Welcome to Tacoma: 1st Out- of -State Pro Fight
“Zach Walters is my most loyal of fighters as he’s been there through the thick and thin. Together, we were responsible for putting Duluth boxing on the map, and I consider this one of the most special moments of Zach’s career.” – Chuck Horton
Welcome to Tacoma: 1st Out- of -State Pro Fight
It was December 2003 and Chuck Horton had been calling around to find fights to keep rolling my career forward. There weren’t many opportunities in MN at that time so we agreed to look at options on the road. The first connection to materialize was with Brian Halquist of Halquist Productions. Brian Halquist had continuous shows year around at the Emerald Queen Casino in the port of Tacoma, WA. The shows were always packed and the fans were a very rowdy sort. I found that out as soon as I got to the venue. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
My record at this time was 3-0 with 2 Knockouts and I was matched with Jason St Louis from Edmonton, Canada who had a 1-0 record. I liked the match as it pinned me against another fighter foreign to Tacoma, WA. I was confident I could win a fight on fair ground and trained hard for this opportunity.
By now I had moved out of living in the gym, but an ironic turn was that the gym downsized to about 6 members and moved into the garage of the place I rented. I was living in a small house off Central Ave in West Duluth with a small single car garage. The garage was cold in the winter and we had a few space heaters in opposite corners blowing hot hair, but it barely helped. It was still very chilly. We had a heavy bag and the ball bag in there. The space was crammed already so adding any more bags would make training as a group impossible. The floor was greasy from years of oil changes gone bad and when we trained it would get slick and mucky. I remember dropping cat litter on the floor to soak up the gunk, but that just ground into a nasty paste. The training conditions were not ideal. It was tough. I told myself it’s not where you train, but who’s training you that mattered. You can have the nicest gym in the world, but if the trainers are clueless to the fight game they will not produce good boxers. In my case, I possibly had the worst conditions for a young pro boxer, but I had great trainers with Chuck Horton and Bill Plum. I enjoyed having the gym at my house. I thought this was pretty cool as it still offered me the same opportunity to train anytime I wanted as it was when I lived at the gym.
I needed some good sparring so I called up my good friend, Andy Kolle to get some solid rounds in. He lived in Fargo, ND and was attending college there. We were close from the amateurs as we started boxing a few weeks apart in Fergus Falls, MN several years before. We boxed together all through high school and he had come up to Duluth to box on several amateur cards Chuck Horton put on prior to my turning pro. Andy Kolle was still boxing as an amateur at the time, but this didn’t mean he was lacking in skills. He was very good and had been to the nationals seven or eight times by now. He was holding off on going pro because he was on a quest to capture the Upper Mid-West Golden Gloves Championship. That was a crown he wanted to get before he took his craft to the pros. We agreed to meet up for an extended weekend over New Year’s Eve as we were both on Christmas Break from school. It was well worth my trip. We sparred several evenings for about an hour or so in his apartment garage where he too had a little gym set up. I started training camp in my garage on the East side of the state finished up camp in his garage on the West side. After our last day of training we went out to celebrate the 2004 New Year with a bunch of our high school friends that lived in Fargo. It was a fun night and a great send off.
I drove back to Duluth and didn’t even unpack my bags when I got back. One week later I was set to fly out for my fight so I lived out of my suitcase at home. I was amped. I couldn’t wait! One thing I learned to love about boxing was that it took me places. There are many places I’d never have gone if not for boxing. Tacoma Washington was one such place. Also, as we traveled for boxing it was fun to make conversation with the other travelers and tell them fight stories. That was always a fun bonus.
We landed in Tacoma and there was a chauffeur there with our names on a card waiting for us when we walked out of the gate. It felt very surreal. I know it was only a ride to the hotel, but thoughts were rushing through my mind as I imagined things to come. These were the days I dreamed of when I was busting my tail in training in the early days of my pro career. I dreamed of traveling around the US fighting people to make a few bucks. To me, this felt like a significant step forward from things as they were. I had about 16 pro fights by this time although only 3 counted towards my record. I felt like the dark horse in the mix and assumed people didn’t realize what I was capable of. I assumed these people in Tacoma underestimated me and I was looking forward to representing Duluth Minnesota to the fullest! A side thought that I adopted over my years of boxing was that ‘toughness didn’t have a zip code.’ In boxing, it doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you’ve got skills and heart you can emerge from anywhere in the world! For me, I came from Duluth, MN and I believed I had every right to feel confident in the ring with anyone.
The van took us directly to a rundown hotel in the Port of Tacoma where the weigh-ins were to be held. There were several clusters of boxers that had already shown up from out of state and from around the surrounding cities. In the weigh-in room, there was a crowd of the usual boxing folks bunched around the room, some standing, some pacing, some sitting at tables talking about other fights and boxers from recent shows. They were usuals you’d find at a boxing weigh-in… You know, a group of middle-aged men looking like ‘trouble-maker kids’ that didn’t grow up much and found a safe place in boxing where they could still misbehave. It could be intimidating to some. But for me, as foreign as I felt, there was still a sense of belonging that overrode any anxiety I carried with me. This was my scene and I was excited to be a part of things.
I weighed in right at the 175lbs limit, stepped off the scale, and grabbed a jug of Gatorade I brought with to rehydrate. My opponent was not there yet, but I didn’t care. I did my job and I knew that if the promoter had paid to bring me out this far I was bound to fight! We waited around the weigh-in for a few hours for my opponent to show. Then we found out my opponent had trouble making it down from Canada. He was turned away at the Canada/USA border due to some legal charges on his record and now we had a problem. I needed a match!
Chuck Horton networked with the available boxing personalities at the weigh-in and came to me with a suggestion, Luis Lopez (4-3 3KO) from Pasco, Washington. I looked up some info on him and figured since I was 3-0 and undefeated this fella would be no sweat! After all, I had more professional fighting experience than my 3-0 represented and this guy had been beat three times! I was sold. I told Chuck to accept the match so we could take the shuttle to the buffet and eat. This whole time I felt like I was starving to death with only some Gatorade in my belly. I was getting grumpy at this point and now that I had a fight again I was overjoyed! The plan was that my opponent would drive to the fights the next day and weigh in at the venue. I didn’t care how Luis Lopez got to the fights, I just wanted to eat!
The casino buffet didn’t disappoint and I quickly over ate till my belly was about to burst! I think I had fourths of all the good food they provided. It was the best food I’d had in a long while and it tasted even better since I had been cutting weight for the last several weeks leading up to this point.
The shuttle took us back to our dingy hotel and we checked into our rooms. It was late evening now so we geared down to go to sleep. Only trouble was now I couldn’t sleep! The blood sugars were racing through my body since eating all the tasty food my belly could hold and I was excited to fight the following day. I must have laid awake till 3:00 AM. I remember looking at the shadows on the speckled popcorn ceiling and putting faces together with the dots. Then there were the continuous sounds of semi trucks coming and going from the port. There would be the occasional ship horn that would sound over the roaring of engines and honking of semi truck air brakes. Sleep seemed impossible, but somehow I drifted off.
The next day I must have slept till noon. I met with Chuck Horton and we walked over to a rest stop type diner to get some breakfast. The air was musty. It smelled like exhaust and sea water. Not that great. The short walk to the diner made me appreciate the clean air and water in Duluth even more than I already had to that point. Following breakfast I returned to my hotel room and Chuck Horton walked me through a visualization exercise about the fight plan for that night. Following that, I laid there in my room till it was time to leave for the Emerald Queen Casino.
We gathered out front of the hotel lobby and packed into a shuttle. When we got to the casino it was a bit of a maze getting into the showroom. It was smaller than I had imagined. It could seat 800 people or so. Not too big. As I mentioned before the crowd was a rough looking bunch. They weren’t very welcoming, but not cold either. They were just a hard set of people. The kind that you would imagine knew a bit about fighting whether they were boxers or not. By the looks of a few of their hands, you could tell these folks worked with their hands and very possibly got into frequent fights. Anyway, the locker room situation was pipe and drape partitioning with 8 small 6×6 rooms. It was very small. My fight was the second bout of the night so I quickly got settled. Soon after I found my dressing room space I was notified that Luis Lopez had arrived and was about to weigh in. I couldn’t wait to put eyes on him. Till now I had no idea what he looked like. I got to the scale area and found a short Mexican fighter that was full of tattoos. One tattoo was his last name L O P E Z written in an Old English arch over the upper part of his belly. He looked like a rough guy. Luis Lopez was a soft build and looked like he was fighting above his weight class. I swelled with confidence on the site and watched him weigh in. When he got off the scale he looked up at me dead in the eye and with a smile said; “You are tall.”, then chuckled a bit, but didn’t break his stare. It was like he was trying to under qualify me for boxing due to my lanky tallness. I smiled back and said “you’re short.” I didn’t break my stare either. Without any more words, we had a conversation. We told each other we both felt very good about whooping the other. Chuck Horton called me back over and I broke away with a respectful nod with a smirk. Now I all the pieces were together. It was Fight Time!
Chuck Horton wrapped my hands and we discussed the game plan for the night. Then Gloves were delivered for the fight and I warmed up. Time was flying! Soon enough, it was my time to walk out to the ring. My fight music filled the little arena and I made my way to the ring. Across the ring from me was Luis Lopez. He looked like an enraged bulldog. With his chin down he mugged across the ring with a dead stare. I just smiled. It was not worth it to try and scare this guy. He was on a different level of tough guy. I knew mugging back would only fuel him more. Ironically in his corner was also the gentleman who claimed to be a neutral party matchmaker at weigh-ins. Chuck Horton and I had a little laugh at him in the corner before introductions. The fix seemed to be in, but we still felt good about whooping this guy.
Ding! The first round started and I quickly went to work on Lopez with vicious combinations. I paid significant tribute to digging in somebody punches as I assumed he was out of shape due to his physique. The entire round was a one-sided beating. Several times Luis Lopez looked rocked enough to maybe go down, but he would somehow maintain his composure. After the round, I told myself he’s got one round left and he’s out of there.
Ding! Round two started and I jumped on my opponent like a spider wrapping up a bug stuck in his net. I hit Luis Lopez hard with every shot. Over and over I punched his head and body. He staggered a bit here and there which gave me confidence in my plan, but I started to also feel my arms getting heavy. Luis Lopez was now cut over one eye and the other was getting swelled up. I knew I would be ahead if I wrapped this around up the way I started. I finished the round in stellar fashion with fast combinations, but I knew I needed to take a round off to get back on track and come back from my depleted energy. My game plan changed from taking him out to taking around off in the 3rd so I could finish well in the 4th. My idea was to use my legs to float around behind a jab to buy some time. Ok…
Ding! Round three starts and my legs aren’t quite as limber as I’d hoped. Fending Luis Lopez off with a jab started to become a good 1-2 before stepping off. Then my 1-2 turned into standing my ground and throwing combos. Luis Lopez just kept coming! This was not my plan. Luis Lopez had become a nightmare! He haunted me with the persistence of a bad dream and I was getting really tired. I had hit him several times with my best shot and he took it. He ate the punch like Pac Man eats dots.
I was getting worried. I resorted to throwing a combination and tying him up instead of floating away. I was fading fast. On one of the breaks, Luis Lopez took his mandatory step back, but bounced off his back foot with a huge right hand! The punch looped over my left shoulder and crushed down on my ear. I felt the life leave my legs and the sound of a siren went off in my head. My ear had a tingling like never before and the ground seemed to turn into an uneven slope. It was like I was walking on a trampoline. I staggered over to a corner where I saw Luis Lopez rushing in. The next thing I remember was looking at his black and red Adidas boots walk away. It was a split second before I realized I was laying in a heap on the mat. I jumped up in embarrassment on bad legs. I didn’t want the ref to call the fight! He count finished and the ref let the fight resume. I was shocked but relieved. I knew all I had to do was survive less than a minute and I’d get my stool. It was a horrible finish and to this day I still wonder what the ref was thinking letting the fight continue. I looked terrible now!
In the corner, I sat on the stool. I was happy to get a break, but that’s not what I got. Chuck Horton was irate! He slapped me across the face and yelled at me. He asked why I had got away from the game plan to keep my reach and box. I was exhausted and all I could think of was the advantage Luis now had on the cards. I told Chuck I needed to knock him out or I’d lose the fight. Chuck disagreed and yelled even more. He was red in the face with urgency for me to box. I just said, “I gotta knock him out, Chuck”. Chuck shook his head, gave me a swig of water and said “OK. You’re on your own kid.” and stepped out of the ring. There was still a few seconds lift in the break so I stood up and paced around a bit to get my legs back.
Ding! The bell for the fourth and final round rang and I was at it again. I charged in on Luis Lopez with vicious desperation. He met me in the middle of the ring with equal ferocity. We squared off in a back and forth battle of trading punches till I finally put a miracle of combinations together. I let him bull into me and while I staggered back I ripped two left hooks to his jaw. The second clipped him just right causing him to straighten up a bit. I dug my back foot into the canvas and followed up with a massive right uppercut followed by another left hook and a final right uppercut. The last punch caught Luis Lopez right in the crease of his Adam’s apple and jaw. His mouth guard launched out of his mouth deep into the crowd and he fell backward like “TIMBER!!!……” I slumped forward after the punch and raised my hands as I walked away. I knew the knockdown at least evened the score up if, not putting the fight back into my pocket.
It was a great feeling as I walked over to the neutral corner. From the looks of how he fell back, there was no way Luis Lopez was getting up from that shot. But true to the nature of his prior rounds this guy was tougher than any regular man. Maybe not even ten men! He rolled over, crawled to the ropes, and pulled himself up. The referee got to the count of eight and asked Luis Lopez to step forward to show stability, but when he did so he swayed backward as he stepped forwards as if just getting off a merry-go-round. The fight was called. I threw my hands up for a few paces, then crumbled to my knees in the center ring. I could hardly believe what had just happened. I wept a few tears of joy. Chuck Horton came out of his shell in celebration. He freaked out! I walked over and gave him a big hug. In my ear, Chuck Horton said, “Don’t ever do that again kid.” He then looked at me with a smile and eyes watered with joy. I walked across the ring to check on Luis Lopez and thank him for the fight. He was sitting on a stool and under inspection from the doctor. I shook him hand and he pulled himself up, but didn’t let go. He all he said was “Rematch homes. Rematch”… I smiled and said, “Sure, anytime.” But in my mind I was like “HECK NO!!! You gotta be CRAZY!!’
What a night that was! It will forever be a night I cherish as a golden memory from my pro career. It is a golden moment that happened a long ways away from my home. It is a memory only Chuck Horton and I share. I have told the story countless times, but it never seems as real as it was when it happened. That night was magical. It was the kind experience that is never as good told as it was experienced.
That night again, I didn’t sleep. This time because I was so filled with adrenaline from the night’s events and dreaming awake of what would become of my boxing career. If my career was done at that moment I would count my days in the ring a success. That’s how I felt.
But there was also this addictive side to the experience that drove me to seek a moment like that once more! It was like a high I wanted to find again. At this point, I had just gotten a taste and I was already hooked! I was a fighter and proud of it.