Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

SPORTS>>Boxer reaches top of his game at 42

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Grant Walker dances around the punching bag, delivering a series of stinging jabs with the animated face of a man who surely loves what he’s doing.Pop, pop, duck, jab, duck, uppercut. He finishes off the flurry with a roundhouse right, his favorite punch, then steps away from the heavy, swaying bag.

He’s breathing heavy, but hardly sucking wind. And he’s still smiling.

Yeah, he must really love this.

“I dread these workouts like summer two-a-days in football,” says the former Morrilton high school football player. “Every time, I dread them. It’s as hard as anything. It’s grueling.

“And it gets in the way of family time, which gets me in a very bad mood. I dread the workouts all day if I’m doing them in the afternoon.”

The key word here is dread. So why in the world does the 42-year-old Cabot occupational therapist put himself through this three times a week, spar two other days and lift weights on alternate days?

To hear Walker tell it, it’s mostly about building character and learning about himself.

And winning, of course.

Walker can put a check mark by all three. He recently reached the pinnacle of his career when he won the Title Boxing national open tournament Masters championship in Memphis, earning his second consecutive crown at the event. The Masters division is for boxers over 35.

Still, it takes Walker some time to formulate an answer to the question, “Why?”

“Gosh,” he finally says. “I guess I like the idea of conquering your fears. Because boxing scares me.”

Walker is refreshingly honest discussing a sport associated with machismo and abhorrence of weakness. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s won 14 of 15 fights that he can be so disarming and modest and open, so fearless when discussing his fears.

“As a kid, it scared me more than anything,” he admits. “You’re in there against a guy that’s trying to kill you. Or, if it’s a sparring partner, they’re trying to get the best of you. It’s just going in there and conquering your fears and getting over it.

“And when it’s over, you feel like you’ve done something. Plus, it’s a great workout.”

THE SWEET SCIENCE

But it’s not all about self-denial and self-revelation. The fact is, Walker, who has been boxing seriously for nearly 20 years, loves the sport, loves the chess-match aspects of a bout, loves trying to figure out an opponent’s strategy.

“It’s wonderfully fun,” he says. “It really is a sweet science. It’s not just about power and speed, it’s about trying to outwit each other.”

Walker was 14 when his dad, an avid fan of the sport, began coaching him. But he drifted into taekwondo until he was 23, when he really got serious about boxing. He trained at Ray Rodgers gym in Little Rock, where he became acquainted with Jermain Taylor, the former world super middleweight champion. The two sparred on occasion, though that last sparring session with Taylor will be his final one with the 2000 Olympic bronze medalist, he insists.

“It was a month before the Olympics,” Walker remembers. “I hadn’t boxed in about a year, and I was coming back from knee surgery. And I got into the ring with him thinking, he’s going to the Olympics, I can tell people about this.

“He really made me look bad.”

As disheartening as it was for Walker to show so poorly — even against the likes of a future world champion — he applied the lessons the sport had taught him through the years: He got back in the ring and started working out harder.

“You can sit on your butt, or do something about it.”

Though Walker and Taylor were never close friends, never hung out together, Taylor knows Walker well enough to say hi to him on the rare occasions they run into each other. That happened recently in Memphis, and it clearly impressed Walker’s sister-in-law.

“‘You really do know him,’ she said to me. And I was, like, yeah, did you think I was just making that up?”

And he knows Taylor well enough to admit to nearly crying when Taylor lost the title to Kelly Pavlik last year.
LOOKING FOR AN OPPONENT

Walker spars at least twice a week with three Cabot buddies — John Hensley, Chad Hankins and Josh Woody — in the gym he’s set up in his garage at his spacious home in the Confederate Woods division outside of Cabot. But despite the rigors of training for a tournament, there is never any guarantee Walker will have an opponent when he arrives.

In fact, he says, it’s usually about a 50-50 proposition that the Masters division will have another boxer entered.

Walker says it is purely and simply fear that is responsible for the no-shows at events. Often, he explains, six or seven will be entered and will even actually show up for the weigh-in. Then reality hits.

“Boxing is a tough sport,” he says. “Guys train, they get there, they sign up, they come to the weigh-in. Then they see all these other big, muscular guys walking around and when it comes to fight night, they aren’t there. That happens ALL the time.”

The fear has never entirely receded for Walker, who says he had a bad case of butterflies back in June for that Title Boxing national championship bout. He confided in his brother that he was “terrified.” His brother calmly assured him that there was no way the other guy hit as hard as Grant. That was all it took to get him back on track.

TITLE BOUT

Walker won in a unanimous decision. Despite the fact that he was sure he had won the fight, there was a lingering doubt as to how the judges would see it, especially after Walker got off to a bad start in the event.

Walker is slim-wasted, stocky and chiseled, but at 186 pounds, he was no match size-wise for his opponent, and his bigger foe landed a big punch in the first round, a punch Walker admits stung him pretty good.

“I knew I needed to stay away from him,” he says. “I was faster than him and I needed to out-quick him and I did that. After that, I decided to box him and not get in there and brawl with him.”

Despite being a hard puncher, Walker says quickness and speed are his strengths. And, after 19 years in the ring, experience.

Walker says a lot of novice boxers will let their fear turn them into freewheeling, out-of-control swingers who try to overpower their foes. Though Walker says such brawlers can be a little scary and unpredictable, they can usually be beaten with a little patience and presence of mind.

Walker says his only defeat — way back in 1991 — was the result of just such inexperience and recklessness ... his own.

“I thought that kid was the worst fighter I’ve ever fought,” he says with a laugh. “But all it takes was one punch and I wasn’t very good back then. I was winning the fight decisively, but he was playing defense, letting me wear myself out. And then he hit me with a left in the jaw.”

The next thing Walker remembers is coming to in the locker room, asking his girlfriend if he’d won the fight.

“She said, ‘No, baby, you didn’t,’” Walker says. “I don’t remember any of it before that. I learned something from that. I learned, don’t go crazy out there, don’t be out there sucking wind. Because if you do something stupid, you’re going to wake up in the locker room.”

FACING THE FEAR

Walker says he’s only been hurt a couple of times over the years, both on liver punches — one by Jermain Taylor and another by a guy who boxed in the Army.

“Early in my career, (the Army boxer) hit me with a left hook to the liver,” he remembers. “I went down and laid there for a good minute.

“Have you ever been hit in the liver before?” Walker asks, wincing from the memory. “It takes your breath away; it paralyzes your diaphragm. It’s just painful.”

But it didn’t scare Walker off. One of those reasons he got into the sport to begin with carried him past any lingering apprehension.

“I wanted to get back and face that fear again,” he says. “I’m a good guy, but I’ve got a lot of pride. I told myself, that’s the last time that’s going to happen. It wasn’t the last time, but after a few more times, it didn’t happen any more.”

With the national Masters title under his belt, Walker figures he’s ready to cut back on competitive boxing. That will allow him to spend more time with 10-year-old daughter Miranda and 8-year-old son Carson. Walker is hardly ready to give up his workouts; they’ll just probably become a bit more relaxed, he says.

“I’m obviously not going to turn pro at 42,” he says. “And any amateur boxer’s goal is to win a national championship. As far as the very intense pre-fight training I’d do six weeks before a tournament, I’m not going to do that as much.

“If I had lost (in Memphis), I’d probably still be doing it.”