When you think of a world-class boxer, you might think of Ivan Drago, the fictional character that appeared as Rocky Balboa's rival in the 1985 film Rocky IV, hooked up to machines like the million dollar man with multiple trainers in lab coats watching him intently while he runs on a treadmill. In reality, boxing is much different.
Tucked into the hills of Duluth atop Observation Hill is a small blue colored rectangular remnant of a warming shed. Skaters and pick-up hockey players once used this shed to return the blood to the tips of their toes and fingers.
They have since abandoned the shed, allowing Zach “Jungle Boy” Walters to give this tiny space new life as his boxing gym. This is where he trains Al Sands, “The Haitian Temptation.”
His muscles ripple with every punch he throws at his imaginary opponent. He’s light on his feet, his eyes are closed and his dark skin shimmers with sweat underneath the florescent bulbs.
At Twenty-seven years old, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall weighing 215 pounds - 205 during fights - Al Sands has made a name for himself. He has fought his way to be ranked 8th in the nation and 55th internationally in the professional cruiserweight boxing world.
At 18 months old, Al was adopted from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to the northland by a single mother.
“Out of millions of people and kids that need parents, I was picked,” said Sands, grateful for the opportunity.
He recollects looking at the photos shown to him by his adoptive mother. He remembers one in particular. His birth mother was holding him in her arms. He had a swollen abdomen from malnutrition and his belly button poked out of his belly a few inches.
Upon first arriving in Duluth, Sands was only able to consume liquids like water and juice for about a year. His body just couldn’t handle solid food.
Now, Sands is tall and solid. He moves gracefully around the square; it’s quite beautiful to watch, actually.
Sands wasn’t always interested in boxing. In fact, the thought never crossed his mind that he might one day be in the top ten of professional boxers.
In high school he played baseball, basketball, and track and was quick to pick up new athletic disciples. But after high school he had more time. He wanted to do something new and something different than what he had already mastered.
To occupy his time Sands started to weight lift - intense weight lifting.
“I was about 20 pounds heavier than I am now,” said Sands. “I wasn’t sure why I was lifting weights, though. What was I trying to accomplish? Was I just trying to be the biggest guy at the bar?”
With his hulking figure, Sand’s first taste of fighting was at a mixed marital arts gym.
“I walked into the gym, and it was funny because I saw everyone start to puff out their chests. But I wasn’t worried, I was bigger than most of the people in there,” said Sands.
He learned to grapple and eventually stepped into the ring with a gym member. This is where Sands learned that size doesn’t matter.
“I got my butt kicked.”
Sands decided he wasn’t really into the MMA sort of fighting, and he left the gym. It wasn’t until he met Zach “Jungle Boy” Walthers through a mutual friend that he became interested in boxing.
Walters invited Sands to Horton’s Gym, another rundown building with sunlight shining and snow falling through the holes in the celling. Walters said he could see his breathe during the winter months until everyone had worked hard enough to make the building warm. This was the same building that made Zach “Jungle Boy” Walters a boxing icon in Duluth.
“It looked intense. The first time I did the full training the only thing that was going through my mind was, ‘don’t pass out, don’t pass out.’ It was rough,” recalls Sands.
As time went on, the training became easier and Sands’ hard work and dedication to the craft eventually propelled him to the top of the gym.
Sands continues to be dedicated to his new found passion. He has fought through hard talk from competitors and alcohol problems. Taking each on with the same ferocity he has in the ring, all to make himself the best version of himself he can be.
Something you will notice when you talk to Sands is his tendency to say, “we” in place of “I”. He doesn’t notice his tendency unless you point it out. He accredits it to the network of people who helped him get to where he is.
“No child makes it on his own. There is all ways someone there to help you,” Sands said.
He points out that although there is one man in the ring trowing punches, there is an entire team behind him.
"The whole reason I'm a promoter, why I'm in boxing at all anymore, is because of Al Sands," said Walters. "I made a promise to Al that I will take him to where he wants to go and that I'll be behind him 100 percent."
“Not many people have that type kind of background. My growing up experience is almost unlike a majority of the people. I’ve taken it upon myself to be different, in every sense: the way I act and the way I carry myself," said Sands.