By Lyle Fitzsimmons
The Box Nation announcers didn’t know. The fans at Copper Box Arena didn’t know.
And James DeGale most certainly didn’t know.
But Caleb Truax knew.
The rugged Minnesotan dropped to his knees as the bell ended his 12-rounder with the IBF super middleweight champion last December, and he did so again a few minutes later -- when a regime-changing majority decision broke the seal on 34-year-old emotional floodgates.
“The feeling of being a world champion is like the crowning achievement for every fighter. I can’t even describe it. Pure joy,” he said. “I knew in my heart that I won the fight. They got it right, obviously, and I dropped to my knees. I was always kind of a guy that if a fighter would cry after they won a fight, I was kind of like giving them sh*t about it. I was like, ‘Come on, man.’
“But I couldn’t help it. I got back to the locker room and was crying like a little girl.”
A stoppage loser in two of his previous five fights – against title-level commodities Daniel Jacobs (TKO 12) and Anthony Dirrell (TKO 1) – Truax headed to London as a double-digit underdog to an ambitious champion who was already eyeing unifications and paydays in 2018.
It was exactly the sort of disrespect that fueled an unheralded challenger’s fire.
“I had some friends that were sending me videos of DeGale himself completely dismissing me and talking about who he was going to fight next and blah, blah, blah,” he said.
“The critics and everybody else, that doesn’t really motivate me, but when it’s the other fighter who I’m supposed to be fighting that’s doing it, that was what motivated me. And it wasn’t like it was regular trash talk – trash talk is fine, it’s part of the sport. But when I’m sitting at a press conference next to the guy that I’m going to fight in two days and he’s not even talking about me and his promoter’s not talking about me but who he’s going to fight next, I was kind of taken aback. I was like, ‘Bro, you’ve got to fight me in two days, why you talking about other people?’ That was really motivating to me.”
Later this week, he’ll see if he can maintain the incentive in a reversed role.
Champion Truax will meet challenger DeGale in a title rematch on Saturday night – this time at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas – in the first of two fights on a dual-championship card.
IBO/WBA kingpin Erislandy Lara and IBF claimant Jarrett Hurd will unify their shares of the 154-pound division in the other bout on the show, which airs live on Showtime at 10 p.m. ET.
And Truax, though he won 21 of 36 rounds across three scorecards the first time, is again fighting a recognition battle against an ex-champ still pegged a 5-to-1 to 12-to-1 favorite.
“I didn’t get the respect that I deserved the first time around and it may have been warranted that the odds were so big and people thought I was kind of like a steppingstone,” said Truax, who’d never beaten a top-10 fighter at 160 or 168 pounds. “But why am I a 6-to-1 underdog (this time)? I beat him up.
“And it wasn’t like a fluke KO where he was winning the fight and I hit him with one punch and knocked him out. I beat him up pretty good for 12 rounds and I’m still a big underdog and (they say) it was a fluke last time and he was hurt and blah, blah, blah, blah. I’m more motivated now to prove that it wasn’t a fluke the first time. So he’s in trouble.”
If you say you saw it all coming, take a bow for forecasting Boxing Scene’s 2017 upset of the year.
But even Truax himself is likely to say you’re full of… yourself.
The 11-year pro was near the end of his personal rope just two years ago, when his pregnant girlfriend, Michelle, suffered bleeding on the brain during the labor that yielded the couple’s daughter, Gia.
To make matters worse, the chaos came just day before Truax was to climb into an Atlantic City ring to meet Anthony Dirrell – just two fights removed from his own run as the WBC’s 168-pound champ.
A frazzled Truax didn’t last two minutes, and the one-sided result initially felt permanent.
“I was in a tough spot,” he said.
“(Bleeding on the brain is) the injury the boxers die from. Before that fight I was so nervous and thinking, ‘What if that happens to me? I won’t be able to take care of my kid. I won’t be able to take care of my girlfriend. So I just wasn’t in the right spot mentally. Then the fight happened and it transpired the way it did. Afterward, I was just like, ‘Man, I don’t think I could ever go into a ring again if that’s what I’m feeling before a fight. I was a nervous wreck.
“I told my coach, ‘If I ever feel like that again going into a fight, I’m done. I’m retiring. Thankfully, I took some time off. I took two months off. Didn’t even watch boxing, didn’t talk boxing, didn’t go to the gym. Just kind of recharged my batteries and started to get the fire back and went back to the gym and just got back on the grind. And a year-and-a-half later won a world title.”
Both mother and child are fine, by the way.
And post-Dirrell stoppages of Zachariah Kelley (KO 2) and KeAndrae Leatherwood (TKO 10) got Truax back in the mix as the IBF’s No. 15 contender. As such, he made the radar of the once-beaten DeGale, who’d defeated challengers Lucian Bute (UD 12) and Rogelio Medina (UD 12) and was coming off a unification draw with Badou Jack in which both men were dropped.
DeGale and promoter Frank Warren spent the run-up discussing dates with World Boxing Super Series competitors and other lucrative options, while Truax – who’s maintained an outside part-time job for much of his ring career – took the time to dissect the ex-Olympic champion’s vulnerabilities.
And by the time he got to London, he felt like a favorite playing with house money.
“I was really, really confident,” he said. “I was confident that I could beat him based on the styles alone because I had seen a couple of his fights in the past and knew that he didn’t really like pressure, and that’s the kind of fighter I like to be. I was confident technique-wise and style-wise, but I also was kind of resigned to the fact that I never was going to get another opportunity to fight for a title.
“That was OK. It was what it was, I still loved boxing and I was going to do it as long as I could support my family doing it. I approached it like it was my last shot. I wanted to leave everything in that ring and not cut any corners and just go after it with all my heart. And that’s what I did.”
Truax spent a few rounds assessing DeGale’s rhythm and laying groundwork for a battle that would largely be spent along the ropes. He wobbled and bloodied the champion with a violent barrage in the fifth round and rarely allowed his foe the time or distance to use what he concedes is a vast skill set.
The UK announce team recognized Truax’s mettle, too, dubbing him a “real Cinderella man.”
The man himself, though, was quick to label it just another day at the office.
“I guess it’s kind of how I’ve approached life in general,” he said. “I come from pretty humble beginnings and have always had to work my ass off to get what I wanted. Even though I had lost a couple times, I still loved boxing. I still enjoyed the process every day, so I wanted to keep on continuing with my career and I knew if I wanted to do that I had to make improvements, had to make adjustments, do things a little different. So I just kept on grinding and grinding and finally broke through.
“It was a process. But thankfully it all led up to that night in December.”
A joyful Truax threw up his hands with 20 seconds remaining, then briefly sweated the result when the initial card had it all even at 114-114. The final two were 115-112 and 116-112 in his favor, though, and steps toward a return bout were taken not long after the winner left the locker room.
He got back to work within two weeks and admitted – though his 6-foot frame and 75-inch reach haven’t changed – he does feel the clichéd mental jolt fighters get when they become champions.
“Mentally and confidence-wise I’m at the top of my game, that’s for sure,” he said.
“My manager always stressed once somebody becomes a champion they become 25 percent better just because they’re a champion. I think it’s true. You know that you’re the top dog and you know that people are gunning for you, so you have to stay on point, you have to work that much harder if you want to keep what you’ve earned. I think it really gives you an edge.
“Me being an underdog and hearing everybody talk about how it was a fluke is probably a blessing in disguise because it really did motivate me. It kicked me up a notch to shut everybody up and to shut DeGale up and just go out there and beat him even more convincingly this time.
“Even though it makes me mad, it’s probably a good thing.”
And come fight night this weekend, the more it looks like the first around, the better.
“It needs to look similar. Where he’s backing up he doesn’t have any space an I’m just putting pressure on him. That’s going to be my goal, to go out there and make him work and turn it into a dogfight again instead of a boxing match. He can box. He’s a tricky clever boxer and I just want to back him up and put that same pressure on him. It’s like walking downhill.
“When a pressure fighter gets rolling it’s tough to stop him. If the guy that you’re fighting against is kind of allowing you to do what you want to do, it’s a good spot to be in.
“Run to the sports book and get a bet in if you can get one.”
Still, if you’re expecting the spoils of a title reign – particular if it goes past Saturday – to fundamentally change Truax’s workmanlike M.O. going forward, he’s got some simple (read: tongue in cheek) advice:
Well… at least not yet.
“You might have to ask me after a couple successful title defenses,” he said, with a chuckle.
“I still ain’t got paid like a champion. Maybe after this fight or after the next couple title defenses you can ask me that. Right now nothing’s really changed. I haven’t got paid like champ yet.
“We won’t have to worry about me counting my money too much to train.”
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBF/IBO/WBA junior middleweight/super welterweight titles – Las Vegas, Nevada
Jarrett Hurd (IBF champ/No. 3 IWBR) vs. Erislandy Lara (IBO/WBA champ/No. 1 IWBR)
Hurd (21-0, 15 KO): Second title defense; Second fight in Las Vegas (1-0, 1 KO)
Lara (25-2-2, 14 KO): Fifth IBO title defense; Eleventh fight in Las Vegas (7-1-2, 3 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Tough call. Hurd is young and hungry to make a statement. Lara has made a career of bamboozling guys who pursue him. Can’t believe the youngster does it, until he does. Lara by decision
IBF super middleweight title – Las Vegas, Nevada
Caleb Truax (champion/No. 6 IWBR) vs. James DeGale (No. 8 IBF/No. 7 IWBR)
Truax (29-3-2, 18 KO): First title defense; First fight in Las Vegas
DeGale (23-2-1, 14 KO): Sixth title fight (3-1-1); Lost to Truax (MD 12) in December
Fitzbitz says: Another tough one. DeGale seems to be the more skillful guy, but Truax went to his backyard and handled him – and seems driven to repeat the feat. Call it Upset 2.0. Truax in 10
Last week's picks: 2-0 (WIN: Joshua, Burnett)
2018 picks record: 26-8 (76.4 percent)
Overall picks record: 947-312 (75.3 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.