The good fight

MIKE MULLEN | Updated 1/30/2013

As interest in boxing wanes, Uppercut fights on.

Lisa Bauch, founder and head trainer at Uppercut Gym.
Photo by Tom Wallace

Northeast Minneapolis has bloomed into an artists' quarter, a magnet for those craving gallery showings and craft libations. But you can still get punched in the face.

Uppercut Gym is tucked past a couple of union shops, across a line of train tracks and down an industrial corridor. Panting and the whip-slap of fist-to-bag signal that you haven't arrived at a craft brewery -- you're at a boxing gym. The location and interior -- all cement and steel beams, leftovers from its days as a welding shop -- are classic boxing fare, even if the staff isn't: A young woman works the front desk, and another leads a class on the gym floor.

In the loft office up a half-flight of stairs, a third woman, owner Lisa Bauch, is trying to make ends meet in an industry that's shaking off the cobwebs while the referee ticks off a standing eight count.

"It's really hard," said Bauch, who devotes a portion of her day booking the gym for events such as weddings. "I'm finding myself getting sucked into this office more than I'd like."

Bauch founded Uppercut as a hole-in-the-wall sweatbox on Lake Street in 1996. Even though her operation has relocated and upgraded, the sport itself is in something of a tailspin. By Bauch's estimation, 10 boxing gyms in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas have closed in just the last five years.

A combination of factors are to blame. Big fights appear almost exclusively on expensive pay cable, depriving a mainstream audience. Corruption in boxing -- perceived and actual -- has driven athletes to other sports. Bauch also fingers the rise of mixed martial arts, a sport which she calls "brutal."

"In MMA, they sit on their opponent and beat them up," she said. "I have no tolerance for it."

In contrast, Bauch sees boxing as a sport of relative refinement, where technique reigns. At least, that's the hope for Jessica Radtke, 27, an Uppercut trainee turned trainer. In her first contest, Radtke had to fight her natural reaction to someone lobbing punches at her face.

"I think it's instinct to kind of run away," Radtke said.

Since that fight, a loss, Radtke -- who works full-time as a veterinarian in Hudson, Wis. -- has settled into her boxing personality. As a stick-and-move technician who works from the outside in, Radtke has won seven of her last eight matches, giving her a record of 7-2 at 141 pounds.

The lure of the ring draws lawyers, doctors, teachers and, in the case of Kim Heikkila, 44, a nonfiction writer. Heikkila hasn't competed yet -- "I'm not ruling it out entirely," she said -- but boxing is now her one and only workout, replacing monotonous years spent on the treadmill.

"[Boxing] stuck," Heikkila said. "It's been eight years, and I'm not bored yet."