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.

At the opening bell Martell is surprisingly cautious. Peterson, crouched in Martell's corner, offers terse bursts of instruction. "Work the body," he coaches. "Work the body." Gradually Martell begins to press forward, wading through Hernandez's jab and then peppering him with hooks and straight lefts. The cedar sprig must have worked, because Martell slips most of Hernandez's punches effortlessly, dancing and weaving. By the fourth round, Hernandez has already received two standing eight counts. He tries to cover up, but Martell takes him to school, delivering a quick series of unanswered blows to the head. The referee steps in to stop the fight. Hernandez shakes his head in modest protest and returns to his corner.

Following a women's bout (a quick knock-out), the introductions are made for the final fight of the under card. It's a tune-up for another Peterson boxer, junior lightweight Damion LaPrairie, the most experienced fighter on tonight's card. "Damion always puts on a good show, always goes his rounds," says Peterson, who has managed LaPrairie since 1990. Tonight the ring announcer says LaPrairie's record is 12 wins, 2 losses. "Well, that's my record in my last 14 fights," he later acknowledges with a wry laugh. Actually, LaPrairie says, he has no idea what the true numbers are. According to Fight Fax, he has compiled a mark of 20 wins and 27 defeats, with 3 draws. Some of the early losses came against world-class fighters, including future champions Kennedy McKinney and Angel Manfredy. "I had a good chin," he says. "Never went down against those guys."

As LaPrairie makes his way to the ring, Peterson, draped in a red satin fringe top with "LaPrairie" stitched on the back, pries the ropes apart. LaPrairie, lean and well-conditioned, slips underneath. Carrying a war shield and staff, he skips around the ring to the strains of an Indian drum song. His opponent, Vernice Christon from Milwaukee, mills around in the opposite corner, looking puzzled. Christon is accompanied by a Milwaukee-based trainer and manager named Stan Johnson. Johnson, who has supplied five fighters for tonight's card, has a broad, beefy face and shoulder-length Jheri curls, which are topped off by his trademark blue-and-white captain's hat. A little mound of gut sticks out from under his shiny University of Michigan jogging suit. As LaPrairie and Christon meet in the center of the ring for final instructions from the referee, Johnson and Peterson stand by their fighters' sides, grim-faced and glowering.

Suddenly, before the ref can say a word, Johnson reaches out and slaps Peterson. Just like that. Pow. Flush across the face. Peterson lunges forward. The crowd gasps. The boxers and corner men rush in to avert further brawling. Peterson and Johnson scowl theatrically at one another before returning to their respective corners to get their boxers ready for the real fight.

The eldest of four children, Ron Peterson was always a brawler. He grew up in the Twin Cities' suburb of Osseo, which back then was a rural area where Peterson's father Ralph farmed. "I was just a country boy. I was always real physical, always getting into scraps," Peterson says. And he was always attracted to sport. He tried his hand at boxing, participating in junior Golden Gloves tournaments where, back in the day, the winners were rewarded with a box of Wheaties. By the time he was a teenager, though, he had abandoned boxing for football and wrestling. As captain of the Osseo High School wrestling team he received a few college scholarship offers but turned them down. "My dad was a self-made man with eighth-grade education. He thought school was a waste of time," Peterson explains. "And I didn't care."

A year after high school, Peterson married for the first time. (On the subject of his five wives, Peterson is characteristically blunt. "We never wind up being bitter enemies," he cracks. "They just wear out after a while and I get a new one.") He spent a year working construction before becoming a heavy-equipment operator for a sewer and water company. In 1964, after four years of marriage, Peterson divorced; a development that he says led to a career in professional wrestling.

"Basically, I'd never been off the farm. But I had to meet some new chicks, and the bright lights of Minneapolis called. I started going downtown to the old American Health Studio and seen all these muscle guys. And I thought, 'Man, if I got some muscles, I could get some girls.' So I started working out, and I met all these wrestlers who were working out there, too: Billy "Superstar" Graham, Ivan Putski, Eddie Sharkey. All the guys. And pretty soon me and Eddie became friends."

In short order Peterson was part of the scene, hanging out at the Chestnut Tree, an all-night restaurant that was popular with the wrestling set. Tapping his connections to get wrestling gigs, he soon set out on Midwestern and Southern circuits, where he was billed as "Ron Charles" and "The Iron Man From Minnesota." He spent long stretches on the road, bouncing back and fourth between cities like Omaha, Indianapolis, and Charlotte.

The grind of the wrestling circuit began to wear on Peterson, though, and he started casting around for new business opportunities. In the late Sixties he and Eddie Sharkey opened a massage parlor in Minneapolis: Susie's Sauna, in the old Wilmington Hotel. Like many of Peterson's ventures, the sauna didn't last ("Too depressing," he says). Peterson and Sharkey partnered up again in the early Seventies, though, purchasing the American Health Studio. Renaming it the Seventh Street Gym, they opened a wrestling school. One of their pupils was Minnesota's most famous wrestler, Jesse Ventura.

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