In the dues-paying that attends any professional sports career, glamor is a no-show. Minor league bus rides. Scout teams and practice squads. Satellite tour golfers do get to play tournaments at country clubs, but often within earshot of grumbling members surrendering their tee times for a week.
Boxing’s dues are grittier still, befitting the game itself.
So it is that in his first 19 months as a pro, Spokane boxer Patrick Ferguson has criss-crossed the Northwest to fight at county fairgrounds and remote casinos. He’s been pitted against callow – sometimes hopeless – newcomers and against journeymen who have been in with the likes of Deontay Wilder, Andre Ward and James Toney. One opponent wussed out the morning of the match in a town of 843 and somehow a replacement was found, though he didn’t stay upright long. He’s sparred more rounds with a world champ than he’s spent beating down opponents.
Ten fights, 10 wins, 10 stoppages. And now he has a belt.
Yes, it’s boxing, so the eyes will roll. With all the thinly sliced weight classes and splintered governing bodies and regional distinctions, sometimes championship belts seem like participation trophies. But there still has to be a winner and a loser – most nights, anyway – and 10 days ago in Montana, Ferguson pummeled Damon Reed en route to a fourth-round TKO that filled the vacant World Boxing Council United States cruiserweight title.
“It feels like I’ve been promoted,” Ferguson said with a small laugh, “promoted to a new rank and inching my way closer to the elite fighters.”
He said promoted, not validated. The validation always comes in the ring, where Ferguson has acquitted himself splendidly ever since he stunned the amateur ranks by winning the heavyweight gold medal at the USA national championships in Spokane not quite three years ago as a virtual beginner.
What the title means is that he’s on somebody’s radar.
His trainer, Chauncy Welliver, once had one of those belts, a bauble the WBC called the Continental Americas title that he defended a bunch of times and eventually vacated – and was subsequently filled by none other than Wilder himself. It helped get him into the WBC’s top 10 until the competition caught up.
“Was I the fifth-best fighter in the world? No way,” Welliver admitted. “But I was ranked because of the Continental Americas title. It’s part of the politics you play.
“That’s the relevance of this. A lot of guys fight for a belt like this to have a piece of jewelry to wear on a poster back home. We could care less about that. This gets us in conversations for better fights. It keeps us in the WBC’s face.”
And good fighters have worn the U.S. belt – Chris Arreola, beaten by Wilder in a world title fight last year, among them.
Ferguson has 90 days to defend his new title against any American cruiserweight with a two-stars-or-better ranking on boxrec.com, the sport’s statistical watchdog. There are maybe 30 such fighters, but “realistically maybe 10 to chose from,” Welliver said, noting there will be higher-ranked boxers with no interest in the belt – and maybe others unwilling to risk their own nice records against Ferguson without financial incentives. Taking apart Reed, winner of 48 fights, with six knockdowns will do that.
Whatever happens, it’ll happen elsewhere. Welliver plans on staging a card at the Coeur d’Alene Casino – the old House of Fury lives again – but not until March.
In any case, Ferguson’s patience in the big picture sense seems in direct contrast to his urgency in bringing his fights to early conclusions.
“I see that in a lot of guys, that impatience – especially when they need to pay bills or want to live a different lifestyle,” the 26-year-old Ferguson said. “Not me. I enjoy obsessing over the small things – making small changes and seeing how that affects my plan. To me, it seems like things are going pretty fast and I feel good about my progress.
“And I feel good about the entertainment part – I usually have the loudest fights.”
But his progress was probably better measured a couple of months ago when he spent three weeks in California at the Big Bear training camp of IBF world cruiserweight champ Marat Gassiev, who’s currently in the semis of something called the World Boxing Super Series with the three other champs – WBC, WBA and WBO – to unify the title.
“It was an eye-opener,” Ferguson said, who worked 33 rounds with Gassiev, “and I saw how much work it takes to get where he is.
“But it also showed me that it’s within my grasp – this is not just something freaks of nature can do. Guys there didn’t have amazing skills. They were just constantly working on making what they had better.”
Just more dues paying. But now Patrick Ferguson has a belt as collateral.