St. Paul boxers with a union in common enter Hall of Fame together

Brian Brunette (L) and Matt Vanda, on a union job site in Minneapolis. (photo courtesy Dwight Engen)

Two St. Paul natives who traded in their boxing gloves for work gloves were inducted into the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame this month.

Brian Brunette and Matt Vanda, both members of Local 563 of the Laborers International Union (LIUNA), received the honor during a banquet Oct. 11 at Mystic Lake Casino.

After working in the field for 15 years, Brunette, 61, is now a marketing representative for LIUNA’s Great Lakes Regional Organizing Committee. He joined the union in 1976 as a teenager, after his father discovered he had no prospects for a summer job.

“My dad said, ‘Get in the car,’ and he drove me down to the Laborers hall,” Brunette said. “I eventually went to college, but I always found my way back into the Laborers union in the summer.”

Vanda, 41, joined LIUNA in 2012 after taking a job with a local excavating company. The choice to go from breaking down opponents in the ring to breaking down rubble on the job site, he said, was “the best move I’ve ever made in my life.”

“The best part of demo work is I don’t get hit in the head,” Vanda laughed.

The ‘Saintly City Slugger’

Boxing is in Brunette’s DNA. His father was an accomplished Golden Gloves fighter in the 1930s, and Brian began boxing in the backyard with brothers Tom, Bobby and Al as a young kid. Growing up on St. Paul’s East Side, he remembered, “it was either boxing or baseball.”

Initially, Brunette chose baseball. He excelled as a middle infielder in high school and accepted a scholarship to play for coach Dick Siebert at the University of Minnesota. But when Siebert, during a fall meeting, advised his players to commit to a conditioning program during the school year, Brunette could think of only one place to go – the boxing gym.

When one of the gym’s fighters dropped out of a bout in February 1978, a coach approached Brunette with a question.

Brian Brunette

“He asked me, ‘What do you weigh?’ And that was pretty much the start of my career,” Brunette said. “I fought the next night and won.”

Brunette fought the next two years as an amateur, continuing to play baseball for the Gophers, then turned professional as a 21-year-old. By 1980 he was on the undercard of a Larry Holmes fight produced by famed boxing promoter Don King.

Brunette didn’t lose a bout after turning pro until 1986, when he challenged Patrizio Oliva for the world light-welterweight championship in Naples, Italy. Brunette took an accidental thumb to the eye in the first round. Two rounds later, at the urging of his trainer, Brunette threw in the towel.

“The fight didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but the way I look at it, I was a champion just getting there,” Brunette said. “Not everybody gets a chance to fight for a world championship.”

The loss in Naples turned out to be his only as a professional. He signed on to fight for the championship again – this time in South Africa – but after reinjuring his eye in training, Brunette retired from boxing at 28.

Still, Brunette remained active in the sport. His family opened an amateur gym, Brunette Boxing, in 1983, and after hanging up his gloves, Brian took on a more active role in working with young fighters in St. Paul.

“It provides structure for so many young kids,” he said. “The work ethic, having to be somewhere at the same time every day, the diet, the training. And when they go home at night, all they want to do is go to sleep.”

‘The Predator’

Vanda began boxing at 12 and compiled a 12-2 record as an amateur before turning pro in 1996, at the age of 17. At the time, only a handful of states allowed minors to box professionally, and Minnesota wasn’t one of them. So Vanda hit the road, boxing in South Dakota, Indiana and Colorado before finally returning home a year later.

It didn’t take long for Matt “the Predator” Vanda to become a hometown favorite. He won his first 11 professional bouts by knockout.

(photo courtesy Dwight Engen)

“After a few fights people came to watch,” Vanda said. “They liked watching me fight, I guess.”

Vanda fought in five middleweight title bouts. He won one, defeating Luis Ramon Campas for the I.B.A. Americas Title in June 2005. He ended his career with a 45-16 record and 25 knockouts. His last bout came in January 2014 at Madison Square Garden, where Vanda lost a title challenge by technical knockout.

Vanda jokes that his wife, Cyndi, forced him to retire, but he knew his days were numbered.

“I was 34 years old, and I had a good run,” he said. “But it gets to a point when they start using you as bait, as someone who they know can go the distance against an up-and-coming young guy but probably not win. That’s when you could get hurt.”

‘Everyone works together’

Retirement hasn’t been easy for Vanda. He and Cyndi briefly separated, but they reunited after Vanda embraced sobriety three years ago. The couple has since welcomed a new daughter, 2-year-old Magdalena, into their family, which also includes 15-year-old Gabriella and 10-year-old Viviana.

“People think I’m crazy, but I enjoy getting up at 4:30 a.m., going to work and getting away,” Vanda said. “Since I quit drinking, the only time I get out is to go to work. It’s almost like a party for me. The guys at work call me a social butterfly.”

Brunette and Vanda see a few similarities between boxing and working as a laborer.

“You’re there to work hard, and you have to get out there and work with your co-workers, share the responsibilities,” Brunette said. “It’s the same thing in the boxing gym. You might have 50 kids on the floor, but everyone’s treated equal, no matter where you’re from or what your background. When you’re in the gym, everyone works together.

“You go from one hard job to the next, breaking down whatever’s in your way,” Vanda said. “And you’ve got to be in shape to go the distance in a fight, just like you’ve got to be in good shape to be a Laborer.”

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