During my Pictou County years as a reporter in the 1950s and 1960s, local sports fans were blessed with great hockey, baseball and softball teams, mixed in with some pretty fine competitors on the golf courses and bowling lanes. Those sports enjoyed good times back then.
Boxing, at the time, never had to take a back seat to any of those activities, thanks to some of the best fighters ever developed in the county, and thanks to many outstanding matches in New Glasgow and Stellarton.
The fight game had plenty of reasons to be successful, not just because of the fighters themselves, but because of people behind the scenes who gave a great deal to the sport, people like promoter Harry Trainor and referee Bobby Beaton. Trainor, when he wasn’t cutting hair, had the knack of putting strong fight cards together. As an official, Beaton was among the best I ever saw.
I could name others who contributed in different ways, just as I could name a lot of fighters who climbed into the ring, gave fans lots to cheer about, and earned their paydays.
Among fighters I saw in my early days at ringside included Bearcat Jackson, Keith and Sparky Paris, and Thorburn’s Doug Odo. They helped spark my interest in the punch-for-pay business.
But the guys I really want to emphasize are ones who came along later. I think of five in particular: Jackie Hayden, Babe Mason, Art and Lawrence Hafey, and Barry Sponagle. All five made outstanding appearances in the squared circle during their careers, and all did themselves proud in a tough, tough game.
One thing they had in common: giving 100 per cent when they were competing inside the ropes. You couldn’t ask for more.
There’s a question I’ve been asked many times through the years when the topic was boxing, a question I’ve never really answered.
Who was the very best? If you pressed me hard enough to name one, I ‘d be tempted to say Hayden. Yet that may only be because he came first, when I was young and easily influenced. Regardless, he was a good one, a really good one.
Jackie fought three times in New York’s Madison Square Garden, he won the Maritime lightweight title, and took on some of the sport’s best. But he’s best remembered for his series of classic battles with Halifax’s Dick (Kid) Howard, the world-ranked Canadian champion. They met five times and Hayden always made an excellent showing.
I can’t get carried away just focusing on him, however, without quickly turning to Art Hafey. The little guy from Lourdes almost became a world champion. When he moved his boxing base from Pictou County to Los Angeles, he had 43 fights in four years, winning all but four. He fought world contenders and beat a former world champion.
He not only moved into the world rankings himself, he became No. 1 contender. Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali`s trainer, called him the best little fighter he ever saw. Yet Hafey never got a title shot, something he had earned in the ring. His dream fell short because of that, but Hafey has much to make him proud.
Then there`s the other Hafey, Lawrence. He may have fought in his brother`s shadow, but there`s no denying the things he accomplished in a career that lasted for 20 years. He fought more than 40 amateur matches and, in the pros, he climbed through the ropes 69 times. Professionally he won 45 times, 16 times by knockouts.
Lawrence never shied away from top opponents. Instead, he took on Canada`s best at a time when this country had a lot of good boxers. He fought Clyde Gray, Chris Clarke and Dave Downey. He and Art started in the sport at the same time, but their paths went in different directions when they turned pro. Lawrence didn`t go away like Art, he didn`t become world class, but he was, nonetheless, a tough and talented competitor.
Sponagle may not have been the county`s best but he deserves to be in the discussion. He won the Canadian lightweight title, the highlight of a 66-bout pro career in which he won 42 times and earned six draws.
Unlike Hayden and the Hafeys, Sponagle didn`t start fighting as a youngster. In fact, when he stepped into the ring initially, he was already 20 years old, was married with two young children, and had never worked out in a gym.
The result was almost inevitable at the start. He lost several times in the early going but, showing what he was made of, he never gave up and continued to learn and improve. Years later, he told me he never regretted getting into the sport so late. Instead, he seemed proud of what he achieved.
Mason`s story is a bit different too. He grew up in Hayden`s time and used to drop into the gym, even work out. But despite an athletic background, he didn`t get into fighting right away. It was later, when he got into the army, that boxing became part of his life. When the Canadian championships were staged, he entered the welterweight class and won the crown. From there it was a fast trip up the ladder.
Before he or anyone else realized it, he had become an Olympian, only the second man from Pictou County to get to an Olympics. He was the first Nova Scotian ever to represent Canada at an Olympics in boxing. He didn`t win a medal, but he gave it a wonderful shot. Again, he`s another fighter that must be included in any talk about the county`s finest.
So the big question: which of the five was the best?
It’s a hard one, for sure, and I’ll leave it for others to debate over morning coffee.
Hugh Townsend, a New Glasgow native and Nova Scotia sports journalist for almost 60 years, can be reached at 204 – 435 Portland Hills Drive, Dartmouth B2W 0A8