It's a drab, sticky May afternoon in the thriving little tourist mecca of Baraboo, Wisconsin. In the parking lot of the Ho-Chunk Casino, situated in the farm country on the outskirts of town, an illuminated sign flashes the words Professional Boxing Tonite. Ron Peterson, the man in charge of the evening's entertainment, steps out of his weather-beaten GM conversion van and strides purposefully toward the casino entrance. It is crowded inside. As he makes his way through the neon-lighted aisles, a mechanical din--the sound of people losing money--fills the air. Endless rows of gamblers, mostly senior citizens, are pumping plastic buckets of change into the slot machines. Peterson abruptly stops and turns. "What's 35 feet long and smells like urine?" he asks. He pauses a beat and answers in a sly, well-practiced deadpan. "The conga line at a nursing home." Then a toothy, goblin's grin leaps out from behind his carefully trimmed beard, lighting up his craggy face. "Not too tasteful, huh? I've got thousands, and most are worse."
Ron Peterson, the busiest, most controversial promoter on the Minnesota fight scene, is a fireplug of a man. Standing five feet nine inches tall and weighing about 220 pounds, he still moves with the muscular swagger he honed in the Sixties as a hard-partying, bar-brawling professional wrestler. These days he wears his snow-white hair closely cropped, in the style of an A-Team-era George Peppard, but with an added rebel touch: a tightly braided, foot-long rat tail. On the subject of his precise age, Peterson is persistently coy ("You probably want to know my bra size, too," he says with mock indignity). Pressed, he will eventually allow that he is "in his 50s." As usual, he is dressed casually in jeans, sneakers, and a black T-shirt emblazoned with a boxing-glove logo.
As a strict matter of law, Peterson is not the promoter of tonight's show. In Wisconsin, only a state resident can apply for a license to put on professional boxing. In this case that license, formally known as a franchise, is held by a small-time promoter from Beloit. But, for all practical purposes, this is Peterson's card. He brought in the star fighters, made most of the matches, even supplied the ring. It is also the beginning of a busy spell: three shows in the next seven weeks, maybe eight by the end of summer. For the bigtime boxing promoters of the world--guys like Don King and Bob Arum--a similar schedule would involve lavishly catered meals with cable-television execs, a few rounds of negotiations with high-priced lawyers over burnished oak conference tables, and maybe a couple of press conferences. As a small-time operator, Peterson has more mundane matters to attend to. Right now the most pressing problem concerns his ring. A turnbuckle, a little oval piece of hardware that affixes the ropes to the posts, has disappeared. Peterson suspects it blew off the trailer during the windy four-hour drive from his home in the St. Paul suburb of Mounds View.
Driving down the billboard-laden streets of Baraboo in search of a hardware store, Peterson grumbles wearily. "I think the fucking flu shot is doing me in. I was feeling like King Kong this fall, really good, so I decided to get a flu shot. And I haven't been right since. It's kind of like I got a low-level virus that I can't shake." He has other aches and pains too, most of which he attributes to the rigors of training his small stable of fighters, three of whom will appear on tonight's card. "It's a nightmare the way they bang me around. A nightmare," he gripes. "My body's about shot."
After locating a Fleet Farm, Peterson deliberates over what size turnbuckle to buy, then remembers he has to pick up a clothesline to tie the ring ropes together and more foam padding for the turnbuckles. He stops at the local Kmart, makes his purchase, and returns to the casino with a bundle of merchandise. As he hustles through a back entrance to the bingo room, where the fights will take place, he bumps into a fighter from Milwaukee named Nelson Hernandez. Square-jawed with a freshly shaved head, the welterweight is leaning against the wall, baggy jeans low on his trim waist, a rueful look in his eyes.
"Hey there, Nelson, what do you weigh?"
"Well, good. You either must be drinking light beer or training."
"I've been training hard," Hernandez answers, as he peers out the fire exit into the drizzle. Peterson slaps him on the back, gives a quick shake of the hand, then delivers the inevitable wisecrack: "Well, just don't hit my guy in the chin or the belly."
Peterson's guy, in this case, is the 26-year-old Wayne Martell, who spent the first six years of his career bouncing from one Twin Cities' gym to the next, trainer to trainer, manager to manager. Disappointed with the number of fights he was getting, Martell started fishing around for a yet another manager last year. Acting on a tip from a fellow boxer, he contacted Peterson, who was quick to snap up the well-regarded prospect. He even let Martell stay in his home for a couple of months, where he bunked with Peterson's two young sons.
Peterson has high hopes for Martell and little doubt about the outcome of tonight's bout. "Nelson can be a tough kid. He's durable," Peterson says once Hernandez is out of earshot. "But Wayne's gonna take him out." His confidence is not surprising, nor is it misplaced. The ring announcer will later list Hernandez's record at a respectable 12 wins and 7 losses. But Fight Fax, Inc., the New Jersey-based firm which serves as professional boxing's official record keeper, tallies Hernandez's numbers a little differently. One win. Twenty-six losses. One draw. Hernandez is what is known in the boxing world as an "opponent." Or, less charitable, a tomato can. Or a palooka. Or a stiff. Whatever they are called, Hernandez and his ilk are part of the fabric of professional boxing, top to bottom. Simply put, opponents are guys with limited skills who are brought in by promoters to lose to prospects, to build winning records for hometown heroes, or to give someone else a shot at a lucrative fight on cable television. Most of the time they know their role. It doesn't mean they plan to lose. It just means they probably will. "Nelson does the best he can," Peterson says later. "He just doesn't have that little extra it takes to win."
As it happens, Hernandez has already fattened the records of two other Peterson fighters on tonight's card. Jonathan "JJ" Corn, a well-traveled junior middleweight from Wisconsin's Menomonie Nation defeated Hernandez back in 1998. And Damion LaPrairie, a lightweight from the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation outside Duluth has beaten Hernandez twice. Tonight it's Martell's turn. "Right now, I want to keep everybody winning," Peterson explains. "I get my guy 10, 15 wins in a row, then I can take them to Canada or Vegas or Italy or France and we can make some real money."
As he tends to his various pre-fight duties, Peterson is at ease, full of gab. He has spent a lot of time in casinos in recent years. Typically he puts on between four and ten cards annually, journeying from reservation to reservation in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas. Back in the early Seventies, when Peterson started training, managing, and promoting local boxers, there weren't any casinos in the Midwest. In those days he worked the Twin Cities. Hotel banquet rooms. Gymnasiums. Auditoriums. Whatever he could afford. Praying that he wouldn't lose too much money. But in the early Nineties, Peterson discovered that casino managers looking for new ways to attract patrons were willing to provide both the venue and front money for his cards, which typically cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000. "With the local shows in the Cities, the best a guy could hope for was to break even," Peterson says. "At the casinos, they do a lot of the hard part of promoting and they put up money. So you're almost guaranteed to break even. Maybe even make a few bucks. Plus you're building your fighters. What's not to like?" His niche found, Peterson hit the road and never looked back.
A little after 7:00 p.m. a crowd of nearly 700 begins to filter into the Ho-Chunk bingo room, taking their places in the metal folding chairs that circle the ring. Like many Indian casinos, Ho-Chunk offers free tickets to its tribal members, so the crowd is a relatively even mix of Indian and non-Indian fight fans. There are five preliminary bouts on tonight's card, followed by two main events. The first two fights, both four-rounders, are sloppy, energetic affairs. A novice welterweight from Auburndale, Wisconsin, decisions a scrappy but overwhelmed Puerto Rican. Then a rugged-looking middleweight gets the nod over a 29-year-old bartender from Minneapolis with just one professional fight to his credit.
Peterson doesn't see either of the first two bouts. He's sitting in a cramped storage space off the back of the bingo room with Wayne Martell. As he carefully wraps Martell's hands with athletic tape, Peterson speaks in calm, soothing tones. "Just be patient out there, Wayne," he advises. "Be patient and take your time." Before Martell dons his gloves, he tucks a sprig of cedar into his shoes. That, the fighter explains, will make him fleet of foot.
Like many of the fighters Peterson has managed, trained, and promoted in recent years, Martell is Native American, an Ojibwe originally from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. "I don't mess with a fighter unless he can help get me a casino show. And these guys draw," Peterson explains. "I like Native American fighters. They fight like they're willing to die, like you've got to kill 'em to win."
Since taking over his career, Peterson has been working to build Martell's record, which is 12-1 going into tonight's fight. The one loss, a six-round decision in Chicago last February, is hotly disputed by both Martell and Peterson. "I don't like to talk about it, because I don't want to whine like all the other managers. But if it was scored right, it would have been an easy victory," Peterson says, before repeating the standard boxing bromide. "If you're from out of town, you're not gonna get the nod unless you knock the other guy out." On this night, though, Martell doesn't need to worry about getting robbed by the judges. Nelson Hernandez, the Milwaukee fighter with just one win to his credit, doesn't stand a chance against the slick and crafty Martell.
At the opening bell Martell is surprisingly cautious. Peterson, crouched in Martell's corner, offers terse bursts of instruction. "Work the body," he coaches. "Work the body." Gradually Martell begins to press forward, wading through Hernandez's jab and then peppering him with hooks and straight lefts. The cedar sprig must have worked, because Martell slips most of Hernandez's punches effortlessly, dancing and weaving. By the fourth round, Hernandez has already received two standing eight counts. He tries to cover up, but Martell takes him to school, delivering a quick series of unanswered blows to the head. The referee steps in to stop the fight. Hernandez shakes his head in modest protest and returns to his corner.
Following a women's bout (a quick knock-out), the introductions are made for the final fight of the under card. It's a tune-up for another Peterson boxer, junior lightweight Damion LaPrairie, the most experienced fighter on tonight's card. "Damion always puts on a good show, always goes his rounds," says Peterson, who has managed LaPrairie since 1990. Tonight the ring announcer says LaPrairie's record is 12 wins, 2 losses. "Well, that's my record in my last 14 fights," he later acknowledges with a wry laugh. Actually, LaPrairie says, he has no idea what the true numbers are. According to Fight Fax, he has compiled a mark of 20 wins and 27 defeats, with 3 draws. Some of the early losses came against world-class fighters, including future champions Kennedy McKinney and Angel Manfredy. "I had a good chin," he says. "Never went down against those guys."
As LaPrairie makes his way to the ring, Peterson, draped in a red satin fringe top with "LaPrairie" stitched on the back, pries the ropes apart. LaPrairie, lean and well-conditioned, slips underneath. Carrying a war shield and staff, he skips around the ring to the strains of an Indian drum song. His opponent, Vernice Christon from Milwaukee, mills around in the opposite corner, looking puzzled. Christon is accompanied by a Milwaukee-based trainer and manager named Stan Johnson. Johnson, who has supplied five fighters for tonight's card, has a broad, beefy face and shoulder-length Jheri curls, which are topped off by his trademark blue-and-white captain's hat. A little mound of gut sticks out from under his shiny University of Michigan jogging suit. As LaPrairie and Christon meet in the center of the ring for final instructions from the referee, Johnson and Peterson stand by their fighters' sides, grim-faced and glowering.
Suddenly, before the ref can say a word, Johnson reaches out and slaps Peterson. Just like that. Pow. Flush across the face. Peterson lunges forward. The crowd gasps. The boxers and corner men rush in to avert further brawling. Peterson and Johnson scowl theatrically at one another before returning to their respective corners to get their boxers ready for the real fight.
The eldest of four children, Ron Peterson was always a brawler. He grew up in the Twin Cities' suburb of Osseo, which back then was a rural area where Peterson's father Ralph farmed. "I was just a country boy. I was always real physical, always getting into scraps," Peterson says. And he was always attracted to sport. He tried his hand at boxing, participating in junior Golden Gloves tournaments where, back in the day, the winners were rewarded with a box of Wheaties. By the time he was a teenager, though, he had abandoned boxing for football and wrestling. As captain of the Osseo High School wrestling team he received a few college scholarship offers but turned them down. "My dad was a self-made man with eighth-grade education. He thought school was a waste of time," Peterson explains. "And I didn't care."
A year after high school, Peterson married for the first time. (On the subject of his five wives, Peterson is characteristically blunt. "We never wind up being bitter enemies," he cracks. "They just wear out after a while and I get a new one.") He spent a year working construction before becoming a heavy-equipment operator for a sewer and water company. In 1964, after four years of marriage, Peterson divorced; a development that he says led to a career in professional wrestling.
"Basically, I'd never been off the farm. But I had to meet some new chicks, and the bright lights of Minneapolis called. I started going downtown to the old American Health Studio and seen all these muscle guys. And I thought, 'Man, if I got some muscles, I could get some girls.' So I started working out, and I met all these wrestlers who were working out there, too: Billy "Superstar" Graham, Ivan Putski, Eddie Sharkey. All the guys. And pretty soon me and Eddie became friends."
In short order Peterson was part of the scene, hanging out at the Chestnut Tree, an all-night restaurant that was popular with the wrestling set. Tapping his connections to get wrestling gigs, he soon set out on Midwestern and Southern circuits, where he was billed as "Ron Charles" and "The Iron Man From Minnesota." He spent long stretches on the road, bouncing back and fourth between cities like Omaha, Indianapolis, and Charlotte.
The grind of the wrestling circuit began to wear on Peterson, though, and he started casting around for new business opportunities. In the late Sixties he and Eddie Sharkey opened a massage parlor in Minneapolis: Susie's Sauna, in the old Wilmington Hotel. Like many of Peterson's ventures, the sauna didn't last ("Too depressing," he says). Peterson and Sharkey partnered up again in the early Seventies, though, purchasing the American Health Studio. Renaming it the Seventh Street Gym, they opened a wrestling school. One of their pupils was Minnesota's most famous wrestler, Jesse Ventura.
For most of his adult life Peterson has tried to avoid straight jobs. "I can't work for anybody else, because I can't take criticism," he admits. "I get real hurt when somebody tells me I'm not doing something right." Over the years he has been involved in a dizzying array of pursuits: horse farms, car racing, plumbing, antique stores, truck pulls, real estate. The list goes on. A couple of times Peterson says he could have scored big had he stuck with something. But restless impulse always got the better of him.
Eventually he became disillusioned with the wrestling scene. It wasn't just the travel that bothered him. It was the con. The fake fights sold as if they were real. "At that time, you couldn't even talk about wrestling not being real," he laments. "We had a code of silence, and for a while, my whole attitude toward life got kind of demented." His heavy drinking didn't help. Peterson, who quit cold turkey in 1982, says alcohol fueled a predilection for fighting outside the ring. "I used to get pretty mean when I drank, stupid mean," he says. "I could have been killed. Several times."
"He was a terrible drunk. One of those guys who just couldn't handle it," recalls Sharkey, who still works as a small-time wrestling promoter in the Twin Cities. "But he was a tough guy, too. Real strong. I remember I got into a fight downtown one night. I was fighting two guys, back and forth. Boom. Boom. Boom. And Ron comes through the door and threw one punch and knocked the guy stiff."
In 1973 Peterson, no longer traveling the wrestling circuit, was hanging out at the Seventh Street Gym when he happened to see light heavyweight Marc Hans working on the heavy bag. Peterson was impressed. Hans had won four Upper Midwest Golden Gloves titles and had just turned pro. Though Peterson knew little about boxing at the time, he figured he could be a manager. Snapping up Hans's contract from another manager for $125 (a paltry sum, even then) Peterson soon fell under the spell of the sweet science. It would dominate the next three decades of his life.
In the beginning, guessing as he went along, Peterson made his fighters concentrate on strength and conditioning, disciplines he mastered as a wrestler. Then, as he spent more time in the fight racket, he began offering instructions on the craft's finer points. "The one big thing I always try and teach boxers is how to punch. Punching power doesn't come from your arms. It comes from your ass and your back and your legs. You don't push a punch, or muscle it. You throw it," he explains. "A lot of people say to me, 'How can you be a boxing trainer? You don't know anything about boxing. You weren't a boxer.' And I say, 'Yeah, well I never gave a blow job. But I know when one's good.'"
These days, Peterson typically spends five nights a week in the gym, working with the professional fighters he manages and his two young sons. (Ronnie, age 9, and David, 14, are both active in the amateur ranks). Unlike many trainers, Peterson doesn't operate out of a single building. Most days he works guys out at a boxing club in the St. Paul suburb of White Bear Lake. But he also takes his fighters down to B.T. Bombers in St. Paul, a gym run by retired city cop Clem Tucker. "We get different things from each gym," Peterson explains. "We go to White Bear to work on basic stuff, to learn. There's no pressure. Not many people around. It's laid-back. At Clem's, there's screaming and hollering and rap music playing. Everybody wanting to fight everybody. We go down there to get the roughness. It's a nice mix."
Over the years Peterson has handled some of the best fighters the state has produced. Rattling off their names and stories, he laments all the near misses. The guys who could have made it big if they'd only trained more or nixed their bad habits or simply had better luck. In the early Nineties, for instance, Peterson thought he'd finally hit the jackpot with John Sargent, a heavyweight from the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. Sargent was the first Indian fighter Peterson managed, and by most accounts the one with the most natural talent. "John was deceptive because he was short and fat," Peterson recalls fondly. "He'd fight these big six-foot-five-inch black guys that looked like Greek gods and he looked like a little trash hauler. But after a couple rounds, you'd hear three thuds, and the third would be the other guy hitting the canvas."
Under Peterson's management, Sargent quickly built an impressive record of 19-0. He even had a couple of wins on ESPN. "We were on the verge of being millionaires," Peterson exclaims. "And then he just walked out on me and moved back to the reservation. He just didn't give a shit."
Peterson still speaks with Sargent now and then. But he doesn't train him. This winter an out-of-state matchmaker called Peterson looking for an opponent to tune up his upper-tier heavyweight. Peterson sent Sargent. Overweight and out of shape, Sargent suffered a quick TKO. "I love John Sargent. How can you not love John Sargent? He's a funny, funny guy," Peterson says. "But he went about three rounds and quit. Just quit. And that's embarrassing for me."
Back at the Ho-Chunk Casino, Ron Peterson and Stan Johnson are still jawboning at one another as their fighters, Damion LaPrairie and Vernice Christon, begin to mix it up inside the ropes. LaPrairie is 10, maybe 15 pounds lighter than Christon, which might make up for the fact that Christon has a winless professional record. Early on, the fighters' butt heads. Over the years LaPrairie has accumulated scar tissue over his brow, so he cuts easily. Soon there's a bloody geyser over his left eye. But, like Peterson says, he's tough. Shaking off the injury, he moves forward, brawling, racking up points. Unlike the three previous bouts, this fight goes the distance--a full six rounds. All three judges give the fight to LaPrairie, who raises his fists in triumph and soaks up the crowd's applause. Afterward Johnson and Peterson return to the center of the ring, where they shake hands and hug. Another round of applause. An intermission.
As it turns out, the pre-fight scuffle between Peterson and Johnson was old hat. "We done that three or four times. To get the crowd up, you know," Johnson admits later, with a laugh. "But the first time I met Ron Peterson he really did beat the shit out of me." According to Peterson that first meeting came in the early Eighties, when he was looking to fill out a card for a show at the Minneapolis Radisson. Johnson was already training and managing boxers, but he was also still active as a fighter. So, looking for a good bout, Peterson matched him with a journeyman heavyweight from northern Minnesota.
"Before the fight, Stanley was talking like Ali, saying how he was gonna drop this big white boy, how he was gonna kick his ass. It was good show business," Peterson recalls. "But then he went out there and got stopped right away. Right away. And I was pissed about that, because I wanted a real fight." Peterson was still irritated when Johnson came to the payout table at the end of the night, and the two began to quarrel. "I just kind of went crazy on him," Peterson says. "I was drinking a lot in those days and my thinking wasn't always that clear. I was gonna throw him over the balcony."
In Peterson's version of the story ("the real version," he emphasizes), Johnson was spared serious injury when a group of alarmed bystanders intervened: "Next day, he called me from Milwaukee and said he was gonna kill me, and I said, fine, come on down. I'll be ready." Nothing happened. About nine years passed and, once again, Peterson was fishing around for opponents. He decided to call Johnson to book some fighters. And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. "I've had nothing but fun with Stanley," Peterson admits. "He's basically just a real bad version of me."
And the fight at the Radisson? "The next time I saw him, he was such a fucking nice guy, such a boxing man, I forgot all about it," Johnson says. "And me and that man have been best of friends ever since. I love him like a brother. He's a real boxing man. He only does what's good for boxing."
It's hard to find too many other people who will say same thing about Johnson. In 1993 Johnson made the news in his home state of Wisconsin after pleading guilty to two counts of forgery for signing a doctor's name on one of his fighter's medical forms (at the time he was already on probation for an armed robbery conviction). In 1998 he was banned by the North Dakota State Athletic Commission after a boxer he'd supplied for a bout was found to have fought under an assumed name (a classic bit of chicanery that Johnson himself indulged in over the years). Now 48, Johnson still boxes occasionally, usually when one of his fighters doesn't make the gig. Mostly, though, he supplies guys like Peterson with low-rent opponents.
Peterson's association with Johnson raises eyebrows at the Minnesota State Board of Boxing, the sport's regulating agency. "Don't get me wrong. I like Pete," says Joe Azzone, the board's chairman. "But we've had our differences over matchmaking. I told him to his face, I can't go along with okaying your cards. He doesn't put on quality shows. And when he tries to bring in Stan Johnson, that really sets off the red light. We won't even let Stan come into Minnesota. He's got more phony boxers than anybody. His guys are all just looking for a soft place to land."
Scott LeDoux, who briefly fought for Peterson on his way to becoming the best-known Minnesota heavyweight of the Seventies, seconds Azzone's criticisms. "Ron has put on too many bad shows; cards where five of the six bouts end in knockouts," says LeDoux, who is now a member of the state board and a fight commentator for ESPN 2. "When Peterson first started promoting, every card was great. He had me, Rafael Rodriguez, Doug Demmings. And he made us fight wars every time. Real wars. He used to tell me, 'I got a big guy coming in here and he's gonna kick your butt.' Ron never gave us any cheap dates. We learned our trades and we progressed and we were able to fight the best in the world. Demmings went 15 rounds with Sugar Ray Seales. Rafael Rodriguez went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard. Peterson was a good promoter in those days, but he's changed. Now, he matches his guys with fighters you never heard of: Dusty Trunks, Kenny Last, Willie Getup. I refuse to go to his shows. They're bad for boxing."
Peterson admits it is a lot harder to put on a quality show these days. "The Seventies was a great era, and I'm still proud of those cards," he says. "But now we're in a down cycle. We're running out of good fighters in Minnesota. You gotta do the best with what you've got. It's kind of like buying a CD. You get one or two good songs on a CD these days and you're happy. You get two good fights on a card now, you're happy."
But Peterson maintains that his friction with the boxing commission goes back to his early days in the business, when he sued the board in a dispute over a closed-circuit broadcast of an Ali/Frazier fight. "From that day on, when I'd go to a commission meeting, they'd change the rules on me day to day," he bellyaches. "It's just a pain in the ass. Stupid shit. At one of those meetings, I blew up, kicked the door off the hinges, busted chairs. I just went crazy. And that's what they wanted me to do, because it proved their point. That I wasn't stable enough to be a promoter. " Nowadays, Peterson admits, the bad feelings cut both ways: "They want to be the promoters. They want to tell you who to use, when to use them, how many rounds they can go. It's bullshit. And it's totally political. I'm the guy who is taking the risk. It's my money. And if it's a lousy show, nobody will come again and I'll lose out. But if you don't kiss the commission's ass, you're not in. Well, I don't fit in with them, and I never will."
And, since Peterson began working the casino circuit in the early Nineties, he hasn't needed to. That's because the state board has no statutory authority over fights held on reservations. These days Peterson hires a boxing commissioner from Iowa, Larry Dawson, to oversee his Minnesota cards. (Absent a certified boxing commissioner, the results of a fight card are not recognized.) Not surprisingly Dawson is sympathetic with Peterson. "He's like a lot of these matchmaker-trainer-promoter guys," Dawson explains. "He spends a lot of his time running around putting out fires." Dawson does not object to Peterson's willingness to bring in opponents with shabby records. "I don't worry about guys are 3 and 17, and I don't worry about guys who are 17 and 3. I worry about the guys who are 8 and 8. The guys who have too much heart for their own good."
"Opponents" are often the cause of embarrassment in boxing, but their use and abuse is commonplace at all levels of the sport. Peterson speaks about it more openly than most. A few years back he began managing one of the Midwest fight circuit's most legendary opponents: Walter Cowans, a onetime member of Stan Johnson's stable. Over the course of a 17-year professional career, Cowans compiled an official record of 27 wins, 104 losses, and 1 draw. Some of those defeats came at the hands of Peterson's fighters, and after a while Peterson grew fond of the palooka. "He was a loser. Couldn't break an egg. But he was very durable and he had good defensive skills. You couldn't get a shot off on him," Peterson recalls. "And he was a businessman. If I told him to carry someone, give a kid a break, he would. If I told him to go out and try his hardest, he would. When he moved to Minneapolis, he stayed at my house for a couple of days. I even got him some wins, five or six in a row. He was a real genuine, tough kid. But half nuts. Sometimes he was hard to be around. One week he'd be smoking crack, the next he'd be preaching God."
About a year ago Peterson got a phone call from Stan Johnson. "Stan had me crying when he told me about it," he says, recalling the news of Cowans's death. "Walter had put a garbage bag around his head, tied a cord around his neck, and then stuck his head in the oven. I don't know what the significance of that was. But how sad. How far gone. How pathetic. I mean, I knew Walter as a fighter and he never quit."
If Walter Cowans were still alive, he might have found a spot on the second half of the card at the Ho-Chunk Casino; two fights billed as a co-feature. The first is a four-round heavyweight bout between the local hero, Harry "Ho-Chunk Hammer" Funmaker and Harold Johnson, Stan Johnson's nephew. In the opening round, the plodding but determined "Ho-Chunk Hammer" looks as if he might live up to his name, staggering Johnson with a blow to the chin. And then the fight, and the evening's show, starts to fall apart. Johnson recovers, then decides to clown around. He grabs. He clinches. He runs. He spits out his mouthpiece. The lumbering Funmaker can't catch Johnson. By the fourth round the fight looks downright farcical. Not a fix. Not a mismatch. Just ugly. When the decision is announced, Johnson is declared the winner. A chorus of boos emanates from Funmaker's voluble supporters in the crowd.
The disappointment over Funmaker's defeat dissipates quickly with the arrival of JJ Corn: 26 years old, movie-star handsome, and, until recently, the World Athletic Association's junior middleweight champion. (It's a minor title, a "cheese title" as they are sometimes called, but a title nonetheless.) A Menominee Indian from nearby Shawano, Corn is among the most popular fighters in Wisconsin. His professional record stands at 29 wins, 3 losses, 1 draw. Peterson blames the most recent defeat on a "meat-peddler manager" who sent Corn overseas to face a tough European champion with inadequate preparation.
Peterson doesn't plan to repeat the mistake. Corn's opponent tonight is another Stan Johnson fighter, Lonzie "The Polecat" Pembleton. "Yeah, the guy's a stiff," Peterson concedes later. "I didn't want to take a chance on getting JJ dinged up, because next week he's got a fight in his hometown." The ring announcer doesn't even bother to give a record on Polecat. According to Fight Fax, it stands at 0-13.
The knockout comes in the first round, and the crowd erupts in celebration. An exuberant Corn grabs a microphone and thanks the audience for turning out. He bellows out his trademark catch phrase," Native PRIDE! NationWIDE!" And then the lights in the bingo hall come up and the crowd begins to filter out, in search of a stiff drink, a slot machine, or both.
Ron Peterson heads to a backroom office. One by one, the fighters file in to collect their pay. Peterson's current stable of boxers all credit their manager with paying what he promises; a notable distinction in a sport where rip-offs are more tradition than scandal. And sure enough, there is cash on hand tonight. Four to six hundred dollars for most of the fighters. Two thousand dollars for the Ho-Chunk Hammer. Three thousand dollars for JJ Corn (not bad for less than a round's work). Everybody walks out smiling.
The financial transactions completed, Peterson sets out to tear down the ring. The best part of the night. "When I'm taking the ring down, I feel stronger. My body's working good. My adrenaline's going," he says. "It's the most relaxing high you can have, you know. It keeps an older guy feeling young, like I've really accomplished something."
A few days after the fight, Peterson is back in Mounds View. He says he has pneumonia. So he is subdued, a little morose even. The high is gone. "I'm really down on boxing today. I got to go the gym and I don't feel good," he says glumly. "You know, I don't even enjoy the actual fights. I don't like to see people get beat up and the thought of grown men hitting each other in the head, trying to destroy each other. It's just a strange phenomenon. It's kind of like deer hunting. You don't really start out wanting to kill a deer, but then you chase it around for a while, and then you just can't wait to shoot it."
Peterson is already making preparations for his next card, a low-budget show at the Fond du Lac reservation that will feature hometown hero Damion LaPrairie in the main event. Billing the fight as the "state lightweight championship," Peterson has even gotten a special belt made for the winner (a belt, it turns out, that LaPrairie will earn in a bloody ten-rounder). But on this day Peterson doesn't sound excited. Not about boxing. Not about anything.
"I'm making a couple of bucks these days. Getting back on my feet. But I don't expect anything big. I don't give a shit. If I can get by until my kids are grown, I'll be happy." He pauses for a moment, swallowing hard on his ambivalence. For a moment, the salty wisecracks and bluster give way to a moment of clarity; a bit of self-analysis. "I don't understand how I stayed in boxing so long," he says finally. "I've been doing this since 1973 and I don't got nothing. I guess it's like being a gold miner. You find a nugget here and there, but you're always waiting for that mother lode, waiting to find that one champion.
"When I started out signing fighters, an old boxing guy told me, a manager isn't anything but an idiot with a checkbook. And I said I'd be different. Maybe in some ways, I have been. But of all things I've been involved in over the years, boxing's probably been the most painful. And the only reason I keep doing it is that I'm too stupid to get out. It's a real funny sport."
Peterson sighs, then grins. "The longer I'm in it, the less I know."
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