“My childhood was a big adventure for me,” the young man begins. I think to myself, well, whose wasn’t? He continues, “I was into all sorts of stuff; netting fish, trapping birds…hunting with a slingshot and fighting chameleons with my buddies.”
Welcome to the world of the Jungle Boy.
Professional boxer Zach “Jungle Boy” Walters (23-3 with 18 kayos) was born in Taolagnaro, Madagascar, to missionary parents in February of 1981. He lived primarily in Madagascar to the age of 12, so his identity is tied as much to Malagasy natives and the tropical climate as it is to white people from the Midwestern United States. The articulate young man tells more of his own story:
“I left the island when I was 12 years old, so many of my childhood memories are from my time there. Madagascar, to me, was a place that made sense. Most of my buddies were Malagasy. I understood the cultural customs and my place among my native friends. Initially, when my family moved to the states I believed it would be only for a short time. I thought we would be back in the tropics of Africa after this visit to the States. Year after year the return to Madagascar did not happen. This is when I started to get into trouble and rebel.” In what ways did he rebel? “I did everything I could to show I didn’t care. I was a terror in school, I did the opposite of anything my parents said, got into stealing cars, a lot of fighting, and partying.”
Trying to fit in, “I gave organized team sports a try, but was continually frustrated at my inability to catch on to the rules and strategies. At a dead end for options, I found myself at a Taekwondo studio my younger brother, Jake, trained at. I didn’t want to join their club because Jake would be a superior belt to me. This would be unacceptable in my mind so I asked the instructor to teach me how to kick box. After a few weeks of training, and thoroughly getting in the way of regular classes, the instructor mentioned the idea of boxing. I thought it over and figured it was another non-team fight sport so I’d check it out. I did and it was a fit right away.” It is perhaps difficult to understand how significant this connection was to a young man for whom American team sports seemed just as foreign as American culture
The damage to Jungle Boy’s identity, caused by his displacement from a familiar environment, was soothed when he discovered combat sports. “If not for boxing, I’m not sure I would have found an identity in the States. Boxing was a fit right away. Even though it took me several years after joining boxing to finally secure my life in order, boxing was something I clung to as a ray of hope that life in the US would be alright after all.”
In spite of the struggles of his youth, Walters remains a committed Christian. This is one of his more visible personal characteristics. Yet his faith isn’t as showy or in-your-face as some professional athletes. “I believe that Jesus has a plan for my life and at this time His plan is for me to be a boxer. I work hard, pray hard, and leave the rest up to Him.”
After a successful amateur career, Walters turned pro out of Horton’s Gym in Duluth, Minnesota in 2002. “I met Chuck Horton through fighting in the USA Boxing senior’s tournaments. [Andy] Kolle and I got to know Chuck over the years and when I finished high school I wanted to continue boxing. That’s when I made the choice to move to Duluth. I have lived in the Twin Ports since 2000 and I am now proud to consider it home. I am a proud Duluthian. My boxing career has taken me all over, but at the end of the day I will always come back to Minnesota.”
What does Walters hope to accomplish in his career? “I hope to win a world title. It seems the commentators don’t give us boxers from the Midwest a shot. I don’t care. I know that hard work is hard work. I don’t expect an easy way to be paved out for me. I have had to get what I have the hard way and expect nothing less for my rise to the top. I’ll take my scrapes along the way and still forge ahead to reach my goal. I see these fighters on HBO and Showtime that come from minute counties. This shows me that toughness does not have a zip code and no matter where you come from you can still make it. That is my belief and until my career comes to a close that is the way I see it.”
Talking about the future is something Walters will be doing more and more of now. Recently married, he concedes that having a spouse alters the way he looks at his career. “Being married didn’t change my life too much, but it did change my outlook on what I do. When I make a choice I have to think of how it will affect my marriage as well. Someday I’ll have childen and I have to think about that now so I can be prepared to give [them] the life I want to.”
Walters hopes that his near future includes a world title shot. “I feel ready for a title shot, but my last fight has served as a temporary setback for me. I hope to get there in the next two years. That is my goal.” The “last fight” to which he refers is his August 31 loss to Shawn Hammack, in which he dominated 7+ rounds of action but was shockingly dropped in the eighth and final round by a haymaker. That fight ended with Walters on the ropes, taking a lot of punishment. “We were boxing outside on a black top parking lot that was so hot that spectators’ chair legs were melting into the ground….Dehydration is a weird thing. I didn’t feel fatigued at all. Actually I felt elated! I knew I had developed a cramp in my left leg, but didn’t think much of it. Then I got caught with a solid shot and realized I couldn’t shake the punch off like I had earlier. That’s when I knew something was off. After the fight I told my corner I had been feeling a cramp in the back of my left leg since the middle rounds. They drew the conclusion that I was dehydrated. Boy was I ever. I drank seven bottles of water and three 32 oz. Gatorades before I was able to take a whiz. The ring doc was tempted to get an IV hooked up to me, but we didn’t end up going that far. I hate needles.” Walters acknowledges that the loss is an impediment, but takes it as a motivator. “I’m mad. The ripple effect of a loss in boxing is tough to deal with.”
In part 2 of this profile, Jungle Boy hopes to rebound from an unexpected loss, comments on Andy Kolle’s recent bout with Paul Williams, and shares more thoughts about his pro boxing career. To be published on Friday, October 17.