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Minnesota’s surprising role in boxing’s modest comeback

For all the optimism around boxing these days, however, worrisome signs abound.

The Armory in full Art Deco splendor, before a packed house on a fight night in July.
The Armory in full Art Deco splendor, before a packed house on a fight night in July.
MinnPost photo by Pat Borzi

An innocuous step in a sparring session, something Caleb Truax said he must have made “a million times” in his career, wrecked a big weekend for Truax and the Minnesota boxing community. 

You remember boxing, right? Given up for dead with the rise of mixed martial arts and UFC, boxing is making a modest comeback on television, with Minneapolis as one of the centers.  

Truax, the former IBF super middleweight champion from Osseo, was supposed to co-headline a nationally-televised card Saturday night at the lavishly renovated Minneapolis Armory, revived as an Art Deco concerts-and-sports venue after more than a decade as a dingy parking garage and pigeon roost.

But a few weeks ago, while Truax sparred at his Coon Rapids gym ahead of a rematch with Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin and a possible title shot, he took a step back with his right foot. Nothing awkward or unusual. But he instantly knew something was wrong.

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“It didn’t hurt that bad,” he said, “but it felt like somebody hit me in the back of the leg with a bat.”

Turned out Truax partially tore his right Achilles tendon, killing the fight. So Thursday, instead of talking trash with Quillin at the Armory press conference promoting the card, Truax stood silently in the main hall while headliners Erislandy Lara of Cuba and Ramon Alvarez of Mexico, fighting for the WBA super welterweight title, exchanged tepid barbs through translators on the stage. Not exactly great theatre for the live TV audience on Fox Sports.

Promotors need a local draw to sell tickets. Fans packed the 5,500-capacity Armory when Truax fought Quillin on April 13, a bout declared a no-decision when Quillin accidentally head-butted Truax, raising an 18-stitch gash above his right eye. A July card featuring welterweight title contender Jamal James of Minneapolis drew an equally enthusiastic crowd.

But promoters say ticket sales aren’t as brisk for Saturday. Though Fox Sports plans to air three bouts live — Lara vs. Alvarez, super welterweights Sebastian Fundora and Jamontay Clark, and heavyweights Frank Sanchez and Victor Bisball for the vacant NABO crown — none of the feature bouts involve Minnesotans. Two fight on the lengthy undercard, but that’s not good enough. “We need a local,” said Luis De Cubas, the Minnesota-raised, South Florida-based promoter who brought promising Cuban light-heavyweight David Morrell Jr. here to make his pro debut Saturday.   

So what happened to boxing, and what brought it back?

Those of a certain age — your grandparents, mainly — remember boxing as a premier sport for much of the 20th Century, along with baseball, college football and horse racing. Major fights attracted 50,000 or more to stadiums in the U.S., Great Britain and elsewhere. 

Once television came along, the one-minute breaks between rounds for commercials made boxing a perfect fit for the new medium. Fights aired in prime time from 1946 to 1964, first on NBC and then on ABC. Muhammed Ali’s popularity carried boxing through the 1970s, giving way to Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Mike Tyson and others in the 1980s. Even the occasional death in the ring couldn’t slow it down.

MinnPost photo by Pat Borzi
Pre-fight press conference Thursday at the Armory. Left to right: fighters Frank Sanchez, Sebastian Fundora and Erislandy Lara; moderator Heidi Androl of Fox Sports; and fighters Ramon Alvarez, Jamontay Clark and Victor Bisbal.
But then things changed. More and more big fights moved off free TV to HBO or to pay per view, squeezing out casual fans who shuddered at dropping $50, $75 or $100 for a fight that might end in the first round. That left only the diehards.

The so-called “alphabet soup” proliferation of boxing organizations known by their initials, each with its own set of champions, also turned off many fans. So did corruption, scandal and bizarre behavior by boxers like Tyson, who once bit off the ear of an opponent. Live crowds diminished. Newspapers eliminated the boxing beat. And a string of failures at the Olympics didn’t help. Though the U.S. owns more men’s Olympic boxing medals than any other nation, it didn’t win any in 2012, and managed just two (neither a gold) in 2016.

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To survive, boxing badly needed to be back on regular TV. So in 2015, promoter Al Haymon, who managed multi-division champion Floyd Mayweather Jr., bought airtime from NBC Sports, CBS Sports, ABC/ESPN and two other outlets to show boxing on weekend afternoons and in prime time. Boxing’s action and TV-friendly format fit with cable’s ever-expanding thirst for live sports programming, and by 2018, Fox Sports and Showtime were paying Haymon to show his Premier Boxing Champions stable of fighters. 

Meanwhile, real estate developer Ned Abdul — De Cubas’ nephew — bought and renovated the historic Armory. Built in 1935-36 as a Works Progress Administration project and briefly the home of the old Minneapolis Lakers, the Armory hosted boxing events for much of its pre-parking ramp history. The great Sugar Ray Robinson fought there in 1942, knocking out Dick Banner in the second round, four years before winning the world welterweight title.

The place deteriorated over the years, and only a lawsuit by the Minnesota Historical Society in the 1990s prevented its demolition. “I was in here once, and it was pretty bad in here,” James said. “Broken windows. Birds flying around and everything, man. When I came in here after they renovated it, I was truly amazed.”

The project took about two years and several million dollars, but the place cleaned up nicely. Padded seats for high rollers replaced bleachers. Alcohol dominates the scene; long bars fronting walls of bottles run the length of the main floor on both sides. Thousands of folding chairs surrounded the ring at the card in July, but many fans did that Minnesota thing of standing behind the rails near the bar, leaving the shortest possible walk to another adult beverage. The arms of the big clock on the south wall, the only thing that still needed fixing, remained frozen at 5:30. Thursday, the arms were missing.

“The venue is beautiful,” said James, 26-1 with 12 knockouts, who outpointed former world champion Antonio DeMarco there in July. “There’s no bad seat in the house, unless you’re sitting next to a super-tall big-headed guy or something. I’ve fought all over the nation, man, but I’ve really never fought any place more beautiful than this. 

“Come fight night, the energy in here is electric and ecstatic. Walking out to that stage and seeing that sea of people is crazy. It’s lovely.”

Truax loves the vibe. “In Minnesota boxing, we’ve had either small casino shows or the Target Center, which is too big unless we have a couple of big fights there,” he said. “This is the perfect size for a boxing venue. It makes you feel like the fans are right on top of the action. The sound is awesome. The acoustics are awesome. It shows well on TV. It’s just a great all-around building for boxing.”

Minnesota produced a handful of nationally-known fighters over the years: Heavyweight Tommy Gibbons in the 1920s, the only man to last 15 rounds with Jack Dempsey; featherweight Jackie Graves, the “Austin Atom,” a Minneapolis and St. Paul Auditorium favorite in the 1940s and 50s; heavyweight contenders Scott LeDoux and Duane Bobick in the 1970s. Now, Minnesota has three in that class with Truax, James and Robert Brant of St. Paul, the WBA middleweight champion until losing his title to Ryota Murata in July.   

“It’s a great situation that’s going to get better,” De Cubas said. “You’ve got Truax and Jamal James. You’ve got to build young stars people are going to follow. That’s why I brought Morrell here. He loves it here and wants to stay and live here. We’ve got to continue to keep it good so we can continue to come back.”

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And yet, in all this optimism, worrisome signs abound. Uppercut Gym in northeast Minneapolis, a beacon for amateur boxing in the Twin Cities for more than 20 years, closed in June. Truax said his gym in Coon Rapids, ACR Boxing, needs to move to accommodate railroad construction and may close. Nationally, “white collar” gyms for well-heeled suburban men and women are replacing the grungy, frill-free holes-in-the-wall where the greats and the grunts from boxing’s colorful history learned their craft. A few remain in the Twin Cities, like Circle of Discipline in south Minneapolis, where James trains.

Fans pack the rails in front of the long bar for the Jamal James-Antonio DeMarco main event at an Armory fight card in July.
MinnPost photo by Pat Borzi
Fans pack the rails in front of the long bar for the Jamal James-Antonio DeMarco main event at an Armory fight card in July.
Gordon Marino, the St. Olaf College philosophy professor who until recently covered boxing for the Wall Street Journal, hesitates declaring boxing back. He still trains a handful of fighters, though at his home, because he can’t find a suitable gym nearby. To him, that’s the biggest problem facing boxing.

“I don’t know how to measure whether boxing’s off the canvas or what,” he said. “I think we still need somebody who can bring in the crossover fans like a Mayweather or a Tyson, or like (Oscar) de la Hoya did. I think the sport is missing that to a large extent.

“But a lot of gyms are closing down. It’s tough for a lot of gyms to stay open. White-collar boxing has taken over a lot. My son, when he went to New York, couldn’t find a gym to box in because it was all white-collar stuff. I think the local gyms are really important, and we’ve got a bunch in Minneapolis.”