During a recent speech, Scott LeDoux asked if anyone in his audience had ever boxed. Three people raised their hands. LeDoux, a former heavyweight contender who fought Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and nine other world champions, responded, "I'll speak slowly for the rest of you."

Occasionally, the Anoka County commissioner looked toward the ceiling, tilting his head left, then right, as if gazing at imaginary birds circling above.

"It's what people expect of a fighter who maybe took too many blows to the head," LeDoux said later.

With LeDoux, expect the unexpected. But forget the stereotypes.

LeDoux has gone toe to toe with boxing's legends, stood up this year to a reprimand by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and has been criticized for occasionally forgetting to harness his ego. He says he can be "too blatantly rude" and "too blatantly honest" to be a politician, but LeDoux, a political independent, is among the county's most influential commissioners.

"Don't underestimate him," longtime county board member Dan Erhart said recently. "He's a leader. He knows how to work with people. And he can open a lot of doors that others can't."

Sure, LeDoux, 58, likes to tell listeners that he was his freshman class president three straight years. But don't be fooled, warns his friend Bob Dolan, a Minneapolis attorney. LeDoux -- who lost his lone heavyweight title bout to Larry Holmes, in 1980, at the old Met Center in Bloomington -- has tremendous recall and a cutting wit, marvels Dolan.

According to Dolan: After LeDoux, then 34, lost his final professional fight, in 1983 to Frank Bruno, 21, in London, journalists asked LeDoux if he thought that, in his prime, he could have beaten Bruno. LeDoux responded, "When I started out, I would never have fought Bruno. I would have killed him." When the British journalists accused LeDoux of being arrogant, he told them, "When I started out, Mr. Bruno was probably 3 years old."

Dolan would like to knock out one other misconception concerning his buddy: The big farm kid from Crosby, Minn., who once knocked off Howard Cosell's toupee during an interview, has been a tireless speaker for charitable causes.

"That's really his legacy," Dolan said.

When it comes to charitable work, LeDoux may be just reaching his prime. He often speaks to groups hours before his morning arrival at the Anoka County government center. He says he made more than 100 charitable appearances last year while juggling his roles as Minnesota's boxing commissioner, county commissioner, Realtor, father and husband.

It is the latter role that he takes least for granted. A tough guy? LeDoux's eyes moisten when he says, "I wish I was as strong as my first wife, Sandy." Then he quickly adds, "I've buried two wives."

A need to give back

To fathom why LeDoux decided three years ago to run for county commissioner, you have to understand how a man who has taken so many beatings in and out of the ring can say, "God has given me so much, and I need to give back."

Carol LeDoux, who has been married to Scott for 11 years, never met either of LeDoux's earlier wives. But she knows that their very different tragic lives and deaths helped her husband learn to cherish every waking moment and respond to others' needs -- no matter how many times LeDoux gets knocked against the ropes.

Sandy LeDoux met Scott at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he played football. They wed in 1969, but she spent the final decade of their marriage battling cancer. When she died in 1989, her husband said that if he'd had her courage and heart, he would have been heavyweight champion.

LeDoux's second wife, Dolly, died from alcoholism in 1997 after they had been divorced.

"He feels very keenly for people who have gone through anything like he's gone through," said Carol LeDoux. "He knows what it's like to feel powerless."

An early departure from UMD

Life wasn't supposed to be this complicated for a kid who grew up milking cows, who didn't realize he couldn't get a date as a teenager because "as a farm kid, I had the fragrance of the gods."

The son of a miner with a sixth-grade education and a farm wife who didn't get past the eighth grade, LeDoux said he was perfectly content growing up in the Crosby-Ironton area. After going to school and working the farm, he said he could play in the woods and "pretend I was Daniel Boone."

At 17, he went to UMD to play football. He was introduced to boxing by a friend. He asked a trainer if boxing would make him punchy. "It won't make you any smarter," he says he was told.

LeDoux struggled academically through three years at UMD, left school, and enlisted in the Army -- just as his father and grandfather had done. It was wartime, but he never went to Vietnam. Instead, he was stationed at Fort Lee, Va., as a physical-training specialist.

What followed was a boxing career that spanned from 1974 to 1983 and included 33 victories (21 by knockouts) and 13 defeats. The Fighting Frenchman would train in his garage during Sandy's illness, fearful of leaving her side. When Sandy died, well-wishers asked him who was going to take care of the couple's two teenage children. LeDoux responded, "Well, who do you think's gonna take care of them? I am!" But quietly, he would admit later, "I was terrified."

And he was broke -- financially drained from paying medical bills.

When friends he'd never met responded generously to a fundraiser for his family, LeDoux delved more heavily into his own charitable work. He has served on the national board of directors of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and was an honorary chair of the American Cancer Society.

LeDoux, who has lived in Andover for more than 30 years, says he got into county politics because he was fed up with road conditions that, after a long workday, kept family members from spending more quality time with one another.

He isn't afraid to voice his opinions. Earlier this year, Mille Lacs Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said LeDoux had repeatedly called her band "stupid" and greedy during an argument over boxing matches the tribe staged at Grand Casino Hinckley. Pawlenty rejected a request to remove LeDoux as state boxing commissioner, but had staff members talk to LeDoux nonetheless.

"I said the tribe could save money by relying on the Minnesota Boxing Commission for help in organizing the fight and told [Jim Perrault, a state boxing judge], 'It's stupid not to do this,'" LeDoux said. "I never said the tribe is stupid. I may be a lot of things, but I'm no racist."

LeDoux, though a leading proponent of Multiple Martial Arts fights, isn't interested in battling anybody. He likes being boxing commissioner and plans to run for reelection as county commissioner next year.

"Sometimes I worry that Scott is trying to do too much," said Dan O'Connor, a fight promoter from Rochester. "Yeah, Scott's got an ego, but Scott's a good man. I think after all he's been through, he's just trying to find peace."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

Paul Levy • plevy@startribune.com