LaBree has vitality to spare while training boxing headlinerRICK LUBBERS: Mike LaBree is 53, but he possesses the fighter’s soul of a 33-year-old. That youthful vitality comes in handy whenever he steps inside the ring to spar with 26-year-old Al “The Haitian Temptation” Sands — especially whenever Sands lands jackhammer blows that have broken many of his peers.
By: Rick Lubbers, Duluth News Tribune
Mike LaBree is 53, but he possesses the fighter’s soul of a 33-year-old.
That youthful vitality comes in handy whenever he steps inside the ring to spar with 26-year-old Al “The Haitian Temptation” Sands — especially whenever Sands lands jackhammer blows that have broken many of his peers.
“Al’s got power like I haven’t seen in a long time,” LaBree said moments after trading punches with Sands recently at Duluth’s Jungle Boy Boxing Gym. “I haven’t felt power like that in 15 years. Al just brings it.”
Sands plans to unleash that brute force Saturday night as the headliner for “The Cold War” professional boxing card at Black Bear Casino Resort. LaBree and other sparring partners have been working out with Sands under the watchful eyes of manager-trainer Zach “Jungle Boy” Walters and trainer Chuck Horton.
Ranked No. 8 in the United States, according to the latest BoxRec.com’s cruiserweight ratings, Sands (11-1, 11 KOs) will battle Henry Namauu (10-7, 5 KOs) of Las Vegas in a scheduled eight-round bout. Sands has won his last nine fights, all by knockout.
So, a 53-year-old trading punches with someone half his age might seem like a mismatch that not even Don King could promote, but “Mean” Mike LaBree tows a lifetime of high-level kickboxing experience along with him during the hour-and-a-half drive from Cable to Duluth that he makes a couple of times a week.
A third-grade karate class propelled the Roscoe, Ill., native into his testosterone-laced occupation. Following a stint in the Navy, LaBree fought in Toughman contests and took up kickboxing. By 1988, he was a national champion.
“After that I went pro and just kept winning every title there was,” he said. “I fought in Brazil, England, Russia. I fought eight times at the Taj Mahal for Donald Trump. I fought at the Mirage Hotel.”
LaBree retired from kickboxing when he was 34, but he’s unretired more times than Brett Favre. He has a bout slated for March 1 in Beloit, Wis., but LaBree insists that he doesn’t need to fight before large crowds anymore. He’s content to train and exchange haymakers with Sands, as he has for nearly three years —without all that kicking, of course.
“Al is sparring, but I’m fighting. This is my fight,” said LaBree, who trains nearly three hours a day to stay in peak condition. “I’m just trying to stay in the gym.”
And that’s just where Sands wants him.
“It’s really good to have this level of competition right here in my gym,” Sands said. “These guys travel a long ways to help me out with my fights. It’s really cool to have guys this dedicated to the sport to work with.”
If boxing is the sweet science, then sparring is its laboratory. Fundamentals are put under a microscope, fighters are tested, and trainers hope the lessons they teach within that petri dish can be replicated when the bell sounds.
“It’s to execute skills we’ve been working on that will be winning strategies for the fight,” Walters said. “You take the strategy for the fight and implement it in sparring. The better you do in the gym, the better you’ll do in the fight.”
Which is why Sands recently went through 10 rounds of sparring, switching his partners every few rounds.
“It’s really taken my training to the next level for this main event fight,” Sands said.
When LaBree tapped out, Brett Murphy, 23, of St. Paul tapped in to face Sands for a few rounds. And vice versa.
Murphy’s expertise is mixed martial arts, but he trains and spars at Jungle Boy Boxing Gym once a week to increase the damage he can inflict with his fists.
“Al is going to be a better striker, a better boxer, than a lot of guys that I’m going to see in the octagon, the cage,” said Murphy, who is preparing for a heavyweight MMA match in Fargo, N.D. He was 4-0 as an amateur and is 6-2 since turning pro in December 2011. “You can’t find better athletes more true to their sport. I’m never going fight a better boxer because none of them are true boxers.”
Murphy’s just glad he won’t face Sands in the octagon.
“He’s so talented. He’s ridiculously fast and long. He makes every shot count,” Murphy said. “He’s definitely going places. He hasn’t even touched the tip of the iceberg yet. He’s still making the climb, but he’s so intelligent in the game of boxing that he should go places.”
He’ll get no argument from LaBree.
“No doubt in my mind … he is a true champion,” LaBree said. “The way he handles himself, the way he acts.”
And the way he spars.
Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at firstname.lastname@example.org or (218) 723-5317. Follow him @ricklubbersdnt on Twitter.