Why 'Jungle Boy' retired
Six years ago, Zach "Jungle Boy" Walters was a literal gym rat, sleeping on a mattress in Horton's Gym, cleaning the floors and bathrooms when he wasn't busy honing his tremendous boxing skills. He didn't own a car, so he pedaled his bike around ...
Six years ago, Zach "Jungle Boy" Walters was a literal gym rat, sleeping on a mattress in Horton's Gym, cleaning the floors and bathrooms when he wasn't busy honing his tremendous boxing skills. He didn't own a car, so he pedaled his bike around town when he couldn't grab rides from friends.
Now, the recently retired boxer with a household name in the Twin Ports is happily married, owns a house and drives a nice car.
Walters also is light years away from being the same fighter he was during his days as a gym rat. And that, more than anything else, directly led to his retirement two weeks ago, hours after suffering a TKO loss at Target Center.
"[He wasn't] angry anymore," said his longtime trainer Chuck Horton. "You can't fight if you don't have anger."
Every successful boxer needs a full array of skills (including strength, stamina, mental and physical toughness, a chin that can take punishment and an arsenal of powerful punches) to practice the sweet science, but they're all fueled by anger. Not a hate-filled rage, but a competitive fury that either bubbles just beneath the surface or can be switched on and off at will. That anger can be a powerful ally, focusing and propelling a fighter, but without it a boxer can be reduced to a shell of his competitive self.
Both Horton and Walters recently recognized the absence of that valuable anger.
"I saw the spark was gone a while ago," Horton said. "I think we both were in denial about it. He's content. When you're married, it's hard for some guys to be a warrior and a married man."
"How can I beat this guy without hurting him?" Walters joked about his prefight strategy.
But when Horton uttered the "R word" following Walters' last bout, both men agreed it was time to retire. Two weeks later, Walters says he'll miss going toe-to-toe with an opponent, but doesn't plan to pull a "Favre" anytime soon and jump back into the ring.
"I really feel at peace. I feel comfortable with my decision."
Now that Walters can catch his breath and doesn't have a future bout circled in red on his calendar, he can begin looking back at his remarkable rise from unknown Duluthian to the Twin Ports' own "Jungle Boy" (so-named because of the 11 years he spent living in Madagascar as the son of missionary parents).
Walters led a troubled youth that eventually led to an arrest for drug possession, but a judge gave him a second chance and Walters immediately seized it, turning his life around in dramatic fashion.
He returned to boxing and the Christian faith of his parents and became a new person. Soft-spoken and kind outside of the ring, Walters was a hard-hitting warrior inside of it.
And Twin Ports boxing fans adopted him as their own. Before "Jungle Boy" began filling local arenas, boxing was a sport most Northlanders associated only with Don King and Las Vegas title bouts. But skillful marketing from Horton and Walters helped build an impressive fan base.
Walters kept winning and the crowds kept growing, reaching a pinnacle in May 2005 when "Jungle Boy" battled Iowa's Jesse "Iron Jaw" Sanders in a battle called "The Truth in Duluth." The spectators at the DECC witnessed a bloody bout where neither fighter would yield, but Walters eventually won a unanimous decision.
"That was a bloody battle. That defines good boxing. Me and Jesse Sanders were in there beating the heck out of each other," Walters said. "It was a beautiful boxing match. We both came out looking different than when we went in there."
But Walters also left the ring with the unquestioned devotion of the 3,178 fans in attendance.
He climbed as high as a No. 12 world ranking and also won some belts along the way, including the WBC African Boxing Union title (which his ties to Madagascar put him in position to win.)
He's retired, but the foundation he and Horton built is secure. Horton's stable of professional fighters includes Andy "Kaos" Kolle and Gary "Stone Cold" Eyer, and monthly amateur crowds at Grandma's Sports Garden draw around 800 fans.
Walters won't disappear completely from the gym, he says, but his new day job is selling insurance for Great Lakes Insurance Agency.
As a professional, Walters compiled a 24-5 record, including 19 knockouts. But what he accomplished since his humble beginnings and how he impacted the sport of boxing in the Northland are immeasurable.
"I look back at boxing and smile. It's been such a good thing in my life, and it's done so much for me and I've done so much with boxing," Walters said.
"It's been such a fun ride."
For Walters' fans, it's a ride they know is ending at the right time, but one they wish lasted much longer.
Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at firstname.lastname@example.org or (218) 723-5317.