Fight 6: Trial By Fire
The high I felt after my 5th pro fight lasted several weeks. Upon returning home to Duluth, there was a victory celebration party Chuck Horton had put together at Duluth Athletic Club, a fancy restaurant down town that had a private meeting room in the back. There was a good turnout of local friends and fans there to hear from us about our fight trip and watch the video of the fight.
Then there was the ripple effect of a job well done in the ring. We got our promotional contract proposal from Brian Halquist Productions and over all it looked like a good deal. The fight purse guarantees were a topic of negotiation, but it didn’t seem like something we couldn’t work out. The general premise of the contract was to build me into a local attraction in Tacoma. I would eventually move out to Tacoma and fight there while building my fight resume until I hit the big time. It was a flattering proposal and I was glad to get the attention. I didn’t sign it yet, but things were looking good. Jeff Crane signed on as my first personal sponsor through his company to fund training camps and other boxing expenses. This was a big step up for me. As I looked at how fast things were growing I could only sit back and smile at how well things were going.
Brian Halquist Productions asked us to come back for another fight. By this time working with the Tacoma-based promoter seemed like routine business. Hitting 5-0 and coming off a strong performance boosted my confidence in the ring. The opponent that was proposed was a local Tacoma boxer named Robert Linton who had twice my professional experience with a record of 10-2 6KO. Robert Linton was also an amateur boxing standout at the national level. I thought about it for about a second and agreed to it. Chuck Horton had some reservations about the match, but I was able to convince him enough to get his approval as well. I pointed out that in spite of Robert Linton’s boxing credentials I was the boxer coming in with momentum and was a naturally bigger boxer. Robert Linton had turned pro at middleweight and slowly grew into a small light heavyweight. His pace of fighting had slowed down and it looked like I would have an edge regardless of my experience deficit.
Camp started a week after I returned home. There was no rest needed for me as I had won my last fight by 1st round KO. Training felt like a continuation of my last camp. Like a layer cake I was getting better each camp. I gave my sponsor a call and told him the news about my returning to Tacoma Washington to fight. He was delighted to hear this and asked how he could help with my preparation. Chuck Horton and I talked it over and figured the best move would be to start training camp in Duluth and finish up in Tacoma. After all, we were looking at potentially moving out to Tacoma for the rest of my career so it only made sense to check it out. I gave my sponsor a call and he agreed it made sense to train in Tacoma for this fight. In a few short weeks we were on the plane again. This time with bags packed for a three week stay. My sponsor made arrangements to set up Chuck Horton and I at an extended stay hotel in the Port of Tacoma not too far from the hotel the weigh-ins were held the last few times we had been there.
When we landed in Tacoma, Washington we were met at the airport by Chad Van Sickle, a cruiserweight boxer that Brian Halquist had recently signed from Columbus, OH. He drove us down the hotel and along the way we made plans to train the next day.
The feeling of being in Tacoma was different than the last couple visits. This time I looked at everything through the framework of a person who was thinking about moving there. I liked being on the coast and the occasional views of Mount Rainier were pretty far out! Here I could live by a volcano. Sweet! The scenery was very nice and I could see myself living there.
Morning came and we were off to train with Chad Van Sickle. He brought us out to the edge of town to a little gym that was set up in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t the typical inner-city gym feel. It was dingy and old and smelled like rotten leather. The dank state of the training facility was still a step up from my garage back home so it actually felt like an upgrade. Even still, I wondered what kind of champions trained at a gym like this. The head trainer there was a former professional boxer named Greg Haugen. He was a former world champion and won his title back when they had 15-rounders! He gave Hector Camacho his first loss and took his title, boxed Julio Cesar Chavez to a controversial stoppage in Mexico City, took on Pernell Whitaker for his title, and boxed Vinny Pazienza three times in a back and forth exchange of the world title. He was a rough dude for sure and had the resume to back it all up.
During training Greg Haugen would fill the air with fight stories. He had a continuous flow of stories he’d tell. Each one led into another and at the end of each there’d be a message to us training on why we should do something he said. My favorite take-away story was when Greg Haugen talked about fighting Julio Cesar Chavez in Mexico City. He trained in Mexico for the fight and during the press tour for the fight he made some nasty remarks about Julio Cesar Chavez’ accomplishments in the ring. One of them was stating Chavez professional boxing record was built up over years of beating up drunken Mexico City cab drivers. The remarks put Greg Haugen’s life at risk with the diehard Chavez fans which earned him military escort the remainder of his training camp in Mexico. The fight ended up as a 5th round TKO stoppage, but Greg claimed to be ahead on the cards and “smashing Chavez cuz he couldn’t fight a lick anyway” before the stoppage. It was a good story indeed. The lesson from this story was something like this… ‘At the top you gotta roll the dice and fight everyone there. It’s all business and your gona get beat by someone. It might as well be against the best.’
Greg Haugen had a comical way of telling a story. We’d laugh till our abs cramped but get priceless information at the same time. In boxing, there are many talkers and when getting information you learn to always consider the source. Is the info grounded in legitimate experience or is this just a person reciting some info he read in a book or online? With Greg Haugen, his words were scripture to me. This guy had been there and done that and experienced things I could only dream of at the time. Storytelling is an art and Greg Haugen knew it well. Those moments of camp were fun.
I got some good sparring in camp. Chad Van Sickle was good work. He was big and quick for his size. He had sparred with Robert Linton before and told me a bit about him. He said Linton was slick and had pretty good pop on his punches. My rounds with Chad Van Sickle were intense with little pauses between the punches. It was my style to attack continuously and his style was standing his ground and trading shots. Another boxer in camp was a veteran boxer named Kenny Ellis. He was training for a 12-round fight for the NABA Middleweight Title. Kenny Ellis was battle tested and crafty. He was overweight for his 160 lbs match by about 20 pounds when I got to camp! It was an issue Greg Haugen was on him about. Sparring with Kenny Ellis was a different type of battle. No matter how much I pushed him, pressured him, or attacked him, he remained very chill and unaffected. It was like he could box all day and not tire. I was amazed by this. He had a style of smooth head movement and footwork. He could slip a punch and land a counter shot in its place at the same time. He’d rush in and crowd me, but then not punch. I’d punch away at him to keep him away, but most of the shots were deflected or missed. Soon as I showed a sign of tiredness there he’d be; picking me apart with perfectly placed shots in the midst of my drained state. But like I said, Kenny Ellis did this and barely broke a sweat. Greg Haugen would yell at him to get busy so he’d get more of a workout, but that was not his style. On our runs, Kenny Ellis would trot at a medium pace and talk about sports; mostly pro football and basketball…. very little boxing. This was a totally different attitude to me. Here this guy was fighting for a title and it didn’t seem to be anywhere on his radar to be motivated for it. That and he was way over where he needed to be for the weigh-in 3 weeks away. I wondered how he would ever make it let alone win his fight!
Back at the hotel between workouts, it was boring! I had brought my homework with me from college but had that wrapped up in the first couple days. The hotel room started to feel like a jail cell. Chuck Horton and I strained ourselves to kill time! There was lots of Jerry Springer on the TV for entertainment, but that got old very fast. Thank god for my little travel chess board! Chuck Horton and I must have played over 200 games during camp. I have always loved chess and Chuck had been talking real tough about beating me in the game. Before this time, he had claimed not to play me because he didn’t want to break my confidence. I assured him I’d be fine and challenged him to games several times before, but he never took me up on a game. Well, he would agree to a game, but say we’d have to meet after practice which never worked out. Ha ha. Anyway, when we finally got to playing our games he maybe beat me twice the whole three weeks! Of course, I had to give him a lot of grief for ducking me and then getting beat so many times! His defense went back to saying he was only trying to boost my confidence by letting me win. I knew he was trying though.
One time we were bored and he said we should go outside for some conditioning drills. I grabbed my boxing gloves and followed him out. In the back parking lot of the hotel he, had me do wind sprints followed by punchout drills on the mitts. It was a muggy 80 degrees outside in the afternoon sun. After about an hour of this I got gassed! He then, said “Come on. Lets go. Time to play some chess.” What!? I was spent. I was sweaty, tired, and mentally out of it. All I wanted was a drink of water and a cold shower. Chess was not on my mind. I laughed hard on this one. What a crafty move! After getting back to the hotel room it was right to chess. No shower. No water. Chuck and I were laughing about this. I told him I’d take him out quick. He said if I was a real chess player it shouldn’t matter how I felt. It would be in my blood. OK… So we play chess. And I beat him again!!! He flipped out! It was the funniest thing all camp! He was like a little kid. We had a good laugh on this.
Camp was memorable on many levels. I got to see the Seattle Fisherman’s Wharf and venture around the downtown area where there were hundreds of panhandlers. We checked out the Space Needle and other touristy attractions. It was fun. Camp had many hard days of training and many good times in the midst of boredom between work. When it came time for the weigh-ins I felt very confident. I was living my dreams and fighting to get ahead in life. It was fun!
We went back to the hotel where the weigh-ins always were, but this time instead of showing up alone as an out of town entity we were there as part of the “in crowd” of the local boxing scene. It was all smiles walking in. I saw Robert Linton in the corner with his trainer and several friends. Since he was from Tacoma he definitely had a presence there and knew all the people well. It got time to step on the scale. I made my weight with a pound or so to give and he stepped on the scale a pound over. Chuck Horton stepped in and the pound became an instant issue. Robert Linton said there was no way he could lose it and that he was feint from drying out in a sauna. Chuck replied that he didn’t care and said the pound needed to come off or the fight was off. Robert Linton was given 2 hours to lose the pound. When he came back to weigh in he was two more pounds over! Chuck Horton called the fight off after that and told me to pack up. By this time my sponsor, Jeff Crane, had shown up with his wife and asked what was going on. After getting briefed about the matter he, agreed it was a good call to not go forward with the fight. We made a quick plan about the rest of our stay and decided to attend the fights that night after heading up to Seattle to Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Jeff Crane told me it was time to have the best piece of steak I had ever had and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is where we needed to go. Along the way to Seattle Chuck Horton’s Phone was buzzing back and forth with the promoter. The promoter wanted to make the fight happen and was willing to do whatever it took. Chuck told him to double my purse and hold the fight as an exhibition fight off the books. The promoter agreed to this and we went on with our evening.
I felt mentally jerked around a bit, but knew I had a legit boxing camp to back me up so I felt good about my ability to perform. I also felt good that whatever way the fight went it my undefeated record wouldn’t be affected. Dinner was good and the steak was indeed the best I had ever had! I enjoyed the meal, but in the back of my head I kept in mind I had to fight.
We got to the venue and went to our pipe n drape dressing room area. The doors of the show opened and the fans started to fill in. I began getting ready for my fight. Chuck Horton wrapped one of my hands and started on the other. At that time, one of the boxing commissioners came over and said the fight was off. He said they couldn’t do an exhibition fight. The fight either had to be on the books or not at all. Chuck Horton and I talked it over. I told him I felt good about things and wanted to go through with it. We notified the commission we were on for the fight and they brought a scale over to re-weigh me. They said we needed to get new weights since it was a new fight agreement. OK. I weighted 183lbs after dinner and Robert Linton weighed a whoppin’ 192lbs! I was shocked at how big he was! I realized now how much that one pound on the scale meant earlier that day. The fight was on. We were now a cruiserweight fight and that was that. There was a funk in the air after this that didn’t clear. Things didn’t feel right, but I was committed.
The time came to get in the ring. It was fight time! When I stepped in the ring the rest of the room disappeared. I felt my focus close in on the task at hand. Round one started slow. I could see Robert Linton was looking for counter shots. He leaned way back on his left foot and flicked his jab as he closed in. I circled and jabbed. I looked for my angles to get a nice attack. I was able to land some nice combinations and get away before the counter attack came. Robert Linton was well schooled and remained unaffected by my punches. I knew I caught him a couple times, but he had a poker face. In the next few rounds we, picked up the pace. I wanted to challenge his conditioning with pressure as that was one of my assets in the fight. There was no way Robert Linton was in better shape than me. Maybe equal, but not better. I attacked and he countered. True to the assessment of Chad Van Sickle, Robert Linton had a good punch! I got nailed with a slick left uppercut a few times, but it was never enough to stop my attacks. The fifth round was a war to the last second. I caught Robert Linton with a nice right hand that staggered him back to the ropes. I knew he was hurt and rallied to finish him, but ran out of time. Then it was time for the sixth and final round. I was not tired and felt really good. Robert Linton pushed the attack on me this round since he needed the round from losing the last. I kept my range well and boxed behind a long jab. It was a different round as we switched roles in the fight. The closing seconds were a mutual flurry of punches to the bell. I was not worried about the decision as I felt I had shown I was the better boxer by attacking early till I hurt my opponent and then closed the fight with boxing at range and avoiding the onslaught of punches that were thrown at me.
The score cards were in and we were called to center ring for the decision. The announcer read a unanimous decision in favor of Robert Linton and my heart sank! How could this be? I boxed so well. I followed my game plan and felt that I had won the fight based on all scoring qualities. I shook Robert Linton’s hand and asked for a rematch. He said “Sure. Anytime.” Everything went silent. My mind closed off the noise of the scene as thoughts shot back and forth about how this would impact the ascension of my career. I couldn’t hear the crowd. I couldn’t see the faces. The memory of this is a blur. When I think back on this night I can only remember a feeling. I felt empty. It was not my fight to lose, but what could I do? After the judge’s cards are in that’s that!
My head hung low as I got dressed. I stayed and watched the rest of the fights. Kenny Ellis made weight the day before and was about to enter the ring for his main event fight. I was curious how he’d do in his fight because I never saw him push himself in camp. He was always calm and paced himself in sparring and bag work. Fight night was different though. He came alive like nothing I could have imagined! He boxed a high paced fight and pulled off some very slick moves. It was an incredible display of boxing. He won by 11th round TKO. Chad Van Sickle had a good night in the ring too. He won his fight by 8th round TKO in an 8 round fight. I was the lone loser from our camp which was yet another reason for me to feel down. I stepped on the plane back home 5-1 4KO. It didn’t feel good going home a loser.
On the fight home I kept replaying the fight in my head. I could get over having a loss. I went back and forth between hanging up my gloves and wanting revenge. All these feelings were new to me. Was I as good as I felt I was? Why did I get the fight taken from me? Could my career still make it to the big time like I had hoped? All these questions and more circled in my head on the flight home.
Back in Duluth I was bombarded by people asking how the fight went. Each time I talked about the fight I had to tell them how I let them down. I didn’t want to face them, but I didn’t avoid them. At college I sat through my classes and attempted to key in on the content, but my mind was mush. All I could think about was what to do next with my boxing career. Chuck Horton told me to take the week off while we figured out what to do next. I hadn’t taken a break from boxing since Chuck Horton kicked me out of the gym several years back. Take a break?! What! I felt lost. I was quite hard on myself, but it was only because I was serious about my pro boxing career. I wanted to live up to my potential.
Then in the middle of the week I missed a call from Chuck Horton during one of my classes. I called him back on my way to my next class. Chuck had an excited tone. He said, “I know what to do, kid. I got a plan. Forget taking the week off. Let’s meet up at the gym when you’re done with school and we can talk more there.” The call was like a shot of life that ran through my ears down to my toes! Suddenly the air felt clean and my mind cleared. I didn’t know what the plan was, but I sure wanted to rid myself of the funk I was in! I didn’t need to know the details as I trusted whatever Chuck Horton said. If he had a plan, that was that. I was in.
This was good news!