By Jesse Marx
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Grigsby, a 36-year-old native of St. Paul, is best known for his career as a professional boxer. In 1998, when he won the International Boxing Federation's junior flyweight title, he became the first Minnesotan to hold a major belt since World War I. Grigsby got into boxing when he was about 12 years old, when he wandered into the now-defunct Inner City Youth Gym. It was a good spot for a city kid like him to find an outlet for his aggressions. But boxing was not the only blood sport young Grigsby was drawn to. Living on a tough stretch of Selby Avenue, Grigsby saw plenty of pits while growing up. "A lot of my friends had dogs. I had pit bulls since I was 9 or 10 years old," he says. He says his first dog was a variant of the pit bull called an American Staffordshire terrier. Grigsby got the dog from former St. Paul cop Clem Tucker, a prominent figure in Minnesota boxing circles, who most recently appeared in the news following his guilty plea in a high-publicity drug bust.
At the outset, Grigsby was like a lot of young city kids—the so-called wannabes—who are drawn to the breed. He liked their rough looks and intense loyalty, and how those qualities reflected on him. "In the neighborhoods, people think the pit bull is part of us. You're tough because it's tough," he says. "I would take my dog around the neighborhoods, just to test him out, let the dogs fight in the alley. I always used to crush Minneapolis people."
As it turned out, Grigsby progressed in the dog game even more quickly than in boxing. A craftsman in the ring (he is currently training for yet another title shot), Grigsby still takes pride in his past career as a dogman. He claims he respected the sport and adhered to its most important protocols. He notes that, when walking his dogs, he always carried a breaking stick—a wooden, wedge-shaped tool dogmen use to pry open a pit's jaws. "You know," he explains, "there's nothing worse than not having a breaking stick when your dog's got a poodle in its mouth."
Grigsby's ascent from casual street fighter to professional was a matter of luck as much as anything. It began with his acquisition of a female pit he named Simba. "I went to this guy's house, he had a five-dog litter of pups and she came right up to me, grabbed my pant leg," Grigsby recalls. "I knew right then and there I wanted her." Grigsby, who was 16 at the time, paid $600 for the dog. It proved to be a good investment. Over the years, he matched Simba nine times and she only lost once. If it had been a boxing match, there would have been an asterisk next to that loss. "I put her in with a dog that was bigger. After 45 minutes, I saw there was no way she was going to beat that dog," he says. "So I picked her up. It was just one of those times, when you say, Okay, she's had enough. A dog's like a boxer. You can't win every fight." Indeed, in the world of dogmen, a five-time winner is referred to as a Grand Champ. That status adds greatly to a dog's value for breeding. Not surprisingly, Simba's successes attracted the attention of other, higher-level dogmen. One old-timer, whom Grigsby declines to identify by name, soon assumed the role of mentor. He introduced Grigsby to the inner circles and taught him rudimentary veterinary skills, such as how to stitch wounds, administer antibiotics, even use stimulants.
Once Grigsby broke into the upper echelon, he was surprised by the breadth of people involved: "White people, black, people, Vietnamese, drug dealers, gang members, rappers, professional athletes." In fact, Grigsby is far from the only professional athlete to wind up in the headlines because of dogfighting charges. Basketball and football players have also been involved in dog busts in recent years. Investigator Keith Streff says he spent a fair amount of time unsuccessfully pursuing a case against a former Timberwolf. The rapper DMX, whose videos and lyrics celebrate dogfighting, pleaded guilty to charges of animal cruelty after 13 pit bulls were seized during a 1999 raid at his home.
As Grigsby became more serious about his dogs, he found himself traveling more. He went as far as Oklahoma to attend a pit convention, an event that featured multiple fights and lasted three days. But generally, Grigsby's dogs fought in prearranged matches with a single bout, high stakes, and small crowds. Suspicion of infiltration was one constant. "You're usually checked at the door for weapons and tape recorders. But anything could happen," he says. When he picked up a bad vibe, Grigsby says, he'd fight his dog, collect his winnings, and get away as quickly as possible.
As time passed, Grigsby says, he became much more heavily involved in breeding, using Simba as his "base dog." Like a lot of the things Grigsby has done in both the ring and the pit, he regarded it as a business decision. In his experience, purses from matches ranged from as little as $50 to as much as $10,000. But, he says, he could make more money with less risk by breeding. Simba alone had nine litters; he sold the pups for $500 to $1,500 apiece. At one point, Grigsby adds, he had 35 dogs in his yard. By the time he was finally busted, Grigsby insists he was entirely out of the fighting end of the business.