Boxing's on the defensive. The art of pugilism is taking a beating at the hands of mixed martial arts. Ultimate fighting has marketing clout, heavy-hitting hype.
Another potential blow to the sweet science comes from the very games being played here.
The 2011 Canada Games mark the 40th anniversary---and final appearance, for the foreseeable future---of boxing at the Games. The sport first appeared at the 1971 edition, hosted in Saskatoon.
"There are more sports vying to be on the Canada Games program than we can satisfy," says Sue Hylland, president and CEO of the Canada Games (the organization, not the host society managing the event).
According to Hylland, the Canada Games is "clear on selection of sports." An eight-member, nationally representative Canada Games Council evaluates sports based in part on a list of minimum criteria, says Hylland. It includes, for example, the participation rate by athletes in the sport, the existence of provincial/territorial sports associations (at least nine, according to canadagames.ca) and the proficiency and accreditation of coaches.
How boxing scored on each criterion down the list, Hylland couldn't say definitively: "I don't have the results in front of me," she says. But the evaluation process "is intended to stay on the pulse of sport."
This doesn't mean boxing will never be back in the Canada Games, Hylland says, though she offers no prediction of its return. "Other sports are starting to move in," she continues. "Snowboarding is a recent addition in the winter games."
Getting and keeping a sport in the Canada Games takes effort, says Wayne Gordon, Team Nova Scotia's boxing coach and a former fighter, who went to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as a welterweight. "I've never been involved in so much paperwork, the meetings that were being held," says Gordon.
Though he knows it has a purpose, Gordon figures the form-filling complicated the national-provincial coordination necessary to keep boxing in the games. "It's a lot to do with all this paperwork. Our national association, some of the provinces, dropped the ball. It is almost a full-time job just trying to handle all the paperwork," he says.
But, he also admits, with a laugh: "I don't know everything, as much as I like to pretend I do."
Interview requests to Robert Crête, executive director of the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association in Ottawa---to verify whether the national boxing body indeed "dropped the ball"---went unanswered.
The Canada Games supports and works with all sports, Hylland says, adding that trends aren't blindly followed, or favourites played. "We try in all our power not to be viewed that way," she says. (She's not surprised by Gordon's comments: "Oh yeah, I know Wayne from over the years.")
If this is boxing's last go-round in the Canada Games for some time, Wayne Gordon hopes that will motivate spectators to come see the fights starting February 21 at the Halifax Forum. "There's a lot of good human interest stories," he says of the team.
Three years ago, Gordon and his staff toured the province's boxing clubs to assess the talent. It was, he says, "an eye-opening experience."
"We started off with by far the weakest pool we ever started off with heading into a Canada Games," says the coach. "I had guys who didn't know which foot to put in front, didn't know how to block a punch."
Among the 50 hopefuls, some athletes had experience in the ring, but that didn't guarantee a spot on the Canada Games squad. "We emphasized one of the greatest components of boxing, which is defense," says Gordon, who's coached previous Canada Games gold medallists, including Ryan White, and has run the Citadel Amateur Boxing Club---like his father, Taylor, before him---in HRM. (Once located in Bloomfield Centre, the gym relocated to Lower Sackville when the municipality shut Bloomfield down.)
Eventually Gordon, assistant coach Brian Archibald, from Tantallon, and team manager Jim Worthen, from New Glasgow, selected their seven boxers---each with a real shot at the podium, according to the coach. The team includes Kentville's Matt Whitford (91kg), Brandon Osbourne of Porters Lake (75kg) and Middleton's Cyrus Taylor (69kg).
Brett Fraser, from Bridgewater, represents Nova Scotia in the 56kg category. He entered Gordon's "program" with an 0-4 record---"zero wins," the coach says emphatically. Fraser rose to become 2010 national champion for his weight class.
Jason Downey, from Dartmouth, is the youngest fighter for Nova Scotia at 15. He's in the 52kg category, down from where he fought at last year's national championships. Apparently Downey, feeling peckish, ate some pizza the night before his fight, recounts Gordon. "Not only did he fail his weight, he failed the weight above his weight. He had to go up two weight classes. And then he won the silver medal," he says. "He's one of our strongest competitors. He's matured as a boxer, he's matured as a man."
Gordon's son, Taylor, who lives in Beaver Bank, will fight in the 64kg class. Father and son made a deal, which dad describes: "I'll put my name forward to the Canada Games [as head coach] if you commit yourself to making the Canada Games [team]."
Taylor Gordon's record, namely two national silver medals, undermines any thought of nepotism. "I have no interest in getting hit in the face," jokes the son about the father's defense-first philosophy. "I wanna come out as good-looking as I go in." Kidding aside, this goes to the way points are scored in individual bouts in today's amateur boxing. "You want to hit your opponent without getting hit."
It sounds obvious and simple enough, until you strap on the headgear and those 10-ounce gloves, step into that 20x20 foot ring and go the three rounds of three minutes each.
"Boxing's a lonely sport," says Wayne Gordon. "People come to see you compete, but they don't see what goes into what makes the boxer, all the hours of sacrifice and dedication in the gym.
"Only the loners end up staying."
It's hard not to think lonesome thoughts talking to Stephanie Walker late one evening after she gets home from training, with what sounds like the TV, not actual human voices, on in the background.
Or maybe it's just the imagination running away with a scene.
Walker is the lone female boxer on Canada's squad. (Three Nova Scotian men are on the national team.) Also coached by Gordon, Walker understands well the approach to the Canada Games bouts. "I have really good tight defense, which is what you have to fight now with. But, I like to brawl, too," says Walker, then laughing.
Ultimate fighting, to her: "It's just people beatin' people up. I don't understand it. There are people who like to see the art of boxing, the style behind it. But the people that pay want to see entertainment. And that's what UFC is." Taylor Gordon occasionally watches Ultimate Fighting Championships and knows the contenders. He thinks boxing, which sometimes suffers from an "everybody fights everybody"approach, could benefit from similar marquee thinking at the professional level.
"Boxing would succeed more if top guys fought top guys more often," he says. Then, goes his thinking, that awareness of the pros would trickle down to amateur fights---good for the whole sport.
Walker believes boxing has self-inflicted some damage at the amateur level of the sport. "I think part of the reason boxing's hurt right now is they've changed scoring. The scoring system now is you basically fight with your hands up as high as you can and you don't get hit. If you get hit, it's almost impossible to get a point back."
It used to be the overall effort, or art, was emphasized over point total. "It was based on your defense, your offense, how you slipped punches, anything you did," says Walker. "It wasn't just how many points you scored against the other person."
With a head, and hands, for the sport like that, it's no wonder Walker has won national titles at the cadet, junior and senior levels, not to mention a silver at the 2009 Pan American Games. She's looking to maintain her place on the national team, as Taylor Gordon is to making it in contests to come late this year or early next, and to 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Women's boxing is not part of the 2011 Canada Winter Games. "The reason for it makes total sense to me. Our numbers for that age group"---15 to 17---"are very low," says Walker. At recent nationals, she saw just how low. "There was only two girls in some weight classes. So they're just going to give a gold and silver medal out to these girls? It's not really a competition, right."
Walker hopes Canada Games organizers bring back boxing, including the women's side. Whenever that is, she hopes the younger cohort will have grown. She got into the ring at 14---young for a female boxer. It's still considered "a boy's sport," she says. "A lot of parents don't want to see their daughters get punched in the face." But if clear goals and funding are set, parents will come around.
That's what happened for Walker's mother, who's the athlete's main supporter and inspiration.
"She gets it," says the boxer, "but she still doesn't like to see me get hit in the face."
Boxing semi-finals begin February 23, The Halifax Forum, $8-$15, ticketatlantic.com