Third Man in the Ring: A Life of Russ Hansen

30 Dec

By Brian D’Ambrosio


Firm, loud and concise verbal commands come from the third man in the ring. The action peppered with strident oral cues and succinct commands such as, “Time!”, “Break!”, “Stop Punching!” In the boxing ring, snappy orders address all situations. Indeed, boxers shuffle and jab to their own code.

Russ Hansen maintains order through communicating the necessary language. In a sport always on the verge of something chaotic – the true theatre of the unexpected – the referee anchors the fine line between stability and anarchy.

“My job is to make sure that the fighters keep it clean and to always think about the fighters’ safety,” says Russ Hansen, the face of the Montana boxing official for decades. “No head butts, no low blows, to talk them out of the clenches. I work the fight and do what’s right. I’m the only one who can look into the fighter’s eyes, and that’s some responsibility.”

To watch Hansen operate is to watch a professional move in a direction opposite to that of the boxers. His movements in the ring are neutral, comfortable and calm. He always strives for the right distance between himself and the two boxers, staying on his toes and using pivot steps. Good position is Hansen’s forte; he knows that a fight can end in a single second and one undefended punch can separate a mere knockout from something far more devastating.


“Nobody else is that close to the fighters. I’m very cautious to make sure that a fighter can defend himself and that the hands are up. I tell the fighters beforehand, ‘You stumble on me and it is over’. I’ll stop it without a doubt.”
In his late 60s, Hansen’s strong stance and quick movement reflect the peak conditioning of a spry man half his age.

“My workout is (walking) about 8 miles a day and on the weekends I try to do about 12,” says Hansen, who also works approximately 100 games a year in other sports, including college basketball and high school football. “In a week I do about 56 miles. I’m committed to it. You’ve got to keep moving. I like to keep moving. I work hard in the ring and do what I have to do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t at the top of my game.

Born and raised in Butte, the son of a miner, Hansen has been working the scene since he opened a boxing club shortly after returning from duty in Vietnam. He grew up around boxing clubs, boxed in the Golden Gloves and the military, and has coached and refereed statewide.

“Back in those days, if you wanted to fight, that is what Butte was all about. Think you’re tough; there was always somebody tougher on the next block. Part of the culture there, and I’ve been around fight clubs and boxing my whole life.”

Hansen handles plenty of “tough man” fights, which are much harder to govern than a professional boxing match, as most of the participants are in poor shape, get winded easily, have little or no skill, and are only in it for the novelty or viciousness.

“Tough man fights are the most difficult,” says Hansen. “Most of the guys are looking for a street fight, and there are a lot of guys who really don’t know the rules. It’s even more important that I make sure nobody gets hurt. Professional boxers are much easier.”

Hansen, who refereed a North American Heavyweight Championship fight on a boxing card in which he kept guard over 22 rounds of boxing (a 10-rounder, 8-rounder, and 4-rounder) in one night, was once invited to become a full-time professional, but he declined due to family obligations and a general disinterest in climbing the refereeing ladder.

Boxing is a powerfully primal sport pushing the parameters of civilization, a beautifully brutal combination of skill, ferocity, and aggression. Hansen has seen a few spectacular knockouts in his time, including one recently in Kalispell, in which a fighter had the lights turned off in a particularly dramatic way.

“The knockout in Kalispell wasn’t just a knockout, but a whiplash ‘bam’ sort of fall. It’s not my job to go in and move fighters, but on that particular night, I grabbed his mouthpiece until the doctor got in the ring. I didn’t want him to swallow that mouthpiece. I don’t move a fighter or sit him up, that’s not what I’m qualified for. I stop the fight when a fighter is injured, and I let the medical people take over.”


Hansen is often the authoritative figure in the increasingly popular mixed martial arts fights taking place statewide.

“MMA is the last man standing,” says Hansen. “No standing eight counts, which makes it easier to officiate. If I do ten fights in one night, 80 percent are going to be over in the first round. Tap out or verbally, they quit themselves. Fighters not protecting themselves or covering up, I step in. To me, it’s easier.”

Hansen ordinarily travels to a fight solo, leaves following the final hand-raising, and is back home in Missoula before the sun rises the next morning; whether it’s Billings or Havre, or someplace in Idaho, he endures through hellacious snowfall, dark rain, and the loneliest strips of highway.

Owner of Razor’s Edge hair salon, Hansen has decorated one of its walls with photos of familiar faces in Montana boxing. Compelled by the sport’s adrenaline and atavism, on those nights when a big fight card is pending, he can’t wait to turn off the business lights and stand in the midst of more action-packed pugilism.

“I love the combat part of it. I know I have the best seat in the house. There’s nothing like it. Somebody’s got to do it. I’m glad it’s me.”

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of ‘Reservation Champ: A Life of Marvin Camel.’ The book highlights the life of Ronan, Montana’s Marvin Camel, the first cruiserweight champion of the world. Available April 2013.


Carol Hedges: A Life of Fiery Competition

4 Dec

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Not many put in the effort to create experiences that leave others – and themselves – in awe. Far fewer believe in the power of their own capacity to turn an ordinary life into a human highlight reel. 

It is not the fear of ennui or indifference, yet something else so very insatiable that drives people like Carol Hedges. Hedges recently returned from England with a silver medal from a three day World Cup Taekwondo contest. From October 4-7, she fought at 121 pounds in a division of 10 women, between the ages 36 to 45.

Carole Hedges2

Competition was formidable: 1,650 competitors from 46 countries. At 45, Hedges was the oldest in her category and to qualify for Team USA she had to compete year-round against women of all ages, a true test of her abilities.

Hedges missed the gold medal by one point, losing to a woman from Belgium with a smart, defensive fighting style. The elusive Belgian got ahead early on points, scrambled around more like a marathoner than a martial artist, and steered clear of Hedges. (Standing kicks, punches and jump kicks are all tallied on the point scoring system. To fight for gold, fighters battled without chest protection for two rounds, three minutes in length, with a single minute of rest in between.)

 Carol Hedges

The lone point separating gold from silver was surprisingly inconsequential, for whether she’d won or lost Hedges (pictured above far left)  had already achieved her goal – and, in the process, greatness. On the flight back home, the sense of elation was so thick that it overtook Hedges. “It was an honor for a number of reasons,” says Hedges. “It was an honor to have my mom there. It was a blessing and an honor for me to be able to be there to represent the United States. It was huge for me. I’ve come back with lots of knowledge.”

For Hedges, the experience validated a long career of reddened faces, solid contact, and the deep thump-thump of steady punishment. “I’ve come full-circle in my fighting career,” says Hedges. “I started out in Taekwondo in 1992. Going to the World Cup, it’s been a lifelong process, a road of personal journey and preparation. That was my last fight.”

Thick and solid, with a sharp set of fighter’s eyes, Hedges is proof that the starting point of all achievement is desire. The Missoula native has battled as a kickboxer (3-0), and was a professional boxer for seven years (17-4), even fighting on a George Foreman undercard as part of an exhibition bout; she returned to Clinton, where she attended grade school, to open her own martial arts studio called “Spirit Tae Kwon-Do.”  At slightly more than 5 feet tall, she is a self-defined aggressive fighter, a tough gal who likes sparring and the grit of training, the taped hands, the exhaustion of pushing herself, of battling through the pain of broken bones and bruises. Yes, she will miss all these things, but she has no problem walking away from competition, to better focus on her gym, her students, and other personal goals.

“Absolutely, I’ll miss it. It’s been my life. I’m a fighter. I love it. That’s my heart. It’s who I am.”

Hedges isn’t a natural-born fighter; a series of personal problems two decades ago pushed her in that direction. She came to the realization that if there was no struggle, then there would be no progress.  Yet, it was the chance meeting with Master (Fabian) Nunez, a world champion kickboxer, in a Texas gym that galvanized the fighting sentiment. “When I first walked in there, I was nervous, meek and self-conscious. I realized fast that I liked hitting the heavy bag, liked releasing my frustrations in a positive way.”

Since then, she has compiled a long list of accomplishments, including a regional boxing championship in 2004 and a 3rd Degree Black Belt (2010). Her heart, however, is rooted in the tiny town of Clinton, Montana, and the kids in the community need her, her work ethic, and her studio; focused on the spirituality and intellectuality of the martial arts, Hedges provides a structured outlet that teaches pupils the tenets of self-discipline and  self-respect, and reverence for the sanctity of their own bodies.

As an instructor, Hedges is a good example of how change brings opportunity and that we all have big changes in our lives that are more or less second chances.  

“Taekwondo has made so many changes in my life,” says Hedges. “It has made me a strong, strong person. The journey was life-changing. I want to teach kids that they have control of their own destiny.”

Pablo Picasso once said, “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” Carol Hedges’ path has been marked not only by perseverance and learning, but a commitment to setting goals and not sacrificing tomorrow for the lethargy of today.

Any change, even a shift for the better, is always escorted by drawbacks. Change is indeed inevitable, and fresh phases and stages of life come and go for a reason. Recognizing them for their inherent truth – which Hedges has – is the key. We learn, we achieve, and we transfer our resources and counsel to others.

“I’m totally content with that part of my life – the competition part,” says Hedges. “It’s time for me to share my knowledge with my students now. It’s time to move on.”

Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana. His latest book about the life of Montana boxer Marvin Camel will be released mid-2013.

Rebirth of Montana Boxing: Sweet Science Returns to Big Sky November 9

7 Nov

By Brian D’Ambrosio

It has been some time since boxing was the country’s most popular sport and boxers were its most admired athletes. When little boys wanted to grow up to be boxers and plastered scrapbooks with images from the Ring, and their fathers spent what little throwaway cash they had to watch fights in confined, smoke-laden neighborhood arenas and vast outdoor stadiums.

Jesse Uhde exchanges blows with opponent.

Boxing in Montana has deep roots. The first reported announcement of a Montana prize fight was on August 27, 1864, when the newly established Montana Post, the first newspaper in the territory, chronicled a fight between a pair of hardy Irishmen.

Stanley Ketchel, considered by several boxing historians to be the best fighter in the history of the middleweight division, lived in Butte as a teenager. In the early 1900s, he worked as a hotel bellhop and a bouncer before participating in backroom boxing matches with local toughs. Soon, he was traveling throughout Montana, taking on all comers.

Stanley Ketchel

Most of the public’s knowledge of Montana boxing stems from Jack Dempsey’s fight with Tommy Gibbons. Both men faced off in the obscure boom town of Shelby, for the fifteen-round World Heavyweight Championship fight that took place on July 4, 1923.

In the 1970s, there was Marvin Camel – the half-black, half-Indian kid, who grew up on a Montana reservation and fixed electronic pinball machines – the first ever cruiserweight champion of the world.

If boxing is to ever match those glory days and golden eras in the state of Montana or even elsewhere, it will need the skill of a good promoter like Shelley Burton and the will of a journeyman fighter such as Jesse Uhde.

“I’ve loved boxing my whole life,” says Uhde, a fifth-generation Montanan whose father Scott was an amateur boxer. “Boxing is a natural love.”

“I’m still learning and catching up on the history of boxing in Montana,” says Burton, a Kalispell native who emerged from the Club Boxing ranks as the state’s best, with an amateur record of 17-0 with seven knockouts and two state championships. “I’m learning the history as I go.”

One of the recent chapters in state boxing history, Burton turned pro in 2003 and by 2006 she was 8-2-1, earning a bout with Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali. On November 11, 2006, in Madison Square Garden in New York City, Ali – the WIBF and WBC Super Middleweight champ – landed a volley of punches that ended the fight with two seconds left in the fourth round. Ali improved to a perfect 23-0; Shelley hung up the gloves shortly after.

Shelley Burton in action against Laila Ali.

In the summer of 2011, at the age of 35, and back in Kalispell, Burton quit her job to become a licensed promoter. She opened Burton Boxing as a place for anybody to learn the brass tacks of the ‘Sweet Science’.

Burton hopes to provide fighters such as Uhde with the opportunity to participate in sanctioned pro bouts, earn some extra money, and, if the trajectory is right, go on to greater platitudes.

“It’s hard for someone in Montana to get a debut fight,” says Burton. “You need a debut to fight on another card in another state, and we can put that type of card together here now.”

At age 34, Uhde’s professional record stands at 2-2. (He won 31 of 35 unsanctioned club bouts.) He earned his first official victory early this year when he stopped Jesus Vallejo in two rounds, in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people at the Expo Building at the Flathead County Fairgrounds.

“Vallejo had a few fights already,” says Uhde. “The win validated where I’ve been and all I’ve done. It was a nice feeling to do it in front of my hometown crowd.”

Since then, Uhde has alternated between victory and loss, learning a few valuable lessons in the process. “I found out that everybody at this level is dangerous,” says Uhde. “I felt that even though I lost my last fight that I controlled things. I got over-anxious.”

Uhde attends Flathead Valley Community College, where he is looking to obtain an Associate’s degree in Health Enhancement. Long-term, he plans to transfer to the University of Montana and eventually become a Health and Physical Education teacher. He sees boxing as an instrument of self-improvement and focus. “I love the artistry of the sport. I love the feeling of when things click and I like to be able to display what I’ve improved and learned. Boxing is my way of challenging myself. I will re-examine my boxing career when I’m 35 and I have had 10 fights behind me.”

Boxing is a sport in which a man is often humbled by forces beyond his control; it was and has remained a sport of the underdog and underclass. It is a sport which can even today take a real, indomitable human being and, if he trains and applies vociferously enough, transform him into a fairytale cliché. That path is marked by sacrifice, pain, and a punishingly relentless learning curve. That path is marked by slow, grinding steps.

Uhde hopes to stay as active as possible, rack up a few victories, and perpetually elevate his skill level. On November 9, his career juts forward when he appears on the undercard of a Shelley Burton promotion, once more taking place on his home turf. His opponent: Spokane, WA., fighter Dave Courchaine (1-2).

Jesse Uhde fights on Shelley Burton’s fight card November 9 in Kalispell, Montana.

“This will be my third time fighting in Kalispell,” says Uhde. “It makes things a little more nerve-wracking. But getting punched in the face doesn’t bother me. I don’t even think about that. I am in it for the art of it and for the challenge of getting better. I like being a part of local Montana boxing.”

Adam Axelson: Missoula Fighter Sets Out On Boxing’s Boulevard of Rugged Dreams

23 Oct

By Brian D’Ambrosio

At 24, Adam Axelson feels as if he is in the prime of his life. On the outside, he looks solidly conditioned at 185 pounds, his body his instrument, no more muscle than needed, no less either. His is an anatomy of function. He trains his body to do what he asks, and it performs properly when expected.

He has kickboxed professionally and trained and competed in the mixed martial arts, yet it is the sport of boxing that he finds most alluring, even addicting. The sounds of leather slapping leather. Bell, dings, grunts, and gongs.

“Boxing is in my blood,” says Axelson, a Butte native, who calls Missoula home.

Axelson began boxing in high school, at approximately 16-years-old. Few places outside of Butte have the heritage or character to produce a Montana fighter; it is a city where you expect the desperation of street-toughs with nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up.

“Butte has that reputation of the rough and tumble town,” says Axelson. “But I was raised in the nice area of Butte, and that’s not really an oxymoron. I played golf and snowboarded – those are kind of my sports. But I started to get hungry and started to really want something. I got into a couple of altercations in school, and I wanted to learn how to fight.”

At the time, there was not a single amateur boxing gym in Butte, so Axelson had to drive to Anaconda five days a week to train with boxing instructor Chris Eamon. “That’s what I did from my sophomore to senior years. Around then, they started to open up a few amateur clubs in Butte.”

Axelson was selected as “Best Senior Male Boxer” for 2008 for the Montana Local Boxing Committee of USA Boxing. Subsequently, Axelson, a light heavyweight, said he was also recognized the “Second-Best Pound-for-Pound Male Boxer” in Montana. At 19, he went to the USA National Amateur tournament, utilizing, and competing at, the US Olympic facilities. “I had one good fight against a phenomenal athlete, and he outclassed me pretty significantly. I got my butt beat pretty bad. It was so amazing to compete with athletes of that caliber.”

On July 14, 2012, Axelson boxed his first opponent in Browning, Montana, against John Jay Mount, under what he calls a “very weird set of circumstances.” That card featured Joe “The Boss” Hipp, who returned to the boxing ring in his hometown for the first time in seven years, winning in the fifth round with a TKO against Harry Funmaker. His first fight since 2005, Hipp – the first Native American to compete for a world heavyweight boxing championship – bumped his lifetime record to 44-7 with 30 knockouts.

“(Promoter) Shelley Burton called me on a Saturday morning,” says Axelson. “She starts asking me how much I weighed and if I was ready to go. I took the fight on six hours’ notice. I drove up to Browning, just me and my son, and had a great four-round fight. It was a great unofficial pro fight. John Jay Mount is a real technician in the ring and I have a lot of respect for him. I beat him up pretty bad, opening up cuts all over his face. His eyes were swollen shut. He is a warrior, who kept on coming.”

Bruised, fatigued, and elated, Axelson drove back to Missoula that night with the fresh memory of having his hand raised in victory.

In Axelson’s second fight, he lost a four-round decision to friend and fellow Montanan Leo Bercier. Bercier, a rugged journeyman and Great Falls native, with an overall 8-18-1 record, outpointed Axelson at a bout held during Evel Knievel Days. “Leo is a really good friend, we spar together. But they were willing to pay us and we gave them the best show they could ask for. We were not trying to kill one another. It was a great fight. He came out a little ahead.”

Since the loss to Bercier, Axelson has worked hard to isolate himself, to gather his thoughts, and to regroup emotionally. It was back to sweating, toiling, laboring. It was back to staring at the bare ceiling when doing sit-ups, to laying flat on the cold exercise mat, to hitting the pavement before sunrise for a run, and listening to the squeaky sound of the slippery, freshly mopped gym floor.

Sacrifices have payoffs, and for Axelson, who credits Missoula trainer Matthew Powers with helping him “grow as a fighter,” that payoff comes November 9 in Kalispell, when he makes his pro debut against Joe Broken Rope (2-4-1) of Billings. (Axelson’s two previous fights technically do not count, for they weren’t officially sanctioned by legitimate boxing organizations.)

“He’s slick,” says Axelson as Broken Rope. “He’s been around for a while, and he knows what he’s doing.”

Win, lose, or draw, Axelson intends to fight hard. How far does Axelson hope to advance in boxing’s dangerous world of shiny trunks, body shots and refereed violence?

“At this point, I have a 15-month-old son, I’m getting married, graduating from college, and working on a side business. I’m trying to balance boxing together with all my other priorities. I love boxing. Like I said, it gets in your blood, and you want to remain close to it.”

For more information about the Friday Night Fights card on November 9 in Kalispell, which includes a bout with top ranking WBO heavyweight Chauncy Welliver, visit

Montana Boxing Legend Marvin Camel: First Cruiserweight Champion of The World

18 Oct

By Brian D’Ambrosio 
WBC Cruiserweight Title Bout

Marvin Camel started off the bout, picking up where he left off in their first encounter – a brutally unfair draw on his opponent’s home territory of Yugoslavia. He flicked out a stiff right jab and scored hard body shots. Mate Parlov retreated and lost the first pair of rounds. After a sluggish, indecisive third round, Parlov stepped up the aggression in the next three, countering effectively.

In the sixth, Parlov cut Camel’s left cheek near the sideburn. Despite the chants and flag-waving of a small contingent of his countrymen, Parlov could not sustain his advantage. After an even seventh, the rest was controlled by Camel except for the fifteenth when an ugly gash below Camel’s eyebrow caused him to lose that round.

Pleasing to the Las Vegas crowd crammed with many of his home state Montana fans, Camel re-established his right jab in the eighth round and dictated the rest of the fight with his most dependable asset. As the fight progressed, Camel discovered that he could deliver this punch to its target from a crouch, and that Parlov could not counter effectively when Camel was in this stance.

Camel continued to move forward in the tenth round. After scoring with punches, he would pause to back off. The fight seemed to be reversing this cat and mouse trend again in the eleventh as Parlov split Camel’s wound again and targeted his swelling right eye.

The fight’s ebb-and-flow style reversed in round twelve; after Camel won that round by a narrow margin he lit into Parlov with his heaviest punching and scoring in the thirteenth and fourteenth. Parlov sustained a nasty gash over the right eye in the thirteenth. A smattering of left hooks to the head and a wicked left to the midsection were scored by Camel before referee Ferd Hernandez directed the Yugoslav into a corner to have Dr. Donald Romeo to examine the damage. From the fight’s continuance, Camel dominated right through the final bell.

Camel scored the best punch of the fight in the fourteenth, a right hook which landed squarely on Parlov’s face, staggering him into the ropes. With his backpedaling opponent imbalanced and dazed, Camel went in for the kill, pursuing his prey with wild arm and body punches. Parlov somehow retrenched and survived out the round.

The last minute of the final round saw Camel incur a wicked cut directly beneath his right eyebrow. Bleeding profusely, Camel’s face looked bad enough to force the referee to consult the ring physician. Romeo gave Camel a cursory inspection and raised no objections. Parlov tried in vain to stay aggressive. Lacking knockout power and the explosive arsenal of a knockout artist, Parlov couldn’t take advantage of Camel’s bad cut. Camel bided his time and nursed his wound until the final bell.

The conclusion of the fight that would crown the first cruiserweight champion of the world ended without controversy – this time. Mexican judge Jose Guerra scored the bout 148-141; Judge Angelo Toletti of Italy had it 149-141; and Judge Harold Buck of Las Vegas marked his card 144-141 – all in Camel’s favor. 

Ronan, Montana’s Marvin Camel was now the first Cruiserweight  – and Native American – champion of the world.

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of Reservation Champ: A Life of Marvin Camel, due out April 2013.

Desert Horse: A Life of Marvin Camel

18 Oct

By Brian D’Ambrosio

One of the most colorful boxers to arrive in the heavier weight classes in recent times, “Indian” Marvin arrived for his fights in full Indian regalia right down to an impressively long headdress. Just as impressive had been his list of victims, which at one point numbered 36 in 40 fights, including 16 KO’s. When he retired in 1990, Camel’s record was 45-13-4.

Camel, 60, has a legacy which includes the distinction of being the first Native American world-boxing champion, the first Montanan to win a world boxing title, and the first cruiserweight champion ever.

Camel Cruises to Championship

Camel took the newly created cruiserweight title on March 31, 1980 from Mate Parlov in 15 rounds, the same night Larry Holmes stopped LeRoy Jones in a heavyweight title defense. The title was a long time coming for Camel who had fought the former Olympic Champion Parlov to a draw in the Yugoslavian’s home country earlier in December. The cruiserweight division was created for fighters considered too heavy to compete in the light-heavyweight division but not big enough to face the 200-pound plus heavyweights.

With a small trickle of blood oozing from the cut above his right eye, newly crowned World Boxing Council cruiserweight champion Marvin Camel perfected a strategy he discovered in his previous fight with Parlov. “When I fought Parlov in Yugoslavia, I went into a crouch in the seventh round and found he couldn’t hit down,” said Camel.

Camel waited until the 11th round to go into the crouch but when he did, he was able to labor Parlov at will and went on to win a unanimous decision, with all three judges putting him ahead by margins ranging from three to nine points.

Robbed in Billings

He lost the IBF title to Detroit’s Lee Roy Murphy October 6, 1984, in Billings. Camel protested the outcome of the fight, which was stopped by referee Dan Jancic before the 15th round. Jancic would not allow Camel to continue because he had cuts over both eyes. But ring doctor H.D. Cabrira said Camel could have fought the last round. Two of the judges had Camel ahead by four points entering the final round while the third official had him up three. A Billings-based group called Concerned Montanans for Marvin Camel initiated a write-in protest.

“Montana finally had a legitimate champion,” says Camel. “And the title was then taken away like a thief in the night.”

Camel is still troubled by controversial decisions that had gone against him and the managers and promoters who, he says, ripped him off, and cynical about those former supporters who jumped off the Marvin Camel bandwagon at the first sign of trouble. Camel had been on a rollercoaster throughout his 25 years in boxing, but in spite of all the regrets, he says, that given the choice, he would do it all again.

 “I still have the brains and can talk to friends. I know of some former boxers who can’t hold a conversation for more than two minutes, who can’t speak at all. As far as the money goes, financially, I’ve got nothing left from boxing. I had two world titles, but not the money to go with it. But I do have my respect and my memories – and those are things I can be proud of.

“I’ve enjoyed my life and seen a lot of the world most people never see. If I had it to do again, I would still be a boxer.”

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of Desert Horse: A Life of Marvin Camel, Riverbend Publishing, due out 2013.