By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
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By Michelle LeBow
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His eyes burn through the open face of his head gear.
Caleb Truax raises his fists on a frigid night. Inside Lyke's ACR Gym, an old machine shop that radiates the oddly sweet stench of spit and sweat, Minnesota's 30-year-old middleweight boxing champ rolls his shoulders and steps up to his next opponent — a boy half his age.
Truax dodges a flurry of fists and counters. A jab forces his opponent back. Then comes another, driving both of them to the ropes. A third and it's all over. Caleb hits the boy square in the mouth, mashing flesh into broken bone.
With his tongue, the boy fishes for the chipped remains of a lower tooth. He proudly spits it on the mat for all to see.
Truax paces back to his corner of the ring and claws the rope. He reaches down and wipes blood splatter from his leg.
"As long as it ain't mine," he quips. "That's all that matters."
For seven years, Truax climbed the ladder of the professional boxing world to earn a USBA belt and the undivided respect of the boxing scene in Minnesota.
Yet the pundits on the coasts remain skeptical. Once a mecca of competition, Minnesota is now written off as a fly-over zone on the way to Las Vegas.
"If he does good, it gives us another ray of hope," says Adonis Frazier, a coach at the Circle of Discipline Gym in Minneapolis. "If he does bad, it doesn't necessarily make Minnesota look bad. But it's going to be an, 'I told you so.' It was a fluke."
There's no room for error. Although this burden has been unbearable for previous fighters, Truax shows no signs of slowing. With one month to go before his next fight, he doubles his workouts and quintuples the number of sparring partners.
When asked about the pressure, Truax repeats the line he tells himself every morning and night: "I can handle it."
Long before Truax, there were the Gibbons brothers. Mike Gibbons was referred to as the "St. Paul Phantom" because, according to the old timers, he was almost impossible to hit. His brother was no easier — after fighting Tommy Gibbons in Montana for the heavyweight title, Jack Dempsey supposedly remarked, "Nailing him was like trying to thread a needle in a high wind."
By the end of their careers, Mike and Tommy had combined to rack up more than 200 wins in the middleweight and heavyweight divisions. They were later inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
But their lasting legacy is the smart, crafty style of boxing they helped create in the early 20th century — one that Truax himself employs and likens to "chess, not checkers."
"It was basically hit and not get hit — the moving around, the fast feet," says Jake Wegner, a historian and the founder of the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame. "It wasn't the Mike Tyson stand-and-trade style. It was, 'I'm gonna box your ears off, hopefully knock you out, but I'm not gonna take a shit-ton of punishment in the process to prove I'm a man.'"
It was a departure from the brutality of earlier days. During the 1880s and '90s, the Twin Cities was considered one of the baddest places on the planet for boxers. At some events, the rounds would continue indefinitely until a man hit the floor. Contenders came from all over and took pride in being here. If a reporter made the mistake of referring to a boxer's out-of-state hometown, an angry letter to the editor was sure to follow, Wegner says.
"We were the stud state back then," he boasts. "Long before 'Pa' Ingalls was wiping Laura's tears, we were already a hot spot of celebrity pugilism."
The period between the 1920s and 1950s has been referred to in Minnesota boxing circles as the "power decades" because of the wealth of world contenders — notable among them another pair of brothers, the Flanagans. But by the 1980s, as the sport's popularity declined, it became harder to make a buck. There were payoffs and pseudonyms, palookas and pimps. Promoters would ask their relatives to take a dive or bring in a club fighter with 100 losses to his name.
George Blair, a writer considered the state's preeminent boxing historian, played a role in cleaning up the game — or at least trying to — during those years. The octogenarian was once a matchmaker himself and alerted the state's boxing commission to suspicious bouts.
In one instance, he remembers a guy fighting in Little Canada who had been listed the previous night on a card in Omaha, Nebraska.
"You hear those things, but proving them is something else," he says.
Blair insists that fake fights took place all over the country. YouTube as well as websites such as boxrec.com have made the practice harder to pull off in recent years, though only a fool would contest that it doesn't live on, in subtler form, through matchmaking and judging.