Rise up swinging

Northern Cheyenne boxer Duran "Junior" Caferro takes on challenges inside the ring and out

  • Duran "Junior" Caferro and his son, Duran Poy Caferro, are reflected in the shadow boxing mirrors of the training gym in Helena, Montana.

    Lisa Kunkel/ Helena Independent Record

Name Duran "Junior" Caferro
Age 20
Hometown Helena, Mont.
Experience as a fighter 12 years
Deadliest weapon Left hook to the body
Boxing match that most influenced him The "Rumble in the Jungle": George Foreman vs. Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa, Zaire, 1974

The cigarette smoke drifting down the stairs from the Eagles Lodge bar in Helena, Mont., gives way to the smell of sweat and old shoes at the end of a long basement corridor. Through a set of double doors is a small "gym" equipped with a clutter of recycled bathroom and bedroom mirrors, a row of duct-taped boxing bags, and three padded ropes strung between the walls in a cramped imitation of a boxing ring. A tattered handwritten sign hangs above it: Your next opponent is training harder than you.

This is the room where amateur boxer Duran "Junior" Caferro, a Northern Cheyenne Indian, has trained for eight national championships, including four top finishes at the World Ringside Tournament and one Junior Golden Gloves title belt. Here, on a cold March afternoon, he and his girlfriend, Chrissy Wong, play patiently with their 18-month-old son, also named Duran, and Caferro's 5-year-old niece, Alena. At a skinny 5-foot-11-inches and 132 lbs, the 20-year-old Caferro looks about as much like a fighter with 144 wins as the scrappy boxing club resembles a professional gym.

Caferro was raised by his father and boxing coach, Duran Sr., and this club has been his second home ever since he was 3 years old. As an 8-year-old — the legal minimum age for boxing — he was so small that there was only one young boxer in the state light enough to fight him. Worse than that, his father says, Caferro had no natural talent: "Trust me, he has my genes." He had to learn everything the hard way — in the ring.

In those early years, father and son would drive 24 hours at a stretch on a shoestring budget, just to find a fight and, more often than not, to lose it. But Caferro was always back in the gym on Monday afternoon. "Losing fuels my fire," he explains, watching his son toddle past with a pair of boxing gloves pulled up to his armpits. "When I'm on the mitts, I'm thinking about Michael Perez, who beat me at the Golden Gloves, and Eric Fowler, who's number one." He punctuates each name with a quick jab.

Altogether, Caferro has collected 41 losses — more than the number of matches most fighters his age have had. Yet he sent U.S. Marine Edgar Ramirez, a top-10 boxer, out of the ring on a stretcher last October. "We ran into his coach after the fight," Caferro says. He squints his eyes, relishing the memory. "He told us that after the first round, Ramirez asked him, ‘How does that skinny kid hit so hard?' "

This same desire to beat the odds drives Caferro outside the ring. After Chrissy became pregnant two and a half years ago, he dropped out of college to prepare for fatherhood. At five months old, baby Duran suffered his first febrile seizure. When a $700 ambulance bill arrived, Caferro was shocked: "That was my first experience with the broken (healthcare) system." But it wasn't his last. Caferro recently became a temporary guardian for Alena after diabetes-related healthcare costs left his sister homeless. These challenges have spurred him to start fighting outside the ring, as a spokesman for the low-income advocacy group, Working for Equality and Economic Liberation. Montana Sen. Max Baucus was among those who heard his story, and last year retold it on the Senate floor to make the case for the reauthorization of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).  

Still, Caferro says, boxing remains his greatest challenge. A number of his adversaries have already turned professional. After he competes in the USA Amateur Boxing Tournament in Denver this June, he'll decide whether to join them.

His hopes are high but justified, observers say. In the main hall of the Eagles Lodge two weeks earlier, Caferro left a talented boxer from Boise sitting on an 8-count, clutching his stomach and wondering whether he could stand up again, just one minute into the second round.

"I'm outsmarting these guys. Their punches are easier to see," Caferro shrugs, as he kneels down to pick up and comfort his crying son. "That's what I love about boxing: The underdog can be a champion."

Gabriel Furshong writes from Helena, Montana, where he works as a community organizer on environmental issues in north-central Montana.

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