Once, he was the best lightweight boxer on the planet, one of the best fighters in Washington history. Haugen's been retired for 12 years from a sport that offers no pension plan. His greatest skill — punching people in the face — doesn't count for much in the real world.
GREG HAUGEN climbs the steps to the boxing ring, and the familiar adrenaline rush kicks in.
The ropes are stretched wide, and he climbs through gracefully. He can almost picture the celebrities and the beautiful people at ringside in their $1,500 seats.
It’s bright and hot inside the ring, the way it always is on fight night. He enjoys the comforting bounce of the blue canvas. It’s as if the ring floor is jampacked again with managers and promoters, trainers with towels draped over their shoulders, cornermen raONCE, HEising jewel-studded championship belts toward the rafters.
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The man in the suit grabs the microphone and calls out Haugen’s name in that ring-announcer style … “from Auburn, Washington: four-time world champion, Greg Howwww-gunnnnnn … “
Then the cheers from the crowd of 1,600 in the showroom at the Emerald Queen Casino fade away, and reality bites. This ain’t Caesars Palace, and 50-year-old Greg Haugen is no longer ready to rumble.
ONCE, HE was the best lightweight boxer on the planet. A tough, good-looking, cocky kid who grew up poor in a broken home and became a world champion and Hall of Famer, one of the best fighters in Washington history.
He’s been retired for 12 years from a sport that offers no pension plan, and the money he earned has been either squandered or stolen. He hasn’t had a steady paycheck since 2006 and lives at a friend’s house in Puyallup. He’s a high-school dropout. His greatest skill — punching people in the face — doesn’t count for much in the real world.
But Haugen’s still cocky.
“We haven’t had a great fighter from here since me,” he says, assessing the current state of local boxing.
Actually, cocky isn’t really the right word. Honest is better. Brutally, profanely, honest. Ask Haugen a question, you get a straight answer. It never occurs to him to give anything else, and he expects the same in return. That’s the way his mom raised him and five other kids.
He’s easy enough to recognize at the Emerald Queen’s Battle at the Boat 81, the most recent of the Tacoma casino’s regular boxing series.
He looks older, of course — it’s been nearly 25 years since he pulled off a Rocky-style upset to win the lightweight title for the first time. His hair is thinner, with flecks of gray, but he’s in good shape, still looks like an athlete. A small athlete. He’s 5 feet 6 and weighs about 145 pounds, same as when he retired. There’s no obvious damage from 53 pro fights, hundreds of amateur bouts and years of sparring in the gym — other than that classic boxer’s nose, spread flat by thousands of jabs. He moves quickly, confidently, and he’s still got that same smirky grin.
And the jacket. It’s black, satin, with “Haugen vs. Santana” stitched on the back. He’s been wearing it since he beat Miguel Santana at the Tacoma Dome. In 1988. (Just wondering, does Bruce Springsteen wear a “Tunnel of Love Tour” T-shirt when he goes to concerts?)
Fans and old friends wave to Haugen as he makes his way to his seat, and some stop to talk about the glory days. They remember the big fights, the million-dollar paydays.
They don’t ask how it felt to be laid off by the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe five years ago, losing his job teaching kids how to box. Or about his 1990s divorce and bankruptcy, or the time his ex-wife tried to run him over with her car, then pulled a gun on him. Or about failed drug tests and other scandals from a sometimes-messy but always-interesting life.
Fame — aside from his hometown-hero status — is fading, and the fortune? Long gone.
“That’s how life is,” Haugen says. “It doesn’t always go your way.”
He’s got some ideas about how to get back on track. He’s training fighters, and he’s good at it. He’d like to do color commentary on boxing telecasts. He’s talking with a former gang member gone straight about teaming up to start a boxing program in Renton for at-risk kids. There’s even a screenplay about his life making the rounds in Hollywood.
This much is clear: Whatever happens for Haugen will happen in boxing. Even though he can’t fight anymore, and even though his sport has seen better days, overtaken by its bloodthirsty cousin, mixed martial arts. Even if he is forced to exist on the fringes of boxing, and even if the odds of real success are long.
“It’s in my blood,” he says.
There’s no Plan B. Haugen has tried other jobs, and they’re not for him.
“I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire,” he says. “Maybe one of them will light up. The worst thing anyone can do is say no. I’ve heard that a lot before.”
GREG HAUGEN learned how to fight when he was 5 years old. His dad, a 5-foot-6 former Marine who had the boy’s head shaved every Saturday, signed him up for the Auburn Elks boxing team. He hoped the kid he nicknamed “Mutt” would figure out how to defend himself and stop all the damned whining about being picked on.
There were no organic, gluten-free fruit snacks for all the lil’ winners. Poor, sweaty boys in a stinky, makeshift gym inside a service station slugged each other ’til one lost the will to do it anymore. Greg never lost his will, never took a step backward.
He still hasn’t, in or out of the ring. Those fights made him tough and taught him survival skills. Good thing.
When Haugen was 10, his parents divorced; his father moved to San Diego and became a criminal defense lawyer. Haugen didn’t see him for another 10 years.
“He just vanished,” he says. “He never sent me any cards, nothing. Why would you do that? Didn’t you even want to know what I looked like?”
Haugen fought more than 300 times as an amateur, losing about 25 fights. He quit at age 15, burned out. He dropped out of Auburn High School his junior year. “I wish I hadn’t done that, but I took a job pouring concrete to help my mom out. It was a good-paying job.”
In 1980, he got the itch to box again and won the bronze medal at the Olympic Trials that year in Spokane. Then he moved to Alaska with his girlfriend, Karen, to take a $12-an-hour job hanging sheet metal. He won 24 straight Tough Man contests in an Anchorage tavern, beating up oversized but out-of-shape locals with nicknames like the Yukon Crusher. He turned pro in 1982 and got out of the sheet-metal business.
On Dec. 5, 1986, Haugen won the International Boxing Federation lightweight world championship, beating a fighter who was a 4-to-1 favorite. Two days later he married Karen. They lived in Las Vegas with their two young daughters, Jasmine and Cassandra. It was good to be Greg Haugen.
Haugen leaps out of his chair with startling quickness and agility for a 50-year-old with creaky knees, screaming at heavyweight Joey Montoya during an undercard bout at the Emerald Queen.
“Right back, right back!” he yells. “Get on him! Finish him! Let your hands go! Right back! Get on him!”
Later, when Federal Way heavyweight Vincent Thompson knocks out a flabby, overmatched opponent with body shots, Haugen moans, “That’s downright embarrassing.” Told the losing fighter came all the way from South Carolina for the beating, Haugen says, “They could have found someone in the parking lot to do that.”
Between fights, Haugen corners the show’s promoter, Brian Halquist, and tells him the heavyweight Haugen is training, Jonte Willis, is better than any of the four on tonight’s card. He’s probably right.
Halquist has known Haugen for more than 20 years and promoted a few of his fights toward the end of his career. Haugen-trained fighters have appeared on Halquist’s shows, though not as often as Haugen would like.
Halquist is close to a deal to televise his Emerald Queen fights, and Haugen and his buddy, KZOK disc jockey Gary Crow, will call the action. (Haugen, who provided commentary for Financial News Network on televised fights from the Showboat in Las Vegas during his boxing career, recently sent tapes of those performances to HBO, Showtime and ESPN. “All they can do is say no, so what the hell.”)
There’s a friendship between Haugen and Halquist, for sure — they’ve traveled together to California recently to visit girlfriends — and a level of respect. But there are issues, too. They went eight years without speaking until patching things up last June.
“He’s just so genuine,” Halquist says, laughing. “He’s the Mutt. No matter what happens, pretty soon he’s back in your house, up on the couch.”
After sharing his critique of the evening’s action with Halquist, Haugen returns to the edge of his seat at the Emerald Queen, watching the fighters intently. And it’s driving him crazy.
“This guy doesn’t even know how to throw an uppercut.”
“Look at that! All his punches are wide, nothing is straight.”
“These guys are beyond horrible.”
He’s a born trainer. There’s no doubt he can teach others to fight, if they’re willing to listen and learn. He has “a knack for training,” Halquist says. “Every fighter Greg has worked with says he’s great.”
He’s a boxing savant.
“I was on top once, maybe I can get back there as a trainer,” Haugen says. “I’m a positive person. I’ve just got to stay positive.”
Haugen knows from experience how difficult it is for fighters to make it in Washington. After spending the early years of his pro career in Alaska and Auburn, he loaded a Ryder truck and moved his family to Las Vegas in 1986 so he could get quality sparring and coaching.
Haugen worked out at places like Johnny Tocco’s Ringside Gym, a boxing cathedral, the perfect training site, a dry sauna of a building in a scuzzy Vegas neighborhood, with tattered, yellowing fight posters covering the walls. It was like a safe house for world champions who could train in peace and quiet. It wasn’t unusual to see Mike Tyson hitting the speed bag or hear Marvin Hagler banging on the heavy back door, screaming, “Warden, let me in!”
Tocco — who trained Sonny Liston — would hand the fighters worn, leather medicine balls and jump ropes and tell them to get to work or get out. That’s old school.
Haugen trains fighters at a gym in the Auburn SuperMall.
He knows developing moneymaking boxers, let alone champions, won’t be easy. But he’d love to help boxing become relevant here again the way it was in the 1970s, when the region produced Olympic medalists and world champions. Besides, he’s not going anywhere. His family’s here. And family is the one thing more important to Haugen than boxing. His mother, three sisters, two brothers, three of his four children and both of his grandsons live in the area.
Staying connected to family became a priority for Haugen 40 years ago, the day his dad split.
HAUGEN SPENT the afternoon before the Emerald Queen fights at his mom’s house in Auburn. Sandy Berntsen, 71, has lived there for nearly 40 years, and it’s the crazy, busy center of the Haugen universe. Special dinners, birthday parties, holidays — it all happens here. One of Haugen’s younger sisters, Lisa, lives at the house. So does his 27-year-old daughter, Cassandra, her husband, Michael, and their son, Gregory, who turned 3 last month.
Haugen is the second-oldest of six kids Sandy raised in the modest but well-cared-for home, working as a bartender or waitress, sometimes three jobs at once, to do it.
They can laugh now about a mischievous, young Greg being tied to a clothesline in the yard to make sure he wouldn’t run off (he did anyway, dragging the clothesline), and baby-sitters who required bribes to watch him. But it probably wasn’t funny when he stole Mom’s Volkswagen at age 12.
The only reason the cops stopped the car cruising down M Street is they couldn’t see anyone driving it. They told Sandy they weren’t going to give Greg a ticket because he hadn’t actually violated any law, other than being four years shy of getting his driver’s license. Besides, they told her, we know he’ll catch all he needs from you.
The Haugen household was, and still is, a no-BS zone, where the truth is told, no matter what it is or how hard it is to face. It’s a place where you back each other up, and everyone does their share. With six kids to take care of, Sandy didn’t have time for anything else. And if you messed up, you knew it.
“With Mom, if your middle name came out of her mouth, your ass was grass,” Lisa says.
Cassandra says kids wanted to come home with her to meet her famous father. That’s when she realized her dad had a different kind of job. Sandy, listening to the conversation, adds, “He was good at his job!” then goes back to slicing vegetables in the kitchen sink.
Haugen is in the living room, playing with Gregory — his namesake — who doesn’t appear interested in sharing his chocolate-chip cookie with grandpa. His other grandson, Jasmine’s 7-year-old son, Blaine, likes to play Super Mario Bros. and eat hot dogs with “Papa.”
Haugen gained custody of Jasmine, who is 30 now, Cassandra, and his son, Brady, 22, after he and Karen divorced in 1993. He has another son — 16-year-old Layne, named for late Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, a friend of Haugen’s — who lives with his mother in California.
“We had to be good kids. Dad taught us to be well-mannered,” Cassandra says. “He’s really a great dad.”
Haugen says he just wants to be a better dad and grandfather than his own father, who still lives in the San Diego area. They speak once in a while.
“I wasn’t raised to show love,” he says. “Or even to be there.”
IT’S BEEN A good day.
At lunch, enjoying a pepperoni grinder and Mr. Pibb at Athens Pizza and Pasta, a favorite Auburn hangout, Haugen got a happy surprise, a call from his girlfriend, Tammy. They met last year in Pismo Beach, Calif., where she lives. Friends and family talk about how good she has been for him, how he’s changed. “Tammy motivates me to be a better guy,” he says. “I haven’t had a person behind me for a long time. It’s nice. She’s 48, I’m 50, and I want someone I can grow old with. I don’t want to be alone. She doesn’t, either.”
As the fights wind down, Haugen is smiling, talking with fans lined up to pose for photos. Maybe it’s just another night at the Emerald Queen, in boxing’s minor leagues, but nobody ever asks to have their picture taken with someone who was really good at pouring concrete or hanging sheet metal. If this is as good as it gets, that’s OK with Haugen. He has his family and supportive friends. He has boxing.
Two matches are left on the Saturday-night card, but Haugen is tired. He says his goodbyes, then walks, by himself, out of the showroom, through the casino and across the vast Emerald Queen parking lot. He climbs into his 1999 gold Ford Taurus and heads for home.
A very good day.
Bill Reader is The Seattle Times deputy sports editor. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine photographer.