“Calzaghe would have beaten Ottke. He just wouldn’t have had the power; eventually, as the fight went on, I think Calzaghe would have worn him down. I’d definitely give the fight to Calzaghe. No doubt about that,” Tocker Pudwill tells Boxing Social when assessing the merits of the two men that he fought – yet who tantalisingly never fought each other – for world titles some 20 years ago.
Things have changed somewhat in the years since Pudwill walked out as a last-minute challenger at Newcastle’s Telewest Arena and the Europhalle, Karlsruhe, for an unlikely shot at the super-middleweight championship of the world. It’s Friday afternoon and he has just finished his rounds as a Sales Rep for Nestle, dropped one of his three daughters off at softball practice, and prepares to hit the gym.
He confides that he recently became a grandfather only two weeks ago. “I’m not old enough!” he says in mock horror. At only 49, he may have a point, but it is obvious from his tone that he is delighted and, in any case, he is still several laps away from joining the pipe and slippers brigade. “My oldest daughter is 30, she was born right out of High School. As soon as I graduated – I started early,” he laughs.
“Its’ all been about jobs, kids and family,” says the 41-7 (14 KOs) former super-middleweight title challenger, who has been on the road with Nestle managing grocery accounts for upwards of 15 years now. “I like the outdoors up here. I like the hunting and I still play softball in the summertime and I try and keep in shape in the gym.”
The “up here” is the area around the North Dakotan city of Bismarck. Despite being the state capital, it maintains a population of less than 80,000, in a state that ranks almost at the bottom in the US for population density. This is frontier land, once exclusively occupied by the Sioux tribe of native-Americans and a world away from the urban sprawl and post-industrial blight that so often forms a part of boxing’s customary backdrop. The fact that Pudwill was born in the former gold rush town of Deadwood, whilst his father worked in the local gold mine, only adds to the ‘Frontier’ feeling of his story.
Whilst he was still a baby the family upped sticks and settled back in Bismarck. Except for one short stint in Las Vegas, he has remained there ever since. You sense that it has made him the contented and well-rounded family man that he is today, but in some respects, it may have held him back in his boxing career. “I think maybe I hung around in North Dakota too long,” he admits.
“Part of my career I moved out to Las Vegas and trained out there. I think I probably could have made the move a little sooner than I did. I think down there I could have got a little more exposure. I could have been in with some bigger names and got a bit more recognition. If you get a win in Vegas and these bigger cities, I think you get more recognition than you would elsewhere.
“But when I moved to Vegas, before my first fight I broke my hand in training and that just took my drive away. I moved back here and never did get my shit back together and move back out there.”
From a boxing family where his grandfather, father, uncles and brothers all boxed professionally – once even sharing a card with dad Terry, and brother Mark – it was perhaps inevitable that he would make his career in the ring. In the unpaid ranks, Pudwill won several regional tournaments amassing a record of 101 wins and 20 reverses in what he recalls as “a pretty good amateur career”.
The opportunity to turn pro presented itself straight out of High School. An offer from a consortium of amateur coaches and financial backers proving too good to refuse. “They said that if I started training with them, they would pay my college fees and living expenses, so I thought it would be a great deal to give it a shot,” he remembers.
It is tempting to think that a career punctuated by two world title fights was mostly confined to sparsely populated community halls and casino shows off of boxing’s beaten track. A perusal of Pudwill’s fight venues on BoxRec may not be loaded with familiar neon-lit primetime arenas but it at least makes for an evocative recreation of the gun-slinging old west. Over a 25-year career he sharpened his spurs at the Lode Star Casino, Fort Thompson; The Prairie Knight Casino, Fort Yates; and The Four Bears Casino & Lodge, New Town, among others. But outside of those world title fights it was a career not without its big nights.
“Virgil Hill is from North Dakota and I fought on his undercards a few times at the Bismarck Civic Center, which holds about 12,000. I got to headline some shows there as well,” says Pudwill. But it will always be the fights with Ottke and Calzaghe for which he will be remembered outside of the Peace Garden State.
Six months into the new millennium Pudwill was a surprise last-minute substitute to face the German triple Olympian and reigning IBF super-middleweight champion on his impenetrable home turf. Technically proficient, but light punching, the man nicknamed ‘The Phantom, had made a career out of collecting decisions that were not always strictly merited.
Armed with this knowledge and cognisant of the perceived gulf in class that many anticipated, Pudwill could have been forgiven for rejecting the opportunity. However, he confirms that he had absolutely no doubts about taking the fight. “It was short notice, but I had to accept. I had always dreamed of fighting for a world title and it was a great opportunity that I had to go after. Before the fight, I had watched Ottke on video several times and we thought it was a fight we could win.
“Obviously, it was going to be tough to win over in Germany, but we had to go for it. If we hadn’t, who knows if I ever would have got another shot further down the road? I honestly jumped at the chance!”
Despite giving it his best shot, Pudwill touched the canvas twice along the way, before succumbing to wide points defeat. “At the time I was having issues with my breathing,” he discloses. “I had earlier been diagnosed with a virus in my heart [Myocarditis]. But for whatever reason, they just couldn’t figure out why I still had these ongoing problems with my breathing.
“After about the fifth round I started having trouble breathing. I would have to stop for air. The times he knocked me down, I just couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t hurt at all; I just took a knee because I couldn’t breathe anymore. Ottke never did hurt me at all. He was a good boxer and technician but he never had any power.
“It was frustrating because I knew that if I didn’t have this problem, I could have performed a lot better than I did. But at the end of the day, I did what I could with what I had. You don’t turn down a title shot.”
But it was an affliction that continued to hamper Pudwill for the remainder of his career. By the time a second surprise shot at a world title came along, he was contemplating his future in the sport. “I was thinking about finishing my education and getting on with a different career. I’d had some time out and had a tune-up to get back into it again and all of a sudden we get this call,” he remembers.
The “tune-up” that Pudwill refers to was an eight-round decision against a 6-16-2 opponent at a Minnesotan casino. Six weeks later he found himself walking out to face Joe Calzaghe in Newcastle in the Welshman’s latest defence of his WBO belt. Accepting the fight at just 14 days’ notice following the late withdrawal of Thomas Tate, was the very definition of a ‘tall order’.
But as with Sven Ottke two years earlier, and despite his ongoing breathing difficulties, Pudwill had no hesitation at all in accepting the fight. “It was a decent payday, but nothing special,” he smiles.
For the North Dakota native it was all about the chance to have another shot at a world title; despite how disadvantageous the circumstances were. Even the charitable would have given him not much more than a one percent chance of realising his dreams, but even that was sufficient allure for him to sign on the dotted line.
“We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. We only got the call two weeks before,” recalls Pudwill of the less-than-optimal preparation. “Calzaghe was a southpaw and I didn’t have any opportunity to train with a southpaw in the time we had available for sparring. Sure, we had a game plan, but I really didn’t get the prep I needed to fight someone like Calzaghe or any other world champion for that matter.
“But it was a world title opportunity. You never know: you could land that one punch that changes everything. But unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
At the time the challenger was loudly mocked in the British press for stating that he intended to take out Calzaghe early. Boxing Social asks Pudwill, whether he truly believed this pre-fight proclamation?
“Yeah, that was the plan,” he concurs. “I knew I had this breathing issue and it was a short notice fight, so my conditioning was not going to be 100%, with the time I had available to train, so that really was the only game plan. It was just to try and go in there and land a big right-hand or something. But obviously, he had never been stopped, so I knew it would be a very tough job.”
Without underestimating Calzaghe, who was already on the 12th defence of his title, Pudwill admits to being shocked by the Welshmen’s power.
“He landed his punches from the get-go. I didn’t have a chance with him. I knew he had lots of KOs but I honestly didn’t think it looked like he had that much power. I didn’t think he could punch that hard. I wasn’t impressed watching him on video, but when I got in with him it was a different story. He was too good.
“When the first knockdown happened it just took my knees away. I took the count up to eight and then he knocked me down again. I looked over at my corner and I’m like: ‘What the hell?’ He definitely had some snap in his punches. After the second knockdown, my eye swelled up like a tennis ball.”
Hearing the bell at the end of the first round, Pudwill was all but done. Caught against the ropes early in the next session he was dropped by a body shot, and as he neatly recalls: “That was it.” The fact that his challenge was eviscerated in less than four minutes of action continues to be a source of quiet frustration. “It would have been nice to get some more rounds in with him, maybe six or seven at least, and make it a more competitive fight. But that’s boxing… it happens,” he shrugs.
From this denouement, Pudwill went on to have one more relatively big fight in the paid ranks. Taking on a 41-year-old Vinny Pazienza in what was the ‘Pazmanian Devil’s’ last professional contest, his breathing problems hampered him in the later rounds and he lost a narrow decision.
He flitted in and out of the game for a few more years before making what was an initially reluctant one-off comeback after a six-year lay-off in 2015. “Virgil Hill gave me a call,” he recalls. “He wanted to fight again and have one last hurrah in his hometown and asked me if I was interested. I thought: ‘Oh, shit!’ My family were more excited by it than I was.
“But fighting in front of a home crowd with Virgil one last time was a good ending to my career. It was a lot of fun. My youngest daughter, who’d never seen me box, was so excited about it all. She was seven then, and she walked me into the ring. It was a fun night. A good ending!”
It was perhaps fitting that Pudwill’s last fight was back home in Bismarck. Of those that witnessed his two international forays, the uncharitable among them may suggest that he should have stayed there. But they would woefully be missing the point and failing to understand a man that was willing to give it his best shot despite the cards being stacked uniformly against him, and condemned to face two opponents that ultimately ended their careers with perfect win records.
When all is said and done, Tocker Pudwill travelled out into the unknown, planted his feet, and took his best shot. In that respect, he isn’t so different from those frontiersmen of old.
Main image: Alamy/Reuters.