been working to build Martell's record, which is 12-1 going into tonight's fight. The one loss, a six-round decision in Chicago last February, is hotly disputed by both Martell and Peterson. "I don't like to talk about it, because I don't want to whine like all the other managers. But if it was scored right, it would have been an easy victory," Peterson says, before repeating the standard boxing bromide. "If you're from out of town, you're not gonna get the nod unless you knock the other guy out." On this night, though, Martell doesn't need to worry about getting robbed by the judges. Nelson Hernandez, the Milwaukee fighter with just one win to his credit, doesn't stand a chance against the slick and crafty Martell.

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