In the boxing ring, the Rice Street Rocker was relentless, fearless, continually pressing opponents with piston-like jabs and damaging uppercuts.
Twenty years later, Mike Evgen’s step is a bit slower, his gait not as sure. But the 53-year-old is no less determined to pass on lessons he learned of dedication, discipline and determination to a new generation of boxers.
After a couple of years of planning, fundraising, regulatory hiccups and dimmed hopes, Evgen’s Rice Street “Old School” Boxing Gym is officially open on St. Paul’s East Side. The idea, he said, is not just to train a new wave of champions, but to give young people a safe way out of a world troubled by crime, addiction and uncertainty.
“My goal would be to see a kid come in, shy, afraid of his own shadow, and then come here for a couple of weeks, start hitting the bag and just get some confidence,” Evgen said. “Walk around with their head high. Shoulders back. Feel a little more good about themselves. That’s truly, truly what I want.”
The plan was always to open on Rice Street, the blue-collar avenue that starts near the State Capitol and runs through St. Paul’s northern suburbs — the street that helped make Evgen one of the state’s most popular boxers.
It’s where Evgen grew up, just across the city line in Roseville. And it’s where Evgen was inspired to start boxing at age 12, hoping to honor a boxing cousin gunned down at age 20. Trained by his uncle, Jay Pelzer, Evgen would go on to win an unprecedented six Upper Midwest Golden Gloves titles by age 21 — in four different weight classes — and earn the nickname “the Rice Street Rocker” from longtime Pioneer Press sportswriter Don Riley.
Evgen won his first professional fight in January 1989 with a first-round knockout at his former high school, Kellogg (now Roseville Area Middle School), just off Rice Street. He wouldn’t lose a fight until June 1991. In April 1992, with a record of 19-1, Evgen captured the IBO world junior welterweight title at St. Paul’s Roy Wilkins Auditorium. He retired from boxing in July 1997, after a loss at a sports bar in Maplewood, with a record of 31-6. He was inducted into the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011.
Dick Boss, who met Evgen when the boxer was 12 and later hired him to work at his liquor store, said Rice Street folks screamed their lungs out for the 5-foot-6, 139-pound Evgen.
“He was big. People really loved him. We’d get school buses full of people going to his fights,” Boss said. “People just loved his desire to win. And he would not go down.”
Fans found Evgen’s stamina, quickness and toughness endearing, said Wayne Moe, a neighbor who coached Evgen in youth football and never missed one of his fights.
“He was fast with his hands. He always said he wanted to give fans what they wanted,” Moe said. “I remember an early fight he had in the old Kellogg gym with a guy from Chicago. Mike took him out in two or three rounds. Then his brother came up in a later fight to avenge him. Mike took him out in a couple of rounds too.”
Rice Streeters continued to stick by Evgen when times turned tough, even if they had to use tough love. Many saw him drinking heavily.
“I remember saying, ‘Mike, you’re not my friend anymore if you don’t quit drinking,’ ” Boss said. “ ‘You’re not doing yourself or anyone else any good if you don’t quit.’ ”
Evgen said his drunkenness was “a major factor” in his divorce. His desire to be able to participate in the lives of his young daughters helped him get sober, he said. They are now 29 and 27. Evgen, sober nearly 24 years, says they and his four grandchildren are a huge part of his life.
Several years ago, Evgen started working at Restoration Counseling & Community Services’ outpatient facility on Rice Street — first as an outreach worker, now as a mentor to men struggling with addiction. It was that work that brought together Evgen and Linda Wojcik, who’s now his girlfriend. She had a family member who needed help and approached the former boxer. When she heard of his dream to start a boxing gym, Wojcik, CEO of a local nonprofit, offered to help get it off the ground.
A handshake deal to launch the gym in the old St. Bernard’s High School on Rice Street — an opportunity to give back to the neighborhood that had shown him so much love — was too good to pass up. In summer 2018, Evgen and a slew of energized Rice Streeters started clearing out the lower-level bowling alley.
“Once we got started, the community got so excited,” said Wojcik, president of the gym’s board of directors. “We have so many people who stepped forward to help.”
Neighborhood enthusiasm was not enough. In early 2019, Wojcik said, city inspectors said a new air-exchange system, upgraded sprinklers and new fire alarms would be needed — adding about $60,000 to what was going to be rent-free space. Then, in July, they learned they wouldn’t be getting a grant from the city to help them pay for it. Their boxing gym dream seemed dead.
Until September. That’s when they learned that MSS, which provides employment and other services to people with a range of disabilities, had a mostly empty warehouse on the city’s East Side. A lease was signed in October, and the Rice Street “Old School” Boxing Gym, at 900 Ocean St. in St. Paul, started offering classes in December.
Classes for kids and adults are held 4:30 to 7 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Plans are in the works to tailor classes for people with physical disabilities and develop a daytime program for MSS clients.
Still, Evgen said, much of his energy will be focused on helping kids.
“It would be nice if we can get them at 10, 11 years old” before gangs or drugs get a grip, he said. “We just want to give the kids a chance.”
On a recent Thursday evening, as Evgen shared ring stories and a couple of youngsters shadowboxed in front of mirrors, a teenager approached one of several heavy bags hanging in the brightly lit gym. “Hey!” Evgen said. “Did you stretch, you know, your legs, your shoulders?” The boy smiled and went to stretch.
Up in the ring, Dan Morgan, 58, a gym volunteer and former Minneapolis super middleweight, sparred with 21-year-old amateur Ben Pelzer. As the two circled, the old pro blocked or eluded several shots from the youngster. But not all. Pelzer, who was born in Frogtown but grew up in Ireland where he’s had eight amateur fights, is the grandson of Evgen’s first boxing coach, Jay Pelzer.
“You see some of these kids and they can’t throw a punch. It irritates the hell out of me,” Morgan said afterward. “This kid? He’s slick. He’s going to be all right.”
So, too, is Evgen’s “old school” gym, said Bobby Brunette. A member of the advisory council that oversees professional boxing in Minnesota, Brunette has known Evgen since he first put on boxing gloves. The Rice Street Rocker is still admired in Minnesota boxing circles for his tenacity and grit, Brunette said.
“You never had to look for Mike in the ring. He was right there and he just kept coming,” he said. “Now he’s giving back to the community, teaching kids to box. And you know what? Once Mike’s up and running full steam, he’s going to do just fine over there.”