TORONTO - As the black-tie wearing set at last Thursday’s Shaw Boxing Evening dug into their Cowboy Steaks, the show’s Master of Ceremonies, Joe Tilley of CTV Sports, climbed into the ring.
Tilley had an unexpected announcement to make.
The main event, he said, featuring Mississauga sensation Logan Cotton McGuinness and Adrian Valdez of Juarez, Mexico had been cancelled because Valdez had trouble getting into Canada. And then, in a rather politically incorrect aside, Tilley joked: “Who would have figured? A Mexican with a Visa problem.”
Fortunately for the show’s organizers, the well-heeled gathering of Toronto’s business elite didn’t seem to care.
Fact is, they weren’t there for the fights as much as to be seen and heard.
For 25 years, the Shaw Festival Boxing evening has been held at the venerable Royal York Hotel and has raised close to $6.5 million for the Niagara-On-The-Lake based festival.
It’s been a huge success.
But the truth be told, the actual fights have not always been very good.
Many of the bouts, even the main event fights, have featured boxers with less than spectacular records. And most of the better fighters are generally less than explosive punchers, which often make for boring fights.
For many true boxing fans, that’s the way it has been in Ontario for years. When there have been fights in this province, they’re often mediocre.
Promoters often have an extremely difficult time putting together shows under Ontario’s ultra-careful athletic commissioner Ken Hayashi, and this year’s Shaw event was no exception.
The card’s matchmaker, Jim Gentle, is loathe to criticize Hayashi, as he is a fairly active promoter and has to deal with the commish frequently.
But when asked about the main event for last Thursday’s show and why it was ultimately cancelled, Gentle could barely contain his frustration.
“I don’t know what the frustration scale is, but it’s at the high end,” said Gentle.
“When you’re promoting a fight in Ontario, you’re never not sweating. Every phone call is a worry that something has gone wrong.”
In fact, Gentle said, after each of his shows, he swears off the sport.
“I can’t endure the indignity any longer,” he said, adding that he carries on with boxing because he loves the people.
“Sure, some are rogues,” he said. “But they’re usually charming.”
Those wishful thinkers who believe that it’s just a matter of time before Ontario allows professional mixed martial arts, should take heed of the trouble Gentle and other promoters experience on a regular basis in trying to put cards together in Ontario.
Even if mixed martial arts is some day approved in this province, there’s certainly no guarantee that any bouts will actually come to fruition.
Ontario has some of the toughest safety standards in the world. Hayashi is a stickler when it comes to safety and that vigilance often results in fighters being dropped and fights cancelled.
Case in point was last week’s Shaw Festival main event.
McGuinness, a lightweight with a 10-0 record with four knockouts, is considered one of the hottest young boxers in Canada.
The Shaw Festival card was to mark his home-province debut and Gentle literally searched the world for the right opponent, someone the 22-year-old could handle, but who would give him a tough match.
Gentle came up with a wide list of prospective opponents and then narrowed it down to three fighters whom he thought Hayashi would approve.
The first was tough Mexican Pipino Cuevas Jr., son of the former world welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas. Cuevas sported a decent record, 14-4, and a tremendous knockout ratio, having recorded 12 in his 18 bouts.
Gentle thought he would be an ideal match for McGuinness. However, Gentle said Hayashi turned that fight down because the 30-year-old Mexican had never gone past four rounds. Which is true.
But much to Gentle’s frustration, the reason Cuevas had never gone past four rounds is because he always knocks his opponents out early.
And his four losses all occurred before the fifth round as well.
“That’s the kind of irrational logic we deal with,” he said.
The next fighter Gentle proposed to Hayashi was Valdez, another tough Mexican with a 19-7-3 record and 11 knockouts.
Unfortunately, Gentle said, Hayashi dragged his feet on Valdez as an opponent and, according to Gentle, by the time the commissioner approved, the organizers didn’t have enough time to secure the proper documentation.
Gentle doesn’t blame Hayashi completely in this case, adding that it’s much more difficult in recent years to bring in fighters from outside Canada, with the federal government tightening up passport and visa regulations. He said in the past they could secure a travel visa for a foreign fighter in about a week, but now it takes close to three weeks, so decisions on fighters have to be made as early as possible. With Valdez, it wasn’t early enough.
For his part, Hayashi has little sympathy, suggesting that promoters either submit the names of the foreign fighters at an earlier date, or use Canadian boxers for their shows.
“Since 9-11, it’s been tough,” admitted Hayashi, when asked about the tougher travel regulations.
“But that’s up to the promoters and matchmakers to adjust accordingly. It has nothing do to with me.”
Option three for McGuinness was yet another Mexican warhorse, Pedro Navarrete, who has a record of 24-7-3.
Unfortunately, by the time Gentle managed to get the paper work together for Navarrete’s travel and entry into Canada, it was also too late.
At least for Hayashi.
Gentle said they had secured all the documentation needed for Navarrete — who had fought and loss to McGuinness in Montreal the month before — to fly to Toronto, via Montreal, on the day of the fight. Gentle said that he was talking with Hayashi at 6 that morning, hoping the commish would sign off on Navarrete, who was already at the airport in Mexico City.
But, according to Gentle, when Hayashi learned that Navarrete wouldn’t be arriving in Toronto until 3 p.m., he turned him down.
Hayashi said fighters have to weigh-in and undergo a medical on the morning of their fight.
“I wasn’t about to approve somebody at the last minute,” said Hayashi.
“You can’t expect to fly someone into Toronto at 3 in the afternoon and let them fight that night. That’s dangerous.”
Unfortunately, when Gentle attempted to get a hold of Navarrete after speaking to Hayashi, the boxer had already boarded a plane, and actually flew to Montreal, before returning home.
“He was already past customs at the airport and there was no stopping him,” said Gentle.
“But I thought, maybe when (Hayashi) sees him here, he’ll allow him to fight for six rounds.
“He had his medical done in Mexico. But Ken adamantly said no.”
McGuinness’s long-anticipated home debut was dead in the water.
Gentle then had to scramble to keep the three-fight card together, which he did by organizing a four-round exhibition preliminary bout at the last minute.
“Jim tried to move heaven and Earth to make this fight happen and he did a heckuva job,” said Adam Harris of U.K.-based Hennessy Sports, McGuinness’ promoters.
“I was disappointed for Logan. He was prepared to fight.”
Like Gentle, Harris said that he respects and likes Hayashi, but, in a refrain familiar with boxing people in these parts, believes the commission is too strict and uncompromising.
Harris said that, working with Gentle, he offered a number of “terrific” opponents for McGuinness — opponents he said that would have been approved by any other commission, but were turned down by Hayashi.
“I understand that Ken has a job to do and safety is obviously paramount,” said Harris.
“That said, standards in Ontario tend to be unreasonable.”
As for McGuinness’ long-overdue home debut, there are no plans at this point.
His next fight is scheduled for May 22 at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn.
“That’s a shame,” said Harris. “We would like nothing more than to showcase him in Ontario. He is a talent that would really make Ontario proud.”