TERRE HAUTE —
When I walked in Sweatbox Gym through the alley door Wednesday, I wondered if a time machine had taken me back to the 1950s, the glory days of boxing.
It’s an old building and the inside walls desperately need a paint job. Stairs that go downstairs to the actual gym are steep and lack handrails for the first few steps. I could look down and see weightlifting equipment that reminded me of the ISU Arena “dungeon” in the late 1970s, along with some heavy bags, a stationary bike and a fairly modern treadmill.
A large American flag is displayed on the far wall near the boxing ring.
Once in the basement, I realized it was still 2011 because rap music blared in the background as I spotted my column subject — heavyweight pro boxer James Porter — in the ring.
Porter, 38, owns Sweatbox Gym. He was trading practice punches with 2011 Golden Gloves super-heavyweight state champion Ryan Jewett, perhaps Terre Haute’s top young amateur boxer, as both worked up a sweat on this hot, humid evening.
“We like to sweat down here,” Porter mentioned after he finished sparring. “We figure the hotter it is, the more calories you are going to burn.”
I think I lost five pounds from sitting around and asking questions for an hour, so I can only imagine how many calories a sparring session would burn. I eventually asked Porter if there was any air conditioning, probably my dumbest question of the night.
“If you hit the bag real hard, your handspeed will generate some wind,” he replied with a chuckle. “That’s about as much air conditioning as you’re going to get here.”
Before our interview started, I noticed Porter’s punches looked like they hurt. Yet the boxrec.com website lists his record as 5-15-2, meaning we probably won’t be seeing him on HBO anytime soon.
To be fair, Porter insists he won a fight in 2003 that doesn’t show up on his record. So he should be credited with six victories in a career that started June 19, 2001, with a four-round, unanimous-decision loss to Chris Galliher in Indianapolis.
In his early days as a pro, Porter hoped he would become good enough to be a world heavyweight champion. He also wanted to accumulate enough ring experience so he could teach boxing to youths someday, which he is doing now. His first goal was to log 20 bouts, which he has done.
But he never really caught any breaks along the way.
For example, Porter has fought in his hometown of Terre Haute only once — Feb. 15, 2003, when he knocked out Chevis Kellum in the first round inside the Zorah Shrine Temple.
“It was fun fighting in front of all my friends and family,” Porter reflected. “It’s a shame I haven’t gotten to do it more often.”
Porter said Franklin Lawrence of Indianapolis was his toughest opponent. They fought twice — Jan. 28, 2006 (a six-round unanimous decision for Lawrence) and Jan. 27, 2007 (an eight-round unanimous decision for Lawrence) — both inside Indianapolis’ Pepsi Coliseum. Their second clash was for the then-vacant NABC Great Lakes heavyweight title.
“[Promoters] asked me to fight him again because the first time was a really good fight,” Porter emphasized.
Asked about the highlight of his career, Porter said it was beating Obed Sullivan in a six-round split decision Jan. 20, 2007, inside the Ohio Expo Center in Sullivan’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Sullivan, a former world champion, entered with a 41-8-2 record.
Traveling to an opponent’s hometown is not rare for Porter. He admits that he’s known in some boxing circles as “an opponent,” meaning promoters like to put him in against up-and-coming boxers to build up their records.
But Porter does consider himself to be “an opponent.”
“No matter if I win or I lose, I forget about it and I continue on,” he stressed. “I try to be successful the next time. . . It really doesn’t matter if they call me an ‘opponent’ because I personally come there to win and do my best.”
Many of Porter’s foes entered their bouts with impressive records — such as 10-0, 12-0-1, 7-0, 15-0, 41-8-2, 11-1, 11-4-2, 12-0, 6-0 and 9-2 to mention a few.
Although he’d prefer to fight in Terre Haute, Porter does not mind hearing the reactions of hostile crowds when his name gets announced in an opponent’s hometown.
“I get booed a lot,” he acknowledged. “The louder, the better. It doesn’t hurt my feelings. Almost every time, I get booed. But by the end of the contest, everyone’s cheering for me because I can be game and I can take shots. I can make it real competitive, even when I don’t win.”
Porter described how he convinced Indianapolis promoter Fred Berns to let him fight for the first time without any amateur background in 2001.
“A guy working for Fred said, ‘Let me see your stance.’ So I showed him my stance,” Porter recalled.
“Then he gave me some tickets and said if I sell these tickets, I can come fight. Basically, he gave me $300 to $400 worth of tickets and I sold them to my friends and family. Then they came and watched me fight and that’s how I got paid.”
Porter hammered his point home by telling me: “It would be like you writing sports stories and selling the paper yourself.”
Nope, that wouldn’t be fun.
But Porter did what he had to do to go pro because the alternative could have been much, much worse.
“When I was younger, I hustled,” he pointed out. “I was in the streets. Some things came about in my life that made me see this wasn’t how I wanted to go.
“At one point in time in my life, I looked at my friend and said, ‘Hey man, this might be my last summer alive.’ “
Porter then explained one of the activities he was involved in during his pre-boxing days.
“It’s on record,” he said in a serious tone. “I sold drugs when I was young. I was arrested for it in 1996. I spent seven years on probation and I spent a year on house arrest.”
Porter revealed the drug was crack cocaine. He also admitted that he frequently carried guns, engaged in street fights and “played with fire,” but he hopes the disadvantaged Terre Haute youths of today can learn from his mistakes and find legal sources of income.
Such as pro boxing, for example.
Porter said that while on house arrest, he became “extremely overweight” and realized he needed to make changes in his life.
“I started exercising at first,” he mentioned. “At the time, I was also a boxing fan. I remember watching George Foreman when he won the heavyweight title . . . so I figured, why not take a stab at it?”
Porter occasionally sparred with Terre Haute’s Terry Ray, a former world cruiserweight champion, in the early 2000s. That was his first experience with serious boxing-related pain.
“He really hit me hard one day,” Porter noted.
Porter opened Sweatbox Gym after helping Bill Davis train boxers at the Terre Haute Boxing Center in the early 2000s.
“If people want to work out here, we charge ’em $3 a day,” he said. “That’s just to come in and hit the bag and mess around.”
If you want serious one-on-one personal training, talk to Porter about costs.
Porter said his wife Wende continues to support his career and business. In fact, Porter doesn’t have his own trainer, so she will often work his corner to give him water between rounds.
“I hire someone [in that city] for cuts.” he added.
Another long-distance trip awaits Porter, who’s scheduled to meet Chris Koval (24-7 with 18 knockouts) in a four-round bout Aug. 13 at Struthers, Ohio. They already fought once early in Porter’s career — Aug. 8, 2003, at Akron, Ohio — with Koval posting a third-round technical knockout.
“I got cut on the eye,” Porter recalled. “If you look at the list of my fights, you’ll see that I’ve never been knocked out. My losses were from cuts or the referees stopping the fights. I’ve only been knocked down two times.”
Porter insists he still feels good physically and has no plans of retiring soon. Like Rocky Balboa running along the streets of Philadelphia in the original movie, Porter keeps in shape by jogging outside, often along Terre Haute railroad tracks, through Deming Park or on Woodrow Wilson Middle School’s track.
“When somebody knocks me straight out a few times, I guess I’ll know I can’t fight no more,” Porter assessed, “when I can’t take shots.”
But Porter — a 1992 graduate of Terre Haute North High School, where he played tackle on the football team and wrestled — isn’t at that stage yet.
Just ask Jewett, a solid 235-pounder whom Porter has helped for almost five years.
“James has taught me basically everything,” Jewett explained. “He taught me my footspeed, my handspeed . . . everything I know about boxing.
“You wouldn’t think he’s got fast hands, but he’ll surprise the heck out of you. Handspeed-wise, he fights like he’s a welterweight. But he packs the same punch as a heavyweight. He’s got a lot of speed and power. That’s a deadly combination.”
Porter offered two reasons for why he wants to keeps boxing as long as possible — money and the competitive challenge. His paychecks usually range from $1,000 to $2,500, but the value of his adrenaline rushes at pro cards is immeasurable.
“Hearing the cheering and booing, that’s like a drug to me,” he emphasized. “I try to be extremely entertaining.
“I’ve not made a whole lot of money from boxing. But what I have done … if I were still in the streets, I would have to do a crime to make the same amounts. Now, if I need something, I can get on the phone and I can get me a fight.”
David Hughes can be reached after 4 p.m. by phone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or at (812) 231-4224; by e-mail at email@example.com; or by fax at (812) 231-4321.