The Ring Cycle
The Homecoming--March 6, University of Minnesota Sports Pavilion
It's showtime, and the arena is crawling with busty blondes, tattooed tough guys, rat-faced loners, raspy old-timers, rascals, saints, and a lot of working stiffs just off the day shift. High-amp rock cranks from the public-address system. Flashpots burst like exploding suns. The ring announcer, Jimmy Lennon Jr., is roiling the crowd for the entrance of tonight's star. "Ladies and gentlemen," he bellows in a polished basso profundo, "Don 'Only in America' King!" King glides out of the black haze and into the spotlight--the world's freakiest, most famous boxing promoter: Convicted killer (pardoned by Ohio's lame-duck governor in '83), onetime Cleveland numbers racket kingpin, maker of champions, ruthless spoiler of sucker fighters; the man whose upswept electroshock hairdo, heavyweight hero Larry Holmes once joked, hides devil's horns.
People have said a lot of nasty things about King over the years, in private, in public, sometimes in lawsuits. But not on this night. Striding through the crowd, a diamond-studded crucifix dangling in the V of his tuxedo, the beaming promoter passes a bevy of bikini-clad card girls (courtesy of the Déjà Vu strip club). He surveys the crowd with signature cool, flashes the practiced grin that has served him so well for most of his 66 years, and grabs the mic. All the big boxing promotions have names. This one, the great hustler barks, will forever be known as "The Homecoming." At that, he snakes his way to a ringside seat, right next to Minnesota's most famous ex-professional athlete, Jesse Ventura. By the measure of introductory bombast, King is indeed the brightest luminary of the evening. In boxing, the most powerful men usually are.
The card, a nine-bout, pay-per-view deal put on in conjunction with U.S. Satellite Broadcasting (a subsidiary of locally owned Hubbard Broadcasting), represents a rare moment of exposure for the state's beleaguered, nearly invisible fight scene. More than 4,000 fans have turned out--not a full house, but a respectable showing, considering that the card is competing with the high school hockey tournament across the street at Mariucci Arena. In fact, this is the largest fight crowd the state has produced since 1980, when some 8,000 folks flocked to the old Met Sports Center to watch reigning world champion Larry Holmes batter native son Scott LeDoux to a stump. LeDoux had his 15 minutes of pop-culture glory as the man who knocked off Howard Cosell's toupee on live TV (during a melee in a scandal-plagued Don King tournament back in 1977). But he's remembered around here as the guy who took on, and lost to, a lion's share of the era's heavyweights. Now age 50 and a commissioner with Minnesota's State Board of Boxing, LeDoux is on hand tonight--still trim, with a beefy mug straight out of central casting and a big barrel chest. For that matter, just about everyone with a claim to membership in Minnesota's small, contentious boxing fraternity is here. The Pooh-Bahs. The gym sages. The worn-out warriors. The up-and-comers. The promoters. The trainers. All bathing in the rare glow of a TV fight on home turf.
In the chump-change bouts, before King's grand entrance, Mark "Two Gun" Tang, a welterweight out of South Minneapolis, swaggered into the ring to the boisterous approval of his ragtag following. Tang had wangled his way onto the card, the story goes, by pure serendipity--the stuff of boxing lore: Tang's working at a Warehouse District steak joint, where he waits on King. He introduces himself as a fighter, with eight wins, four losses, and one draw under his belt. King, in a good mood from what he calls "the gustatory delight" of the cuisine, grants Tang a spot on the bill. (At a press conference earlier in the week, King digressed from a rambling soliloquy about the history of Minnesota, dotted with astonishing references to obscure figures like nineteenth-century explorer Zebulon Pike, to offer this assessment of Tang: "If he can fight as well as he can wait tables, somebody's gonna have a rough night!") A former amateur champ, Tang is a classic banger, the sort of boxer who eschews both the sweetness and the science of the "sweet science" in the interest of exchanging as many blows as humanly possible--a crowd-pleasing métier, if a touch artless, that earns him up another win tonight.
For the national TV audience, the big attractions are a pair of ranked heavyweights, Larry "The Legend" Donald, regarded as a competent but uninspired craftsman, and Henry Akinwande, the World Boxing Association's number one contender. Both Donald and Akinwande are King fighters and thus they did not fight one another--an apt illustration of the peculiar calculus of a sport in which the interests of the fan and the business seldom intersect. Instead, they pair up with a couple of out-of-town club fighters trucked in to provide their more prominent foes a routine tuneup and another no-brainer win. The Akinwande fight, in particular, proves to be an embarrassment: a second-round technical knockout of a plump, defenseless tomato can from the Bahamas.
For local fans, though, the 17 other boxers on the bill are really beside the point. Everyone has come to see "Steel" Will Grigsby. At five-foot-four, with a fighting weight of just 106 pounds, the 29-year-old St. Paul native established himself as the most formidable figure on the Minnesota scene last December, when he claimed the International Boxing Federation's vacant junior flyweight title. The Homecoming is Grigsby's first defense of his belt.
Grigsby dances his way down the aisle to the ring, a makeshift platform of scaffold and wire rigged up dead square in the middle of the ballroom, and ducks under the ropes. He loosens his taut, finely muscled body with jerky, frenetic movements. His foe, Carmelo Caceres, from the Philippines, was shipped in at the last second, after a more highly regarded fighter backed out. Visa troubles, King's people said. From the opening bell, the fight proceeds at a cautious tempo--a little surprising, considering that these are small fighters. Generally, boxers in the lower-weight classes are busier in the ring than their heavier counterparts, their greatest virtue from an aesthetician's perspective. As Grigsby's trainer, Dennis Presley, puts it, "You watch a heavyweight, they throw maybe 20 punches a round. Guys from 147 pounds down, they'll throw 150 punches a round." Caceres, however, doesn't throw much. He circles, backpedals, bobs furtively, and feints for most of the bout. Grigsby, meanwhile, flecks away at the Filipino with a stiff jab, landing occasional rights and racking up the points.
In the 12th and final round, Grigsby turns on, dropping Caceres to the canvas with a swift left hook to the body. Caceres, with a look of gunshot surprise, rises quickly to finish the fight. Unanimous decision. With the victory, Grigsby is all but assured a spot on yet another King bill, and another sweet payday. He thrusts his arms upward in the traditional "winner and still champ" pose, an oversized red-and-gold IBF belt draped across his midriff, his gold-capped incisor glinting in the spotlight.
Back in the Day
The decline of the popularity of boxing in Minnesota remains a subject of considerable debate, theorizing, and caterwauling among local fistic elites. "It used to be boxing was a big event," laments Jim O'Hara, the executive secretary of the seven-member state boxing board, which regulates both amateur and professional fights in Minnesota, except most of those held at casinos. "I guess it really changed when the Vikings and the Twins came to town." A former state heavyweight champ, O'Hara remembers the days when Twin Cities fight fans could take in 30 or more professional bouts a year--back in the 1930s. In the '40s and '50s, aficionados used to pay admission at the old Potts Gymnasium in downtown Minneapolis just to watch workouts featuring the renowned Del Flanagan--by most estimates, the greatest boxer the state ever produced. Through the '60s and into the early '70s, amateur fights, held under the auspices of the Golden Gloves, routinely packed the old Minneapolis Armory with as many as 10,000 spectators. These days a crowd of a thousand is deemed a big success.
Since its heyday, the Minnesota boxing scene has cycled through erratic peaks and abiding valleys. The occasional surges are contingent on the emergence of fighters with enough skill and charisma to fill the hotel ballrooms or tavern parking lots where most fights are put on. Lately, those boxers have been scarce. "The fighters you got headlining today would be the curtain-raisers back when Del fought. These kids today aren't hungry like they were before," says Jerry Flanagan, brother of both Del and Glen Flanagan, who was standout boxer as well. For many old-timers, the decline in the quality of both the boxers and the cards has been tough to swallow. Asked to provide photographs of Del for this article, Jerry declined, saying, "I don't want to mix Del and Glen with a bunch of punch-drunk palookas and four-round fighters."
According to O'Hara, there are just 20 active prizefighters in the state--down from some 200 in the 1930s. Still, O'Hara takes pains to note, the so-called golden age of boxing in Minnesota was not without its dark side. There weren't many regulations back then: no mandatory medicals, no requirement that fighters lay off for a month after suffering a knockout. Boxers fought too often, for too long, he says. "There was a lot of fighters around when I was young, and everyone had cauliflower ears and busted noses. I saw a lot of broken people. When they were through with boxing, there was nothing left for them. I buried some of those guys."
In the past decade, professional cards in Minnesota have been put on only sporadically, most often at outstate casinos far from the inner-city neighborhoods that produce the state's best fighters and remain home to their most avid fans. Some insiders blame it on the rise of televised boxing. Anyone with a decent cable package can watch prizefighting in his living room instead of shelling out $20 to $50 for live bouts in town. Some point to the explosion of major-league sports, which has eroded both the talent pool and the fan base for boxing. Some fault boxing's anarchic organization, what with three major sanctioning bodies (all with different champions) and an expanded field of weight divisions; the traditional eight classes have been blown up to a cumbersome seventeen, making it hard for all but the most astute fans to keep up on the current ring rulers. And some blame it on the print media, which they believe covers only the soiled-and-spoiled side of boxing or, worse yet, ignores it altogether. A watershed moment for local fistiana? Maybe in the early '70s, when the Minneapolis Star newspaper discontinued its sponsorship of the Upper Midwest Golden Gloves tournament, the annual showcase for amateur fighters and the forum in which most local pros cut their teeth. Coverage of the Upper Midwest finals in the dailies has dropped to near nil.
Not even Will Grigsby, the world's reigning junior flyweight champ, gets paid much notice. Grigsby lives in a modest, two-story home on Selby Avenue in St. Paul, over in the Summit-University area. A Beware of Dog sign hangs in a porch window, fair warning to anyone inclined to provoke the temperamental rottweiler inside. A well-tended Mustang convertible 5.0, with gleaming oversized hubs, sits in the gravel driveway. Grigsby grew up in this house, with his three older brothers and late mother Jennie. Her presence lingers in the ample cluster of family portraits on display in the living room. There have been a few recent additions to the décor: a signed proclamation from St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman honoring Grigsby, and, over in a darkened corner, two hard-shell suitcases. Grigsby lays them carefully on the dining room table and pops the locks. Inside each is a championship belt: one from the IBF, lovely and fat and gaudy, sporting a gilded eagle in bas-relief and a sparkling split-hemisphere map of the globe; the other, from a second-tier sanctioning body, the United States Boxing Association. He shows them off with just the hint of a smile.
Grigsby is a counterpuncher--meaning that he is fundamentally reactive, gauging his opponents, responding to their attacks. That quality spills over into his personal manner, a sort of streetwise cool flavored by dashes of shyness and deliberate reserve. When he boxes, his face is a mask. "I try and show no kind of emotion in the ring," Grigsby says. Didn't even tell his own corner about the bruised hand he suffered in the sixth round with Caceres. Didn't want to cause any worry. Early in his career, Grigsby's inscrutable demeanor earned him the moniker "Still Will." The nickname morphed into "Steel Will" because the ex-fighter who coined the tag had a slurred, easily misunderstood speech--the sorry product, the story goes, of too many fights. These days, Grigsby prefers "Steel."
Digging into a plate of pork chops over at Dixie's On Grand, the Southern-fried St. Paul eatery not far from his place, Grigsby is set to recount the wobbly trajectory of his career. He has brought along a pal, a lanky guy from the old days who goes by the name Peanut. A head taller than Grigsby, with rueful eyes, Peanut calls Grigsby "Champ." So do a lot of people around Selby, where Grigsby is the object of considerable pride. Growing up, though, Grigsby often found himself scrapping with other kids from the neighborhood. "It used to be a pretty bad block, one of the worst in the city," he recalls matter-of-factly. "Shootings. Stabbings. Whatever you didn't want going on, it was going on there." It wasn't just mean streets that drew Grigsby to boxing. His dad boxed. His seven uncles boxed; one of them made the U.S. Olympic team.
When Grigsby was 12, he wandered into the Inner City Youth Gym, where he met trainer Dennis Presley. Presley trains Grigsby to this day, and the two have the characteristically close bond of the best trainer-fighter relationships. "Dennis always stuck with me," Grigsby says, "even when we didn't always see eye to eye. All I'd have to do is call him up and say, like, 'Man, let's go to the gym.' He would come. Never turned his back on me or nothing." By the time young Will stepped foot in the gym, Presley had already worked with Grigsby's older brother, Richard, who was undefeated as an amateur fighter before giving up the sport for hoops. Presley saw similar promise in Will. "I've seen a lot of guys with great skill, as much skill," Presley remembers, "but they didn't have the heart."
From the outset, Grigsby had trouble finding sparring partners his size. Working with guys 20 or 30 pounds bigger, he learned to hit hard, to lean into his punches. At age 18, after an impressive amateur career that included three Upper Midwest Golden Gloves championships, he turned professional. At the time, Presley, who now works as an addiction counselor for African American Family Services, was in jail on traffic charges, so Grigsby was fighting for Tommy Brunette. Brunette, a trainer, manager, matchmaker, promoter, and cornerman, is a third-generation St. Paul fight-world guy. (Back in '86, Tommy's brother Brian challenged for a junior welterweight title. Brian is a referee these days, as is another brother, Bob Brunette). Soon enough, Tommy Brunette set up a tell-all match for Grigsby, with former Olympic gold medalist Michael Carbajol.
The bout was held in Atlantic City, as the undercard of a true big-time clash, the great Roberto Duran vs. Iran Barkley. No one expected much from the unknown 18-year-old from St. Paul, but Grigsby fought well. Still, he got careless in the fourth round. Got knocked down. Got up. The fight, a split decision, remains the only loss of his 16-bout pro career. "I took the fight because I wanted to see how good I was," Grigsby remembers. "But it did more bad than good, because after that people knew I could box."
As it turned out, Grigsby didn't fight again for nearly five years. He figured he couldn't get the sorts of matches and purses he deserved, having just enjoyed his moment in the bright lights of Atlantic City. He also experienced what he now calls "managerial difficulties" with Brunette, a dispute over the size of his take for the Carbajol fight--at $1,500, a decent payday for a club fighter, but a far cry from the $25,000 the bout netted Carbajol. So he quit.
Long layoffs are not uncommon among fighters. Some get disgusted with their pay, or the promoters, or their managers. Or they get tired of being hit. Sometimes, their lives just go to hell. During his down spell, Grigsby had a few minor scrapes with the law--possession of marijuana, traffic offenses. He worked in a mailroom and, as he puts it, "got into my dogs." From the time he was 14, Grigsby has made a hobby of breeding pit bulls and rottweilers. He now keeps a stable of pit bulls on 35 acres he owns near Askov, Minnesota. He fancied piranhas for a time as well. "I guess I just like aggressive animals," he admits with a shrug. "It's real relaxing to watch them, to see 'em eat."
In '94, he came back. The purses were meager, sometimes as little as $400, but Grigsby honed his skills. Before long, he handed the managerial reins to Rory Rowe, a longtime fight fan from St. Paul with an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport and a yen to become a player. Rowe had been promoting cards down in Rochester, learning the peculiar intricacies of the business. He proved a quick study. In 1996, Rowe engineered a minor title shot--for the U.S.B.A. belt--that Grigsby won by decision after a grueling, 12-round body-buster.
After four successful defenses of that title, Grigsby landed the biggest fight of his career: a December 1998 12-rounder in Florida, in a King-produced "Little Giants" special for the then-vacant IBF junior flyweight title. When Grigsby routed his more experienced opponent, Ratanapol Vorapin, he became the first Minnesotan to capture a major belt since another St. Paul fighter, Mike "The Harp" O'Dowd, held the middleweight title back in 1920.
"I think this is a time that the good-fortune side of boxing is tapping us on the shoulder, saying, 'Are you interested?'" Rowe says of Grigsby's ascendance. Presley is similarly optimistic. "I think we're in a position over the next four or five years to really bring boxing to Minnesota on a large scale," he says. "I want to tell all those assholes that say Minnesota kids can't fight to kiss my ass. Now that Will's the champion, these guys are gonna get their chance."
Peanuts and Pride
For his first title defense, Grigsby netted, by his estimate, some $55,000. It was a colossal payday by Minnesota standards--and the biggest, by far, of his career. For most pro boxers in the state, purses typically run no more than $600 for appearances on an undercard, $3,000 tops for headliners. As a result, in recent years some of Minnesota's most promising boxers have drifted away in search of more recognition and more lucrative fights.
It's boxing, so, of course, there are sad stories. None is sadder than that of Johnny Montantes, the state's most popular fighter of the mid-'90s. A handsome, sweet-natured lightweight from St. Paul, Montantes lived and breathed boxing. He even named his kid "Marciano" in honor of the late champ. After knockouts, Montantes would do a back flip in the ring, earning him the moniker "Jumping Johnny." In '97, he left St. Paul, where he'd headlined scads of shows put together by Tommy Brunette at the downtown Radisson, and headed for Vegas and bigger paydays. With a 29-3 record, he was looking for a shot at a match that mattered, maybe even a belt. Then one night he ran into a tough journeyman--James Crayton--who delivered a terrible right to Montantes's head in the sixth round. He went down hard and out cold. His brain swelled. Two days later, the doctors shut off Montantes's life support and harvested his organs.
Minnesota fighters, including Grigsby, still dedicate fights to Jumping Johnny, and his death remains the wellspring of complicated feelings. Just about everyone--trainers, boxers, managers--is quick to assert that Montantes's death was freakish, not the result of cumulative battering or a carelessly managed career but rather a horrible accident caused by the unpredictable physics of a single blow. But there was another lesson: Fighters who leave town--fighters who strike out on their own, like Montantes--are the ones most easily ruined by a sport in which "I have no one to trust" is the most common refrain among its participants. Pull up stakes in search of the elusive pot of gold, and you could wind up dead.
Old greats like Del Flanagan never worked at anything but their boxing. These days, just about all Minnesota boxers have a day job; they are, in short, semipros. Perhaps it is the lack of much in the way of real money that contributes to the nearly medieval preoccupation with respect that floats around the local gyms. Like money, respect is in short supply in the state's fight circles, guarded zealously and doled out in meager portions.
"Why? I don't know--petty jealousies, bullshit people. It doesn't make sense," Brunette says of the feuding culture. "Local kids don't like to lose to other local kids. Local trainers don't like to lose to local trainers. There's a lot of pride at stake." And with that pride, everybody's got their own version of the truth--the lowdown on the bums, the robberies, the setups, the steroid users, the scammers, and the warriors. Rumors spread. Grudges last. Animosities build. Bill Corrigan, a journeyman heavyweight from St. Paul who has been on a losing skid (10 of his last 11 fights), puts it in succinct terms. "In this business," he says, "everybody hates everybody. It's almost like a code."
Brawl on the Mall--February 12, Hyatt Regency Ballroom in Minneapolis
Tim Eastman is pumped tonight, running on pure adrenaline. The wiry 47-year-old, who owns a siding business in Columbia Heights, is working the ballroom floor--gladhanding, mixing with the who's who, tending to details. He wears a cloth-and-leather letterman's jacket, emblazoned with the words World Boxing Promotions set against the company logo, a globe with a dangling pair of boxing gloves. This is Eastman's first boxing promotion--a foray into a world about which, by his own admission, he knew next to nothing. Never was a fighter. Just liked the sport. It is also the first pro card held within Minneapolis city limits in more than three years. And it is the first step in Eastman's ambitious plans to breathe a little life back into the local prizefighting scene--a total of six cards in town in '99, he hopes, culminating at the Minneapolis Convention Center with a New Year's Eve millennial extravaganza.
"Everybody thinks I'm crazy, that Minneapolis won't support the sport," Eastman says. "But I think the city's starving for something like this. Especially if it's done, you know, in an honest and ethical way." He lets that last phrase dangle in the air a moment. It's an expression he repeats often, like a mantra--"honest and ethical."
In the weeks leading up to the Brawl on the Mall, Eastman caught wind of some nasty rumors that were being passed along the fistic grapevine. Fighters wouldn't get paid. Fighters had phony records. The show would flop or get canceled. At the last minute three of the local boxers slated to appear backed out. Just before showtime, Eastman says, he had to come up with $20,000 in cash to allay the remaining boxers' fears that their checks would bounce. One night, Eastman says, someone even hurled a keystone through the front window of his home. Weighed 80 pounds. Landed right on the kitchen table. He suspects it was "a bad element" in the boxing world, though he won't point a finger. "I can't prove anything, so I can't say. Besides," he sighs, taking a pull off a Merit Light cigarette, "I don't need any more enemies. But if there's any more trouble, I'm gonna start taking it personal." As for the ugly infighting among promoters like him, he supposes it just goes with the territory, "like male dogs peeing on a tree."
Eastman's pre-gala troubles weren't exactly unusual. What is remarkable is his card tonight: All five of the Minnesota fighters come from different gyms. Typically, promoters in town wear many hats--as trainers, managers, backers. As a result, they have interests in both protecting their fighters from tough bouts (thus keeping the records win-heavy) and keeping them away from other promoters. Often, half of the fighters on a card come from the same gym; and, everyone grumbles, it seems like the hometown guys always come out victorious. "The promoter-managers use their own fighters, and you can pretty much run down the card and see who's gonna win," says Frank Quinn, a heavyweight from Blaine. "The promoters want to monopolize the fighters," agrees Scott LeDoux. "When I was boxing, I had 13 fights in my first year. I fought for five different promoters and I never left Minnesota. Now, the promoters say, If you fight for someone else, you don't fight for me. It's bad for boxing."
Tonight, there are no TV cameras, no laser lights, no bikini-clad strippers. In fact, Eastman recruited his card girl, a willowy brunette in a black evening dress, out of a church congregation. "I want it to be classy," Eastman says, "something you can bring your wife to." The Brawl attracts just under a thousand spectators, a decent turnout for a show that was barely advertised and received no press--though not enough fans show up, Eastman concedes, to turn a profit.
The most curious fight on the night's card is the pairing of two local heavyweights. Quenten Osgood, age 34, a former Upper Midwest Golden Gloves champ from St. Paul, enters the bout with a professional record of eight wins, five losses, and one draw. He has a reputation as a hard hitter. The five losses all came by knockout, though--not a good sign. "Poor Quenten never had the best chin," laments one local trainer. His opponent, Jack Basting, a 42-year-old trial horse from Maplewood, possesses one of the best chins in town and, by most accounts, not much else. Tonight's fight is a rematch. Last summer, when the two went six rounds at Treasure Island Casino, the judges awarded the bout to Osgood, a black man. Basting, who is white and lets no one forget it, noisily denounced the decision as a racist.
From the opening bell, Basting--red-faced, neck veins popping--drives into Osgood with visible fury. If the best fights are art, this is pornography: crude, to the point, absent nuance. The crowd eats it up for the first two rounds, as the fighters ricochet off each other, elbows flying. Basting shakes off some hard rights, stuns Osgood a few times, and starts to run out of gas. In the third round, Osgood lunges awkwardly and the two men tangle. They fall to the ground. Osgood, on top, throws a nasty right at the prone Basting, who jerks his head to avoid the blow. At that, the ref steps in and stops the fight. Osgood, disqualified, apologizes to Basting. He grabs him around the waist, tries to hoist him into the air. Basting, still pissed, wiggles away and stalks off.
The big draw tonight is a promising middleweight from Shakopee, advertised as Anthony "The Bullet" Bonsante. Everybody calls him Tony. Bonsante enters the ring wearing a loose-fitting flannel shirt and a no-nonsense scowl. His wife Tawnya and five-year-old daughter Brittany fidget in their seats. So does his mom, Cindy Thompson, and his fan club, mostly hometown friends. Bonsante goes to work, pounding fiercely on a game middleweight from Tennessee, Rico Cason. Cason is leaner and taller than Bonsante. He needs to keep his opponent outside, to use his jab, but Bonsante presses and charges. A former amateur champ, Bonsante has a long record in the ring, though just 13 fights as a pro. He also has a strong chin, so there's lots of toe-to-toe action. "Come on, take his head off, Anthony!" his mom hollers, rising from her seat. In the seventh round, Cason throws some rabbit punches in clinch, hammering away at Bonsante's kidneys. Mom charges the ring. "Come on, you can't pull that shit!" she squeals.
When the decision is announced--unanimous, for Bonsante--the fighter hoists his daughter onto his shoulders, sops up the glory as he parades about the ring, and, for the first time tonight, smiles. The fight redeems some of the card's low spots. Tim Eastman is hoping to make Bonsante a staple of his future shows. The kid can draw. The kid can fight.
A couple of weeks after the Brawl, Tony Bonsante is back in training. He works out at the Bloomington Karate Center, located in the Great Bear Shopping Center. The gym, with its low, tiled ceilings, is tucked underneath a sports bar. There is no natural light. It is furnished with just the bare essentials: a small ring, a matted workout area with full-length mirrors, a variety of punching bags, and, in a cage over in the far corner, a big white parrot with a fondness for gouging fingers.
Most days, Bonsante comes straight from his day job at the Kmart distribution center in Shakopee. Since he has no impending fights, a light workout is on tap, commencing with a bit of shadow-boxing. He approaches his craft earnestly, flicking away at the air with jabs and half-thrown hooks, his eyes locked on his imaginary opponent. Bonsante, who grew up in the central Minnesota town of Crosby, has big dreams--of million-dollar fights. "It could happen. It's a definite possibility," he declares with conviction during a brief break. But Bonsante is far from naive. "Boxing," he grants, "is a tough sport. It's a corrupt sport. I want to get my money and get out. I got two kids--I don't need to get my brains scrambled."
Now 28, Bonsante has fought professionally for just under three years, but already he is considered among the most promising talents in the state. In part, the reputation is based on his successful amateur career, during which he won a total of five Upper Midwest Golden Gloves championships at various weights. In '91, he took second place at the Golden Gloves nationals. After an extended layoff to attend college, Bonsante began to notice former amateurs he had once beaten now fighting on TV and making money. "If those guys could fight as pros, why can't I?" he figures. "I'll give it a three- or four-year try."
He started with a call to Bill Kaehn, one of the last of the old-school managers and trainers from Minneapolis. Kaehn, now 76, has been a fixture in Twin Cities boxing for six decades. He used to run the boxing program, now defunct, at the University of Minnesota. In the '40s and early '50s, Kaehn trained Del Flanagan, the lightweight, welterweight, and middleweight who beat a slew of champions over the years, including the legendary lightweight Sandy Saddler. Since then, Kaehn has seen a lot of promising boxers come and go. And he's seen his share of disappointments--guys like Sherman Griffin, who, as an amateur, once outpointed future heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. Griffin left town when the first money offers came in and, in short order, got shot in a convenience-store heist down in St. Louis. It wasn't fatal, Kaehn says, but it ended Griffin's career.
As Bonsante pounds away on the heavy bag, Kaehn looks on approvingly. He calls out little bursts of encouragement and polite criticism. "I've pretty much got everything wrapped in Tony now," he says. Kaehn likes to wait on fighters, to bring them up slow. But because Bonsante is relatively old, he feels some pressure to take the tougher fights sooner rather than later--any fight, really.
Bonsante established his status as a footnote on the national scene a year and a half ago, in a fight held at a casino in Morton, Minnesota. Bonsante's opponent was '96 Olympic bronze medalist Roshii Wells. In general, a medal confers instant money status on a fighter once he goes pro; medalists tend to pick opponents carefully, working their way up to bigger paydays and major titles. The Bonsante-Wells bout was ruled a draw--though, as is often the case, witnesses tended to see it differently than did the judges. "Tony slapped him around pretty good," says heavyweight Bill Corrigan. "I'd heard Wells was slick and I thought Tony would be too flat-footed and too much of a banger. I'll be the first to admit, he completely amazed me."
Since that fight, Bonsante has rattled off eight straight wins, including four technical knockouts. He's getting hungrier--and promoter Tim Eastman is promising more meals. Bonsante is scheduled to appear on his next card on May 22, at the Brawl on the Mall II.
It's a drab Sunday afternoon in March. "Timber" Jack Basting--the journeyman heavyweight who won at the Brawl by disqualification--is taking the day off from work. He runs a tree service, hence the nickname. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a sprawling brick complex in Maplewood. On this day, Basting is killing time in a pair of loose-fitting blue shorts and nothing else. The shades are drawn, and the place feels like a cave.
Basting is 42, under six feet tall, and thick-bodied. He has a muscled bulge of gut. Tattoos cover his arms and chest--the Rolling Stones' tongue-and-lip logo, shooting flames, the yin-yang symbol, a pair of boxing gloves, and, over his heart, a small crown topped by the letter "W." He has a shock of brown hair, soft eyes, and a ruined nose. By his own estimate, he has suffered eight bustings of that nose in the course of his 37-bout career (23 wins, 14 losses). "It don't get broke much anymore. It's pretty well flattened," he says with a dry laugh. "I never could get it fixed right." He offers the observation casually, as though his nose were not part of his person, but merely some trifling, worn-out possession.
At that, he pads off to collect his scrapbook, which is wedged into a bookshelf stocked with his collection of reading materials. How to Really Love Your Child. Are You a Psychic? The Mind of Adolph Hitler. Adult Children of Alcoholics. How to Get Women You Desire into Bed. A pamphlet titled "The Aryan Loyalist." A whole series of Anthony Robbins motivational tapes. Basting lays the scrapbook on the kitchen table. In it is a mess of scenic snapshots taken in foreign lands where he has fought over the years: Japan, China, Australia, France, South Africa. There are, as well, a series of studio portraits of male strippers--guys in sailor suits, leather-and-chain outfits, cowboy getups, and the like. "That's me there," Basting says, pointing to a picture of his much younger self. "I went by the name 'Jumpin' Jack.'" Did the full monty a half-dozen times in seven years of stripping, mostly at bachelorette parties, he says. "It was kind of fun, but I think it tarnished my view of women."
As for his career in the ring, Basting is known for taking fights against superior opponents. Few in local circles think much of his boxing skills, but, invariably, they mention his grit. Frank Quinn, the light heavyweight from Blaine, offers a typical observation: "Jack's a rough, tough fucking fighter. If he misses you with his glove, he might catch you with his elbow or give you a head butt. The guy is not easy to hurt, but he is too easy to hit." A lot of the boxers who have battered Basting over the years were ranked fighters, some of them real brutes: Orlin Norris, John Ruiz, Axel Schulz, Joe Hipp. Last year, Basting wound up on the wrong end of a third-round KO in a bout with Andrew Golota who, until Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear, was widely considered boxing's dirtiest fighter--a fierce, reckless, disturbed character straight out of the Warsaw ghetto and known in the trade mags as "The Foul Pole." "When I heard that Basting was fighting Golota, I made the sign of the cross," recalls the state boxing board's Jim O'Hara. Not long ago, in a ten-rounder with Hipp, Basting weathered such a severe beating that one spectator was moved to shout out, "He's not human!"
How has he managed to stay upright? "Man, I just got a thick skull," Basting brags. Neurologists who study the sport estimate that as many as 60 percent of pro fighters eventually suffer from pugilistic dementia, otherwise known as "punch-drunkenness." Basting allows that his fights have indeed taken a toll, though he's quick to stress that he has passed all mandatory prefight physicals with flying colors. He hopes to get in another 15 or 20 bouts before retiring. "I'm kind of superstitious," he explains, "and five is my lucky number, so what the fuck? I'll stop at 50 fights." He pauses and chuckles. "But I might change that. I might go to 55. That's doubly good."
A few years ago, Basting invented a rubber arm-strengthening gizmo he dubbed "The Roadworker." A patent for the device hangs in a frame on the living-room wall. Maybe, Basting says, he'll figure out a way to market the Roadworker after his career is over. That might help with the child support. Basting has three kids, and he's fallen behind on his obligations. Awhile back, he says, the state suspended his driver's license for nonpayment. Basting is bitter about that. He's bitter about a lot of things, beginning with a childhood he describes as vagabond ("My stepdad thought he was a fucking gypsy") and full of abuse ("I got the scars to prove it"). When he was 17, he says, he joined the Marine Corps in an effort to escape a nasty drug habit. One day while on duty, he swallowed an overdose of prescription tranquilizers and nearly died. He spent two weeks in a psych ward and, 30 days later, got his discharge.
He started boxing, he says, as a way to stay clean. As an amateur, he won three St. Paul city championship titles and, in 1981, the Upper Midwest Golden Gloves. He turned pro in 1983, and has fought continuously since--except for the three years he spent in the Minnesota state prison system. (The TV set in his living room came from the commissary at Stillwater.) He is vague in discussing the reasons for his imprisonment. "I was kind of being radical," he says. "I was being a little sadistic and assaultive." According to court documents, Basting pleaded guilty to a second-degree assault charge stemming from an unprovoked attack on a black man outside an Anoka County bar in '93. He was given a suspended sentence, but his probation was revoked in '95 after an altercation with his ex-wife's boyfriend. Basting insists his case was mishandled. He is bitter about his lawyer. He is bitter about the system. And he is bitter about the way boxing is run in Minnesota.
"I'm sticking my neck out, because I'm near the end of my career and I don't give a fuck," he says. "My opinion about boxing in Minnesota? It sucks. To me, the promoters are a bunch of pimps and the boxers are a bunch of whores. And all the pimps are all looking for a quick buck and they use the boxers to get it." Asked why he keeps fighting, Basting stops his tirade to contemplate the question, as if he'd never asked it of himself before, then says, "I don't do it to get rich. I like the money, but I'm not getting rich." And then this: "We need some representation. The white race is fucking weak. There are no good stand-up white fighters out there."
In all the great fights, and even merely brutal ones, a boxer's display of endurance can be at once horrid and beautiful. It is the sort of test of spirit over body that few nonfighters can tolerate or, for that matter, even imagine. A boxer's willingness to accept pain, to continue fighting when any normal person would weep or lie down or flee sets him apart, in something like a species all his own. Boxing insiders often talk about the importance of ring skills, about the necessity of mastering the craft's finer points. But more than anything, they talk about "heart"--whether a fighter has it or not. Heart, in boxing, means a pure and nearly absolute willingness to suffer. It is considered the greatest virtue in a boxer, and, paradoxically, the cause of ruin for many--especially those who suffer too long before they quit. Having heart doesn't necessarily win championships or lead to money. But it can get a fighter that other coveted commodity: respect.
That may help to explain the attitudes some in Minnesota's boxing community have about Basting. His views on race are an open secret in the gyms around St. Paul and Minneapolis. He's been barred from several, yet remains welcome in others. And he has earned a fair degree of tolerance from some surprising quarters. "Jack deserves to be recognized as one of the toughest guys in the history of Minnesota boxing," says Dennis Presley, Grigsby's trainer and a black man. "He's never going to get his just due, because of his beliefs. I wish he didn't feel the way he does, but what he thinks about black people is not important. There is nobody in Minnesota who has more heart and determination than Jack. It's guys like him that keep boxing alive. They go down, they get cut, they get hurt, they get beat up. But the next time there's a fight, they're back."
Jack Basting--fighter without a manager, fighter without a gym--turns his attention to diapering his young daughter, who is at the apartment for her weekend visit. That done, he plucks a framed photograph off the wall. "Of all the souvenirs I got, this is the best," he announces. The photo shows a young Basting in the locker room with Bokkie Buys, a white South African national champ. The picture was taken shortly after the two men fought in Johannesburg back in 1991. Both are smiling. Basting looks as if he's just returned from a stroll in the park, unmarred, without a care in the world. Buys's face is harder to read, because it is a bloodied, swelled-up mess. The fight lasted all ten rounds. The decision went to Buys--in Basting's view, a classic robbery.
Basting scratches at his crooked face with a meaty finger. Seems like a long time ago now. Yes, the judges stole the win from him. And yes, what he's done for the better part of his life--pummeling other people's faces, annihilating their bodies, wrecking his own--is full of paradoxes and sick twists and as much heart as a man can muster while getting puréed into a bloody pulp. "It's boxing, man," he says, almost without bitterness. "It's boxing."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.