It has been some time since boxing was the country’s most popular sport and boxers were its most admired athletes. When little boys wanted to grow up to be boxers and plastered scrapbooks with images from the Ring, and their fathers spent what little throwaway cash they had to watch fights in confined, smoke-laden neighborhood arenas and vast outdoor stadiums.
Boxing in Montana has deep roots. The first reported announcement of a Montana prize fight was on August 27, 1864, when the newly established Montana Post, the first newspaper in the territory, chronicled a fight between a pair of hardy Irishmen.
Stanley Ketchel, considered by several boxing historians to be the best fighter in the history of the middleweight division, lived in Butte as a teenager. In the early 1900s, he worked as a hotel bellhop and a bouncer before participating in backroom boxing matches with local toughs. Soon, he was traveling throughout Montana, taking on all comers.
Most of the public’s knowledge of Montana boxing stems from Jack Dempsey’s fight with Tommy Gibbons. Both men faced off in the obscure boom town of Shelby, for the fifteen-round World Heavyweight Championship fight that took place on July 4, 1923.
In the 1970s, there was Marvin Camel – the half-black, half-Indian kid, who grew up on a Montana reservation and fixed electronic pinball machines – the first ever cruiserweight champion of the world.
If boxing is to ever match those glory days and golden eras in the state of Montana or even elsewhere, it will need the skill of a good promoter like Shelley Burton and the will of a journeyman fighter such as Jesse Uhde.
“I’ve loved boxing my whole life,” says Uhde, a fifth-generation Montanan whose father Scott was an amateur boxer. “Boxing is a natural love.”
“I’m still learning and catching up on the history of boxing in Montana,” says Burton, a Kalispell native who emerged from the Club Boxing ranks as the state’s best, with an amateur record of 17-0 with seven knockouts and two state championships. “I’m learning the history as I go.”
One of the recent chapters in state boxing history, Burton turned pro in 2003 and by 2006 she was 8-2-1, earning a bout with Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali. On November 11, 2006, in Madison Square Garden in New York City, Ali – the WIBF and WBC Super Middleweight champ – landed a volley of punches that ended the fight with two seconds left in the fourth round. Ali improved to a perfect 23-0; Shelley hung up the gloves shortly after.
In the summer of 2011, at the age of 35, and back in Kalispell, Burton quit her job to become a licensed promoter. She opened Burton Boxing as a place for anybody to learn the brass tacks of the ‘Sweet Science’.
Burton hopes to provide fighters such as Uhde with the opportunity to participate in sanctioned pro bouts, earn some extra money, and, if the trajectory is right, go on to greater platitudes.
“It’s hard for someone in Montana to get a debut fight,” says Burton. “You need a debut to fight on another card in another state, and we can put that type of card together here now.”
At age 34, Uhde’s professional record stands at 2-2. (He won 31 of 35 unsanctioned club bouts.) He earned his first official victory early this year when he stopped Jesus Vallejo in two rounds, in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people at the Expo Building at the Flathead County Fairgrounds.
“Vallejo had a few fights already,” says Uhde. “The win validated where I’ve been and all I’ve done. It was a nice feeling to do it in front of my hometown crowd.”
Since then, Uhde has alternated between victory and loss, learning a few valuable lessons in the process. “I found out that everybody at this level is dangerous,” says Uhde. “I felt that even though I lost my last fight that I controlled things. I got over-anxious.”
Uhde attends Flathead Valley Community College, where he is looking to obtain an Associate’s degree in Health Enhancement. Long-term, he plans to transfer to the University of Montana and eventually become a Health and Physical Education teacher. He sees boxing as an instrument of self-improvement and focus. “I love the artistry of the sport. I love the feeling of when things click and I like to be able to display what I’ve improved and learned. Boxing is my way of challenging myself. I will re-examine my boxing career when I’m 35 and I have had 10 fights behind me.”
Boxing is a sport in which a man is often humbled by forces beyond his control; it was and has remained a sport of the underdog and underclass. It is a sport which can even today take a real, indomitable human being and, if he trains and applies vociferously enough, transform him into a fairytale cliché. That path is marked by sacrifice, pain, and a punishingly relentless learning curve. That path is marked by slow, grinding steps.
Uhde hopes to stay as active as possible, rack up a few victories, and perpetually elevate his skill level. On November 9, his career juts forward when he appears on the undercard of a Shelley Burton promotion, once more taking place on his home turf. His opponent: Spokane, WA., fighter Dave Courchaine (1-2).
“This will be my third time fighting in Kalispell,” says Uhde. “It makes things a little more nerve-wracking. But getting punched in the face doesn’t bother me. I don’t even think about that. I am in it for the art of it and for the challenge of getting better. I like being a part of local Montana boxing.”