Art Oldrieve’s fist landed squarely on the nose of Darcy Parsons, and a woman in the crowd winced and covered her face. But the majority of the 150 onlookers urged the fight on as Oldrieve, 13, and Parsons, 12, feinted and flailed under the fluorescent lights in the Sackville, N.S., bingo hall. Oldrieve and Parsons are about as young as amateur boxers come, and yet the sight of two 85 pounders having it out in public is scarcely a peculiar one in the Halifax suburbs. While kids in the rest of Canada dream of becoming another Gretzky or Podborski, those in the East are more likely to have heroes with names like Langford, Durelle, Dixon or MacDonald—awe-inspiring figures in the traditional Maritime fascination with boxing.
“The Maritimes are the cradle of boxing in this country,” says Tony Unitas, director of the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame. An avid boxing historian, Unitas traces the roots of organized boxing in the country to the violent rivalries between lumbermen, fishermen and miners in towns like Glace Bay, Sydney or Baie-Sainte-Anne, N.B., in the late 1800s: “After a few years they said, ‘We have to stop breaking up everybody’s bar when we fight.’ So they were the first in the country to organize, using the Marquis of Queensbury rules, and produce the sport of boxing here.”
The new rules, however, didn’t keep aggression off the streets. The fist-flailing miners near New Waterford and Glace Bay provided subject matter for Hugh MacLennan’s novel Each Man's Son, which depicts the rise and fall of
Archie MacNeil, a Cape Breton boxer who finds fame and glory in the United States, only to return a crushed victim of the sport. (Even today, MacLennan feels that all too many Canadian boxers pursued Yankee glory only to be destroyed by the corrupt American boxing world.) A boxing fan as a boy, he remembers sneaking through windows at the Old Armory in Halifax to watch a fight, while back in Glace Bay the fights were free and not altogether organized: “Every Saturday night you’d see fights on Senator’s Corner.”
In such a milieu, it paid to learn selfdefence. The father of Yvon Durelle, the internationally known light-heavyweight from Baie-Sainte-Anne, was a fisherman who insisted that any arguments around the dinner table be settled with fists, then and there. Former Canadian middleweight boxing champion Ralph Hollett was wearing gloves when he was four years old. His father, Ralph Hollett Sr., told a recent interviewer: “I figured if a kid could box, he could look after himself. He didn’t have to back down from anyone.”
Learning to box offered more than mere survival; for the underprivileged, it was a chance to make good. “Boxing’s popularity is exactly in proportion to the economic status of the people,” MacLennan says flatly. Clyde Gray, the poised and soft-spoken Nova Scotian who retired in 1980 as the Commonwealth and Canadian welterweight champion, grew up in hardscrabble Windsor Plains, where his father was a gypsum miner. Although his boxing career didn’t begin until he moved to Toronto at age 16, he fought many of his fights in Halifax. “Boxing really was a way out of poverty then. When you are from a poor family and an area where it’s very hard to get an education—we didn’t have proper schools then—boxing was a way to make some money fast, and get some recognition.”
Once a disreputable recreation and rite of passage for the poor, boxing is fast becoming a middle-class sport. Halifax Mayor Ron Wallace was once Maritime middleweight champion on both the intercollegiate and amateur
circuits. His nose bears the unmistakable imprint of having been broken in the ring—not so bad for his television image in that city. A chic Halifax nightclub has put up a ring to attract more customers, and once a year 500 fans troop into the staid Hotel Nova Scotian for the $50-a-plate International Dinner Card.
Today’s amateur boxers, who range in age from 10 to 36, tend to fight not on the street but in a network of 18 official clubs in Nova Scotia. Taylor Gordon and the young pugilists in his Citadel Amateur Boxing Club are about to move
into a new $600,000 sports centre designed exclusively for boxing and funded by federal, provincial and city sources. Meanwhile, the 40-odd boxers work out and spar two hours a day at a north end Halifax school where the principal, Dick MacLean, is president of the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association. MacLean claims that there’s a 15per-cent increase in new amateur boxers every year across Canada, most of them teenagers.
Young boxers are quick to assert that they are not just a bunch of kids off the street who like to fight. Says 19-yearold “Sonny” Wicks of Dartmouth, already a veteran with four years as a provincial champ under his belt: “A lot of people think it’s a sport for bums. But it isn’t.” Ken Millar, amateur boxing coordinator for the province, says that it develops character and perseverance, valuable attributes for any career. Shawn Eagles, 17, a silver medalist on the national level, foresees a career in law and politics rather than the ring.
For the time being, however, he is sticking with the sport and a lucid strategy: “I like getting hit as little as possible.” Troy Van Tassel, 17, has also become a silver medalist in five years of boxing, and so far his only injury is a broken thumb. He believes boxing helped him develop the stamina to fight a 14-yearlong battle against leukemia.
The Maritimes have produced some legendary fighters. Sam Langford, from Weymouth, N.S., ran away from home to Boston and became one of the alltime great heavyweights. A physical anomaly, he stood five-foot-four and
had an astonishing 84-inch reach, but with the boxing world looking for a “white hope” at the turn of the century, the black Langford was never given a title fight. At the end of the 1800s, George Dixon of Glace Bay became the first black man to win a world boxing championship and he is still ranked the all-time number 1 bantamweight in boxing’s holy writ, The Ring magazine.
Until about five years ago, the Maritimes boasted more professional boxers per capita than any other region of the country, says Tony Unitas. Since then, however, boxing booms in Ontario and Montreal have yielded the finest new professionals. The Maritimes still have homegrown heroes, chiefly Ralph Hollett and Roddy MacDonald. And Nova Scotia has double the average number of amateurs per capita, with 400 out of about 4,000 in Canada. A handful of these will undoubtedly choose to go professional, and Maritimers will be looking to them to keep the fighting tradition alive. -LESLEY CHOYCE
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