Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Every once in a while, as he kneads dough in his Henderson bakery, Flemming Pedersen thinks back to his days as a boxer and how he pummeled and punched his way toward respect in pugilistic exploits that crossed continents.
Now and then, he remembers when he was young and strong, and sometimes, he dreams of the opportunities he missed.
Long ago in his hometown in Denmark, where he lived on a mink farm with his family and cooked for them as they worked, Pedersen was a runt with a glass jaw. In his early teens he was called “the gnome,” and his propensity for springing up after he was knocked down in fights earned him the nickname “the rubber ball.”
As bakers do when learning to build a wedding cake or the technique to make a pastry, Pedersen in his late teens created a recipe for success in boxing. He no longer had to be faster, quicker or stronger. Instead, he was determined to be smarter in the ring.
“I always wanted to be in control of the fight,” he said. “I wasn’t a good brawler. … I was the one staying away.”
He switched his stance to lead with his strongest hand, his right. His jab, often the punch most thrown by boxers, became a punishing weapon that helped earn him 24 victories against five defeats in his amateur career.
He thinks back to those days and to his successes, like his first knockout at 19.
“He just dropped like a sack of potatoes,” Pedersen said of his KO’d opponent. “I was like, ‘That was neat.’”
He also thinks back to opportunities he wishes he could have back, like sparring with Sugar Ray Leonard.
“I said no,” Pedersen said. “I was worried about his hand speed. I thought he would pick me apart.”
At 57 and now weighing more than 200 pounds, the 5-foot-10 Pedersen is far from his competing weight of around 150 toned and shrink-wrapped pounds. Long past his boxing prime, he has replaced the sweat-stained ring with a flour-dusted kitchen, at 7 S. Water St. in Henderson's old downtown. Back in the cool, metallic bowels of his Chef Flemming’s Bake Shop, which he opened in 2008, Pedersen fills special orders for parties, weddings and other gatherings. His wife, Chere, helps take orders and works the counter for walk-in customers purchasing the shop’s handmade breads, rolls, cupcakes and cookies.
Pedersen cuts a cake into four even, horizontal slabs. He lays cream frosting on each layer, on top and all around the sides. His bald head lightly reflects fluorescent light as he makes delicate, calculated movements with an end goal and ultimate purpose in the distance.
He used to miss boxing, and giving up the ring ate away at him for a while. Now and then he satisfies his competitive appetites by participating in competitive water skiing. And as the wakes wash over him, the regrets of his missed opportunities are lessened.
Boxing and his passion for baking have been intertwined ever since he began cooking dinner for his siblings and parents when they would come in from working on the mink farm. He’d stew, bake, boil and dream. Pedersen would dream of a day when he could go to America and have his own bakery. And he’d dream of his first pro fight.
The bond between Pedersen and his father, a longtime boxing fan who would take the boy to fights, also debilitated Pedersen with anxiety in the ring. He never won a fight his father attended.
The hard labor in the kitchen, the baking apprenticeships and the punishing rounds in the ring built his Darwinian nature and rugged self-reliance.
At 21 years old and having relocated across the Atlantic to Atlanta, Pedersen would now need to rely on himself. He was alone in a new country seeking his fortune as a baker, experiencing all the excitement of a new culture and the unfamiliarity of racial tensions. He experienced that friction at his boxing gym, where he was heckled and harassed at each workout.
They’re going to keep doing this until you stand up for yourself, his coach had told him. If you want to continue here, you need to beat the hell out of one of them.
So he did. He picked a bigger opponent, and over three rounds, Pedersen battered and brutalized him. The buzz of jump ropes and the thud of punching bags died as the gym gathered to watch the skinny Pedersen dismantle his far-larger opponent.
Pedersen wasn’t bothered again.
Despite his attraction to boxing, he never thought of himself as a fighter.
“The funny thing is, I never really was a fighter. I’d always back away from fighting,” he said.
A few months later, attracted by its boxing culture, he moved to Las Vegas. He trained, and all the while, he continued to grow his baking career. He landed an entry-level job at the Flamingo Hilton.
Pedersen found a manager to help get him get his first pro fight. It never happened. His manager advised against testing his week chin in a professional boxing match.
Pedersen was 24 when his boxing days ended, but his career outside the ring flourished. He’s been a baker at a number of Strip casinos, spent more than a decade as executive pastry chef at the Golden Nugget and was an assistant executive pastry chef with Station Casinos before starting his own shop.
And slowly, the sleek and slim form of a competitive boxer softened.
Though sometimes he thinks of those missed opportunities, Pedersen doesn’t have regrets. He used to. Even as the distance from his youth continues to grow, Pedersen will always remember his days as a boxer, when his jab could hurt people, and the power he felt surge up his arm with that first knockout.