One of the finest fights of my career was when I boxed on a card for Tommy Brunette and made a successful TV boxing debut. At that time, Tommy Brunette of Brunette Boxing was the biggest boxing promoters in the state. Chuck Horton and I had admired his work with boxers and looked at him as the guy to emulate in boxing as we worked to get going here in Duluth. Going into this fight I wanted to box the best competition we could find and try to win Tommy’s respect. Tommy found a tough match in Mike Wood who was 12-2-1 7KO’s. At this time I was 9-1 8KO’s in my young career. It was a real cross roads fight for Mike Wood and I.
The show was named “Ballroom Blitz” and would take place in the Riverside Ballroom of the Excel Entertainment Center in St Paul. At this time I had not boxed in Duluth for quite a bit. My last fight was in 2002 it was now 2005. Chuck and I had boxed several times out in Tacoma Washington, other places in Minnesota, and one time in Canada. I had also earned a spot at a chief sparring partner for Antonio Tarver and this was my first fight after that. Following sparring camp Buddy McGirt wanted to start training me. That felt pretty cool! Buddy McGirt trained one of my boxing hero’s, Arturo Gatti, as well as other world champs and now he was training me too. This fight was also my first fight with both Chuck Horton and Buddy McGirt in my corner.
I started training camp 8 weeks out. I did 4 weeks of camp with Chuck Horton to get ready for sparring, and then went down to Vero Beach, FL to train with Buddy
McGirt and get sparring. Chuck had me looking sharp and when I showed up for training camp I was already feeling ready to fight. Sparring went well. Buddy McGirt brought in some boxers that would box similarly to my opponent, Mike Wood. We took care of business fashioning the skills and strategy to complete camp. I came back to Minnesota the last week before the fights and wrapped up camp in Duluth with Chuck Horton and Jack O’Brien. I remember the cold being such a contrast to running on the hot beach in Florida. It was good to be home though and I couldn’t wait to fight.
The build up to the fights was top shelf. The fight took place during the time the NHL was on strike. Tommy Brunette took a group of the top boxers fighting on the card to EXCEL Entertainment Center a week before the fight. The lacrosse team, Minnesota Swarm, was in playing in the arena. Tommy had lined it up for several of us boxers to make a grand introduction during a game. One by one we were each introduced and appeared on the jumbotron while the announcer read our names. Several thousand people were in attendance. I took take a lap around the arena throwing free Jungle Boy t-shirts with a bio-card and photos wrapped in it up at the crowd. I was taking steps to try and grow a fan base in the Twin Cities so we could work with Brunette’s Boxing more in the future. The boxers were well received and the promotional stunt pumped us up for the fights!
That evening, Chuck Horton and I discussed the pros and cons to signing with Tommy Brunette after this fight. There were a lot of pros and very few cons. We didn’t have pro boxing in Duluth at that time in the capacity Tommy Brunette had in the Twin Cities. He’s been at it for years and had connections that could guide me along very well! Tommy seemed to think the world of me too. He kept telling me he could make me a star. He’d say; “I’ll make you a star, kid. You got it all. You can fight and you aren’t’ that bad looking’ either. The ladies will love you.” All I could do was smile. I knew what he could do. I saw what he did with Matt Vanda and others before him. I was filled with optimism. I also knew I had to perform on fight night too though. The fight in front of me was no joke. I couldn’t let all this go to my head.
The weigh INS were held at Brunette’s Gym. Celebrity announcer, Amy Hayes was there to announce the fighters as we got on the scale. The place was swarming with people. Fans, boxers, managers, trainers, media, and every other variety of boxing people were there. There was intensity in the air that sent the message this was a big deal! The FSN crew was they’re filming the weigh INS and I was feeling great! The entire evening was scripted with a touch class. Tommy brunette knew how to make things special!
Mike Wood and I both made weight under the 175lbs limit and did our stare down. I could tell when I looked in his eyes that I was in for a tough fight the next night. It seemed like Mike Wood stared right into my soul, not with anger or hate, but with confidence. He was ready. I didn’t see any fear in him. I was feeling great and very confident as well and brushed off the intensity with a smile. I felt the same way! I had a world class corner with me and I had a world class training camp leading into the fight. I had no reason to feel any different. We were two up and coming boxers at our best and we were ready to do our thing.
The next night I got warmed up and into the zone. Everything was clicking. My punches were snapping and I felt like no matter what I happened in the fight I had the energy to carry out a win. We walked out to the ring through a max capacity River Center Ballroom. The sounds of my entrance music echoed through the venue and a spot light followed us through the crowd to the ring. “Welcome to the Jungle” never sounded so good. I said to myself, “I’m here to put on a show! This is what the big time looks like!”
Right away in the first round, Mike Wood swarmed me with punches. I gladly exchanged with him and went to work on his body. He had good power, but after all the rounds with Antonio Tarver his power didn’t scare me much. Tarver could put the lights out with any punch. Mike Wood could hit though, just not like that! I touched combinations up stairs and down to his body, but Mike Wood kept coming. It was not a boxing match, it was a fight! The next round was more of the same. I was out landing Mike Wood, but he didn’t seem to be fading much yet. He was getting welted up and he body looked bruised along his ribs from the gut shots, but he just kept coming. When the 4th round came I was starting to feel the effects of fighting off the relentless attacks of Mike Wood. I had to have been throwing 100 punches a round! After the fight, Chuck Horton told me Buddy McGirt leaned over during that round and told him Mike Wood was “one tough dude” and that I needed to change up my fight plan. Buddy had been pleading with me to keep my range and I was doing my best, but it was hard to do when Mike Wood kept closing in. My directions for the 5th round were to only jab, nothing else. I thought this sounded crazy, but I figured this was advice coming from one of the best trainers in the world and Chuck Horton nodded in agreement too so I better do it.
I came out for the 5th round and established the jab like they wanted me to. Mike Wood was still closing in, but it was starting to work well. At the same time I realized that Mike Wood had started dropping his left hand. It was like he forgot about my dense right hand. I saw this as a golden opportunity so I angled around to the middle and doubled up my jab followed with an over-right to his jaw. This combination blasted an exhausted Mike Wood and crushed him against the ropes. His knees hit the canvas as he grabbed on to clinch to avoid the fall. I back pedaled away and Mike Wood went down to all fours. Midway through the count Mike Wood got to his feet to resume the fight, but referee Mark Nelson called a halt to the fight since Mike was looking pretty bad at that point and his legs were gone. My lungs burned. I could taste my blood on my breath from my bloody nose and I hurt all over. In this fight I was able to be just a little tougher than my opponent. Just a bit more! We had waged war on one another and this was a big win for me! I was on cloud 9! I couldn’t be happier!
Here I was a young boxer in the big lights winning my first TV Fight. Emotion rushed over me and I felt like I was on the way to the big time! The stars just lined up that night. In a way, I really was on my way. After this fight, I got back to Duluth and everyone was talking. It seemed like everyone that had been following my career as a boxer and Chuck Horton’s career as a trainer knew about our big night in the ring. Every fight after this one was a big deal. In fact, soon after my fight for Tommy Brunette on a Brunette’s Boxing card, Chuck Horton and the DECC (Duluth Entertainment Convention Center) collaborated to put on a major pro boxing show right here in Duluth! It was a dream of mine to fight there and now it was coming to reality. Every fight from this point on was a Big Deal!
I am ever thankful to Tommy Brunette for giving me the opportunity to fight on his card and giving me the exposure needed to jump to the next level in my career. He was one of the best.