June 10, 2004
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12 boxers -- four of them
local -- go full tilt at the Muni
On the cover: Kelly "Bam
photos by BOB DORAN
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.
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
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
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.
OF BAM BAM
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
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
"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.
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]
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,"
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
"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
"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] 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
Throughout, the Yuba City crowd
kept up a constant stream of bilingual encouragement and instruction
"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:
"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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Below: The Yuba City crew.
At front, from left to right: Juarez, Blake and Morales.
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