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A fighting chance / Wilson gets title shot

CENTRAL POINT — “Kitty Cat.”

The owner of the orange tabby tries to get the attention of the affectionate feline after it jumps on a visitor’s lap. The tone isn’t harsh. Hardly. It’s soothing, loving.

The owner had been in midst of explaining how he’d go about his part-time job. He will hit a man in the face, often enough and hard enough, he hopes, to turn it into the consistency of mashed potatoes. He’ll use his size and reach and athleticism to render said man incapacitated.

The owner is Mike Wilson, and boxing is usually the Central Point man’s second job. But it has moved to the fore because, well, opportunities of a lifetime command priority. He’s dreamed of fighting for a world title since his mother first dragged him to the gym at age 13, and the time has arrived: Saturday, in Monaco, against Russian Denis Lebedev.

Wilson’s life has been one of contrasts, and those contrasts are as stark as ever.

He is 35 now, a husband, father of two teenagers — yes, their dad can beat up your dad — owner of a landscaping business, a homebody for the most part but one who attends his kids’ events and who occasionally hangs with his buds over a Bud Light and a football game.

He’s an everyman.

And, yet, he’s not.

The rough-hewn combatant will be in Monte Carlo, not Medford, mingling with the wealth of the wealth, says his trainer, Jimmy Pedrojetti. Black-tie affair. James Bond stuff, literally: Three Bond movies have been filmed at the Casino de Monte Carlo, where the fight will be held in a cozy, high-dollar gaming room.

The card’s main event is Wilson, an undefeated American, challenging the champion Lebedev for the World Boxing Association cruiserweight crown.

Rocky, you say? In some respects, yes.

Wilson and his team crafted a plan nine years ago that they hoped would lead to a big payday. This is it: His 20th bout will earn him six figures. Should victory and a title belt follow, that dollar amount might soon warrant another comma.

Before Kitty Cat — it’s the only thing the cat was called, so it may or may not be his name — intervened, an engaging, animated Wilson spoke of Lebedev, who in 2011 defeated Roy Jones Jr. and James Toney in back-to-back fights.

Lebedev is 31-2 with 23 knockouts. But, says Wilson, the 39-year-old is fading. As Lebedev caught older fighters on the decline, Wilson believes he has the same opportunity.

“He swells up a lot,” says Wilson, perched on a stool in his garage-turned-gym on five rolling acres northeast of Central Point.

A rudimentary ring, small enough to encourage toe-to-toe exchanges, is flanked by heavy bags, speed bags, a Craftsman tool chest, a road sign or two, a wood stove, bar signs, all the trappings of a man cave, including a rickety wicker chair for guests and, apparently, Kitty Cat.

Wilson tells of Lebedev getting clocked so savagely by Guillermo Jones in an earlier fight that the Russian’s eye socket shattered and left a hematoma the size of a grapefruit.

“Things like that don’t heal up right ever again,” says Wilson, nudging the stocking cap on his shaved head up a tad.

He leans forward to lift Kitty Cat and the conversation shifts as quickly as Wilson does in the ring. More contrast: Wilson becomes everyman again and weaves a tale of the two sibling cats — the other one’s name may or may not be Brother — he got a couple years ago.

He got them for mice. Turns out, they eat digger squirrels, too. He had a big problem with the critters and a professional gave him an estimate upward of $5,000 to trap them. Wilson declined, figuring he could do it himself. But he didn’t need to.

Kitty Cat and Brother were on the job.

“I mean, they eat ‘em whole, the head, everything,” marvels Wilson. “They take ‘em right to you and say, ‘Look what I got?’”

“Now you don’t see one damn squirrel on the whole property.”

Lebedev should be glad he’s not fighting Kitty Cat or Brother.

Wilson would head to Monte Carlo a week early, getting acclimated to the time change and his surroundings.

But this trip was a lifetime in the making.

The Early Years

After only one punch, Mike Wilson the boxer almost became Mike Wilson the ex-boxer.

His family lived on a cul-de-sac in Southern California, and neighborhood kids were sparring in front of his house.

He joined in and immediately regretted it.

“I boxed this black kid, and he punched me in the face so damn hard I threw off the gloves and said, ‘That is it!’” says Wilson. “‘I don’t want nothin’ to do with this.’”

It wasn’t “it,” of course, but the punch ingrained a simple principle of boxing: “You never get used to getting hit in the face, but you put up with it,” he says. “The goal is to hit and not get hit, but you’re gonna take your licks.”

The Wilson family enjoyed boxing on pay-per-view, procuring a “little cheatin’ black box,” when necessary. Mike was particularly mesmerized by Mike Tyson.

“When he’d come out to the ring, I’d just get nervous,” says Wilson, “just a weird feeling that you never got.”

The family owned one pair of boxing gloves, and when two of the brothers — all were right-handed — sparred, each got a glove. If Mike fought the oldest, Mike was stuck with the left-handed glove. If he fought the youngest, he got to go righty.

At other times, his little brother had friends over and Mike would tape dish towels around their fists for makeshift gloves.

A will, a way.

“We grew up boxing like that and beating the hell out of each other,” says Wilson.

So, when Medford furniture businessman and former collegiate champion boxer Joe Pedrojetti started the Bulldog Boxing Club in 1996, Wilson — rather, his mother Shirley — was among the first through the door.

Wilson had pestered her about joining but was surprised one day when, without warning, she pulled up to the gym.

She says, ‘You’re going now,’ and I’m like, ‘Uh, well, all right,’” says Wilson.

Joe Pedrojetti was on the other side of the door.

He wasn’t necessarily impressed.

“He was a chubby, fat kid,” says Pedrojetti, who, along with son Jimmy has been on Team Wilson since that day. “But he loved boxing. You could tell he loved boxing.”

Wilson learned to work hard, says Joe Pedrojetti, and results showed quickly.

He medaled in Silver Gloves and Junior Olympic competitions, but his breakthrough came in 1999, when Pedrojetti took him to Marquette, Michigan, for the Junior Olympic nationals.

The Crater High sophomore, then 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, dominated the super heavyweight division to claim his first national title. He had a first-round bye, then won three fights, each by 5-0 counts.

“I thought, ‘We’ve got something special here,’” says Joe Pedrojetti. “I can remember other trainers going, ‘Joe, we’ve had fighters for a long time and never had a national champion. You’ve already got a national champion.’”

It wouldn’t be the only one for Wilson.

Top Amateur

Until the age of 25, Wilson was among the most successful amateur fighters in the country.

He came within one urine test and one point of being the U.S. super heavyweight champion four straight years. He won the titles in 2004 and ‘05, and did likewise in ‘06, only to have it stripped after he tested positive for cannabis.

Wilson denied using marijuana at the time, saying there was a flaw in the testing procedure, but he’s since come off that position and laughs it off.

“We’re in Oregon,” he says. “I still consider I won it. It’s not like I was taking steroids or anything like that. I was just young and dumb. I didn’t know no better. Everybody’s got to realize even bad news sells. That’s just the way it is. Yeah, we learned from it, trust me.”

The following year, he lost by a scant point in the finals to Michael Hunter.

“Man, that still eats at me to this day,” says Wilson.

Hunter was an up-and-coming star who had an easy path to the finals, getting byes until the semifinals. Wilson fought five times just to reach the finals.

Wilson entered the fourth and final round thinking he was in trouble, but he actually led by a point. Had he known that, he says, he would have “shelled up” and kept Hunter at bay. Instead, Wilson was the aggressor and ran out of gas as the round wore on.

Hunter, who fought on the U.S. Olympic team in London in 2012 and who last year lost a unanimous decision to Oleksandr Usyk for the World Boxing Organization cruiserweight crown, eked out a 25-24 victory.

In an interesting twist, Wilson and Hunter have been reunited this week in Monte Carlo. Hunter was a late addition to the card and will fight Alexander Ustinov.

Wilson had another memorable amateur fight, but with a different outcome.

In the semifinals of the 2005 nationals, he trailed Alfred White by four points going into the final round.

Wilson’s wife, Jenifer, was pregnant with their daughter, Jayden, and reality hit home: USA Boxing offered a monthly stipend for its elite team members; the higher the national finish, the more money was available. Third and fourth places got $500, second received $1,000 and the champion earned $1,500. Medical insurance and team travel were part of the take.

“I was thinking, ‘S---, man, I’d rather have $1,500 a month than $500 a month,” says Wilson. “I’ve got a kid on the way. I went out there and it was the hardest I’ve ever fought. I just went out there and laid it all on the line.”

He rallied for an 18-17 win. The next night, he dominated Travis Kauffman for his second national title.

Wilson never realized his Olympic dream, but he was an alternate for the team and traveled the world competing for Team USA.

It was during that time that he was given his nickname, “White Delight,” and that also is the name of the promotions company he and Jenifer created to put on Rogue Valley Rumble cards the past few years.

It carries racial innuendo that might be offensive in some circles. In boxing culture, sensibilities aren’t easily shaken.

“Ethnicity always sells in boxing, you know,” Wilson shrugs.

He once billed himself as Irish Mike and had trunks adorned with that moniker just for a fight in Providence, Rhode Island, where he hoped to lure locals of that descent to his corner.

White Delight came along well after “The Great White Hope,” a descriptor in the early 1900s of those challenging Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world.

“I was always out there in Colorado Springs with all these kids for (USA Boxing) training camps,” says Wilson. “Nine times out of 10, I was the only white guy. But we’d all be in a room, and one day we were coming up with nicknames for everybody. All the black kids were going, like, ‘The Great White Delight.’ I was like, you know, I like that. It’s stuck ever since. That’s the way it’s always been.”

Making a Living

Landscaping wasn’t something Wilson dreamed of as a career. But, by starting his own business and developing a small crew, it was a job for which he could set his own schedule and continue to box.

The carrot was still there: a championship belt and a big payday.

“It’s done good,” he says of mowing lawns and raking leaves. “It’s paid the bills.”

It’s not easy work, and it’s not something he necessarily sees himself doing at age 50.

It was, at one point, a motivational tool for his son, Hunter, now a 17-year-old senior on Crater’s powerhouse wrestling team.

Hunter is a part-time member of his dad’s work crew. When he was younger, Hunter didn’t always take readily to the work, and his pay reflected that.

“Now,” says Mike, “he works like a grown man so I’ll pay him like a grown man.”

One day they pulled away from a job, and Wilson asked Hunter to look in the mirror and tell him what he saw.

“He’s looking ... and nothing,” says Wilson. “‘No, what do you see behind us?’ He’s looking. ‘Your trailer?’ ‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘It’s your opportunity here to do good in school, work hard in your sports, or else this is what you’re gonna be seeing every day of your life. Unless you want to do this, mowing lawns and stuff, take advantage of your opportunities and try to succeed.’”

Wilson doesn’t regret his path, but he thinks his son, who is nearly a straight-A student, heeded his words.

Landscaping is one job, boxing another for Wilson.

Wilson turned professional in 2009, and the building of his record was, in most cases, meticulous. The first half-dozen or so opponents were akin to mixed martial arts fighters, not the most skilled boxers, says Wilson. Then the opponents turned to journeyman boxers, veterans with heart but not supreme talent.

After fighting as a heavyweight in his first four bouts, Wilson trimmed down to cruiserweight, fighting at 195 pounds in Oregon and, on Saturday, at 200.

Most of his early fights were outside Oregon. Then he and Jenifer took over promotion of local cards and he’s been mostly at home. Twelve of his last 13 fights have been in Oregon, including the last nine at the Jackson County Expo.

Wilson went 1 1/2 years, from 2010-12, without a fight while his management team dissolved. He had another respite of 20 months while Jenifer obtained her promoter’s license and they developed WhiteDelight Promotions and organized their first event.

Wilson’s 19-0 record includes eight knockouts.

“He’s done well with the people he’s fought,” says Joe Pedrojetti. “I don’t remember him losing one round in any of his pro fights, not one round.”

The formula is simple, says Wilson.

“It’s a risk-reward situation,” he says. “You don’t really want to put yourself at high risk for low reward. You want to put yourself at high risk for high reward. That’s what you wait for.”

The springboard to Saturday’s fight was a unanimous decision in March over Mario Aguilar, of Mexico, that earned Wilson the vacant North American Boxing Association title and put him in the top 15 in the four major boxing associations.

Soon, his Houston-based manager, Bob Spagnola, was fielding inquiries.

Big Payday

No one in Wilson’s camp could be certain which would come first, a rich fight or the end of the line.

The Pedrojetties and Wilsons have been family for nearly a quarter of a century, and they look out for each other.

Not long ago, Jimmy Pedrojetti sat with Wilson for a blunt conversation.

“I said, ‘You’ve got about a 24-month window because you’re 35,’” recalls Jimmy. “I’ve always told him, ‘I’m not going to be in your corner if you start slurring your words or if I feel like you’re starting to get damaged. I don’t want to be part of that.’”

Wilson knows the drill. He’s taken the same stance with fighters on Rogue Valley Rumble cards.

Then this opportunity arose in mid-October, when Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing called Spagnola to set up the bout. Wilson said they offered him $80,000, but Spagnola rebuffed it.

“I said, ‘All right, Spag, I trust you, but don’t f--- this up,’” says Wilson, “because 80 sounds pretty good to me right now.”

Spagnola wanted $115,000 and got it, along with five airfares, hotel rooms and per diem.

Jimmy Pedrojetti was confident the big fight would come.

“That’s all we talked about,” he says. “Mike said, ‘I’ve worked so hard at this for so long, I just want to make sure it was worth it.”

The fight, then what?

It’s a couple days before Wilson leaves for Monte Carlo, and he’s seeing a visitor out. Kitty Cat and Brother tag along. The owner warns to check for stowaways before pulling out.

Personality-wise, says Wilson, they act like dogs, and that brings up another subject, another bob and weave in conversation.

When he returns home, Wilson intends to put a nice, new fence around his property so his dogs, his actual dogs, can roam freely. And, he wants an automatic gate at the entrance.

“I’m so tired of opening and shutting that gate,” he mutters.

If he brings a championship back, the next fight will be that much more lucrative, and renovations that much easier.

“It’s all about the opportunity,” he says.

And it is knocking, big time.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com

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