Caleb Truax faces his toughest opponent yet

Fighting chance: The stigma of a Midwest boxer

"Some people like to be a miniature superstar," says Todd Bechthold, who runs the blog "In boxing, you can kind of dictate victory. There's a difference between sporting boxing and going to a show and, unfortunately, a lot in Minnesota is just going to a show."

Chief among the critics of the Minnesota scene is Teddy Atlas, a New Yorker and analyst for ESPN who in the early 1980s helped Cus D'Amato train a teenage Mike Tyson.

"When you're fighting on the Midwest level you're fine, but when you step up outside that, quite often you come up short," Atlas says.

Caleb Truax (right) takes on Ossie Duran at Target Center
Galen Fletcher
Caleb Truax (right) takes on Ossie Duran at Target Center
Truax ice-fishing with his cousins
Galen Fletcher
Truax ice-fishing with his cousins

He credits Truax's handlers for having raised a smart fighter. He notes that Truax has been tested the right way, against progressively tougher opponents, but stops short of declaring the Minnesotan above the lot. The next couple of fights will prove whether Truax is "thought of as a player — not just in the Midwest," Atlas says, "but a real player. Period. In this business."

Truax gazes through a pair of glistening Ray Ban glasses at a frozen, freshly powdered lake in Monticello. It's a cloudless Sunday morning, the only time this week that he can truly rest his feet. Inside a tiny shack, he brushes the snow from his puffy jacket and sits on a bucket, surrounded by two family members and two friends with their fishing gear.

Truax peels off a piece of smoked salmon while one of his cousins reaches into the water, barehanded, to remove the ice chunks blocking his view. He marvels at the way Truax keeps his calm in the ring, waiting for the best moment to strike.

"Sometimes it's hard to watch you be that patient," he says. "Fuckin' punch him, man! Seriously. I don't need to tell you what to do, but Jesus."

The room warms with laughter, as Truax smiles and leans closer to the propane furnace. Such complaints, though not always made in jest, are common in a blood sport like boxing. Even greats such as Floyd Mayweather and Bernard Hopkins have been accused of putting on boring shows.

Truax is a specialist, not a bull — an introvert who turns an opponent's aggression against himself. Rather than impose his will, he makes you look stupid for trying to impose yours.

He didn't discover boxing until he was 19, but it was a world he was built to occupy. His mother, Leah, was a young woman living with her parents in Osseo when she met a man at the old Moby Dick's in downtown Minneapolis. On September 14, 1983, she gave birth to twins — Caleb and Erin — but the father soon disappeared.

"He didn't want anything to do with us," Leah says. "I don't even know if he's alive."

Leah gave birth to another boy five years later and headed north. She took the kids to Morris, then Alexandria, then Monticello, where Caleb and his siblings were often the only people of color in otherwise white classrooms.

It wasn't long before he encountered racism. His sister Erin remembers another third-grader warning her on the playground to stay away from the slide because she'd leave shit stains. She knocked him aside and ran to tell Caleb, not fully aware of what had just happened or the racial slur dropped in the process.

"Me and my brother didn't understand what it meant at that time," Erin says, "and I remember my mom tearing up and having to tell us what it truly meant."

When asked about the bigotry he endured as a child, Caleb momentarily stops his sit-ups and glances around the gym. He says, "Maybe that's why I'm here."

Shortly after returning to Osseo, he hit a growth spurt. The short, chubby kid blew up in size to six feet, nearly 200 pounds — much of it muscle. He let his hair grow wild. Suddenly the guy who had been picked on was feared.

"Walking around, no one wanted to mess with him," says John Nerva, an early friend. "He was a force."

After graduating from high school in 2002, Caleb shipped off to Virginia State to play football. After one year, though, he transferred to the University of Minnesota, his football career having been curtailed by chronic tendonitis in his knee. His studied sociology and graduated with two minors, political science and African-American studies.

It wasn't long before he became plagued by boredom and restlessness. Inspiration came one night while drinking beer and flipping casually through the newspaper, where he spotted a tiny announcement for a boxing competition for adults with no prior experience.

"You could be drinking at the bar and join if you wanted to, if you felt like fighting," he says of the unregulated tournaments. "It was kind of bush league, but it was fun."

Truax lost his first tournament and spent several minutes afterward hyperventilating in the bathroom. Nonetheless, he was thrilled by the experience.

"There's no comparison as far as the feeling you get when you knock somebody down," he says, "and it's just you."

Truax took to his new role with the conviction of a zealot. For years, he'd played team sports that required rigid conformity. Here he could be an individual.

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