Rep. Blaze Wharton had no qualms as he stepped into the boxing ring against an opponent half his age and 10 times his experience.
Even though he'd been cold-konked a few days earlier in a training match, Wharton, minority whip in the Utah House of Representatives, did not question the wisdom of his decision to take up boxing in the late summer of his youth.Even when rocked by his opponent's stinging left jabs, even when his legs hinged as gravity invited him to lay down on the blood-stained canvas, Wharton's resolve (at least) was untouched.
"That's a more brutal sport than I ever imagined," Wharton said after the match. "But I'm still glad I did it."
All the more amazing when, by most accounts, Wharton was whupped pretty soundly. Although it was an exhibition match and a winner was not declared, Wharton clearly got the worst of it a bloodied nose and a beaut of a shiner.
Although he had no regrets, Wharton was not unfazed by the experience. Sitting in a grungy dressing stall holding an ice pack to his face, the "Canvasback Kid," as his warm-up robe proclaimed, struggled to stay glib in the wash of TV spotlights, even though he was obviously disappointed in his performance.
"Tell me I at least landed one punch," Wharton said to his opponent after the match.
West Jordan bomber Chris DeCol just smiled. "You need a lot of work."
"Ohhh!" he said, rolling his eyes. "I'm gonna have to make a comeback just for this guy."
But if Gene Fullmer, former middle-weight champ and Wharton's trainer, is right, Wharton should hang up his gloves.
"I don't think he ever could have been very good," Fullmer said with a steely squint and only a hint of smile. "He's got a big heart, but not a lot of knowledge."
Wharton, of course, knows all that. He had no illusions about who was going to win the fight even before it started. Clearly, stepping into the ring was more important to Wharton than winning.
"At least I didn't go down," he said immediately after the fight. "And at least I had the guts to do it."
Guts, yes. But what about common sense? Why would a 31-year-old, successful, handsome professional do something so rambunctious, so . . . crazy?
Perhaps only Wharton really understands, but it's fair to say combat is in his blood. As a member of the minority Democratic party in the Utah House of Representatives, Wharton has duked it out figuratively speaking with Republicans throughout his six-year stint.
Wharton says was just a goal, a somewhat more personal challenge than legislative sparring.
"In politics, it's all group competition, one group against another," he said. "But with boxing, it's all one-on-one. It's, `What can I do?"'
But it's one thing to parry words; quite another to duck real haymakers. Why become a born-again pugilist at 31? If it's just for the challenge, why not run a marathon or hike the Appalachian Trail? Why boxing? Is it an early mid-life crisis? A death wish?
Wharton doesn't buy any of those explanations. He says he's had a love for boxing since he was a kid, but his dad always discouraged him. In fact, his father did more than discourage him; he actually set his son up against a ringer just to make sure his son got the message.
"When I was 11 or 12, I told my dad I wanted to box," Wharton said. "So, he set me up against this kid who'd boxed in police leagues and was really pretty good. And he killed me. Afterward, my dad asked me if I still wanted to be a boxer. Well, I'm all beat up, so I said, `no.' "
It wasn't until later that Wharton found out he'd been tricked. And while he realized his dad was only looking out for him, he still felt cheated.
"He was doing it to protect me," Wharton said. "But when I was about 18 and he told me what he'd done, I kind of felt like he really screwed up a dream of mine."
He played baseball, golfed and participated in other sports. But he followed boxing with a special enthusiasm. Then he occasioned to meet Marv Jensen, owner of a West Jordan gym of the same name. Jensen invited Wharton out to see the place. He met Fullmer and pretty soon he was working out with the boxers who trained at the gym.
"I just got better and better and finally I asked if I got good enough if I could get into a tournament," Wharton said.
Fullmer, with his characteristic smirk, said, "Sure."
Wharton says his friends couldn't believe it. "They kept asking me to go places with them and I'd say, `No, I have to train.' Finally, they realized I was serious. And they supported me all the way."
Those friends Democratic luminaries like County Commissioner Dave Watson, Party Chairman Randy Horiuchi and Ogden Rep. Grant Protzman all turned out for Wharton's blaze of glory at the Golden Gloves competition at the Fairgrounds Coliseum. They ranted, cheered and shouted advice (not always good advice Wharton was about cooled after he was distracted by a Protzman suggestion).
And when the fight was over, they all gathered in the locker room to congratulate Wharton on his spunk and stamina, if not his boxing prowess.
"It was great, Blazo!" Watson enthused. "I can hardly wait until our next fantasy."
Wharton, however, says his boxing days are over. In fact, he sounds like he's had enough challenges to last awhile.
"A friend of mine wants to go skydiving," Wharton said. "But him, `no.' Now, that's really crazy."