Pro boxing returns to Kitchener-Waterloo region
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After nearly a quarter century of holding its breath, the boxing community in Waterloo Region had reason to scream Saturday night.
For the first time since 1989, when a 24-year-old Lennox Lewis knocked out American Greg Gorrell at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, the region hosted a professional boxing event. The four-fight card was held at Bingeman’s Marshall Hall, drawing a crowd of around 1,200.
Syd Vanderpool, who organized and promoted Return of the Gladiators, said bringing boxing back to Kitchener has been a dream of his for years.
“I’ve thought about this for at least five years,” he said. “I talked to the commissioner about what it would take to do a pro show here and the first thing we needed to do was create a fan base. So over the past few years we’ve been hosting amateur shows and creating some interest.”
Vanderpool, a local trainer and former North American Boxing Organization champion, said his vision for the event was as much about the environment as it was about the sport. The Vegas-esque venue featured everything from private VIP tables to ushers in sleek black dresses and sky-high heels.
“I wanted to go for the more classy, intimate kind of setting, so this was perfect for that.”
And intimate it was; by the time super heavyweights Adnan Shahkaram and Donald Willis bumped gloves in the centre of the ring, the air was warm, the energy coursing through the room electric. And by the time the sweat-soaked Shahkaram raised his blood-splattered leather glove in victory, nearly everybody in the room was perched at the edge of their seat, eyes wide and mouths open.
For some of the spectators it was a long-awaited opportunity to see a sport they’ve missed for nearly 25 years; but for most, it was their first chance to experience the sport first-hand.
Local boxing fan Wess Doss, who attended the event with friends from out of town, said he was excited to have a night out and possibly catch a glimpse of the next Lennox Lewis.
“I came to enjoy the atmosphere and hopefully see some up-and-comers. These are the best fighters to see live,” he said. “They don’t do it for the money, they’re the fighters with heart.”
The fighter with the biggest heart, perhaps, was 116-pounder Amanda (Lionheart) Beaudin, whose split decision win over Kara McLeod of London, Ont., induced a chorus of equal parts cheer and jeer. The card’s lone female fight displayed the most intensity and urgency of the evening’s matches, and the crowd was clearly disappointed when it came to an end after four two-minute rounds.
One outcome that did not disappoint the crowd was local fighter Julius (Caesar) Bunda’s technical knockout victory over Quebec’s Michele Tsalla. Bunda, who came into the fight with a professional record of 4-2-2, was patient for much of the first two rounds, keeping his opponent pinned against the ropes and absorbing more punches than he threw. Midway through the third round, however, he saw an opening and struck.
“As soon as I hit him I saw his legs buckle, so I knew even if he got back up he was out of it,” Bunda said after the bout. “At that point I just wanted to try and keep my distance and punch in combinations to set something up and catch him off guard.”
The blow, which busted Tsalla open above his right eye, was enough to knock him to the canvas for the count of eight. When the Quebecer got back to his feet he swayed back and forth, unable to maintain his balance long enough to put together a counter-attack. Bunda took advantage, methodically working away at Tsalla’s body until his trainer had no choice but to toss the white towel of surrender.
According to Bunda, whose three-year professional career has taken him across the country, it was the first time many of his friends and family had seen him fight live. He said fighting in his own backyard definitely helped.
“When I had my last fight in Quebec, everybody booed me,” said the junior middleweight. “It was nice to hear some cheering from beyond my corner for once.”
The 27-year-old Bunda, who was barely born the last time his home town hosted a professional boxing event, said he would like to see more fights in Waterloo Region in the near future.
“Judging by the size of the turnout tonight, I definitely think we should have more shows,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of people out there who would probably want to come watch boxing but don’t know about it.”
The evening’s final match was another homecoming of sorts. Art Binkowski, who grew up in Kitchener and boxed for Canada at the 2000 Summer Games, hadn’t fought in more than five years before stepping into the ring with American Jonte Willis.
While the 37-year-old Binkowski may have admittedly lost a step, he looked from the outset like a man who missed the ring, flashing his opponent an occasional smirk, his bright blue eyes shining beneath the overhead lights with each wild swing.
“Going in, I had no expectations,” Binkowski said. “I had some ring rust in the first three rounds, but when round four came around I started settling in and started landing some better punches.”
While Binkowski lost the match by unanimous decision, earning a swollen nose and a nasty gash above his right eye in the process, he lasted the full six rounds.
“I think I should have gotten the hometown decision,” he said after the match, only half-joking. “But sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
Binkowski, who said the match was the first time his two young sons had seen him fight, hopes the event was a sign of things to come in Kitchener.
“It was amazing to see a full house and a lot of old friends,” he said. “I’ve been around, I’ve seen pro boxing shows. I think Syd (Vanderpool) did an amazing job organizing the whole thing, inside and out.
“Events like this bring people together, even people who are a little bit down or depressed. It’s incredible how the happiness and energy become contagious.”
Vanderpool said he was pleased with the turnout and the excitement the event generated.
“I wanted to have a full house and I wanted to hear the fans cheering. Both things happened so I’m really happy,” he said. “From here we go back and see what we can do better and start planning for the next one.”