My buddy Steve Chalmers is a great guy, unless you happen to play him in hockey, squash, golf, tennis, fastball, soccer, checkers, tiddlywinks ... let’s see, what other times did we almost come to blows?
Actually, the last time Steve and I — two old farts still holding on to pugilistic delusions of grandeur — came to blows was just a few months ago at Casino Rama. And it wasn’t even about sports. Steve maintained that Pierre Trudeau was the greatest Prime Minister we’ve ever had, while I insisted he go #$%^ himself.
It was a wonderful, scholarly debate, which only ended when he asked if I wanted to “take it outside” and I answered in the affirmative, all the while jabbing my finger into his chest. (But we didn’t go outside because it was getting a bit damp and neither one of us brought a slicker).
But there’s one thing Steve and I agree on ... Miller Lite.
And boxing. We both grew up loving boxing.
I thought of Steve on Tuesday when I ventured out to a UFC announcement at the Cabbagetown Youth Centre. Turns out the UFC is going to throw some pocket change at various youth facilities across Canada, including the Cabbagetown. When I say pocket change, I mean $129,000, which is about the amount UFC president Dana White collects each week in his swear jar.
But I was taken aback by the media turnout at the event. There were cameras and reporters everywhere. The last time I saw that many media hounds at the venerable Cabbagetown was when Sugar Ray Leonard, who won world boxing titles in five weight classes, showed up at the club sometime in the mid 1980’s to announce yet another comeback.
I remember that press conference like it was yesterday. The late, great Jim (Shakey) Hunt of the Sun suggested to Leonard that perhaps he was a bit over the hill to fight, with Leonard answering that he wasn’t the only guy in the room who fit that description, prompting everyone to break out in laughter, with Shakey, as usual, leading the way.
I actually took Steve to that presser and, I remember, as Sugar Ray climbed into the ring to do some sparring for the cameras, he asked Steve if he would hold on to his sports jacket. Steve literally gasped and his mouth hung open like a starving carp when Sugar Ray handed him the jacket. (I still tease Steve about that).
But here’s the thing. Steve’s no longer a big boxing guy. He loves mixed martial arts now. He’s switched over.
So there I am on Tuesday, at one of the most iconic boxing gyms in Canada, thinking, have they too switched over to the dark side? Has this great gym, known for producing Olympic and champion pro boxers, become yet another MMA stable, all because the UFC threw a little money its way?
Turns out that’s not the case.
As UFC director of Canadian operations Tom Wright did his song and dance in the CYC gymnasium, the club’s founder and head boxing coach, Peter Wylie, was upstairs in his painter’s pants, literally on a step ladder, fixing up the joint.
Peter’s an old boxing guy, in fact, he trains Canadian heavyweight champion Neven Pajkic, but he’s not one of these boxing guys who rails against mixed martial arts.
In fact, he believes the more MMA, the better it is for boxing. He sees it every day at his gym, MMA fighters who show up, wanting to learn boxing skills.
“The top MMA guys are all decent boxers,” said Wylie, a former Toronto cop who started the Cabbagetown club in 1972. “Look at what’s his name, Pierre, uh ...”
“Georges St. Pierre?”
“Georges St. Pierre,” said Wylie. “Look at his last fight, he won the whole fight with a jab. Now where do you think he learned that jab? From the best trainers in Quebec, the Grant brothers (Otis and Howard). He learned how to box, he learned how to use that jab effectively and he destroyed his opponent, because his opponent couldn’t box. It’s a perfect example of how there’s a nice marriage between the two.
“So, for us, the UFC thing is great. The more UFC in Ontario, the more in Canada, the better it is for boxing. The more people in the gyms, the better for boxing because more people get into boxing. It spins off for us. They come to us. They want to learn how to punch correctly.
“If you watch a lot of MMA fighters, they’re like rank novice amateur boxers,” Wylie continued. “They don’t have good balance, they don’t know how to punch correctly. So they come to boxing to learn that. So it ties all together. And when they come here and they learn the science and art of boxing, they don’t want to leave it.”
What’s that? They come to learn boxing and they stay with boxing?
That may go against the conventional wisdom, but Wylie insists it’s true.
“I can actually say, without a doubt, that I’ve never trained a boxer who switched to MMA, but I’ve had a lot of MMA people who have come to me for training and have moved over to boxing and have never left boxing,” he said. “Once they get into boxing, they never leave it.”
Still, Wylie acknowledged that, in Ontario at least, MMA is leaving boxing in its dust as a spectator sport.
And like other boxing types, he’s worried that MMA people are grabbing most of the available dates in Ontario. Casino Rama, for one, has another MMA show planned for this summer, but has no boxing on its calendar.
But that doesn’t mean, Wylie said, that it’s the death knell for boxing — as many MMA followers believe.
“The death knell has been ringing for 80-90 or years. Every time you turn around, there’s a death knell for boxing. There’s no such thing,” he said, pointing out that boxing is still extremely popular around the world, especially in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Quebec.
But he does admit that boxing has a lot to learn from the mixed martial arts crowd, particularly the UFC, when it comes to marketing. Indeed, no major boxing organization, not the WBA, not the WBC or the IBF, has ever shown up at the Cabbagetown club with a cheque like the UFC boys did yesterday. And Wylie said boxing has its own self to blame if MMA begins to dominate the Ontario landscape in the years ahead in terms of the number of shows.
“Unless the boxing people get their act together, get organized and lobby the government for their rights, they’re going to be in the backwater of political power when it comes to combative sports in Ontario,” he said. “These MMA people are big time, they’re bringing a lot of money in and it obviously has an influence on the government and it probably has influence on the commission. That’s the nature of the business.”
As Wylie spoke, John Kalbhenn, a former Olympian and Canadian lightweight champion and current Cabbagetown boxing coach, nodded in agreement.
“I know my kids (boxers) watch MMA,” he said. “It’s not my thing, to me it’s like Ren and Stimpy rolling around on the ground. I’ve been a boxer since I was six years old. But I think MMA’s great, because it will open things up more for boxing.”