The popular vision of boxing is that it’s an urban sport, its landscape dominated by run-down gyms in lower-class urban areas, the gyms populated by minorities and poor whites. And to an extent, it’s true – urban gyms like the Rice Street Gym in St Paul or COD and Uppercut Gym in Minneapolis bring us more than their share of exceptional amateur and professional fighters. But a counterpoint to that image comes to us from small towns in Minnesota. Anthony Bonsante hails from Crosby-Ironton by way of the Brainerd boxing club. Fergus Falls produced Jungle Boy Walters, Andy Kolle, and new pro Tyler Hultin. Chris Holt came from Detroit Lakes, John Sargent from Naytahwaush, and in the more distant past we had Duane Horsman from Chatfield and the Bobick brothers, Duane and Rodney, from little Bowlus.
Another small-town boy who has found a home in the pursuit of combat sports is Jesse Barbot, originally from Red Lake Falls. Now living in Casselton, ND, Barbot competed in amateur boxing as a golden glover, making the trip to Grand Forks for competitions two or three times a year on his way to compiling a 15-7 amateur record. Today Barbot, who is billed as “The Blue Collar Brawler,” is active in both boxing and Mixed Martial Arts, though he says he values his 6-4 boxing record more than his perfect 8-0 record in MMA. “I do prefer boxing,” Barbot explains, “I’m just more comfortable in the boxing ring because that’s my background. You know, I didn’t wrestle in high school, I boxed!” Another aspect of the business that influences this preference is the fact that despite its current popularity, MMA combatants make significantly less money than boxers. “People would be surprised to know that fighting in MMA probably on average pays half of what boxing does,” although Barbot hastens to add that from a fan’s perspective, “I’m just more of a fan of boxing than MMA.”
It’s a little unusual to run across a fighter in the midst of his professional career who is married with kids. Boxing tends to be a youngster’s game, often populated by wild boys who drink to excess and carouse. Fighters can often be seen leaving the scene of a fight with a pretty girl on each arm and an ugly one following behind. How does Barbot reconcile that image with his lifestyle? “I’ll be honest, when I was younger…[laughs]…well, when I got married it kind of put the stop to that, that young behavior.” And how does boxing fit into his life as a responsible adult? “My family likes it, but I don’t think any of them are going to be heartbroken when I give it up.” Barbot shakes his head, but his eyes twinkle. “You’re working forty or fifty hours a week and trying to train and fight on the side. Sometimes it isn’t easy.”
Barbot, with his 6-4 record, is an example of the old stereotype, a “club fighter.” Rough and ready, proud of his skills, he loves to train and he enjoys being a competitor – though the competition itself isn’t always fun. There aren’t many real club fighters around anymore, mainly because the old club boxing venues – the seedy nightclubs and fight clubs that used to be so common – are virtually extinct. It isn’t that there aren’t willing fighters, but there’s a general lack of opportunities to fight. Here in the Midwest, the club fighter has been replaced with the Indian casino fighter.
But Barbot is the very image of a casino fighter; an able competitor with his eyes on a more modest prize than the usual formula of belt and paycheck. What does he hope that the sport of boxing will do for him? “I know I’m not going to be a world champion or make hundreds of thousands of dollars. But what boxing has done for me is it’s let me travel, it’s given me a reason to stay in shape, and it’s given me an opportunity to compete. I like putting it on the line, and what I lack in athletic ability I hope I make up for in toughness.”
Jesse Barbot is scheduled to headline a nine-fight boxing card on October 23rd at Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen.