Growing up 90 minutes from the volatile Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, Juneau resident Julio Gregoire knew neighbors with friends and relatives who had moved to the United States.
"They were always coming back looking fresh, with money," Gregoire said. "Their life was better. And I said, 'OK, that is my dream, to go to the United States and make my life better.'"
At 30, Gregoire has realized the dream, with his wife, VeNita, two stepchildren, a job at Greens Creek Mine and a home tucked into the north Douglas hills.
But it is his giant, sweeping, overhand right hook that gave Gregoire a name. On roughhouse boxing nights at Marlintini's Lounge, they call him "The Haitian Sensation."
With a 12-4 record and an array of footwork that camouflages the power of the big hook, Gregoire has emerged as the best roughhouse - or club - lightweight in town.
Tonight's main event could prove who's the best in the state. Gregoire will fight Anchorage's Johnny "The Cobra" Taunton, the best lightweight in Southcentral Alaska, sometime around midnight. The night's first fight starts after 9.
"I go to all the fights in Fairbanks and Anchorage and the two toughest lightweights in the state, by far, are Johnny Taunton and The Haitian Sensation," said Bob Haag, Roughhouse promoter and emcee.
Gregoire (12-4) and Taunton (30-5) fought once before, in a disputed split decision last October at Marlintini's. Gregoire was awarded the win, but Taunton claims it was a biased call. They were set for a rematch last month, but the Augustine Volcano's eruptions prevented Taunton from flying south.
"I felt I won the fight, but me being an out-of-towner and coming into his hometown, they gave a close fight to him," Taunton said. "I've got no hard feelings for Julio. But I have my opinion of the judges in Juneau."
Gregoire started boxing three years ago and recently added a jab. He works out in his living room two to four days a week with his trainer, Tim Beagle. Quiet and intense, other boxers often call him "polite" and "respectful." He claims to box "just for fun." But he knows he has something to prove.
"I like challenges," Gregoire said. "I like people talking trash. When you're fighting somebody, you can see who's scared or not. Taunton is not scared. He knows how to fight."
Haiti is so far from Marlintini's that it might as well be in another dimension. The country is caught up in its latest turmoil, this time over the re-election of Rene Preval. Gregoire visited his homeland last May and says the political and cultural climate has rapidly disintegrated in the last few months.
"There's always been kidnapping," he said. "When I was there, you gave them the money and they gave you the person back. Now, they don't do that. They just keep the money and kill the person."
Gregoire's family is relatively safe, in its quiet neighborhood outside the capital. His mom runs a boutique, and his father transports heavy equipment. Julio is their only son. He has four sisters.
"They're safe where they're at," Gregoire said. "They're friendly people, church people. If you do your thing, and keep to yourself, you'll be all right.
"In 1991 (shortly after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed) it was really rough until 1994, when the U.S. Marines brought Aristide back," he said. "When I left in 1997, it was all right, but after that, it kept going downhill."
Gregoire graduated from high school at the age of 21 - Haitian schools having two more grades than do American schools. After school, he cut hair at houses and in the street. One day, his neighbor's brother-in-law asked him if he was interested in working on a Carnival cruise ship.
Gregoire did not speak English, but he enrolled in an 11-month language-training institute with a loan from his father. The man eventually returned and was impressed with Gregoire's quick study. Two weeks later, Carnival sent Gregoire a letter that helped expedite his visa.
He left Haiti and began working as a bellboy on a ship operating out of Miami. Gregoire worked for Carnival for four years. During his last year, he requested a transfer to the Jubilee, an Alaska route, to visit a woman he had met in Mexico. Their relationship didn't work out, but he made some close friends in Juneau. They used to hang out at the old downtown Penthouse bar.
On his 25th birthday, he met his future wife, a friend of a friend. Soon, they were married. Gregoire got his green card and saw an ad on the Internet for a job opening at Greens Creek.
He works six days a week, waking up at 4 a.m. and spending about an hour and 15 minutes round-trip on the ferry to Admiralty Island. That leaves little time to train for boxing.
Gregoire kick-boxed for five years in high school but had never boxed before his first fight in 2003 at Marlintini's. A co-worker talked him into it.
Gregoire was raw, to say the least. When his first opponent fell to his knees, Gregoire didn't realize the fight was over.
Gregoire started the 2004-2005 season with a victory, then lost twice to Anchorage boxer Glen Laufenberger. That's when Gregoire began training with Beagle, a former Golden Gloves champion in Colorado. He hasn't lost since. His streak includes the 2004-2005 Southeast Showdown lightweight championship - a decision over Shawn "The Comeback Kid" Beaird.
"I'm always focused," Gregoire said. "I just want to finish somebody up, to get it over with, to do what I do and just punch hard.
"A lot of fighters like to run, to stay away from me. I used to chase them, because they were always running. I don't chase them anymore."
Gregoire feels he's in much better shape since fighting Taunton in the season opener. He began training two days before.
Taunton also plans to be more prepared tonight. He fought in Fairbanks 24 hours before their October fight.
He's also used to rounds that last two to three minutes. The rounds at Marlintini's are 90 seconds.
Taunton, 23, has been boxing for three years and has a 30-5 record. His father and uncle are boxing fans and encouraged him to try the sport.
"I'm not one of these roughhouse fighters that goes out there and throws crazy punches," Taunton said.
Dissecting Gregoire's style, Taunton talked trash.
"He's a very nice guy," Taunton said. "He's very polite. I respect him. But as a fighter, he's garbage."
"Julio is not on my level at all," he said. "If you ask me, he's got no real boxing technique.
"He's not a boxer. He's a fighter, plain and simple."