Haugen turns his fists to autism

Camacho, Whitaker and Pazienza weren’t this difficult to corner.

Camacho, Whitaker and Pazienza weren’t this difficult to corner.

So thought Greg Haugen while chasing his stout 5-year-old grandson, Blaine Smith, around the boxing gym and SuperMall on a Wednesday afternoon earlier this month.

Keeping up with a wandering, autistic child has proven to be a challenge in itself.

“Just look at him. He’s constantly moving. He’s in another world,” said “The Mutt,” an Auburn native and former four-time middleweight and light middleweight world champion fighter. “He’s a character. He’s really smart.

“He touches everything.”

Including grandpa’s heart.

Blaine is a significant part behind Haugen’s mission these days.

The irrepressible Haugen stays in the fight game. He no longer slips on the gloves and goes 12 punishing rounds but today throws punches while training a cadre of prospects in the gym.

For Haugen, still agile and energetic at 48, showing kids the ropes of the ring is even sweeter than the science itself.

“I just love it,” Haugen said while stepping outside his boxing center that’s attached to Vision Quest Sports and Fitness inside the mall. “I was fortunate enough to work with some great teachers. But from what I see, that’s lacking today.”

One look at Team’s USA’s poor performance at the Beijing Olympics convinces Haugen of this troubling trend.

“It’s an art,” Haugen said. “And it needs to be taught right. … I am here. I will teach them.”

That includes his son, Brady, 20, a rising amateur fighter and someone who is willing to listen to his father’s fearless and aggressive tactics.

Haguen’s camp also includes a promising heavyweight, Jonte Willis, who is unbeaten in four pro fights and is a cousin to San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis.

Boxing has not and probably will never leave Haugen. Despite his rise and fall as a champion, now he has found his niche and purpose. Over the fast-advancing years, he has mellowed and matured.

Family matters more to him. Giving back matters more to him.

This tough guy now packs more wisdom than uppercuts, a philanthropist in the rough.

Just last year he established his own foundation, teaming up with Vision Quest and other partners to fight autism. His boxing center also provides an opportunity for many at-risk youths to redirect their lives.

It is a positive movement and something dear to Haugen, who overcame his own behavioral problems as a kid growing up in Auburn.

It also is a purpose made more acute when his grandson was diagnosed with autism.

“Blaine is the reason for it,” Haugen said. “This is what I was meant to be here for.”

“I see a lot of me in Blaine,” he added. “I’m sure if they had that diagnosis when I was young, I would have been diagnosed as autistic.”

Haugen wants to plant the seed and build a full-service autism center in South King County. To get there, he is calling on friends and the community.

In March, the foundation has planned a major two-day fundraiser at the Seattle Sheraton Hotel. The confirmed guest list includes many former boxing greats, such as Jake LaMotta, Leon Spinks, George Chuvalo, Pernell Whitaker and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.

“If I can use my notoriety to raise awareness, I will,” Haugen said. “If there’s good people out there and if you do good things, good things will happen.”

Like finding a cure for his beloved grandson who has come a long way in his development.

“He’s not aware of it yet,” Haugen explained. “Hopefully they will find a cure before he does.”

That hope comes with a grin from a 5-year-old.

“Every time I see him smile, it’s great. He warms my heart every single day.”

Mark Klaas can be reached at 253-833-0218, ext. 5050, or mklaas@reporternewspapers.com