By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Back at the Ho-Chunk Casino, Ron Peterson and Stan Johnson are still jawboning at one another as their fighters, Damion LaPrairie and Vernice Christon, begin to mix it up inside the ropes. LaPrairie is 10, maybe 15 pounds lighter than Christon, which might make up for the fact that Christon has a winless professional record. Early on, the fighters' butt heads. Over the years LaPrairie has accumulated scar tissue over his brow, so he cuts easily. Soon there's a bloody geyser over his left eye. But, like Peterson says, he's tough. Shaking off the injury, he moves forward, brawling, racking up points. Unlike the three previous bouts, this fight goes the distance--a full six rounds. All three judges give the fight to LaPrairie, who raises his fists in triumph and soaks up the crowd's applause. Afterward Johnson and Peterson return to the center of the ring, where they shake hands and hug. Another round of applause. An intermission.
As it turns out, the pre-fight scuffle between Peterson and Johnson was old hat. "We done that three or four times. To get the crowd up, you know," Johnson admits later, with a laugh. "But the first time I met Ron Peterson he really did beat the shit out of me." According to Peterson that first meeting came in the early Eighties, when he was looking to fill out a card for a show at the Minneapolis Radisson. Johnson was already training and managing boxers, but he was also still active as a fighter. So, looking for a good bout, Peterson matched him with a journeyman heavyweight from northern Minnesota.
"Before the fight, Stanley was talking like Ali, saying how he was gonna drop this big white boy, how he was gonna kick his ass. It was good show business," Peterson recalls. "But then he went out there and got stopped right away. Right away. And I was pissed about that, because I wanted a real fight." Peterson was still irritated when Johnson came to the payout table at the end of the night, and the two began to quarrel. "I just kind of went crazy on him," Peterson says. "I was drinking a lot in those days and my thinking wasn't always that clear. I was gonna throw him over the balcony."
In Peterson's version of the story ("the real version," he emphasizes), Johnson was spared serious injury when a group of alarmed bystanders intervened: "Next day, he called me from Milwaukee and said he was gonna kill me, and I said, fine, come on down. I'll be ready." Nothing happened. About nine years passed and, once again, Peterson was fishing around for opponents. He decided to call Johnson to book some fighters. And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. "I've had nothing but fun with Stanley," Peterson admits. "He's basically just a real bad version of me."
And the fight at the Radisson? "The next time I saw him, he was such a fucking nice guy, such a boxing man, I forgot all about it," Johnson says. "And me and that man have been best of friends ever since. I love him like a brother. He's a real boxing man. He only does what's good for boxing."
It's hard to find too many other people who will say same thing about Johnson. In 1993 Johnson made the news in his home state of Wisconsin after pleading guilty to two counts of forgery for signing a doctor's name on one of his fighter's medical forms (at the time he was already on probation for an armed robbery conviction). In 1998 he was banned by the North Dakota State Athletic Commission after a boxer he'd supplied for a bout was found to have fought under an assumed name (a classic bit of chicanery that Johnson himself indulged in over the years). Now 48, Johnson still boxes occasionally, usually when one of his fighters doesn't make the gig. Mostly, though, he supplies guys like Peterson with low-rent opponents.
Peterson's association with Johnson raises eyebrows at the Minnesota State Board of Boxing, the sport's regulating agency. "Don't get me wrong. I like Pete," says Joe Azzone, the board's chairman. "But we've had our differences over matchmaking. I told him to his face, I can't go along with okaying your cards. He doesn't put on quality shows. And when he tries to bring in Stan Johnson, that really sets off the red light. We won't even let Stan come into Minnesota. He's got more phony boxers than anybody. His guys are all just looking for a soft place to land."
Scott LeDoux, who briefly fought for Peterson on his way to becoming the best-known Minnesota heavyweight of the Seventies, seconds Azzone's criticisms. "Ron has put on too many bad shows; cards where five of the six bouts end in knockouts," says LeDoux, who is now a member of the state board and a fight commentator for ESPN 2. "When Peterson first started promoting, every card was great. He had me, Rafael Rodriguez, Doug Demmings. And he made us fight wars every time. Real wars. He used to tell me, 'I got a big guy coming in here and he's gonna kick your butt.' Ron never gave us any cheap dates. We learned our trades and we progressed and we were able to fight the best in the world. Demmings went 15 rounds with Sugar Ray Seales. Rafael Rodriguez went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard. Peterson was a good promoter in those days, but he's changed. Now, he matches his guys with fighters you never heard of: Dusty Trunks, Kenny Last, Willie Getup. I refuse to go to his shows. They're bad for boxing."