Lifelong fight man turns Cloquet garage into gym for boxers
In the private garage along North Cloquet Road, where heavy bags hang in the manner of bats in a cave, the camaraderie is as tangible as the aroma of pickled sweat in the air.
The fighters are packed into a gym that's around the corner from the Minnesota Highway 33 Kwik Trip in Cloquet. The two-car garage door is open to an overcast September night, and the fighters are pummeling everything in sight.
The man in the middle of it all is trainer and onetime boxer Phil Angell — who fought in the lighter weights during his 28 regional pro fights and still carriers the more weathered version of himself like a prowling athlete.
Open four years now, Angell, 49, operates an obscure gym in a sport that has settled into the margins. But his roster of local fighters from town, the nearby Fond du Lac reservation and other parts across the Northland adores him, trusts him implicitly as their "hands coach," and would never want it kept a secret. For them, the first rule of Warriors of the North boxing club is to talk about it with their friends.
"He's my best friend, man," said Oscar Arreola, 23, of Cloquet, fresh from snapping a series of sharp punches into the guts and shoulders of a bag.
Stopwatch in hand, Angell drives his fighters with fits of staccato wisdom: You're opponent doesn't want to see rounds two and three, he bellowed, if YOU go hard in round one!
There's only a minute of rest between intervals of burpees, pushups and throwing fists that pile up as the practice session wears along. The day is dubbed Torture Tuesday, and the fighters will finish by running wind sprints up the town's popular sledding hill a mile-plus jog from Angell's house.
Bags swaying and squeaking on their mounts, Angell talked about how he doesn't charge the boxers a dime — that they pay annual registration fees to USA Boxing, but nothing to him. He doesn't want their money.
"Zero-zero-zero," he rapped, mimicking the music bumping in the corner that Angell likes for the way it mirrors the tempo he wants in the gym. "Everything's all free. We're one big happy family. The one thing I ask for is respect. You gotta come in here and work hard."
The gym is filled with everyone from newcomers to the ones Angell called his "OGs" — original gangsters like Zeb Rogers, 37, of Silver Bay, who, unlike most of the others, doesn't line-up fights, but still loves throwing down.
"I don't do it for the fame or vanity," he said, peeling his heavyweight fists out of padded mitts to shake hands. "I like to do the training. I've always had an affinity for the martial arts."
Rogers added that he specifically likes that the gym is not fancy. Recently, Angell insulated and sheetrocked the walls for an extra layer of winter comfort. He noticed this summer that it can set the temps in the occupied gym soaring to 95.
"I love it," said Ben Pierre-Saint of Superior, who came to the gym to hone his stand-up fight game as a mixed martial artist. "It's nitty gritty."
Josh Hautajarvi, 38, of Duluth, repairs machines at the nearby USG plant.
"I've got a fight in three weeks," he said, a grin climbing. "As corny as it sounds, I love to train."
There's a sink in the backyard rigged for water breaks, and the trip across the grass isn't so odd anymore — given the way CrossFit has made it popular to throw your participants outside and back inside and outside again.
For many years, Angell packed his fighters into a van, and they'd travel to Barnum and work out of the C & C Northland boxing club there. While Angell said he remains friends with that outfit, it made more sense to him to park his cars in the driveway, sheet his garage floor in rubber mats and start his own gym. So that's what he did.
It's not only the generosity, but the effect of Angell's coaching that keeps the place at capacity.
"He's something else," said Chris Collins, 24, of Two Harbors, and another mixed martial artist. "He's a very talented coach. I'm always learning something. He's always teaching me and making me better."
Angell opens the gym four days a week, and also does one-on-one lessons with some of his fighters. His son, Drew, was one of the best amateur boxers in the state at one time. His other children, Matthew, the oldest, and McKenzie, the youngest, also wander into the gym every now and then. Angell's wife, Holly, is known to the group as Holy Angel for the way she feeds and coddles the fighters — salving the blows after her husband oversees their delivery.
Recently, the group marked the four-year anniversary of the gym by going camping together. They also watched pay-per-view of the epic crossover fight between boxer Floyd Mayweather and MMA challenger Conor McGregor.
"We punch each other in the face around here," Angell said, "so you better have brotherly love."