The Patriotic Pummeler
Thomas Calabrese– Dan grew up on military bases as the eldest child of Marine Corps Major David and Diane Tillson with two younger twin sisters, Elle and Hannah. His mother was an accomplished triathlete and former college swimmer and the family’s primary sources of recreation revolved around their physical activities. When Major Tillson was not deployed the family could usually be found surfing, hiking, rock climbing or playing a sport of some kind. When he was away, Diane was just as hands on as her husband and when they were stationed at Camp Pendleton she would bring her children down to the beach while she trained. When they were too young to keep up with her, they ran, biked or swam as far as they could, then played in the sand until she finished. As they got older and their strength and endurarance increased, they eventually surpassed her.
The Tollson children played a variety of sports and eventually determined which ones were their favorites. Elle liked tennis and soon became ranked in her age group and Hannah focused on volleyball and really excelled at the two person beach game. Dan liked baseball and was a pitcher on the El Camino High School baseball team and mid-distance runner on the track team. He came across boxing by accident when he accompanied his father to the 14 Area fitness center on base. That is where Dan saw a group of Marines training for the Semper Fi boxing team and moved closer to watch them sparring.
“Want to try?” Major Tillson asked.
“Sure,” Dan fearlessly replied..
“Slow down, Rocky, you need headgear and a mouthpiece first.”
“We’ll come back tomorrow,”Major Tollson promised.
While the fourteen year old boy had no previous boxing experience and was several years younger than the Marines, he did reasonably well against the more experienced, stronger and bigger fighters. Dan didn’t flail or swing wildly once inside the ring. He remembered what his father told him about self defense so he kept his hands up and when he punched, his hands came out straight and fast. Dan’s natural athletic ability skills was evident as he instinctively slipped and ducked under punches from the Marine boxer.
The boxing coach was visibly impressed by Dan’s performance, “ Sir, your son is very good, how long has he been boxing?”
“This is his first time in the ring,” Major Tollson replied proudly.
Dan pursued his newfound interest in boxing by finding a gym in Vista, California operated by former middleweight contender, Marcus Herrara and began training several times a week as a hobby without any goal in mind.
Right about this time Major Tollson received PCS (permanent change of duty) orders to Camp Lejeune and after a family discussion he decided to go alone rather than move his family across country. The family purchased a house in the Vista San Luis Rey neighborhood in Oceanside near El Camino High School. It was a good investment because the real estate was in a downturn at the time and the property was expected to increase in value over time. At least that is what real estate agent and former Marine Christine Marshall told him. Major Tollson’s long range plan was to retire in California after his military career. His family was used to his extended absences and Diane was the consumate military wife who had over twenty years of experience of handling things while he was serving his country. The Marine officer also was lucky enough to have three children who always did their part to help their mother. In reality this would be like an extended deployment with the distinct advantage of him being able to take leave and fly home every few months. Things worked out well, even better than expected and when David Tollson returned to Camp Pendleton two years later, it was as a Lieutenant Colonel and he was on course to making Colonel.
During his father’s absence Dan had one hundred and seven amateur fights with a record of one hundred wins and his seven losses were against much more experienced fighters. He traveled with Marcus to other fight clubs and gyms from Tijuana to Los Angeles to fight in three, five and seven rounders. Dan also participated in two National Golden Gloves tournaments and won championships as a middleweight and light heavyweight. Marcus was an excellent judge of talent and saw the unlimited potential in the young man so he was extremely careful with his development. He would have Dan spar with smaller and more elusive fighters to build up his foot and hand speed one day then go against big powerful heavyweights with devastating punching power the next. This unique training regimen helped to make Dan a complete fighter who could adapt to any situation in the ring.
Dan turned down over two dozen scholarship offers to play Division A baseball at schools around the country after graduating from El Camino high school. He chose instead to pitch for the Palomar College Comets so that he could stay at home, help his mother and continue with his boxing training. By the time he was a sophomore in college Dan had grown to six foot four inches and weighed two hundred and thirty pounds with less than four per cent bodyfat on his chiseled physique and was drafted by the San Diego Padres.
The 2000 Olympics were being held in Sydney,Australia and Dan would have to win one of several qualifying tournaments to be invited to the the trials. Marcus chose the World Boxing Championships in Berlin, Germany with some of the best amateur boxers in the world. Dan knocked out his Polish opponent in the third round to win the amateur title then later at the Olympic trials in Reno,Nevada Dan won four bouts over a period of six days to secure his spot on the team.
With Marcus Herrara in his corner and his family in attendance Dan won the gold medal in the heavyweight division at the Sydney Exhibition Center against Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Steveson. To boxing experts the fighter from Oceanside was the complete package; a rare combination of speed, power and balance with the intelligence of a master ring tactician. Dan also knew how to minimize the physical damage that was inherent in the sport by using his lightning quick reflexes to slip, block or counter most of his opponent’s punches.
Among the many weapons in his arsenal was a pile-driving jab that kept his opponents outside their comfort zone while snapping their heads back like a bobblehead doll. When the time was right Dan shortened his punches just enough to entice his opponents to come closer at which time he would unleash a crashing right cross, a powerful uppercut or a series of bone rattling body punches that usually sent his fellow pugilist to the canvas.
Upon his return to California after the Olympics, Dan sat down with Marcus to discuss his future. Marcus explained, “I’m a trainer and small time manager,but from this point forward, you’re going to need to get a big time organization behind you. I’d only be holding you back.”
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you and I will always be grateful,” Dan said.
“You were born with a gift, but the hard work and dedication to develop it came from inside you. You’ve got the biggest heart of any fighter that I have ever worked with. I just pointed you in the right direction, showed you a few things then got out of your way,” Marcus’voice cracked with emotion.
“I know better than to argue with you so we may have to agree to disagree on this ,” Dan smiled, “You did much more than that.”
“I contacted Tony Santini of Santini Promotions who’s the best in the fight business. His facilities are state of the art and his team of trainers and cornermen have worked with world champions from every weight class. He’s interested in meeting you and if you sign with him, there’s a good chance you’ll be fighting for the heavyweight title in a couple years.”
“What about you?” Dan asked.
“ What do you mean what about me?”
“You said he had a team of trainers, I don’t need a trainer, I have you?” Dan retorted.
“That’s not the way he likes to work, he keeps everything in house,” Marcus said.
“There’s no reason for me to meet him then; you and I are a package deal. Either we keep going down this same road together or we stop right here because I’m not fighting without you.”
“You’re talking about your future, I appreciate your loyalty, but you don’t have to do this,” Marcus offered.
“Yeah I do.”
Marcus relayed the terms to Tony Santini and when he came down to Oceanside to meet with Dan and his family, the first thing that he brought up was the fact that Dan wanted to keep Marcus as his trainer. “Marcus might be your friend and a hell of a nice guy, but even he realizes that he’s not the best man for the job.”
“With all due respect Mr. Santini, Marcus is the only trainer for me. You misjudged the situation and wasted a trip if you think that you can convince me otherwise.”
“I can get you a title fight and make you a multi-millionaire, Marcus can’t do that. If I walk out that door that possibility goes with me. There won’t be any do overs and you’ll just be an answer to a boxing trivia question in a few years.” Tony Santini threatened, “Don’t do this.”
“When you put it that way,” Dan walked over to the front door, opened it and stood next to it, “Drive carefully.”
Lieutenant Colonel Tollson turned to Tony Santini, “ You might as well go because there’s nothing you can offer my son that is going to get him to change his mind.”
“I’ve signed a lot of up and coming fighters during my many years in boxing and there’s one thing that is pretty common among them all. Once I dangle a title fight and a lot of money in front of them, they leap at it,but not with your boy. He’s something special, you should be proud.”
“We know and we are,” Diane Tollson beamed.
“I’ll put a contract together that I think you’ll be happy with, one that includes Marcus,” Tony Santini tapped Dan on the shoulder as he walked out the door, “I’ll be in touch.”
Tony Santini kept his word and the contract included specific stipulations that Marcus Herrara would remain as trainer. Dan signed the contract and over the next five months fought three fights. He won the first one by decision and the last two by early round knockouts. His last fight was at Pala Casino against a fourth rank heavyweight. What was almost as impressive was that one week earlier, Dan pitched a one-hitter for his college baseball team. Despite his newfound notoriety, Dan took even greater pleasure in the success of his twin sisters who had just accepted athletic scholarships to attend UCLA.
Life changed, America changed and the world changed on September 11, 2001. After the attack on the Twin Towers, Dan approached his father, “I want to join the Marines.”
Lieutenant Colonel Tollson wished he could have said that he was surprised, but in reality he kind of expected it, “You’ve got a lot going on in your life, are you sure?”
“You raised me to stay focused on the top three priorities; God, family and country. Boxing and baseball doesn’t seem all that important right now to me. My heart wouldn’t be in it knowing that our country was attacked and I went on as if nothing happened. You set the example of what its like to serve with honor and integrity so is it that unusual that I wouldn’t want to do my part too?”
“You’ve given this some thought, haven’t you?”
“I even did my research and found examples of big movie stars like Clark Gable, James Stewart and Henry Fonda who left Hollywood at the peak of their careers to fight in World War II. Don’t forget about Ted Williams, Bob Feller and Roger Staubach who left their sports to serve in the military. If it was good enough for them then it should be good enough for me.”
Dan enlisted in the Marines and could have requested special duty as a fitness instructor or boxing coach, but chose instead to apply for Force Reconnissance. On April 22, 2004 in Spera, Afhghanistan, Dan’s unit was working with members of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment when they came under fire from a large well armed Taliban force. The wounded Rangers and Recon Marines retreated into a canyon and took up defensive positions to wait for reinforcements that never arrived. They fought valiantly until they ran out of ammunition, leaving them only two choices, surrender or be killed. Dan saw an escaped route and managed to crawl away undetected. From a hole beneath a large boulder he peered out and saw his fellow Americans being led single file to the far end of the canyon and through a well concealed opening at the base of the mountain.
The situation was dire and desperate, Dan had only one full magazine of ammunition left and if he opened fire, it would give away his position and undoubtedly he would be killed. If he stayed hidden, he could wait for additional units to arrive and tell them where the soldiers and Marines were taken and let them handle it. Getting them out would be brutal and that was assuming they had not been moved to a different location. If they were booby trapped then a lot of good men were going to die. Since there were no good options available Dan decided to take matters into his own hands, literally.
He searched through his pack for his first aid kit then took out the gauze and adhesive tape. Dan searched for several small flat rocks on the ground that he placed over his knuckles to protect them while increasing the effects of his punches. He slowly wrapped the gauze around his hands twice then put two small flat rocks on the knuckle part of his hands, then three more times around with the gauze and adhesive tape to keep everything in place. After making a few minor adjustments, Dan was satisfied with his improvised rockhand weapons. “Not too bad,” then slipped his combat gloves on and took a couple of practice punches, “We’ll know soon enough if it works.”
When it got dark, Dan put on his night vision goggles and slowly made his way down the slope and toward the cave entrance. When he came upon a Taliban fighter, he silently approached and hit him so hard at the base of the skull that it severed his spine. Dan saw three more men by a campfire and moved toward their location and when he got close enough he came out of the night like an avenging predator and each punch that landed was a death blow to its recipient. At the cave entrance were two more fighters, Dan’s left fist crushed the windpipe of one man, a split second later his right cross landed squarely against the other Taliban fighter’s temple and he died from a massive brain hemorrhage.
Over a dozen enemy fighters were lying dead when the sun came up the next morning as other military units arrived. The hostages had been freed and helicopters arrived to medivac the wounded. Dan did one more combat deployment and finished his four year enlistment. After returning to civilian life in Oceanside, he resumed his boxing and baseball careers.
In the same year that Dan won the heavyweight title at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, he also won 16 games for the San Diego Padres.
With his family’s help, Dan started a charitable foundation and personally contributed millions of dollars to help veterans, first responders and their families. His mother became CEO and used her extensive experience as a triathlete to organize fundraising events, while his father who was now retired from the Marine Corps was responsible for getting help to those that were most in need.
It was never about the fame, glory or money for Dan Tollson, it was about doing the right thing. He was the Patriotic Pummeler and his foundation was appropriately named American Knockout.