Unlikely champion: Caleb Truax interview
Luke G. Williams
On Saturday Caleb Truax defends his IBF super middleweight title in a rematch against James DeGale. The Minnesotan wrested the title from the Briton last December in a major upset, after which he spoke to Luke G. Williams...
From James J. Braddock to Buster Douglas, the triumph of the underdog is one of boxing’s most enduring themes.
To the sport’s roll-call of unexpected heroes we can now add the name of Caleb Truax - a 14/1 outsider who upset IBF super middleweight champion James DeGale via majority points decision last December at the Copper Box Arena in London.
“It doesn’t feel like an upset to me,” Truax told Boxing Monthly in the immediate aftermath of his victory. “I was 100 per cent confident coming over that I could win this fight - I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think I could win.
“It also wasn’t like I beat him with a lucky punch or a dramatic knockout or anything like that. I beat the shit out of him basically for 12 rounds. So it doesn’t feel like an upset to me at all.”
The engaging and modest 34-year-old from the mid-western state of Minnesota was still feeling the effects of the tough
12-rounder the Tuesday after the fight. “I’m still a little bit sore,” he said. “But me and my trainer Tom Halstad decided to stay a couple of extra days [in London] to take in the city, have a look around. Neither of us have been to London before.
“Yesterday we walked around downtown London for a while and went to a few pubs. [The day after the fight] we watched the Manchester City vs Manchester United game in the bar, watched some NFL football and had a few pints.
“Everybody’s been great, man. The fans have been all class. When we were at the bar there were a bunch of people that wanted to take pictures and were congratulating me.”
Truax’s ascension to the status of world champion comes via a somewhat circuitous and unlikely path. Born and raised in Osseo, Minnesota — a small city of fewer than 3,000 inhabitants — he is only the third Minnesota-born boxer to win a world title and the first since Will “Steel” Grigsby’s second reign as IBF light-flyweight champion came to an end back in 2005.
Raised by a single-parent mother, Truax — who has a twin sister as well as a younger brother — describes his background as “humble beginnings, not dirt poor … but we weren’t well off by any means”.
He speaks fondly of Osseo as the sort of place “where you can leave your doors unlocked”, as well as paying tribute to the support of his family, who have lived in the area for 60 years. “My grandmother and grandfather helped out a lot with my mom in raising us, and my uncle also helped out a lot.”
A talented athlete, Truax only turned to boxing after an injury stymied his progress in American football. “I went to college to play football and ended up hurting my knee so I couldn’t play any more,” he said.
“I was looking for something to fill that void and ran across an ad for a Toughman competition in a local bar. I signed up and lost right away. I thought I was in good shape from being a football player and baseball player and from lifting weights but I learned real quick that there was a difference between being in ‘boxing shape’ and being in ‘other sports shape’.
“Even though I lost, though, I loved it and had one or two more Toughman contests and then transitioned into amateur boxing for about three years. I had close to 40 fights.”
Initially, turning professional was the furthest thing from Truax’s mind. “I never had aspirations to be a pro,” he confessed. “I was in college at the time, and I was happy with my amateur career.
“But then I got ruled ineligible to be an amateur just as I was trying to make a run to qualify for the Olympics because [I had participated] in that Toughman tournament. Man, that was a big blow. I was devastated.”
After graduating in 2006 with a degree in sociology and minors in political science and African-American studies, Truax was left with debts of $30,000 and decided that becoming a professional boxer was the best way to pay them off.
“My original and only goal was to use boxing to pay off my student loan debt. I finally did that a few months back, so that was a weight off my back, that’s for sure.”
After his debut in April 2007, Truax assembled a 19-fight unbeaten streak, with the most notable victim on his resumé being a faded Antwun Echols. His 20th fight in 2012 saw him suffer his first reverse — a 10-round points loss to former undisputed middleweight champion Jermain Taylor in a fight that Truax almost won via sensational late stoppage after flooring Taylor heavily in the ninth.
An eight-fight unbeaten streak after the Taylor defeat landed Truax a shot at then WBA middleweight champion Daniel Jacobs - with the Minnesotan being halted in the 12th and final round by the hard-hitting Brooklyn resident.
Two fights later, Truax was left contemplating retirement after being shockingly halted in just one round by Anthony Dirrell.
“I just wasn’t myself,” he says of the Dirrell bout, pointing out that he “wasn’t in a good spot mentally” after his girlfriend had suffered a stroke and had to undergo an emergency caesarean in order to give birth to their daughter. “I’d love to run it back and have another crack at [Dirrell], just to prove that wasn’t me in that fight.”
Today, Truax views the Taylor, Jacobs and Dirrell fights as vital learning experiences in shaping the fighter he now is. “Because of the experiences I collected against Danny Jacobs, Jermain Taylor and even Anthony Dirrell, there wasn’t anything DeGale was going to do that was new to me.”
Although most experts - and DeGale himself - seemed to view Truax as a mere stepping stone en route to the Londoner meeting the winner of the World Boxing Super Series in a big unification match, the underdog refused to be cowed or intimidated.
“I had to be at my best to beat him because he has a huge amateur pedigree and he was an experienced world champion — I think this was his fourth or fifth defence,” Truax said.
“My team drew up a great game plan for me and I was able to follow it pretty much to a tee. I wanted to put pressure on him and I wanted to keep him on his back foot and not give him a chance to get in front of me and box.
“I’d seen in some of his prior fights that once he gets a lead on the cards and wins a few rounds he likes to move and box. He’s difficult to find once he’s up on the cards, so I wanted to get into an early lead and push him backwards.
“Right from the bell I think I was able to make him fight the kind of fight that I wanted him to fight. The first round was kind of slow, but in the second I picked it up a bit and I had him backing up against the ropes for pretty much the whole fight from that point on.”
Crucial to the outcome of the fight was a huge fifth round for Truax, in which he badly hurt DeGale and kept him pinned against the ropes with such a relentless series of heavy blows that one judge scored the round 10-8 in his favour.
“I hit him with a real good combination,” Truax recalled. “I think it was a six-punch combination with a couple of uppercuts, a couple of body shots and some overhand rights. It hurt him real bad and I think it busted up his nose. I think that’s the point his nose was probably broken because he was bleeding pretty good.
“He took it like a champion, he showed a champion’s resolve, he didn’t go down and he stuck with it. I was surprised he didn’t go down because I think the second uppercut I hit him with was pretty vicious.
“He took it like a champ and finished the round but from that point on I knew he was hurt and he slowed down a little bit after that fifth round. It also gave me more confidence going forward to keep walking him down, keep backing him up.”
At the end of the final round, Truax fell to the canvas in delight, convinced he had done enough to earn the verdict. “It was just elation, man, elation,” he said. “I thought I’d won the fight, I thought I’d definitely done enough to win, and when that bell rang I thought: ‘I’m the new world champion.’”
Delight turned to anxiety, though, as he waited for the scorecards to be totalled. Most ringside observers made Truax a comfortable winner, and two of the judges awarded him the contest by scores of 115-112 and 116-112, although British judge Dave Parris scored a 114-114 draw.
“During the fight you’re so focused you’re not worried about [the scorecards],” Truax explained. “You’re just trying to go out there and do what you do. At least I am, anyway.
“After the fight I got a little nervous when the British judge had it even. I thought it was a wide enough fight that there was no way they could rob me. I thought it was 9-3 or 8-4 [in rounds] or something like that.
“However, when the second scorecard was 115-112, I figured there was no way that they could give him a 10-8 round so I did the math in my head real quick and figured I had won it!”
The result of the fight was joyously received back in Truax’s home state, where his anxious girlfriend had been kept updated on the progress of the contest via text messages from friends.
“My girlfriend was happy, although she doesn’t like it when I fight,” Truax said. “Everybody’s been great back home. There’s been a lot of media attention.” His sponsors, Lupulin Brewing - a Minnesota company - had a celebration party scheduled.
As for the future, Truax maintains he is ready and willing to face anyone his team puts in front of him.
“Before Saturday, becoming a world champion was never really one of my goals that I reached for,” he said. “I just wanted to fight, to just get in there and do what I want to do and train and fight and win.
“My team’ll figure out what the best route is for me. I just fight, man. As you saw here, I don’t care if I go to somebody else’s back yard or if I’m a long shot or anything. I’ll just show up and fight when my number’s called.”