Written by Steve Buffery, journalist for the Toronto Sun
Toronto once had a reputation as being a great boxing town. Unfortunately, that reputation has taken a beating in recent years. Montreal certainly holds many more cards — both pro and amateur — than it’s Upper Canada rival and seems to produce more quality fighters. However; there was a time when Toronto was the undisputed boxing capital of Canada, and thanks to people like Jennifer Huggins, owner and operator of Etobicoke’s Kingsway Boxing Club and organizer of the annual Fight To End Cancer gala event in support of Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, the sweet science seems to be on the upswing in these parts. And why not? Many people don’t realize, or have forgotten, how great of a boxing town Toronto once was; and how many great fighters — both professional and amateur — were developed and showcased in this town.
Toronto produced Olympic medalists Horace (Lefty) Gwynne, 1932 bantamweight champion, and Shawn O’Sullivan, the 1984 light-middleweight silver medalist (and son of a TTC bus driver), as well as a slew of world-ranked professionals, including the great heavyweight George Chuvalo, welterweights Sammy Luftspring, Donovan Boucher and Clyde Gray — a Commonwealth champion who fought for three world titles while later becoming Ontario boxing commissioner — lightweights Little Arthur King and Joey Bagnato, light-welterweight Nicky Furlano and light-heavyweight Eddie Melo. There was a time when fight cards were scheduled almost as frequently as Maple Leafs games.
In the so-called “modern” era of Toronto boxing, professional bouts have been held in grand stadiums like venerable Maple Leaf Gardens, and tiny venues like Winchester Public School in Toronto’s Cabbagetown District. Cards were also held regularly at the old Masonic Temple at Yonge and Davenport (later to become a CTV property), Varsity Arena — scene of a dynamic second-round knockout by Donovan Boucher over O’Sullivan in 1988 for the Canadian welterweight title — the Harbour Castle, Curzon Health Club, CNE Coliseum and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
Each year, for the past 29 years, an annual professional black tie show has been held at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel in aid of the Shaw Festival, an event that has raised over a million dollars for the festival and showcased many of the area’s top fighters. Local promoters have also put on shows at the St. Lawrence Market, where once an unusually small crowd prompted a “smart-alecky” Toronto sports reporter to write that the MC began his introductions with ‘Lady and Gentleman!”. The Market also hosted the widely popular ‘So You Think You’re Tough’ shows.
Prior to 1970’s, cards were held frequently at Maple Leaf Gardens (site of the epic 15-round war between Chuvalo and Muhammad Ali in 1966), the old Maple Leaf Stadium, Mutual Street Arena (where, in 1938, Sammy Luftspring knocked out Frankie Genovese in the 13th round for the Canadian welterweight title), Oakwood Stadium and North York Centennial Arena. In his extraordinary new book ‘Chuvalo’ (co-written by Edmonton journalist Murray Greig), the former heavyweight champion writes about his first amateur bout at East York Arena, site of a weekly CBC amateur boxing program.
For a number of reasons, the game has suffered in recent years in Toronto and boxing cards have become few and far between. Thankfully, there are people like Huggins still involved in the game. The Etobicoke native is a one-woman wrecking crew in terms of promoting the sport. A National-level referee, as well as a former elite Canadian figure skater, Huggins is the brainchild behind the Fight To End Cancer, an event that matches business professionals inside the ring in serious competition. Though the show is not about showcasing up-and-coming amateur or professional fighters, the fights are no joke. Participants spend six months leading up to the event training under the watchful eye of Huggins and Kingsway Boxing Club/Fight To End Cancer head coach, Virgil Barrow. Everyone takes the matches very seriously. In boxing, you have to; there are no half measures in this sport.
“Chess is often used to describe the mindset inside the boxing ring between two opponents,” said Barrow. “As the Fight Team Captain, I would argue that it’s more like playing chess against yourself. You must train two people to fight each other and understand both fighter’s strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the day, corporate charity boxing is great for the sport. It allows people that never thought about boxing as an opportunity for them to step inside the ring, to fight for a great cause.”
The Fight To End Cancer is certainly a win-win-win proposition. The show raises needed funds for cancer research for the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, gets traditionally non-boxing types involved in the sport, and reminds people that the sport is, and will always be, part of this great city.