Caleb Truax faces his toughest opponent yet

Fighting chance: The stigma of a Midwest boxer

The kid from Osseo walked away a loser in the technical sense, but with a moral victory. He'd gone the distance when no one had expected him to.

"I think the best thing that ever happened to Caleb was his loss to Jermain Taylor," Halstad says. "It opened his eyes. He can fight anyone in the world and stand in there with a guy who's an undisputed middleweight champ."

Fans pile into the Target Center on the first Friday in January and adjust their eyes to the ringside crowd, a splattering of writers, slick-haired suits, and silicone-infused ladies. Mike Tyson, co-promoter of the event, enters the arena to cheers and flashing cameras, taking his seat in front.

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

In his dressing room, Truax leans over a backward folding chair, waiting to get taped up. The signs of fatigue and dehydration, which had given his face a hollow look at the previous day's weigh-in, are long gone. All that remains of his struggle to make weight are the chapped corners of his lips.

He extends his right hand, showing where a boxing commissioner drew in red marker the letter F for Fighter. He remarks, "Hopefully this doesn't turn out like the Scarlet Letter."

For weeks, Truax had been preparing for a battle with Derek Ennis, a cool-headed Philadelphian, in what locals were touting as something of a mirror match. Three weeks before the day of reckoning, however, Ennis dropped out, citing a rib injury he suffered in training.

In his absence, promoters tapped Ossie "the Ghanaian Gladiator" Duran, a grizzled veteran from New Jersey. Duran showed up to the weigh-in the day before exuding quiet confidence and opening his mouth only to say of Truax, "I'm in his backyard, but I'm going to kick his ass."

Now the calm of Truax's dressing room explodes with the announcement that the 20 minutes until show time has just been cut to three. His team rushes to get his gloves and trunks on and whisks him over to the arena with only a few seconds of prep. He leaps out, fist-pumping, to "We Will Rock You" by Queen, which he chose, he says, "to make the white people happy."

His hooded robe shimmers in maroon and gold. In contrast, Duran comes to the ring in a plain white undershirt and black trunks.

The bell rings.

Both men come out slow, testing jabs against the other to find a hole. They mostly dance around each other, keeping their eyes on the other's chest to anticipate hand movements.

Only a minute has passed before Teddy Atlas, the ESPN commentator at ringside, reminds his viewers that Truax has fought only three of his 25 professional fights outside of Minnesota — one of which he lost, with the others ending in draws.

"A little hometown cooking," Atlas quips.

Truax comes out swinging in the second round, forcing his opponent to open up. In the third, Duran sends him reeling on his back foot with a left. Truax goes back to the corner and Halstad tells him to get around Duran's gloves. Truax tries, but Duran pounds away with his jab. It connects hard with Truax's face, and his nose begins leaking blood. The edges of Duran's gloves go from white to red.

By the fifth round, ESPN estimates that Duran has landed a fifth of his jabs, Caleb only 5 percent. Truax lands a couple of body shots, but can't pry open Duran's shell.

Duran hits Truax in the back of the head while the two are entangled, and the crowd boos lustily. A male voice is heard above the din: "He's scared of you, so scared of you!"

Truax counters and lands several uppercuts in the seventh, and a big one in the eighth. He fakes a left hook to the ear and drives his right hand up into Duran's chin.

Exhausted, Duran goes to the corner, where his trainer tells him, "Last round. This guy's gonna come out crazy."

The crowd erupts as both fighters leave their stools and touch gloves. Truax has thrown nearly twice the punches as Duran but hasn't connected as often.

Truax pounds away at Duran's gloves, opening him back up. They exchange blows on the inside and tie up. A minute remains. Duran lifts his free hand and motions to the crowd to get on its feet, looking for the energy to keep going. He throws a couple combos without success and ties up again.

The two men slide off each other with less than 10 seconds left and explode with a flurry. The bell sounds and they cease fire, leaning momentarily against one another and breathing heavily.

Truax blows the blood from his nose while the judges tally their points. The official count: 95-95. It's a draw. Long faces pervade the crowd.

In the dressing room, Truax splashes water on his bruised face and takes a deep breath before meeting with one reporter after another. He tells each man, more or less, the same thing: "I couldn't figure him out."

Elsewhere, Duran and his team take the long walk from the dressing room to the security exit, lugging their gear and brooding. At long last, his manager breaks the silence: "It's a nice city, though — with clean people."

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