One of the defining characteristics of the local boxing scene in the Upper Midwest is the scarcity of homegrown talent and the resulting infrequency of fight cards. There are good fighters in most weight classes, but usually not more than one or two legitimate performers in any given class. This dearth of population is as evident in the lower weight classes as anywhere else. Talented fighters suffer long layoffs between bouts and sometimes struggle to stay in shape and motivated as a result. The Fistic Mystic has long been fascinated by the dynamics of the small man’s struggle for activity and success, and it seemed like a good idea to talk to some of the men who train and promote our smaller fighters and find out what they have to say on the subject. Promoters John Hoffman, Bob Van Syckle, and Tony Grygelko agreed to go on the record with me, and all three were candid and honest in their comments.
The first thing that should be pointed out is that Minnesota has a great boxing history, including some very gifted and accomplished small fighters. Men like “The Austin Atom” Jackie Graves, who retired in 1956 with a career record of 82-11 (48 kayos) and the Flanagan Brothers (Glen, 84-23 with 34 kayos and Del, 105-22 with 38 kayos) represented Minnesota proudly in weight classes ranging from feather to middle during their careers. More recently, “Steel” Will Grigsby of St Paul was a world title holder as recently as 2006, retiring with a final record of 18-4 (7 kayos) . There were more prizefighters in Minnesota back in Graves’ and the Flanagans’ time, but that isn’t the only difference between the good old days and today. Better nutrition, better medical care, and to some extent a more sedentary lifestyle have resulted in an increase in the average height and weight of American males today. So there just aren’t as many small men available to match up as there used to be. In addition, Van Syckle (promoter of Jason and Allen Litzau) observes: “Midwestern guys are more stocky, they’re not as wiry as the guys on the east coast, and the west coast, too.” And it’s true that for instance, a modern 5-foot 4-inch man (if you can find one) weighs more, on average, than his predecessor did forty of fifty years ago.
As a result, it’s become more difficult to get a small fighter into fights to build his record and improve his skills at the beginning of his career. To find more fights, the options are three: make fights with local men of similar size, hit the road, or pay a premium to bring opponents in from out of town.
The first and most preferred option from a fan’s point of view is for the local guys to fight each other. Unfortunately in Minnesota we have a lot of young men in buildup-mode right now, and they seem reluctant to fight each other – or their management is reluctant to make it happen for worry of blemished records and lost potential revenue. One notable exception to that trend is the fight between Darby Smart and Allen Litzau back in June of 2005, billed at the time as a Minnesota State Featherweight Title fight. Van Syckle recalls, “When we made the fight between Allen and Darby, I wasn’t trying to sign Darby and John Hoffman wasn’t trying to sign Allen. So that’s why that worked.”
Hoffman, who manages featherweight Smart and junior flyweight Antwan Robertson among others, points out that “Generally if you’re fighting out of town, you’re a big underdog. Antwan walks around at 117#. He truly should never box over 112#. But he has to go to Denver to find the closest flyweight, so he boxes as big as featherweight to get some work.” Brothers Jason and Allen Litzau, on the other hand, have taken to the road to find work. Jason has fought in seven states plus the US Virgin Islands during his 25 bouts-old career, making just eight appearances in his home state of Minnesota in that period. Allen has appeared in five states in his 16 career bouts, fighting in Minnesota 11 times. According to Van Syckle, both men would like to fight close to home more frequently, but that’s especially difficult to arrange because “Minnesota promoters are greedy. They want 100% of everything, so they get 100% of nothing.”
But the reality is that not everyone is able to hit the road for a nascent boxing career. School, work schedules, family obligations and financial pressures keep most young fighters closer to home. That brings us to importation of opponents. Paying a man a few hundred dollars to take a fight can be a smaller expense than the cost of his travel expenses. Says Hoffman, “Trying to find a good opponent that is local enough to make it pay…now that’s the trouble. [There are] just not enough boxers.” From a business standpoint, this is the most proactive solution but also the one that requires the greatest commitment and the biggest immediate expenditure by the promoter.
It’s a shame when a gifted athlete can’t find an arena in which to compete, particularly when that athlete is a boxer fighting at or below lightweight. Though the casual fan may not pay attention to anyone but the heavyweights, the knowledgeable fan knows that it’s often the little men who offer the most entertainment. Tony Grygelko notes that “Little fighters are the most exciting because they’re a lot more on speed and quickness. They understand body positioning and they move their feet more.” Grygelko thinks that even at the grassroots level small fighters may see their earning capacity handicapped – “People just love to see two giants fight. They’re not as eager to see two little guys fight.” But Hoffman thinks that promoters are just as happy to showcase small fighters: “Promoters just want to sell tickets. If they guy sells tickets, they don’t care what they weigh.”
Featherweight Willshaun Boxley (3-0 with 2 kayos) of Minneapolis, a young man with a lot of ambition and who by reputation is willing to fight anyone, has had only three fights since turning pro a year ago, winning all three – two of them by TKO. Grygelko may be working the angles when he says that Boxley is “right now, the second best fighter in Minnesota.” Whatever the case, Grygelko notes that you can expect to see Boxley fight in a Seconds Out show at the Saint Paul Armory on January 17.
Super Featherweight Wilton Hilario (9-0-1 with 7 kayos) of St Louis Park, billed as the “Pretty Warrior,” is believed by some to be a special talent. Rumored matches with both Allen and Jason Litzau have failed to materialize, and the excitement surrounding Hilario’s early career seems generally to have subsided as he has fought only once in the last year, and has failed to knock out his last three opponents. The excitement will build again quickly, though, if Hilario can get back to his spectacular old self soon.
Super Featherweight Allen Litzau (13-3 with 7 kayos) of St Paul was much heralded when he transitioned from a highly accomplished amateur career to a professional career back in 2002, but after just sixteen fights in the last six years, Litzau’s career seems to have lost steam. According to promoter Van Syckle, Litzau “is stuck at 130# right now. He can’t seem to get the weight off.”
Featherweight Jason Litzau (23-2 with 19 kayos) of St Paul is generally considered the most accomplished boxer in Minnesota today. “The American Boy” hasn’t fought since losing a world title bout to Robert Guerrero back in February, after pulling out of a planned October 24 fight due to an arm injury. According to Van Syckle, the injury “wasn’t serious, but it was painful, so we didn’t want to take a chance…He was fighting a tough guy who had never been stopped in like 30 career fights, so he needed to be at 100% and he wasn’t. Because of the pain he couldn’t spar and he couldn’t fully train.”
Featherweight Brad Patraw (4-0 with 3 kayos) of St Paul, a former Upper Midwest Golden Gloves titlist at 112#, Patraw fights under the banner of Johnny Johnson’s Rice Street Gym in St Paul.
Lightweight Ronnie Peterson (1-0 with 1 kayo), son of trainer Ron Peterson, made his professional debut at 130# despite his ability to make 112#. Peterson told Jesse Kelley of www.minnesotaboxing.com in an interview published November 11th that he had prepared for his professional debut by sparring with a fellow debutante, Malcolm Cowans, who fought at 192# and that he was interested in a match with Antwan Robertson.
Super Flyweight Antwan Robertson (4-0 with 3 kayos) of Anoka is a wiry small man with respectable power. Robertson won the 2007 Upper Midwest Golden Gloves at 112# before being stripped of his amateur status and turning pro in August of 2007.
Bantamweight Darby Smart (10-4 with 4 kayos) of Chisholm, the old man of the group at age 38, has had his pro boxing career curtailed by his work schedule and remote location. Although he isn’t officially retired, Smart hasn’t been in a boxing match since the summer of 2006 and has been passed over for at least one card in his own backyard (August 31 at Fortune Bay Casino in Tower, Minnesota).