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The Four States' Fight

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JOPLIN, MISSOURI -

Dallas Cook is the head coach at the Heartland Boxing Gym on Route 66 in Galena. 

"This building we're in is an older building built back in the 1880's," Cook said. "So there's a lot of history in this building."

The gym is Dallas Cook's refuge. 

"This is my sanctuary. This is where I come for my church," Cook said. 

It's one of the few boxing gyms left in the four states. It's walls are covered with memories, celebrating the area's rich boxing history despite the sport's decline. 

"Most of the kids who come in who know the history, a lot of the times, are gonna be the one's who stick with it," Cook said. "Because they have a real deep love for it. Because they do know the stories and tales told. And maybe their dad was in the golden gloves or their grandpa."

One of those kids is  Ethan Hailey. He had a humble, or humbling, introduction to the sport.

"I lost my first fight," Hailey said. "He beat the crap out of me the first round."

Hailey  since went on to win a national championship at the age of 16. And now has his sights set on traveling to Kansas City for the Golden Gloves tournament in April.

"He'll be one of the youngest fighters in the golden gloves," Cook said. "And he fights like a grown man."

Though Hailey will need several years of success if he wants match the accomplishments of arguably the greatest boxer from Joplin; "Irish" Johnny Copeland. 

"He was the main man around here," Cook said. "He was a hometown hero."

Copeland got his start during the height of boxing in the four states, when the golden gloves still had a tournament in Joplin. 

"Joplin Golden Gloves was a big, big thing. A least for us in the boxing world," Copeland's childhood friend Skip Stewart said. "Most everybody knew you if you was a fighter back then."

Boxers like Johnny Copeland filled Memorial Hall through the four day tournament.  

"It was huge. Especially on Saturday night when they had these championship fights," Stewart said. "And most of the novice divisions you had to fight two fights that night."

At that time, winners from Joplin and surrounding golden gloves tournaments went on to the Kansas City Golden Gloves, then called the Tournament of Champions. Copeland was a 4-time golden gloves champ in Kansas City. He never lost a fight in the tournament.

Copeland turned professional in 1970, starting his career 4-0, with three wins by knockout. Skip Stewart managed him through the start of his career. 

"He said I'll fight anybody for a Big Mac," Stewart said. "He said I'll fight 'em anywhere, any place, any time."

Copeland fought future world champions and International Boxing Hall of Fame inductees like Antonio Cervantes and Aaron "The Hawk" Pryor. Copeland climbed as high as fourth in The Ring Magazine lightweight rankings.  

Boxing took Copeland to Denmark, Columbia, South Africa; fighting in 7 countries over his 11-year career. 
The hometown boy returned to Joplin 7 times to fight in Memorial Hall as a professional. He won all 7 bouts, 6 by knockout. 

But it's his willingness to fight anytime, anyplace, that caused Copeland's career to lack the success of his amateur days. 

"His wife had cancer," Stewart said. "He just needed the money. You know, there's a saying in boxing. There's only two reasons you take a fight. You take a fight for the money. Or you take a fight to build your record. So he was taking all his fights he was taking for the money."

Copeland retired in 1981. By that point boxing had dried up through most of the four states. Gyms in Carthage, Webb City, Pitcher, and Miami dissolved along with the Joplin Golden Gloves, when it lost sponsorship.

Today, there's only three USA Boxing-registered gyms in the area (in Galena, Neosho, and Nevada) who compete in the Kansas City Golden Gloves. 

Copeland was inducted in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. He died in 2004 at the age of 58. His funeral took place in Joplin Memorial Hall. The service, appropriately, happening in a boxing ring. That ring is used today to train the next generation of boxers in the Heartland Boxing Gym. 

Professional boxing has seen a resurgence thanks to the Four State Franchise. Something Hailey believes could attract athletes to the sport. 

"I feel like it will attract more people because they see someone else being successful so they're gonna want to do it," Hailey said. 

"It gives amateurs something to shoot for," Cook said. "Gyms around here are getting more excited. They're getting together and sparring together, and kind of building off each other. Boxing, like anything, it goes through highs and lows. But we're on the rebound now I think."

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