Sitting ringside during a night of professional boxing isn’t for the squeamish. Or those worried about bodily fluids.
Nearly every bout in a recent 10-fight card at the Minneapolis Armory exposed fans along the ring apron to showers of sweat and an occasional spatter of blood. And, up close, the sport has a soundtrack all its own.
“Huh, huh, huh,” grunted Joey Spencer, a 19-year-old super welterweight from Linden, Mich., each time he threw a fist at Texas’ Osias Vasquez.
“Oosh, oosh, oosh,” exhaled welterweight Darwin Price of Houston, punctuating every hook and jab before he stoppedLuis Eduardo Florez of Colombia in the sixth round of their fight.
For the first time in decades, big-time boxing’s sounds and sights, glitz and tackiness have returned to prime time in Minneapolis, due in large part to the sparkling rebirth of the Armory.
Before April of last year, when the meticulously renovated arena at 500 S. 6th St. renewed its relationship to boxing, this onetime home to Minneapolis Lakers basketball and pro rasslin’ hadn’t hosted a fight since 1979.
For years, boxing in Minnesota had been on the ropes, due to a dearth of quality fighters and attractive venues outside of tribal casinos. No more, said Sankara Frazier, who trains Minneapolis fighter Ve Shawn Owens at the Circle of Discipline. The professional cards being promoted here by Premier Boxing Champions suddenly make Fight Night feel like a major event again.
“It’s a step up, it’s the big stage,” Frazier said, pointing to the Fox Sports television cameras and more than 4,000 fans. “I don’t care who you are, it has an effect.”
History and future
Jeff Flanagan remembers the days when boxing dominated local newspaper sports pages.
His father, Glen Flanagan, is a member of the World Boxing Hall of Fame as a featherweight contender in the 1940s and 1950s. His uncle, welterweight Del Flanagan, is also in the hall of fame. Jeff Flanagan, president of the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame, likes what he sees for the future.
“This is fantastic for boxing,” he said of the Armory. “First of all, you have to have the talent. We have that with [Caleb] Truax and Jamal James. But then the venue makes the event. It makes it somewhere that people want to go. Here, it’s like going to a game.”
Longtime participants in the local fight scene concur. Referee Mark Nelson, who has officiated 90 world title fights, said while the state has hosted a handful of big events, the Armory will give local fighters something to strive for. Bobby Brunette, of the Minnesota Office of Combative Sports whose brother Brian in 1986 fought for a world championship, said the Armory will be critical to the return of boxing relevance in Minnesota.
“It’s a great venue,” he said, pointing to the bustling business at the bars lining each side of the building and the swell of fans leaning over the railings of the second and third decks. “A lot of people, they haven’t seen it look like this for a long time.”
Transforming the 1935 building from its dark ages as a parking garage back into an event center has cost millions, said Jason Jones, Armory co-vice president of operations. Developer Ned Abdul bought the arena for $6 million. Jones said officials have “lost count” of what they have spent since to create an event space that holds nearly 9,000 people.
Out of 100 events each year, Jones said the Armory will host about 70 concerts, 20 corporate events and 10 sporting events. They’ve had one mixed martial arts contest, he said. The next boxing card will be July 13 and feature James, a popular local welterweight.
“The people we pull are not just boxing fans. But they want to know ‘What are we doing on Saturday night?’ ” Jones said.
The crowd at the recent fight skewed younger and male, some clad in college sweatshirts, others dressed for a night on the town. Among them were local TV personalities and players from the Vikings and Timberwolves.
Chris Colbert, an undefeated super featherweight from Brooklyn, took on Mario Briones of Mexico wearing what looked like a red leather knee-length skirt emblazoned with sponsor logos over swim trunks.
Despite his fashion flash — or maybe because of it — Colbert was plenty confident. A hard left in the second round floored Briones. A flurry of subsequent blows after Briones got up had the referee stopping the bout soon afterward.
On the subject of wardrobe, sparkly and shiny were popular. Money Powell IV of Fort Mitchell, Ala., his shiny blue trunks embroidered with cash symbols, knocked out Christian Aguirre of Salt Lake City in the sixth round. Aguirre had earlier made a tactical error of hitting Powell in the back of the head after the bell ended the preceding round.
“That’ll teach him to punch somebody late,” said Skyler Steele of Prior Lake, who was working as security at the fight.
Some bouts elicited raucous applause. Some induced bored groans. Others turned the crowd surly.
Despite a bevy of shots to the face and head that sent his opponent’s sweat flying, local fighter Owens couldn’t put away tougher-than-expected Alexis Gaytan of Weslaco, Texas. Owens tore open a cut above Gayton’s eye, sending droplets of blood onto the ring, but managed only a split decision — much to the chagrin of some fans.
“Let’s go. Come on,” screamed one ringside malcontent. “Knock him out!”
Yelled another: “This is your town!”
The fighter to whom Minneapolis truly belonged this night, Truax, had to wait until after midnight before his bout against Peter Quillin of Brooklyn started. Fox wouldn’t broadcast the fight earlier because of a late-running baseball game. Still, the Osseo super middleweight, a former world champion, pulled raucous cheers as he marched into the ring to Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The winner of this 12-round fight would get a title shot.
But in the first round, the boxers’ heads collided, opening a wide gash on Truax’s brow. By the second round, blood was streaming into his right eye. A fight doctor put an end to the bout after the second round.
Despite the no-decision, and the uncertainty of when he can fight again, Truax marveled at the atmosphere and the excitement bubbling up once more from a Minnesota crowd.
“It’s disappointing I couldn’t put on a good fight for the fans. It hurts, but that’s boxing, man,” he said. “The fans are doing a great job representing how strong our boxing community is. This is one of the best times in decades for Minnesota boxing.”