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Jeff Kolpack, Published June 20 2010

Looking to hook 'em: North Dakota boxing enthusiasts try to keep sport going in the state

Grand Forks, N.D. - The aging poster of Virgil Hill was still taped to the concrete basement wall in Eddie Obregon’s boxing gym. It was signed by the North Dakota boxer during a time that was arguably the peak of the sport in North Dakota.

“Hard work pays off,” Hill wrote in silver marker.

His nickname was “Quicksilver” after all. The former world champion’s title days are long gone and so, too, is boxing from the North Dakota public eye, replaced on television in most instances by mixed martial arts fights.

But boxing is not extinct. You have to look throughout the state, but there are pockets that tug at the three “Ds” of the sport: dedication, discipline and desire.

One of them is in the lower level of the Big Sioux truck stop just off of Interstate 29 on the southern edge of Grand Forks. It’s warm, the ring has several years under its belt and it makes the most use of its allowable space.

It’s not a fitness center. It’s a gym.

Obregon has run the last 10 of his 16 years with the Forks Fighters club at the Big Sioux. There are three main rules: no vulgar language, no drinking and no smoking. Like most youth boxing gyms, they are run on whatever funds can be scraped together.

“It’s a non-profit group with no profit,” the 54-year-old Obregon said with a smile. “The profit is the satisfaction of working with the kids and seeing them go on.”

Lack of funding doesn’t stop Grafton boxers

Last week, a group of kids from a Grafton boxing club were working out at the Big Sioux. The club was formed thanks to the persistence of Travis Ostlie and Freddy Narro, two men who bought a building in Grafton and pieced together a gym.

They used to work out of Narro’s garage. The cost for kids to join: nothing.

“Some people ask why we don’t charge,” Narro said. “Some of the kids – I know they don’t have any money. So say we charge $20, they don’t have it and then they go out and make bad choices. Well, I don’t want their 20 dollars.”

The Grafton club is hosting a “Summerfest Boxing” event at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Grafton Armory. The cost is $4 for adults, $2 for kids ages 6-12 and free for ages 5 and under – and that’s about as glitzy of a fundraiser as the club gets.

Once, with the club stuck with a $600 bill, a local Grafton woman offered to pay it if the kids painted her house. The youth boxers ended up painting three houses last year.

They stay several to a hotel room when they go to other boxing events. They piece together meals.

“We hit the Family Dollar for water and snacks and we hit the dollar menu at McDonald’s,” Narro said.

Narro also has a personal motivation to keep the kids involved. He doesn’t want them to follow his path.

“I used to be a heavy drug addict and boxing changed it all,” he said. “I love it. It keeps their mind busy and it motivates you. My addiction is boxing.”

Ultimate fighting taking attention of TV viewers

The state’s addiction to boxing peaked when Hill was a perennial light heavyweight champion, with 24 of those bouts fought in North Dakota. He sold out the Bismarck Civic Center for many of his 15 fights there and he fought in the Fargodome twice, both in 1993.

He’s now in the training end of the business with his All N Conditioning gym in New Jersey, one that includes mixed martial arts fighters. Hill, however, said two weeks ago that he believes boxing will stand the test of time, saying, “I think MMA is starting to lose its fizzle a little bit.”

Still, try finding a boxing bout on network TV. Good luck – and that’s something that bothers Aaron Thorn, who runs Boxing Inc. gym that meets in the upstairs of the Grand Forks YMCA.

“When I was a kid, I could turn on ABC on Saturday and watch boxing on TV,” Thorn said. “You have to have special cable channels to be exposed to it now.”

But measuring the popularity of boxing these days in relationship to viewers is tough, said Scott Geston, general manager of CableOne in Fargo. He said boxing promoters used to send his office fliers, but the system has changed.

“They all deal through their distributor,” Geston said. “We hardly do any local marketing for it anymore. The revenue split with us got so small that we said, ‘Forget it.’ ”

One such distributor is Joe Hand Promotions out of Feasteville, Pa., which is handling the Brock Lesnar/Shane Carwin Ultimate Fighting Championship card July 3 in Las Vegas. A spokesman for Joe Hand said in general UFC is more popular than boxing.

“But there are not good boxing fights out there,” he said.

He would not elaborate on the subject.

When it comes to Fargo, MMA has taken hold

Lesnar, who lives in Alexandria, Minn., has captivated the Fargo-Moorhead fighting market. Boxing has never been big in Fargo – you probably have to go all the way back to Billy Petrolle. “The Fargo Express” won the lightweight world title in 1932.

His manager, Jack Hurley, ran a local religious goods business in Fargo for many years. Some isolated gyms have come and gone with the last one run by middleweight boxer Andy Kolle, but nothing has stuck, such as Obregon’s Forks Fighters.

“MMA has taken over in Fargo,” said John Kalenze, a minority owner at the Fargo-Moorhead Academy of Combat Arts. “Whatever Fargo lacks in boxing it’s made up in MMA. We are the one calling all the shots in North Dakota; it’s all happening in Fargo.”

Kalenze’s facility, located on Main Avenue in Fargo, is so busy during the school year to the point that FMACA may be looking for a bigger building. A crowded class ranges from 25 to 30 with the ages of participants from 5 to 57.

“And everything between,” Kalenze said. “But I would say the demographic is around 25 years or so.”

The FMACA has existed since the fall of 2008. Still, it remains to be seen if MMA can maintain the history that boxing has.

The benchmark for success still remains the Golden Gloves program. North Dakota kids compete in the Upper Midwest franchise with Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin and South Dakota. This year and as usual, it was dominated by Twin Cities fighters with six of the 10 weight class winners. An area breakthrough was at 152 pounds won by Jesse Wannemacher of Fergus Falls, Minn.

“Minnesota has a good program,” said Dave Burtts, a longtime boxing trainer at the Missouri River Golden Gloves gym in Mandan. “There are a lot of teams in Minnesota but, of course, Minnesota has a lot of people.”

Once at 3 teams, ND boxing is on the rise

At 62 years old, Burtts has been in the boxing game on and off for 45 years and has seen the ups and downs. He’s had his gym at the Mandan Community Center for 32 years. It produced boxers like Tocker Pudwill, who had a 40-7 record and fought for the International Boxing Federation super middleweight title in 2000.

Interest seemed to dwindle from there – two years ago there were just three clubs in the state. Now there are 13 including East Grand Forks, Minn.

The others are the two in Grand Forks, Grafton, Minot, two in New Town, Williston, Parshall, Garrison, Fort Yates and Porcupine. It mostly has a western North Dakota flavor.

“It’s coming up,” Burtts said. “The biggest problem is finding the coaches because the coaches don’t get paid. We put a lot of time into it and we put our own money into it.”

Burtts said he’s had several people from Fargo talk to him about starting a club, but he thinks that’s about as far as it’s gone. As Obregon can attest, you gotta want to do it.

His gym has all the classic boxing gear, but nothing modern. Six punching bags hang from the ceiling. A pull-up bar tests the kids’ strength, a speed bag tests their hand quickness and an old Air Dyne bike helps get them in shape.

Compressors for soda machines for the convenience store on the Big Sioux main level churn out a steady noise – and heat. You can sweat just standing down there.

“We build on what we have,” he said. “We started from nothing.”

Jeff Kolpack can be heard on the WDAY Golf Show, 10 a.m. to noon on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5546 or at jkolpack@forumcomm.com

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia