WHITEFISH – They have nicknames like Elk Slayer, Raider and Hurricane. What they lack in formal boxing training they make up for in unyielding tenacity, youthful vigor and relentless haymakers.
For these high school scrappers, there are no bad punches, just missed punches.
After all, nobody’s handing out style points at the Cat-Dog Smoker, a boxing event where the storied athletic rivalry between Whitefish and Columbia Falls culminates in stirring fashion at the end of each school year.
“You get a chance to knock somebody out from the opposing school – you can’t go wrong with that,” said Cameron Fauth, a senior from Whitefish High School who was one of 28 boxers at this year’s June 2 smoker.
The first Cat-Dog Smoker was held in 1975. It was the brainchild of Whitefish basketball and baseball coaching legend Julio Delgado, who had gotten the idea while playing college baseball at Gonzaga University. At Gonzaga, a boxing smoker was held every year pitting Gonzaga participants against Carroll College boxers to raise funds for the baseball team.
When Delgado took over the Glacier Twins baseball team in 1975, he started an annual fundraising smoker of his own, at first with two matches per year: one in Whitefish High’s gym and another in Columbia Falls’ gym. Initially only Twins players participated – Whitefish kids matching up against Columbia Falls teammates.
As more high school students began participating, Delgado said school district officials grew wary and the event was moved to Memorial Field, where it has been held once per year ever since. Delgado, who coached the Twins for 20 years, is no longer involved with the smokers, though he remembers them fondly. He said they were major spectacles for the Flathead, raising up to $20,000 every year for the Twins.
“In those days we would have a complete sellout, three to four thousand people,” Delgado said. “We had some epic, epic matches.”
Among the most memorable matches, Delgado said, were three fights between Bill Sapa, who is part owner of the Blue Moon, and Wayne Hunt in the late 1980s. Hunt and Sapa won a fight apiece in their first two matches, setting the stage for a highly anticipated third and final bout. In a split decision, Hunt came out the victor.
“They were just awesome fights,” Delgado said.
Benny Bee Jr., a disc jockey at Bee 98.5 and a ringside announcer at this year’s smoker, said he grew up in Whitefish with an understanding that the smoker embodies both the toughness of the Cat-Dog rivalry and the camaraderie of small-town Montana.
“Anytime there was a grudge between kids, this was the place to settle it, but friendly,” Bee said.
The Cat-Dog Smoker has ringside doctors, announcers, ring girls and judges. Fighters, all under 21 years old and mostly from high school, are required to attend a series of training sessions, after which they are paired together by weight and ability for the smoker. Then from the moment the opening bell sounds, the young boxers begin swinging and don’t stop until the final bell. The crowd is reliably rowdy.
“It takes a lot of guts for kids to get in front of 2,000, 3,000 people and put it on the line,” Delgado said.
In one of the most compelling matches of this year’s smoker, Columbia Falls’ Kassie “The Hurricane” Hebert proved worthy of her nickname. Fighting an opponent with a half-foot height advantage in Ariel Ducote, Hebert approached the fight like a bull. Leading with her head, the feisty Hebert would throw wide haymakers that often found their way to the side of Ducote’s head.
During the last round, Hebert landed a series of six haymakers, causing the crowd to let out a collective and loud, “Ohhhhh!”
In the night’s other girl fight, Columbia Falls senior Brittaney Wilson said she didn’t intend on fighting her schoolmate and friend Gabriele Freeman, but shortly before the smoker began she learned there were three Columbia Falls girl participants and only one from Whitefish. So Wilson and Freeman had to fight each other, and Freeman got the worst of it.
“She’s a little angry at me,” Wilson said of her defeated friend after the fight.
As has been the case for several years, the main attraction at this year’s smoker, though not officially the main event, was Columbia Falls senior Michael “Raider” Hader. The all-state wrestler and football standout scored the only knockout of the night with a three-knockdown victory over Whitefish’s Brian Flickenger.
With a raucous Columbia Falls fan section chanting, “Hader, Hader, Hader,” the wiry southpaw fired out of his corner and dropped Flickenger to the mat only seconds into the first round. He knocked Flickenger down again in the second and then again in the third, which turned out to be the final blow.
Of the 14 fights, Columbia Falls officially won eight, though Wilson’s victory counted as a win for Whitefish. In recent years, Columbia Falls has dominated the event, which is still the largest fundraiser for the Twins.
Fauth, who had never boxed before the training sessions, may have lost his fight, but he still considered it a fine way to cap off his high school career.
“I figured I might as well go out swinging,” Fauth said.
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