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Chris Grays: Conversations from the UndercardBy Ted Kluck
The Deltaplex is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan's, Industrial Sector. A large metal structure situated on a strip of huge, corrugated-metal structures‹places like International Tool and Die, Bandag Tire, and Grand Rapids Concrete. Places where men go to work. It's not the best venue in the city, but more important, it's not the worst.
Chris Grays is a professional boxer who tonight will fight for six rounds. His record is 3-2, and by day he works as a lumber specialist at Traverse Bay Truss in Traverse City, MI‹the most unlikely of homes for someone who makes hard money in the ring. Grays is 27.
"People don't even know I'm a pro athlete up there," he says before the fight. "They don't even know I'm around. But I'm a pretty soft-spoken guy Š I don't strut my stuff around."
Grays is slumped on a folding chair in a room no larger than a closet, in the bowels of the Deltaplex. He is flanked on either side by Bill and Robin Bustance‹the husband-and-wife pair of ex-boxers from Traverse, who serve as his trainers, managers, and surrogate parents.
Like a nervous father, Bill is up and around, pacing, while Grays sits and waits for the promoter to call his name. Tonight he fights third on the card and other men are milling about, getting dressed. There is a pro debut across the room‹his shoes, trunks, and robe all look like they were ordered last week. His handlers are posing him, taking photos. He looks scared as hell‹and I say that in only the most respectful of ways. As the door opens and closes, we get snatches of the obligatory loud hip-hop music that fills the arena and reminds us that the violence in its lyrics would soon be real. The pre-fight jitters are something you never really get used to, even if your only purpose is to sit ringside and scribble notes.
"Hell yes, I'm nervous," Bustance explains. "At the weigh-in it's all questions about training-this, preparation-that, strategyŠthat type of thing. But I won't know a thing about this other guy until we're in the ring and I make my first adjustment. All I know is that he's 7-2." He adds, "That's what makes being a pro at this level so hardŠbut it's also what makes it kind of cool and makes these fights exciting."
The other guy is "Dangerous" Ryan Davis, a white kid who appropriately hails from Granite City, IL. He mills around the dressing room in black trunks, high black white socks, a black T-shirt bearing The Punisher comic-book logo, and a visor. He looks at times like a harmless frat boy, but the truth is, he is a huge step up in competition for Grays.
"You don't get seven wins in this game by being a nobody," offers Bustance.
The prelims are under way now, and the occasional cheer can be heard through the concrete dressing-room walls. Grays has his gloves taped, and his expression has changed very little. I expect to see nerves from Grays, but he has probably seen much worse in life than Ryan Davis.
"I was in some trouble back home, but a friend told me about Bill and told me I should move up there and train with him," he said. "I get good sparring up there, surprisingly, and things are going pretty well. I'd like to keep fighting here, keep winning, and maybe get a minor title shot here in a couple of years." His work at the lumberyard keeps him occupied from 8 to 5. He trains every evening, sometimes on the weekends.
"He got baptized in the holy fire in his first two fights," said Bustance. "He didn't have any amateur experience, and we were fighting pretty advanced guys in Troy Rowland and Jamar Nolan. But I love this kid. I love his attitude."
Grays is now in the hallway working on his stance with Robin Bustance. Just a few feet away stands Davis, the opponent. They will wait here, like this, for nearly half an hour. On a bus or a subway they'd probably talk, probably be fast friends talking about training, women, and where they've fought. Here they stare at the floor, at the wallŠanywhere but at each other.
"Grays. Davis. You're up," shouts a stern-looking woman with a clipboard and one of those headset microphones.
"How do I look?" asks Robin. She grew up watching Muhammad Ali on television‹back when you could still see boxers on network television. When she met Bill he was a professional fighter at the time. She has been a part of the sport ever since.
Bill doesn't answer. She turns in my direction: "Don't print that."
Grays does a little shimmy shake for the crowd as he bounces down the aisle. They know him here and there is soul in him. He won his last three fights in this building and he is confident.
Davis makes his way into the ring in his Punisher garb. He plays the perfect out- of-town villain in the first round with just enough posturing‹letting his guard down for a few moments, throwing a little half-bolo punch‹to keep the crowd calling for his head on a platter. He is the kind of guy who's hated on the road and loved in his hometown.
Grays, meanwhile, looks the part of a pro boxer now. I saw him in his pro debut, and he was a brawler, a flailer. Now his moves have purpose and intent. But I'm still nervous for him, as Davis scores a flash knockdown in the first. Grays seems to lose balance easily, jumping back on his heels and throwing from unorthodox positions when he gets rushed or rattled.
"Touch him, Chris‹just touch him from the outside!" implores Bustance from the apron. "You're waiting, Chris, you're waiting too long!"
He goes down again in the second, this time on a clean, hard punch that rocks him to the mat. Davis walks to a neutral corner and flexes his biceps for the home crowd. They want to see him bleed but are cognizant of the fact that it won't happen tonight. He smiles. I feel a black fear in my belly for Grays.
In the fourth, Grays finds his range and begins to dictate the tempo. The crowd responds. They want to believe. In the fifth he lands solid one-two's and begins to win back the hometown crowd. A trickle of blood begins to flow from the ridge of Davis' nose, a nose that looks like it has seen more than its share of leather. Regardless of the outcome, when Davis drinks his beer and calls his girlfriend tonight, he will feel it, and he will remember Grays.
The sixth and final round seems to last forever. There is a series of vicious flurries, the last of which sends an out of balance Grays to the canvas one last time. He pounds the mat in frustration, knowing that when he goes back to the lumberyard on Monday, he will do it as a losing fighter. He will have to answer all of their questions in the negative. I feel sick for the soft-spoken guy I met just a couple of hours ago. The final bell rings with Grays on his feet.
Bill and Robin jump into the ring to throw an arm around their fighter.
On Monday, after work, Chris Grays will have a place to go. He will be in the gym again. He will be all right.
Chris Grays is a professional boxer.
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