Tag: boxing

This is not a history

This is not a history, or a series of reminisces. I wasn’t there. I couldn’t possibly tell you how it started, or how it grew and came to be what you can find today. At least though, I can say what you would find today, if you went, if you go while there is still time.

There are mirrors for your form or your glare, whichever needs work. A black rubber floor that’s carried a thousand soles back and forth. Those new to the steps, those underconfident, those over confident, those who know exactly what they are doing.

Dents dot the back wall from past leviathans. The big guys make the bags shudder and leap. Two nervous young girls tap the bags. They’re new, and it’s a toss-up as to whether they will quietly apply themselves, and stick around, or if they will equally quietly never come again.

The pairs spar between the ropes, helmeted heads bowed low, jaws clenched, fists pinned to those jaws or slacking down to hips. They circle and jab, cross and hook, clinch and grunt and sweat. It’s a guy and a girl, her taller, him heavier but too slow to make it count. She keeps him away with the jab and occasionally dashes to the body. He cuffs her round the back of the head and it’s not very pretty.

Red gloves, blue gloves, white gloves and black gloves flash back and forth, rat tat tat on the pads. Rat tat tat. Rat tat tat. Exhaled breath with every strike as the feet push and the hips pivot and the shoulders rock back and forth. They skip rope, work pads, pound the bag until their dreams don’t quite seem so far away as they did at the start of the day.

It’s Saturday now and that means the bags are cleared away and the ropes are folded, and instead of the pacing feet there are chairs on the rubber. The women behind the bar laugh and joke with the punters and tease the regulars, while the fighters scowl into their hoods or pass the time with their friends, nerves tamed by the routine. Two young girls move round selling raffle tickets, their hair neatly plaited, as this is a family event too, with the door operated by someone’s dad and cake made by someone’s mum. More parents sit in the seats as their sons and daughters lace up the gloves, look themselves in the mirror and walk out to find out if they will create a great deal of pride or a small tick of embarrassment.

The fights on the night are mixed, as they tend to be. There are a couple of debuts; the curious thrill of watching two 12 years olds lay into each other, the only fact tempering the spectacle was that it was a bit one-sided. Some muscular young tyro walking through his opponent’s flailing arms, powered more by fear than rage, a cross to the nose causing the lad to sag forward like a suddenly deflated balloon. I sit on my chair and grip my pen and consider how these boys have the courage to stand up there while I sit here. I write this and try to claw back some of their heroism.

There is the youth who looks like he can make it, and the one who I don’t think ever will. One fight that had real potential ended early by a clumsy headbutt, another ended early by a capricious trainer not pleased with his fighter’s work, even as her opponent came on and on; rat tat tat, rat tat tat.

Home fighters are greeted by friendly roars from the mildly lubricated crowd. Spells of nervous silence come as we wait for them to assert themselves, groans if they don’t. We forget ourselves and watched in sickened silence as one comes under the cosh, a crunching blow waking us to try and raise them; remind them it’s not just their own pride they defend but ours as well.

Fighters mingle afterwards, winding down and stretching out. There’s the girl with the black eye, the lad with the squashed nose, and the one as beautiful as the day she was born, as she doesn’t get hit, doesn’t get beat, not really beat anyway. Everyone is pretty happy, the ones that weren’t are long gone, denying the strip lights strung from the ceiling the chance to illuminate their loss.

When it’s all said and done, and the doctor goes home under-employed, it’s a success. Just making the damn thing happen: bringing them all together from the gyms tucked into the corners of other town and cities, selling the tickets and the beer, running the raffle and eating the mother’s cake; that’s a success. It’s the last one too, before the diggers and cranes move in to flatten the place, clearing land to make more land for the dollars to pour into.

I hope those that started it get to close it, that last time. I hope that they take down the bags, fold up the ropes, pack up the pads and set up the ring up in the new gym, and then come back to the old place. I hope they stand and take in the space one last time, remember how it started, how it grew, and how it came to be the thing they created. I hope they pace the well-worn space one last time, leaving footprints in the gathering dust, a warm body disrupting the still air one last time. As the last of the help leaves, and as they weight the key they’ve used a thousand times to open the door at the start of the day and close it at night, I hope they breathe in that rarefied air one final time, and exhale the way they taught. Rat tat tat.

Then, as they turn to leave, and the tears they held back all this time finally drip down their cheeks and dot the floor, I hope that as the door closes all the atmosphere rushes out of the place, and it is preserved perfectly in that final state. Like the astronaut’s footprints preserved in the lunar dust. I hope no one else gets to see it again, after those that built it, and that it is preserved at the end as it will be forever in their memory, when the wrecking ball comes and the walls shiver and collapse and they wish that gym goodbye.

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Saturday night’s alright for fighting

 

On Saturday, 1st April, there was an event which gave you a few more stories than most Saturday nights. It was the 22nd, and my 2nd, instalment of Dynamite fights, a series of boxing matches organised at the TNT Boxing Academy in Guelph, Ontario. Read a rather breathless summary of the last one here. If it was anything like that last one, this means the potential for thrills and technical kills, displays of superior skill and brutal power. This one carried an extra special edge to it however, as TNT got international. Thanks to Boxing Canada, one of the fights featured a boxer specially flown in from England. Jade Ashmore arrived Thursday to face Canadian Olympian Mandy Bujold. Given that Bujold is a ten-time national champion and a two-time Pan-American champion, while Ashmore has recently been elevated to the GB Podium Potential squad, expectations and excitement were running high. A sprinkle of glamour to complement the scent of canvas and sweat.

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Full house at TNT. Picture from twitter.com/MercerRecord

The promise of a trans-Atlantic war wasn’t the only thing that had got the locals excited. Got them skipping dinner to head down to the ring at 5:00pm to grab the last of the seats. Got them snapping up every ticket left, right and centre. Some 200, maybe 250 in attendance. They were drawn by the prospect of epics, of grudge matches, of super heavyweights, young unknowns and old favourites. It’s a heady cocktail, and the place was buzzing. Standing room only, onlookers jostling on benches at the back, craning necks round corners to catch a glimpse of the action. Hungry for a taste of it, feeding off the glamour, the aggro, the coiled energy from the boxers stalking though their warm-up routines. There are many different routes to a properly entertaining fight, and we were blessed with a full range of match-ups.

 

First there are the unknowns. Three fights featured two out of town fighters, so their prospects were harder to judge prematurely. We scrutinised the fighters beforehand, trying to judge who was faster, cleaner, meaner, by their warm-up and the set of their jaws, like watching thoroughbreds out in the circle before the Derby. The bell rings and we lean forward eagerly, keen to have our hunches upheld or quashed. In the first we’re proven right, Dustin Howick of Caged Dragon, living up to the gym’s name, came out like a hurricane, flying into Hansel Espino, Gideons, from the off, cashing the cheques his uber focused warm-up wrote. This brutal assault won applause from the crowd, but a puzzling lack of response from Espino in blue. His corner exhorts him to get over his trigger shyness, but he never does, and Howick takes the unanimous decision.

The other two fights involving non-TNT boxers follow similar patterns to each other. Jean Benoit, Celtic Hammer, and Daniel Payne, Battle Arts, both had a reach and a class advantage over their opponents: Erik Hodgons, Paschtime boxing, and Adrian Calestani-Winacott, Celtic Hammer respectively. Payne looks good, fast and with some crunching blows that lead to three standing eight counts in the 2nd round, the last of which ends the fight. Benoit also looks tidy, ripping out rapid strikes that repeatedly have the crowd groaning. Hodgons, in his first fight, does well to last it, having some success when he gets in close, but ultimately is unable to pin down his opponent. He takes an eight count, and a call from his corner to “walk in with something, not just your head”, while Benoit takes the unanimous decision.

A good match has ebb and flow, attack morphing to defence, big leads cut down by resolute resistance. The first fight of the night followed the latter path, getting the crowd going, suggesting the pre-night promise would be met. Kyle Allen, TNT, gave us a scare against Mathankan Ivanjan, Gideons. For the first two rounds crashing over-hand rights weren’t quite enough against the slicker Ivanjan’s rapid combos. Still Allen came on, his connections drawing roars from the crowd, Ivanjan’s corner bawling at their man: “Don’t stand in front of him!” (“Stand in front of him!” is the reply from a wag in the crowd). For my money Ivanjan is up heading into the final round, but Allen digs deep in the third with a heroic effort, chasing him around the ring, giving everything. Was it enough? We wait on tenterhooks. Yes, by split decision. Thrilling.

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Bynol takes the win against Bongelli; picture from twitter.com/Deborah_Currie

Unfortunately, two TNT fighters can’t quite pull off such comebacks. Craig Bongelli probably needed one more round to complete a turnaround, but as it was his giant (225lb/102kg) opponent, Randy Bynol, Battle Arts, took their super heavyweight contest after some heavy blows in the 2nd led to a standing eight count, and ultimately the win. There was a case for Greg Holley, TNT, having done enough at the last against the tall, cocky O’Neil King, Dewith’s. In a classic clash of styles King evidently did just enough off the back foot to take a split decision. Desperately unlucky for Holley, but definitely an improvement over his last fight.

Contrast the raucous crowd for these duels with the pin-drop silence for our international events. Sheer anticipation gagged the crowd for two fights featuring TNT’s past and prospective Olympians. In the latter category, Sara Haghighat-Joo is a big draw, the gym’s golden girl, having won a recent international event in Sweden, and generally considered a medal chance that the next Olympics. She faced Ali Rosen, representing Caged Dragon, who flew up from Miami. Rosen is taller and heavier than Haghighat-Joo, and perhaps this worries the crowd, who are deathly quiet. They needn’t have been, Haghighat-Joo is clearly faster, and stays on top throughout a cagey encounter to take the unanimous decision. Her career marches resolutely on. Mandy Bujold, Team Canada, also looks faster than Jade Ashmore, Team England, in the eye-catching trans-Atlantic bust-up. At one point Bujold darts in an in a flash delivers a three punch combo the English woman can’t even get her gloves up to. The crowd, whispering at the start, get louder as the result becomes more clear: Bujold on all cards.

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Bujold takes on Ashmore; picture from twitter.com/Deborah_Currie

This was not lacking from the remaining two fights. What adds a bit of spice to any encounter is a touch of history, and that came in the fight between home favourite Carolyn Redmond and Max Turcotte-Novosedlik, Celtic Hammer. They had previously met in the provincial finals, with Redmond beaten to gold by Turcotte-Novosedlik. A bit of a grudge match then. Huge roar from the crowd for this one. Its a hell of a fight too; two very good, very well-matched, very committed boxers putting it all on the line. Perhaps it’s the desire for vengeance, perhaps it’s the roar of a home crowd; Redmond takes the fight to her opponent, demanding that gold back. She never lets up. Turcotte-Novosedlik was the champion. Past tense. Redmond takes the unanimous victory, crowd going wild, 10/10 on the volume.

Somehow though, it went up again for the final fight. Before the night, and aside from the international element, this was main thing people had been talking about. Brock Stumpf, TNT, and reigning Canadian heavyweight champion, against Daniel Akota, Dewith’s. We had been promised entertainment the value of the entire admission alone from this one by half a dozen people. Appetites whetted by the previous nine courses, we still hungered for a 10th. They didn’t disappoint; I’m not sure its in them to fight cute. Even all the little extras were there to make it particularly enthralling; chest bumps after the bell, sparks of outrage when it is his punches, but not yours, that are slightly out of order, corners adding their words of the maelstrom of action. Alongside this side-show the fighters are doing their best to drop bombs on each other, that one huge punch to fell a man and make the crowd howl. Stumpf gets his gum shield punched out, but to the tune of 200+ people chanting “Brock, Brock, Brock” he launches himself forward in a flurry of punches. We double up with nerves when we hear it’s a split decision, but Stumpf takes it. The crowd roar with delight for a final time. We grin at each other, and eventually start clearing out. A fitting end to a dynamite night.

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Competition coach Stevie Bailey, and boxers Carolyn Redmond, Sara Haghighat-Joo, Mandy Bujold and Brock Stumpf after their wins. Picture from twitter.com/MandyBujold

Fight night

 

They promised to train like beasts and fight like monsters. We came to see if they were true to their word. In a simple square ring, in an old garage, at the back of an unheralded industrial unit, down a small road in the city of Guelph. The smell of deep heat and old sweat hangs in the air, like every pre-match changing room I’ve ever known. Some flicked though the last few combinations with their trainers, others chatted with well-wishers, others buried themselves in a hood and their own apprehension. I felt nervous for them, paired up and walking out in a Saturday night for the TNT boxing academy 10th anniversary. The cake would come later. The cake was a joke to the fighters, who had been fasting and sweating to drop that last pound to make the weight. Lean, wiry and chiselled, some tall, some short, male, female, junior, older, but all filed down to the necessary sinew, muscle and heart for the task at hand.

We grabbed a beer, a seat, and exchange greetings with old friends or made new ones. Joel Yip Chuck said some words of thanks to those deserving. The bell rang, and the first bout commenced. Two juniors. Probably less than 10 fights between them. Proud parents urged them on. Proud parents take every blow with their sons. Romano Watt, TNT, Guelph, took a few stiff punches to the head from the stockier Keeyan Trotman, Boomerz, London. Watt took his standing 8 count impatiently and tried to get his rhythm back. “Forget his head”, “Work the body” offer the crowd. Trotman by unanimous decision.

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Red and blue leave the ring, red and blue enter. Old opponents, new champions each time. This time red claimed Hunter Lee, Windsor amateur boxing; blue took Satwinder Thind, KingOfTheRing, Brampton. He was tall. Thind towered over Lee, a wonder they were the same weight; does Thind have a bird’s hollow bones? It is Lee who does the early flying, crunching Thind with some meaty blows. Thind’s coach is too letting fly, a constant stream of advice, instruction and critique. “Let your hands go, let your hands go.” He does in the 2nd, “Oh yeahs!” rising from the crowd as his long brown limbs flash out. Lee gets back on top in the 3rd, only for a white towel to flutter out from the blue corner, and the fight ends in puzzlement. The crowd ripples with energy, the climax taken from us like the snap of a guitar string. A Muhammed Ali poster watches on. How many millions of fights have 1000s of Ali posters in 1000s of boxing gyms around the world watched?

TTNT2.pnghe crowd regain their energy for the next fight. Home fighter Mary Anne Zamora-Grepe, red corner, to go with her hair, 37 and her first fight, commands a vocal following. Visibly moved by the volume of support, it is not surprising she doesn’t start fluidly. Samantha Rhodes, BigTyme, Orangeville, forces her back with furious blue gloves. Not many are clean strikes though, and Zamora-Grepe goes well off the back foot. The fast start was hard on Rhodes, longer on her chair between the rounds. Rhodes lands a few solid shots that worry the crowd, but despite a slip to the canvas Zamora-Grepe does enough to take a unanimous decision. The crowd raise their voices with another volley of “Lets go Mary Anne” and nerves are washed away like sand by the wave of genuine happiness for the home fighter. She looks thrilled.

Lucca Coppala, Rough boxing, Windsor, defeats a hunched Clay Whiting, Jamestown boxing club, Oshawa, in a fairly one-sided bout, Coppola’s pounding body shots causing a pale Whiting to grimace his way back to his chair. The 2nd standing 8 count in the 2nd round brings a welcome end. You wonder which you would be if you wore the red or blue and did this. Graceful victor or battered loser. Gently squeeze your hand into a fist and imagine letting your hands go. Do they find the target or only air? The boxers who have been know the answer.

Greg Holly, TNT, apparently lost 5lb in a day to make the weigh for his bout with Jesse Maillet, Motor City, Oshawa. The hours in the sauna in a sauna suit, the effort of sweating out all that water. Its therefore a bit of a shame that he loses by decision to his tattooed opponent. He made a hell of a fight of it mind, coming on hard in the 3rd, a baying crowd urging him on, advancing relentlessly, landing some good shots and occasionally walking into one from the retreating Maillet. In the end it was not quite enough, a standing 8 count in the 2nd probably sealing the deal, although that clearly hurt Holly’s pride more than his flesh. Its all smiles later, playing keepie-uppie with some of the kids, but steel enters his voice when he talks about why he does this. “You play soccer, you play hockey, you don’t play boxing”. Can’t say I doubt that, its like so many other sports events I’ve been to; the nerves, the opponents, the support, but its different as well. A bit rawer, a little bit more fear living in the eyes alongside the bravado.

The penultimate fight is perhaps a victim of this, a scrappy, cagey affair between Philip Conlin, TNT, and Dylon Shankland, Clubb Canada, Scarborough. Its punctuated by shouts of “Fuck him up Phil”, which is easier to say than do, and “He’s off the couch” which is easier to say than understand. Eventually Shankland gets on top in the 3rd, Conlin never really gets going. Shankland by unanimous decision.

The main event arrives to put a cap on proceedings. In blue, a few months post-childbirth, is Sukhpreet Singh, another from KingOfTheRing. Facing her is home favourite Sara Haghighat-Joo, TNT, queen-elect of the ring. Gold at the recent provincial finals, ranked #2 in Canada, its clear to see why this fight received top billing. Its clear too she’s a class apart. Lithe, focused and viper quick. Where others try and land combinations she’s already hit home, working head and body, slicing in and out. Canny as well, catching Singh whenever her hands drop. Haghighat-Joo is all smiles on her chair, unlike her opponent, which tells enough of a story. Singh survives a brace of standing 8 counts but not the judges. Haghighat-Joo by unanimous decision. Never in doubt.

It’s a good end to the night. As the fighters unwind their hand-wraps, we grab a last beer and bask in the reflected glow of their honest endeavour. Puzzlement still reigns over the fluttering towel in the 2nd fight. Rival gyms mingle. The ringside doctor packs up; no one sad they were not required. It was a packed house and a good show; the next instalment of the Dynamite fights will not doubt be equalled well greeted. By then the limbs that are aching will be refuelled with nervous energy, the scent of deep heat will be back in the air and another set of boxers will be wondering if they will sting or be stung. But for now, as we slip out into the night, visiting teams head for the highway, and the last of the sweat dries on the blue canvas, those questions are answered. Promises kept.