At Target Center on January 12, 2007, Raul Gracia was winning a fight against Bobby “Sweet Dreams” Kliewer. In the fourth and final round, Raul figured he was ahead on the scorecards. He got cocky. “Come on Bobby, hit me!” he taunted. With 15 seconds left in the match, Bobby did just that.
In hindsight, that was the punch that saved Raul Gracia. He was already 29 years old, practically ancient for a boxer just starting his professional career. He’d amassed a 115–10 record as an amateur, including the 1995 U.S. Junior Championship welterweight title. Raul had won his first six professional fights, but they were all on the road. Now he had a chance to show off at home.
The night was a showcase of Minnesota’s premiere boxing talent. A crowd of over 8,000 came to Target Center to see Shakopee’s Anthony “The Bullet” Bonsante, from the first season of NBC’s “The Contender,” take on St. Paul’s Matt “The Predator” Vanda for the vacant IBA Americas middleweight belt. Raul gained a spot on the undercard, but his opponent kept changing in the lead-up to the event.
There’s a peculiar matchmaking quality to boxing that is out of a fighter’s hands. Talent alone will not ensure a boxer’s rise through the ranks. They need the right team of managers to hobnob with the right promoters to get them the right fights.
“Boxing is a business. It’s who you know,” Raul says. “My sparring partner was in my weight class, he was 145 [pounds]. But he hadn’t fought in four months, they wouldn’t approve him.” For much of his career, it seems, Raul had the right skills but not the right opportunities.
When Bobby Kliewer was suggested as an opponent both the promoter and commission would approve, Raul didn’t hesitate to accept the fight. Raul was familiar with Kliewer, a lanky super middleweight from Maplewood, having sparred with him in the past. That Bobby usually fought three weight classes above Raul was of little concern.
Raul had fought bigger guys before, though not always with the best results. In 1996, he was training for the Olympic trials after having made the U.S. Team for the Pan-Am Games the year before. A former trainer convinced him to take a fight with a guy at 156 pounds; at the time, Raul was fighting at 139. He won the fight but took a roundhouse to the side of the face that broke his eardrums. A doctor suspended him from the Olympics trials.
The great boxing scribe A.J. Liebling once wrote, “The span between the top limit of one weight class and the next represents the margin that history has proved is almost impossible to overcome.” And while boxers flutter between weight classes all the time, only the legends do it successfully.
Bobby Kliewer stood nearly a head taller than Raul. When they touched gloves before the fight, Bobby looked smug and lax; Raul, stony and determined. In the first round, Bobby taunted Raul with his superior reach—dangling his left hand away from his body and coming back with the right if Raul took the bait. Raul kept his hands in, ducking and punching up, looking for a way to get inside on Bobby.
Twenty-three seconds into the first round, Raul’s first left caught Kliewer on an awkward step, causing him to lose balance and fall over. Bobby stood up, smiling, raising his arms. Suddenly more serious, Bobby came out swinging in the second round, extending his combinations to keep Raul at bay. Bobby worked by planting his back foot and throwing powerful darts with his whole body. Raul, nicknamed “The Matador” by his trainer, Dennis Presley, was sprightlier—dancing, weaving, and making Bobby miss.
“I think it was a good fight, up until the last 10 seconds,” Raul reflects. “I knew before the fight, if things go well, I’ll keep going. If it doesn’t, I’m fine walking away.” He admits now that he didn’t quite have the fire he’d had earlier in his career. But the fight was going well. He was on his way back.
By the fourth round, Kliewer was fighting like he knew he was behind. In the last minute, he began a series of wild haymakers, the kind of devastating overhand rights that George Foreman once rained down on Evander Holyfield. Raul dodged most of them; at worst, they grazed his shoulders. The last one, however, landed hard. Bobby opened his shoulders and started the wind-up behind his back. Raul never saw it coming.
“Last round, I knew I was ahead on the scorecard. I had him down,” Raul remembers. “The fight was almost over, and I was like ‘Hey, Bobby, you haven’t hit me yet!’ I’ve seen clips of it. [Then] I’m down. I was like ‘Oh shit! When I hear the count at five, I’ll get up.’ And then I try to get up and I just went down. I’d always thought I could take a punch. Until that night.”
After getting knocked out, Raul sat out the three-month mandatory medical suspension and found himself with some time to think. Looking at the trajectory of his career, he didn’t like what he saw. “Prior to the fight, I was having trouble finding opponents,” Raul says. “I was a lefty, undefeated. After the fight, two months later, I was offered a fight in Indiana at 185 pounds. Once I got that call, I knew it was over.”
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