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.[page]
"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.
"Some people like to be a miniature superstar," says Todd Bechthold, who runs the blog MNBoxingLeague.com. "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.
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.[page]
"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.
"I got a chance to be myself," he says. "I can't blame anybody else. I can't hide behind anybody else. When you lose, all the blame is on you, all the eyes are on you. When you win, all the eyes are on you, too, but everybody loves a winner."
By 2006, he was preparing for the national tournament and considering a run for the Olympics. Then officials at USA Boxing gave him a call.
In the eyes of the league, Truax had violated Technical Rule 1.5 when he filled out his registration form and answered "no" to questions about whether he'd ever competed in any combat sports.
Truax pleaded ignorance, arguing that he hadn't considered the Tuff-Guy tournaments a form of professional competition. The brawls hadn't been sanctioned by the state and he hadn't earned a dime from his performance.
It didn't matter. Truax was kicked out of amateur boxing, and a promising career that could have led to the nationals had been squelched before it even had a chance to begin.
"It really pissed me off how it went down," he says. "It was basically just a call to tell me how shitty of a person I was."
At the ice house, Truax slides his sunglasses back on and zips up his coat. Two hours have passed since the fishing began, and he's going home empty-handed.
He stops later to consider what his cousin had said about his fighting style, known as counter-punching. He's well aware of its dark side. It's a fundamentally reactive science, and if you can't figure out your opponent's pattern, you're in serious trouble.
"I've made mistakes in the past, but over these last fights I've definitely been more aggressive," he says.
When asked why he adopted the counter-punching style to begin with, Truax shrugs.
"It's just what I'm comfortable doing," he says. "A lot of times in boxing, a fighter will fight like their attitude is outside the ring. If you're a hyper-aggressive dude outside the ring, that's how you're going to fight. And if you're laid back, as I am, that's how you fight in the ring, too.
"It mirrors your personality."
The door goes beep-beep-beep. Truax lifts his eyes but stays seated and unperturbed in the corner of MGM Liquors in Champlin.
Welcome to tonight's main event: stocking the freezer with Tom and Jerry mix.
Truax washes down his pasta salad with chocolate milk — both high in protein, low in fat — and lets the cashier go on break. A gray-haired woman approaches. She recognizes him from a charity event on her friend's Facebook page, and wants him to know that.
"You gotta keep that face pretty," she says. "You don't want to have marks on it. You're lucky you haven't gotten hit."
He blushes, searching for something to say, and settles on, "Well, that's because I'm good."
Mike Tyson never had to work in customer service. For Truax, it's a fact of life. Boxing may have some of the most inequitable paydays in all of sports. Mayweather made more than $80 million on his last fight, including a share of the pay-per-view pot, but the majority of professional fighters work boring and inglorious side jobs.
There's a saying around Lyke's Gym that every fight is worth a million dollars, meaning a win could propel you to higher and higher purses while a loss can end your career. As Truax keeps winning, his stock keeps rising. After six years, he's begun making a comfortable $15,000 per fight.
Of course, it wasn't always that way. In his first fight, at the Target Center on April 6, 2007, Truax earned a TKO against Ray Walker in the second round, then drove his old Buick Riviera back to his mom's house, where he was living. He stayed there, in fact, until the December before last.
On the whole, Truax dominated his opponents during those early professional years. It wasn't until 2010, when he took on Phil "the Drill" Williams, that he experienced his first setback.[page]
He hit hard that night, and accurate, but the judges came back with a draw. Truax studied his opponent over the next year and won the rematch at the Grand Casino in Hinckley.
"Caleb has been brought up just the way you're supposed to be brought up," says Jim Maurine, his cut man. "Every fight has been a little more difficult. We've exposed him to left-handers, to power punches, to knockdown guys and slick boxers — and he's made it through all of them."
His toughest fight to date, though, came in 2012 when Jermain Taylor, an Olympic medalist, went looking for a tune-up match. For the first eight of a ten-round bout held in Biloxi, Mississippi, Truax held back. Suddenly he'd found himself in the ring with a giant — and a man he deeply admired.
"I showed too much respect and got off to a slow start," Truax says.
In the ninth round, however, Taylor threw a lazy jab and Truax capitalized by dropping Taylor with a right hand. Truax headed back to his corner, beaming, his arms rocketed into the air. The ass-plopping went viral and many fans took it as evidence of Taylor's age rather than Truax's virility. A blogger for Bad Left Hook wrote, "If Caleb Truax can get Jermain Taylor in real trouble, good fighters will seriously do him harm."
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.
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.[page]
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."
Duran swipes the air with his paw.
"If I fought anywhere else," he says, "that was a win."
The little fish slips through his fingers. It breaks free from the hook, splashing through a hole in the ice house floor.
Truax's latest retreat into the wilderness is his coldest of the season. The temperature hovers around negative 10 degrees.
After the fight, he made a stop at Malone's in Maple Grove and entered to the standing applause of his friends. Hugs and handshakes came from all angles.
The cheers had faded by the time he got home. He hit play on a video of the fight and searched in vain for what had gone wrong. It kept him awake until 4 a.m.
Now in the ice house, he adds a weight to his fishing line and lets it sink. He tugs slightly on the minnow in the depths below.
Something tugs back. Truax yanks hard on the line and reels it in quickly. Out of the glowing aquamarine abyss comes a crappie. The shimmering, wounded animal flaps its tail and sprays cold water.
"I'm on the board!" Truax boasts to his cousin, who's on pace to deplete the lake of its wildlife.
Several hours later, Truax drops his tackle and leaves the lake. Driving out, he yawns and thinks about his next fight. With the right payday, he could quit the liquor store job.
Then he reconsiders.
"I'll probably just cut back on my hours," he says. "It's hard for me to quit anything flat-out."