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For most of his adult life Peterson has tried to avoid straight jobs. "I can't work for anybody else, because I can't take criticism," he admits. "I get real hurt when somebody tells me I'm not doing something right." Over the years he has been involved in a dizzying array of pursuits: horse farms, car racing, plumbing, antique stores, truck pulls, real estate. The list goes on. A couple of times Peterson says he could have scored big had he stuck with something. But restless impulse always got the better of him.
Eventually he became disillusioned with the wrestling scene. It wasn't just the travel that bothered him. It was the con. The fake fights sold as if they were real. "At that time, you couldn't even talk about wrestling not being real," he laments. "We had a code of silence, and for a while, my whole attitude toward life got kind of demented." His heavy drinking didn't help. Peterson, who quit cold turkey in 1982, says alcohol fueled a predilection for fighting outside the ring. "I used to get pretty mean when I drank, stupid mean," he says. "I could have been killed. Several times."
"He was a terrible drunk. One of those guys who just couldn't handle it," recalls Sharkey, who still works as a small-time wrestling promoter in the Twin Cities. "But he was a tough guy, too. Real strong. I remember I got into a fight downtown one night. I was fighting two guys, back and forth. Boom. Boom. Boom. And Ron comes through the door and threw one punch and knocked the guy stiff."
In 1973 Peterson, no longer traveling the wrestling circuit, was hanging out at the Seventh Street Gym when he happened to see light heavyweight Marc Hans working on the heavy bag. Peterson was impressed. Hans had won four Upper Midwest Golden Gloves titles and had just turned pro. Though Peterson knew little about boxing at the time, he figured he could be a manager. Snapping up Hans's contract from another manager for $125 (a paltry sum, even then) Peterson soon fell under the spell of the sweet science. It would dominate the next three decades of his life.
In the beginning, guessing as he went along, Peterson made his fighters concentrate on strength and conditioning, disciplines he mastered as a wrestler. Then, as he spent more time in the fight racket, he began offering instructions on the craft's finer points. "The one big thing I always try and teach boxers is how to punch. Punching power doesn't come from your arms. It comes from your ass and your back and your legs. You don't push a punch, or muscle it. You throw it," he explains. "A lot of people say to me, 'How can you be a boxing trainer? You don't know anything about boxing. You weren't a boxer.' And I say, 'Yeah, well I never gave a blow job. But I know when one's good.'"
These days, Peterson typically spends five nights a week in the gym, working with the professional fighters he manages and his two young sons. (Ronnie, age 9, and David, 14, are both active in the amateur ranks). Unlike many trainers, Peterson doesn't operate out of a single building. Most days he works guys out at a boxing club in the St. Paul suburb of White Bear Lake. But he also takes his fighters down to B.T. Bombers in St. Paul, a gym run by retired city cop Clem Tucker. "We get different things from each gym," Peterson explains. "We go to White Bear to work on basic stuff, to learn. There's no pressure. Not many people around. It's laid-back. At Clem's, there's screaming and hollering and rap music playing. Everybody wanting to fight everybody. We go down there to get the roughness. It's a nice mix."
Over the years Peterson has handled some of the best fighters the state has produced. Rattling off their names and stories, he laments all the near misses. The guys who could have made it big if they'd only trained more or nixed their bad habits or simply had better luck. In the early Nineties, for instance, Peterson thought he'd finally hit the jackpot with John Sargent, a heavyweight from the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. Sargent was the first Indian fighter Peterson managed, and by most accounts the one with the most natural talent. "John was deceptive because he was short and fat," Peterson recalls fondly. "He'd fight these big six-foot-five-inch black guys that looked like Greek gods and he looked like a little trash hauler. But after a couple rounds, you'd hear three thuds, and the third would be the other guy hitting the canvas."
Under Peterson's management, Sargent quickly built an impressive record of 19-0. He even had a couple of wins on ESPN. "We were on the verge of being millionaires," Peterson exclaims. "And then he just walked out on me and moved back to the reservation. He just didn't give a shit."
Peterson still speaks with Sargent now and then. But he doesn't train him. This winter an out-of-state matchmaker called Peterson looking for an opponent to tune up his upper-tier heavyweight. Peterson sent Sargent. Overweight and out of shape, Sargent suffered a quick TKO. "I love John Sargent. How can you not love John Sargent? He's a funny, funny guy," Peterson says. "But he went about three rounds and quit. Just quit. And that's embarrassing for me."