When recounting the tumult of these past few years, Will Grigsby speaks in a soft, almost flat tone that could be construed as a sign of defeat. But his speech is less a reflection of a blue mood than it is of Grigsby's most ingrained habits: twin commitments to conserving resources and revealing little of himself. These qualities served him well in better days--back before prison--when Grigsby held the International Boxing Federation's junior flyweight belt. No point in abandoning them now.
Grigsby is small, about five foot four inches tall and 120 pounds. He wears his hair in cornrows. Above his left eyebrow, there is a fat mound of scar tissue, which he absently strokes as he speaks. The scar is a physical reminder of the biggest fight of his career, a bout with undefeated Ricardo "Finito" Lopez in October 1999. At the time, Grigsby was already a champ, having won the 108-pound title 10 months earlier and becoming the first Minnesotan in a very long time to hold a major belt. But Lopez was at the top of every boxing expert's list of the world's best pound-for-pound fighters.
Through the first seven rounds, Grigsby held his own. Then, in the eighth, the fighters bashed heads, which opened the gash above Grigsby's eye. Lopez took charge after that and worked his way to a unanimous decision. For Grigsby, life went dramatically wrong from there. He's only boxed twice since October '99, winning a minor title first time out, which was stripped after he tested positive for marijuana. A second fight netted him a paltry $2,500. "Getting the belt and being champ is the easy part," he says. "Holding it and living like a champion is the hard part. You got to leave some of your old neighborhood spots and old friends behind. I stayed around when I should have been gone." Grigsby flashes a broad, gold-toothed smile. "Next thing you know, I'm in here."
"Here" is the state's maximum security prison at Rush City, about an hour's drive north of St. Paul, where he is serving a two-year, three-month sentence for second-degree assault. The charge stems from a drunken, late-night incident during which Grigsby shot at his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend (he missed). It was just the last in a string of run-ins with the law. In May 2000, Grigsby was in Florida training for another title bout when he got word from friends that he was wanted. "My phone kept ringing," he recalls, "and they were like, 'You're on the news.' And I said, 'Yeah, I've got a fight coming up.' And they're like, 'No, they got you for dog fighting.' I didn't believe it. But then I saw the tape, and I was like, 'Yeah. They do.'" The tape in question came from the raid of a central Minnesota farm where Grigsby kept a stable of pit pulls. Off camera, Grigsby could be heard narrating grisly fights.
It was as a boy growing up in St. Paul's Selby-Dale neighborhood that Grigsby first got "into dogs," as he puts it. "A friend of mine had one," he says. "It was strong and it wanted to get at everything it saw. Then one day, I saw a fight on the street, and I was like, 'Whoa, that's kind of cool, two dogs that want to do that.'" A few years later, he owned his first pit, a female named Simba. It was no trouble finding a dog fight. He paired Simba against all comers. "She was a nine-time winner," he says proudly. "If a pit bull wins three times, they call them champions. If they win five times, that's a grand champion. On her fifth time, Simba lost. I put her back out there to see if that broke her spirit. She went on to win four more fights."
Grigsby was charged with felony dog fighting, though he says that by the time of his arrest, he had traded dog fighting for dog breeding. It wasn't that he'd lost his nerve, he was just looking for a more lucrative trade. Dog fighting, he says, isn't any more cruel than the sport in which he made his own mark. "To me, it's just like boxing. It's cruel if you put a pit bull on a poodle, or a pit bull on another pit bull that don't want to fight. But if you have two dogs that weigh the same amount in an organized dog fight, well, that's just like boxing."
At Rush City, Grigsby works on the grounds crew, which involves shoveling snow, mowing grass, planting flowers, and "whatever else needs to be done." In some ways, he observes, the routine is not unlike training for a big fight: strict sleep schedules, regular workouts, no women. "The only things that separate this from training camp is the double bunks." When he gets out, he doesn't plan to get back into dogs. He wants another title shot, then to retire as a champion and open a health club. "I was never in this for the glory," he says. "It's a dangerous sport. I do it for the money."