Undefeated: For Red Lake boxers, a requiem in the ring

Antonio 'Pretty Tony' Varney punches the bags at his home boxing club.
Antonio "Pretty Tony" Varney punches the bags at his home boxing club in Red Lake, Minn., Nov. 11, 2017.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

Antonio Varney stands 6 feet tall, 149 pounds. He's 16, lanky, quiet. A few guys call him The Beast.

He doesn't look like one, but you wouldn't say that in the ring.

Tony has a fearsome reputation on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. He's known as Tony Boy, or Pretty Tony, or Lightning. He's won 20 fights in just a few years. He won the Midwest Silver Gloves title earlier this year with a technical knockout of his opponent in the first round.

Antonio Varney's locker in the Red Lake Nation Boxing Club
Antonio Varney's locker in the Red Lake Nation Boxing Club, in Red Lake, Minn., on Nov. 11, 2017.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

He's part of a boxing brotherhood on the reservation, young men who train intensively and fight hard. Some have big dreams — Tony hopes to fight in the 2020 Olympics. Most, though, see boxing as a means to come to terms with the past and present.

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"I can see it in their demeanor," said Mike Donnell as he readied Tony for an upcoming local bout. "I say, 'Come on, let's do some mitt work. Let's do some bag work.' When they're done, they feel better."

'Where they go to pray'

Everyone has a story.

Tony hasn't fought in seven months, not since the rope swing in his backyard snapped, and dropped him 20 feet.

"Yeah," Tony said after his drills. "It was an old fire hose we hung from a tree. It had a worn spot at the top. I was at the highest point and the next thing you know, bam, I hit the bottom."

He needed surgery to repair the internal damage. Now the rehab is over, but virtuoso boxing skills can be fleeting. And the 2020 Olympics won't wait.

"People overlook the Olympics," Tony said. "They see the money a guy like Floyd Mayweather makes, and they try to turn pro right away. I'm after the glory. The money comes regardless."

As Tony moved on to the heavy bag, Donnell retreated to his office. The gym, he explained, is sponsored by the tribe, so it's free to everyone. Most of the patrons are young guys who come by after school.

Donnell said he brought Tony here when he was 7 years old.

"He was living with us, going through some things," said Donnell, who's also Tony's uncle. "I wanted to show him boxing. Give him something to do, and man he took right to it."

Tony's family has had some struggles with addiction, Donnell added. Donnell did time, years ago, for stealing cars. Tony watched his dad go in and out of prison. He's in jail now on drug charges.

Donnell said he knew Tony would be a good boxer, right from the start.

"I see a lot of kids that are going through troubled times," he said. "They're the ones who are really focused. It's more than just boxing to them. It's like church. It's where they escape everything. It's where they go to pray."

There's a reason the sport has been dominated historically by poor and marginalized groups, he said. Irish and Italian immigrants in the early days. African-Americans climbing out of poverty. Native Americans getting in the ring, while their families still lived in tarpaper shacks.

Boxing has a long history among the Ojibwe tribes of northern Minnesota, he added.

Assistant coach Louis Jourdain knows about that.

Zack Morrison (left) and Louis Jourdain tape each other's hands.
Zack Morrison (left) and Louis Jourdain from Red Lake tape each other's hands in preparation for their boxing matches later that evening in Red Lake, Minn., on Nov. 11, 2017.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

"I'm 29 years old," he said. "I'm 35 pounds heavier than Tony. When we spar, I'll hit him once. He'll hit me three times. He's a prodigy. Sometimes he takes it easy on me. I can tell. He's that good."

Jourdain has a story, too. He's trying to rebuild his reputation on Red Lake. It was his best friend, Jeff Weise, who killed nine people at Red Lake High School 12 years ago. The authorities at one point had viewed Jourdain as a person of interest in the killings.

Now nearly 30 years old, the association still plagues him.

People don't just box because they like it, Donnell said. No one likes getting punched in the face. They box because they need it.

And Tony needs a good showing, back in the ring.

Fight night

Antonio Varney, left, watches the fights from ringside.
Antonio Varney, left, watches the fights from ringside after his own fight was canceled in Red Lake, Minn., on Nov. 11, 2017.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

Saturday night, Nov. 11. Some 300 people fill the Red Lake Humanities Center. Tony sits in the back room in a hoodie, watching other fighters warm up.

An hour earlier, he found out his opponent didn't make it in from South Dakota. Someone said he had car trouble in Fargo, N.D. Someone else said he hurt his hand. The facts are hard to nail down.

"I still wanted to fight really bad," Tony says. "It kind of sucks. I made weight too."

All he can do is keep training, and live with the uncertainty. Jourdain props him up.

"It's a little shady. His car could have actually broken down. Who knows?" he says. "All I know is Tony's a beast and a lot of people don't want to step in the ring with him."

This was fight night for Jourdain, too. His opponent, Walt Cunoyer did show, and he's a big guy.

After a few preliminary fights, it was Jourdain's turn. He pulled on some gloves and the padded headgear required in amateur fights. Tony watched from the front row. Donnell manned in the boxer's corner with a spit bucket and a towel.

Louis Jourdain, left, and Mike Donnell, right, assist Zack Morrison.
Louis Jourdain, left, and Mike Donnell, right, assist Zack Morrison from Red Lake Nation Boxing in Red Lake, Minn., on Nov. 11, 2017.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

Jourdain landed some good shots, but his opponent had great reach. Cunoyer delivered a blow to Jourdain's headgear. Sweat misted out into the lights.

Jordain said later that the punch turned his eyelid inside out, which made it hard to see.

He lost on this night, drenched with sweat, exhausted. He shakes people's hands. Tony tells him he did well. Then he drifts into a back room to cool off.

"My name was kind of tarnished, some odd years ago," Jordain said. "This is my penance. Anything that anyone feels, I deserve. If they don't like me, they get to see me get-punched up in the ring. Maybe that satisfies them."

All he wants, he said, is to be a respected member of the community. He hopes boxing will help him get there, even if he loses.