ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
June 10, 2004


Saturday Night at the Fights
12 boxers -- four of them local -- go full tilt at the Muni

On the cover: Kelly "Bam Bam" Schultz


story by HANK SIMS
photos by BOB DORAN

[Sam Jones boxing]WHEN SAM JONES STEPPED INTO THE RING Saturday night, there could be little doubt that the lightweight fighter was representing Humboldt County. As he ducked under the ropes and claimed his corner, the lanky 23-year-old, a maintenance worker for the city of Eureka's Parks Department, wore his hair long and sported camouflage leggings underneath his trunks. It was a look that appeared to be cobbled together from both the hippie and the redneck strains of local culture, and it instantly distinguished him from his opponent, a Latino from Yuba City, who was more conventionally attired. [photo at left: Jones in his boxing attire. Below right: Sam Jones]

Since he was one of their own, the crowd in the Eureka Municipal Auditorium gave Jones a healthy cheer when the emcee introduced him.

"Fighting out of the blue corner tonight, weighing in at 147 pounds, from Eureka, your local town, Sam Jones!" he bellowed. "Sam! Jones!"

Jones came out to the center of the ring and touched gloves with his opponent, the 20-year-old José Rosales. Any fair-minded handicapper who had a chance to study the fighters would have had to put his money on Rosales. Jones had only sparred around with friends at Colossus Gym; Rosales had spent some months training with the show's promoter, Gary LaFranchi, a Blue Lake native. Even though it was his first official boxing match, too, Rosales had previously fought in something called "Extreme Fighting Sports" in Marysville. Shorter and more compact, he appeared physically built for the sport in a way that Jones was not.

[Sam Jones]Still, there was something in Jones' eyes that would have given Rosales backers some pause. No, he wasn't as trained and he hadn't been tested like Rosales, but he had something -- determination, a lack of fear, or simply what all sports fans everywhere know as "heart." And when the referee shouted "Fight!" to open the first round, Jones showed it.

After just a moment, when the fighters circled around in the center of the ring, Jones lashed out and connected with a little jab to Rosales' head. Rosales came back at him with a left-right combo that connected on both counts. They were both solid punches, but they seemed to only spur Jones on. He came right back at Rosales, feinting with his head and moving quickly, and the two exchanged rapid-fire blows. Over the next minute, a pattern developed -- Rosales would land some strong shots and Jones would turn around and fire back nearly as good as he got. Finally, near the end of the first round, Rosales caught Jones unaware with a vicious left jab. Jones staggered back against the ropes as the bell went off.

Jones came out aggressively in the beginning of the second round, attacking Rosales at every opportunity. But the balance gradually began to shift -- Rosales was simply landing better punches, and Jones appeared to tire first. His legs, full of frenetic energy initially, began to slow. A minute in, Rosales landed a right-left combination to Jones' face that put him on the mat. Jones got up, but indicated to the ref he was done. He'd fought an honorable match, but it was clear the fight had been taken out of him.

Above: Emcee Jason Friedley of McKinleyville warms up the crowd


Wherever you look, whether on the TV or in the upcoming events listings in your local newspaper, boxing is back. Saturday night's event -- billed as a "Meanest Man" contest -- is just the latest instance of someone tweaking the classic rules of the sport to bring it into the 21st century.

The style of fighting employed in the Meanest Man is known as "sports brawling," and it's the brainchild of LaFranchi, a former student of local Yurok boxing trainer and Golden Gloves champ Wilbert "Junior" Albers. LaFranchi, who moved to the Sierra foothills a few years ago, now works as a boxing instructor at sports clubs and after-school programs in that area.

Sport brawling rules combine those of standard amateur boxing and those of the faster-paced "Tough Man" competitions, like the kind held the past couple of years at Trinidad's Cher-Ae Heights Casino. "Tough Man" bouts are short and sweet. The fighters use lighter gloves, wear no head gear and are given only two or three one-minute rounds to make their mark. It makes for quite a show, and it has proven its ability to draw fans, but the faster pace means that stamina and the skills that come from classic boxing training -- the "sweet science" -- fall by the wayside. LaFranchi wanted to bring them back, and "sports brawling" was born.

[boxers in action in ring]"The fans love it, because it's exciting and you get to see skill," LaFranchi said. "And while we use bigger gloves and better protective gear, you still get knockouts."

The Meanest Man went like this: Rounds were two minutes long, three rounds per fight. Twelve boxers -- four each from the light, middle and heavyweight classes -- fought in the first half of the night, with the winners going on to a second, championship match later in the evening. The champs in each of the weight classes would receive $500, and any profits from the night were earmarked for LaFranchi's kid programs in the foothills.

"I designed this sport not just to promote boxing, but to support after-school programs," he said. "I'm no Don King -- I'm not out there to take money from fighters and utilize it for my own gain. I just enjoy teaching and training the guys and seeing it all come together in the ring."

And for some time, he's been eager to take the sport back to his hometown. For Saturday night's Meanest Man, he and his co-promoter Jerry Bunch, of Eureka, rounded up a mixture of rookies like Jones and the seasoned local talent that remained from the Albers days. Set against them: two separate crews from LaFranchi's stable of trainees -- one from Placerville, the other from Yuba City.


Saturday night's main attraction, at least for those locals in the audience who remembered the Golden Age of Humboldt County boxing, was heavyweight Kelly "Bam Bam" Schulz, another product of Junior Albers' boxing club. At least some in the crowd remembered Schulz from the early `90s, when Albers put on matches at the Muni and Redwood Acres. Others may have seen his disappointing defeats at Cher-Ae Heights, where because of the short rounds and the emphasis on flash over staying power, Schulz's training may actually have worked against him. Schulz supporters hoped that the Meanest Man's longer rounds would work to his advantage.

The Eureka crowd gave Schultz, 34, a huge, whooping cheer as he entered the ring. Besides being the best-known local on the card, Shultz was also the last Humboldt County boxer standing. Earlier in the evening, fellow heavyweight Will May -- Schulz's friend and sometime sparring partner -- went the full three rounds with Yuba City's "Raging" Richard Blake, a hulk of a man who had 20 pounds on his opponent. The 36-year-old May, owner of Eureka's Helpful Hands handyman service and a father of six, battled back from a poor start to inflict some damage in the third round, but the judges gave the match to Blake in the end.

[Left: Kelly "Bam Bam" Schulz (R), catches up with "Meanest Man" promoter and fellow Junior Albers protege Gary LaFranchi.]

May -- who had only been recruited to enter a week before the fight -- was out, as were Jones and middleweight Ryan Collingsworth of McKinleyville. Only Schulz, a powerful puncher who seemed impervious to pain, still had a chance to make it to the finals.

And suddenly he was facing a wild card. Because his original scheduled opponent scratched at the last minute, Schulz instead was matched up against Levi Thornbrue, a fighter from LaFranchi's Placerville crew who was serving as referee for the evening. Thornbrue was solidly built and apparently in good form. He weighed in at 230, just over Schulz's 228, but no one knew if he had been training lately. LaFranchi stepped in to referee.

The bell rang, and it was instantly clear that the fight would take the form of a classic heavyweight bout -- slower-paced and more calculating than those fought by smaller men. The two fighters moved out to the center of the ring, in no particular rush, and began to circle and probe for weaknesses. Thornbrue connected with a lunging left, to no particular effect, and followed with a couple of light shots to Schulz's gut. Random shouts of "C'mon, Kelly!" echoed down from the balconies.

Schulz began to circle a little quicker, bumping up against LaFranchi as he pivoted, and threw a left at Thornbrue's head, knocking him off balance. Moments later, at the 50-second mark, Thornbrue appeared to slip in the middle of a turn, falling to the mat. He got back up, and Schulz dived in, driving Thornbrue to the ropes and battering his rib cage. The fighters became entangled, with Schulz continuing to pound at his opponent's abdomen and Thornbrue battling out with uppercuts at short range.

As the round ended, Thornbrue went back to his corner and pulled off his gloves. He pulled up his shirt and felt around his rib cage. Something was clearly wrong. The ringside doctor was called in to examine the fighter and he determined that Thornbrue had been injured -- not by Schultz, the doctor later said, but because he had pulled a muscle during a swing.

"Ladies and gentleman, after the first round -- TKO, Kelly `Bam Bam' Schulz!" the emcee announced, to hoots of "Way to go, Kel!" from the crowd. It wasn't a very satisfying victory, but Schulz would have his shot at that in the finals.

[Bunch boxing with Schulz in backyard]


A few days earlier, Schulz drove to the Eureka home of his friend and corner man, Jerry Bunch, to throw a few punches and pose for photographs [above] . In the backyard, a group of teenagers messed around with a motorcycle and rode their bikes over and around a large mound of dirt.

Bunch, who teamed up with LaFranchi to promote the Eureka Meanest Man, is a man brimming with enthusiasm about every form of sport fighting ever dreamed up by humankind. A native of Oahu, he comes from a renowned family of karate champions -- he and his brother each won the Hawaiian state karate championship twice in their classes, and his sister won the national title in 1988. Later in his career, he went out for cage fighting, a no-holds-barred competition where fighters of different schools compete against each other inside large octagonal chain-link pens. These matches, in which fighters can climb the fence and jump down on their opponent, can get bloody, and Bunch retired from the sport with a record of 2-0. But he loves to box -- he had fought professional matches -- and he doesn't plan to leave this sport anytime soon.

[Photo below right: Schulz and cornerman Jerry Bunch discuss tactics between rounds]

[Bunch and Schulz sitting in ring]That day, though, Bunch mainly channeled his love of the fight into promotion of Schulz, who was standing off to the side, taping up his hands in preparation for a workout. It was easy to see how Schultz got his nickname -- with his light brown hair and broad shoulders, he looked for all the world like a grown-up version of Barney and Betty Rubble's freakishly strong son from the Flintstones cartoon.

"He's a quiet, baby-faced guy, but you wouldn't want to be on the other end of his punch," Bunch said.

Schulz had just come off a full day's work at the Customer Truck Service shipping company in Eureka, where he works as a yardman. Schulz said he often worked 60-hour weeks that didn't leave much time for training, but it was clear that he took pride in his work ethic.

"At the last Tough Man, I fought three fights," Schulz said. "Got home at about 1, went to sleep, got up about 4 and went to work.

"That's why I always say that they should judge the fights the next day," he added, meaning that's the way to tell which fighter was hurt the worst.

In America, at least, boxing has always drawn most of its fighters and its fans from the country's blue-collar ranks. Social critic Carlo Rotella, a professor of English at Boston University and a huge fan of the fights, thinks that the sport is naturally appealing to those who earn their living out of the hard labor of their bodies --"Boxing is the sport farthest from play and closest to work," as he put it in his 2002 book, Good With Their Hands.

Le Roy Murrell, a long-time local boxing supporter who served as a judge Saturday night, fondly recalls the late `50s and early `60s when, he said, there would be a match in Eureka just about every Saturday night. It was nearly as good in the `80s and `90s, he said, because Junior Albers had dedicated himself to training local talent -- providing the kids with something to work at after they graduated from high school, and good entertainment for everyone else.

The local boxing scene has foundered since Albers was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1999, but Murrell hopes that the recent surge of interest in the sport will last.

"We don't have anything to do in this community, except the stock car races," Murrell said between customers at his barbershop last week. "So I'd like to see them bring the fights back. Every time they have them in Trinidad, they fill the house."

LaFranchi, who is carrying on Albers' work with his youth clubs in Placerville and Yuba City, also wants to put Humboldt County back on the map. He said he has his eye on a vacant space in McKinleyville that would be perfect for a new boxing club if he could somehow get hold of the rent.

"If I could get the backing, I'd come over three days a week and train," he said. "The rest of the time, the people here could work it."


Yuba City became famous in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after it was routinely placed at or near the top of Money magazine's annual survey of the Worst Places to Live in America. The city's main drag is the stuff of every urban planner's vision of Hell, with an endless series of mini-malls anchored by third-tier chain stores and fast food outlets lining both sides of the street. Though the city's profile has improved in the last few years -- a competing survey by Forbes placed it among the nation's top 10 "Best Small Places" in 2001 -- it still suffers from a high crime rate and unemployment nearly double the state's average.

Listening to the kids who drove the 250 miles just to watch their friends fight in Eureka, though, one would have gathered that Yuba City was nothing less than the natural home of heroes. All three Yuba City boxers made it through to their championship bouts Saturday night, and the couple of dozen fans who had come to support them were up on their feet throughout, cheering them like they were rock stars and bursting with raucous hometown pride. According to LaFranchi, who trained the Yuba City fighters at the local YMCA, amateur matches in the town routinely draw several hundred paying customers.

As the lightweight, Morales was the first Yuba City boy up. His opponent was the stringy Russ "Diggity Dog" Thompson, a 17-year-old out of Live Oak, a Sacramento suburb. [photo below left][Thompson and Morales boxing] In his first fight of the evening, Thompson had stunned the crowd by knocking out a Placerville man exactly twice his age in a matter of seconds -- the first exchange was the last, as Thompson drove his opponent up against a corner and let loose with a savage flurry of hooks.

As in Rosales' match against Jones, the boxers appeared to be evenly matched when the first punches started flying. Thompson was erratic -- his arms threw themselves out in long, loopy curves and often ended far wide of the mark -- but when he did manage to land one, it landed hard. Seventy seconds in, Thompson got Morales up against the ropes and rained his fists down upon him. Morales battled his way out, though, and seconds later he was hitting Thompson at will.

Throughout, the Yuba City crowd kept up a constant stream of bilingual encouragement and instruction to Rosales:

"You're a soldier! You're a soldier, baby!"

"Déjalo que se canse!" ("Let him wear himself out!")

Halfway through the second round, Johnston rallied back with two sharp left jabs to the side of Morales' head, and for a moment it looked like he was going to send Morales to the mat. Again, though, Morales turned the tables in a matter of seconds, and Johnston was hanging over the ropes. Morales' fans chimed in:

"Está cansado!" ("He's tired!")

"Give him a bottle! Send him to bed!"

Later in the third round, when Thompson was stumbling and looked ready to fall, a Yuba City fan cupped his hands and shouted his words of advice to Rosales: "Sleepy night-night time!" he yelled, earnestly.

Rosales never managed to put Thompson down, but after three rounds he walked away with a unanimous decision from the judges. The Yuba City crowd screamed their approval.

Rosales' comrade, the middleweight Tony "Montana" Juárez, next took care of Placerville's Mike "Mad Man" Speegle -- a martial arts trainee in the process of making the transition to boxing -- in two rounds. Speegle threw down his gloves in irritation after a punishing second round, then graciously walked over to lift Juárez's arm to acknowledge his victory.

Then, in the final match of the night, Schulz entered the ring for the heavyweight championship match against "Raging" Richard Blake, the 223-pound heavy from the Yuba City crew who had gone the full three rounds with May earlier in the night. Schulz supporters figured that their man had an edge, having had to box only one round before Thornbrue went out on his injury.

But after thirty seconds of dancing and probing, Blake worked Schulz into a neutral corner and fired a volley of jabs at his ribs and his head. Schulz must have been shaken -- when Blake proffered his fist for a friendly mitt-touch after Thornbrue pulled them out of the corner, Schulz ignored it and threw an errant jab at Blake's face. A moment later, though, he scored his first big blow of the match -- a strong left cross to Blake's jaw. The round ended with both boxers looking tired.

In the second round, Blake connected with a solid right to Schulz's head. Schulz fought back but it was clear to most observers that this round had not gone his way.

[boxers in ring]  [boxers in ring]
Above: Schulz (L) and Blake seemed evenly matched -- when one landed a big punch, the other would roar back to life.

By the third round, both fighters were clearly worn down. Much of the final two minutes was spent with one or the other of them hunched over, driving weak jabs into the other's gut and getting short uppercuts to the head in return. Schulz set the pace, driving at Blake with brute, insensate force, but Blake seemed to land the better punches.

After the final bell, the boxers performed a little embrace, congratulating each other on the fight. The referee was handed the judges' decisions [Judges in photo at left] , and the announcement came -- the first two judges deemed it a clean sweep for Blake. [photo below] Murrell, a local, saw the fight differently, awarding the second and third rounds to Schulz. As the scores were announced, Schulz looked back in his corner toward Bunch and held his hands apart, as if to say "What?" Bunch shrugged -- they both thought he was robbed.

The Yuba City fans, though, exploded in shouts and shrieks as the verdict was announced, all of them jumping up and down and generally making the most of the moment. It was a Yuba City sweep.

"Yuba Dooba, baby!" one of them shouted, the joy burbling up and out of him as he celebrated with his crew.

[Blake declared as winner]


Gary LaFranchi lost about $4,000 on Saturday night's fight at the Muni. Out of the 150 or so who attended, LaFranchi said, only about 70 of them paid the $20 for their tickets. The rest were friends of the fighters. Part of it was bad timing -- Saturday was the opening day for the Humboldt Crabs baseball team, and the stock car races were on at Redwood Acres. But LaFranchi isn't letting the poor showing bring him down, and if a friend comes through with a loan, he's promising to throw another Meanest Man in Eureka in late July or early August.

As he and his crew packed up their gear Sunday morning, LaFranchi said that he was pleased by the state of the local competition. He thought that Schulz, despite his defeat, still had the stuff, and could be a stronger contender if he had a more focused training regimen. But he saved his strongest praise for Jones and Ryan Collingsworth, rookies who threw themselves into the ring with nothing more than guts.

"I'll tell you what," he said, "They impressed me. That Sam Jones surprised me. He came out looking like a scrawny kind of kid, but had some serious skills."

With a little investment, Humboldt County could be poised for another boxing renaissance. The talent is here -- all that's needed is an Albers figure to develop their skills, hold the scene together and, when necessary, keep the young men on the straight and narrow. LaFranchi said that if he's able to get his gym together, he's sure he'd have 50 people sign up the first week -- people like Jones, Collingsworth and Damion Norton, the Hoopa phenomenon who wowed the crowds at the Cher-Ae Heights fights but couldn't make it to the Meanest Man. And out of those 50, LaFranchi promised, he'd turn out 25 first-class amateur boxers.

Below: The Yuba City crew. At front, from left to right: Juarez, Blake and Morales.

[Yuba City group posing]





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