When Cody Woslager prepares to box, he hunches his shoulders, lowers his head, narrows his eyes and frames his face with clenched fists. His punches have no prelude; they fly forward as if loaded by a spring and Woslager delivers them with an audible hiss. When he connects with a left hook, you can hear the thwap from across the gym. Though he is only 15 years old, like many of his fellow competitors at last weekend's Montana State Junior Olympic Boxing Tournament in Hamilton, he has boxed competitively since he was 8. He arrived at the competition with a career record of 41-38 and a chance to become a state champion.
Montana is not known for its boxing. The last time the Treasure State produced a viable professional fighter was in the late '80s, when Great Falls' Todd "Kid" Foster won his first 22 professional fights before losing a title bout to Jimmy Paul. But despite a lack of notoriety, Montana is home to a small but ardent community of youth boxing programs organized by the Montana Local Boxing Club Committee. Comprising about a dozen clubs, the MLBCC facilitates boxing shows statewide, including qualifying tournaments for regional and national competitions. The Junior Olympic championships at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds was a qualifier for April's Junior Olympic regionals in Casper, Wyo.
Youth boxing tournaments have the discordant vibe of a good carnival, where one can be humored, awed, frightened and unsettled all in one night. Last weekend, 60 boxers ranging in age (8-16) and size (65-190 pounds) all received general checkups from an on-site physician (who said he rarely sees injuries during fights) and competed in bouts that resembled various versions of what the casual fan may or may not recognize as boxing.
Nine-year-old Richard Hoops, who competes at 90 pounds for Fort Belknap's Nakota Fighting Club, came to the tournament with a 2-1 record. Like most kids his age, Hoops is shy around strangers, and before his bout he gave a lackluster interview. But as soon as the opening bell rang, Hoops lowered his head, closed his eyes and charged in a fit of churning fists. For three one-minute rounds, Hoops advanced on his back-pedaling opponent, never letting up, never slowing the windmill of his arms. His capacity for technique was clearly limited, but given his tenacity it was not hard to see his performance as a precursor to what will some day be a formidable presence in the ring. After earning an easy victory, Hoops slouched on a stool as his coaches unlaced his gloves. When asked to describe his fighting style, he shrugged and said, "It's fun."
According to Helena's H-Town Eagles coach Duran Caferro, though, it's not all about fun. He has been working with young boxers for 21 years, and while he acknowledges coaching 8-year-olds presents some challenges, the sport ultimately teaches kids the virtues of discipline. As with most MLBCC clubs, all of his boxers are required to train at the gym a minimum of three nights a week. If they get bad grades, they don't box. If they get in trouble at school, they don't box. "Boxing requires hard work, and it's not always fun," he says. "But it teaches kids about commitment, and shows them results."
Woslager is Caferro's best boxer. Woslager says he and his two brothers were raised by their mom, who encouraged them to participate in sports. "My mom always wanted me to have some male role models," he says. "[Coach Caferro] has been like a father figure to me for the past eight years."
Besides loving competition, he says boxing has taught him lessons that, even as a freshman in high school, he appreciates. "When I first got in the ring when I was 8, I won my first four bouts. Just really beat up kids. But then I lost a couple in a row," he says. "You have bad days in this sport, but you always pick your head up. There will always be better days."
Woslager made news in January when, after losing at 132 pounds, he opted to compete in a heavier weight class for another chance to medal at the Silver Gloves National Boxing Tournament in Kansas City, Mo. Outsized and overmatched, Woslager scrapped his way to a bronze.
His Junior Olympic bout against Mount Helens Boxing Club's Mathew McCarl offered another opportunity to represent Montana on a national stage. The fight was anticipated by the Hamilton crowd as a main event of the championship.
When the match began, Woslager appeared hesitant. He stayed on his heels, throwing the occasional searching punch at the advancing McCarl. But then, as if by a switch, Woslager ignited. He assaulted McCarl with three- and four-punch combinations, the connecting swings creating a concussive thud. Each of Woslager's advances seemed honed, and after the punches were landed he retreated before McCarl could return volley. By the end of the three rounds both of the boys were panting frantically, but the look in Woslager's eyes was cool and unaffected.
As the crowd waited for the judges' decision, the referee beckoned the fighters to the center of the ring and held each of them by the wrist. Woslager stared at his feet as he waited for the result.
He's now 42-38 and has a month to train before heading to Casper.