Friday, May 16, 2008 | 2 a.m.
IF YOU GO
What: ESPN Friday Night Fights
Who: Chris Byrd vs. Shaun George, light heavyweights
When: Today (First bell at 5 p.m.)
Where: Cox Pavilion
Tickets: $28-$78; 739-3267, www.unlvtickets.com
About 20 miles south of Seattle, at the confluence of the Green and White rivers in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains, sits Auburn, Wash., pop. 65,000. It’s one of those quaint emerald towns in the Pacific Northwest that, after driving through, you could see yourself living there.
Auburn is the hometown of Greg Haugen, the former world champion boxer, listed by Wikipedia as Auburn’s second-most-famous native behind Christine Gregoire, the governor of the Evergreen State. The Green River Killer, Gary Leon Ridgway, is No. 6.
Greg Haugen just might be my favorite fighter ever, not because he threw punches like old Buicks throw engine rods and had more courage than a division of Marines (his dad was one), but because one day when I was driving to work, and the morning disc jockeys on KKLZ were making fun of him for testing positive for a substance that wasn’t Gatorade, he called them on the phone and said he was coming down to the station to whip both of their rear ends. Only he didn’t say rear ends.
All of a sudden Johnson and Tofte, which is what the classic rock morning jocks called themselves, weren’t cracking so wise. They thought Haugen might have been serious. Little did they know there was no way he was going down to the station to whip their rear ends, not when there was still beer in his glass.
That was 17 years ago. When I asked Haugen about it this week, he recalled it like it was yesterday, which is unusual for an ex-fighter.
“We were getting all liquored up (this was about 9 a.m., mind you). Those KKLZ guys were bad-mouthing me and the bartender told me I should call them,” Haugen said in that raspy voice — think Mickey in “Rocky” — that a lot of boxers cultivate after they hang up the gloves.
Haugen was a lightweight in classification only — he made his name by beating up on heavyweights in tough-man contests. He lived in Southern Nevada for 12 years, because this is where guys with anvils for fists come when they want to become world champions. Ask him where he lived, and he describes his neighborhood by its closest bar.
“We had an apartment by UNLV, behind the Stake Out,” he said, referring to a popular campus watering hole.
Later, after he beat Jimmy Paul to win the IBF lightweight championship in 1986, he bought a house in Green Valley.
“I lived in Henderson before all the yuppies got there,” he said. “Just me and Thirstbusters.”
Greg Haugen was Ricky Hatton long before the Englishman turned drinking beer into an endearing quality. Only Haugen could fight better. He was world champion three times. He fought Jimmy Paul and Vinny Pazienza and Pernell Whitaker and Macho Camacho and Boom Boom Mancini. Some more than once. And almost always in the other guy’s hometown.
He made a million dollars for fighting the great Julio Cesar Chavez in Mexico City in front of the biggest crowd ever to see a prize fight. There were 136,000 spectators at Azteca Stadium on Feb. 20, 1993, and 135,998 were Mexicans. The other two were Haugen and Don King. At least that’s what it sounded like.
They had come to see Chavez, the Mexican demigod, turn Haugen into a pinata after Haugen had belittled Chavez’s 85-0 record during the run-up to the bout. Haugen said he wasn’t that impressed, because most of the guys Chavez had beaten were “Tijuana taxi drivers.”
The plug must have delighted Herb Alpert. Chavez, on the other hand, wasn’t amused. He refused to touch gloves with Haugen, who had further incited the crowd by entering the ring to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” With a chip on his shoulder the size of Acapulco, Chavez nearly beat Haugen senseless over five rounds.
It was the first time Haugen had been stopped. But he took his beating like a man, telling Chavez in the ring afterward that the better man had won. And that those taxi drivers from Tijuana must have been pretty tough.
“I was going through a tough divorce and trained on cocaine and vodka,” Haugen said. “I fought Chavez with a broken heart.”
Oh, yeah. I almost forgot about the divorce. Another day, I was watching TV when police were called to a domestic disturbance at Haugen’s house. His ex-wife had parked her car in the living room. Most guys in that situation would lie low. Not Haugen. When the TV cameras arrived, he came walking out what remained of the front door and gave one-on-one interviews about how it’s hard to make a marriage work sometimes.
Greg Haugen was a little flawed around the edges, and that’s putting it mildly. But he was genuine. The real deal. A fighter’s fighter. What you saw is what you got, especially if you were standing toe to toe with him.
He will be 48 in August, which is hard to believe. He is training his 20-year-old son, Brady, for a boxing career, which he is not too crazy about. But he’s genuinely excited about the heavyweight he has taken under his wing. Jonte Willis, one of the country’s top amateurs, will make his Las Vegas debut on the undercard of the Chris Byrd vs. Shaun George bout tonight on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights at Cox Pavilion.
Haugen, who lives back in Auburn now, has taught Willis how to hit and may even have mentioned that it’s also important not to be hit, although that was never his specialty. He told him to avoid angry women who are bad drivers, cocaine, vodka and all the other evil things that can turn your legs to mush and show up in your urine.
And that it’s probably not a good idea to make fun of the taxi drivers in Mexican border towns when you’re fighting a Mexican legend.