I was pleased to learn that Barry Trenholm and the other folks at the Pictou County Sports Heritage Centre held a meet-and-greet gathering last weekend to mark Sparky Paris’s 90th birthday. A personal commitment kept me from being there, but I’m sure it was an enjoyable afternoon for everyone at ringside.
But Sparky 90 years old? I guess it’s another indication that we’re all moving along on the ageing scale. No, I’m not yet close to being nine decades young, but I am old enough to remember Sparky’s last fights in the ring.
I was just a youngster growing up in New Glasgow, only three years old in fact, when Sparky had his first fight, so I have no recollections of that night. But later on I had the good fortune to see some of his ring appearances because his career extended long enough that I was a 20-year-old by the time he had his last match.
By then, I was getting to know him. Later on, when he was a boxing trainer, I got to know him even better. And I’ll tell you something: he was always one of my favourite “characters” around town and in the sports world.
The last time I talked with Sparky, he was 82 years of age. At the time I was preparing a couple columns on him and it was a most pleasant hour or so listening to him tell his life’s story.
Of all the tales about Sparky’s involvemnent in the sport, I think the most interesting was the way he got into the ring in the first place.
It was wartime, Sparky was an 18-year-old living with his parents in the south end of New Glasgow, and he was working at Maritime Steel, making artillery supplies for the war effort.
One morning he was on his way to work when he was stopped by two men. They told him they were preparing to hold a boxing card in New Glasgow and they wondered if he would like to put on the gloves and have a fight.
He had never worked out in a gym, had never really thought about being a fighter. But he was young and curious and asked if he would get paid for it. They told him if there was a capacity crowd they would give him 25 bucks. If there wasn’t a full house, they’d give him 15 bucks.
Sparky was working at Maritime Steel for $18 a day, so the money sounded pretty good to him. He agreed to go on the card, which was to be held at an outdoor complex next to St. John the Baptist Church in the north end. It was a popular location for boxing matches in those days.
The boxing card was a week away, so each day after work he went into the barn behind the family home and prepared for the fight. No trainers of course, not much equipment either, but he got himself ready to meet the challenge.
That first fight was against Dave Melanson who, like Paris, went on to become a familiar face around the Pictou County sports scene for decades.
So what happened in that first fight? He knocked Melanson out, surprising even himself. Though there was a capacity crowd, the fight organizers gave him only $15. Nonetheless he and Melanson agreed to have a rematch. This time they fought to a draw.
Just like that, Sparky was hooked.
He began training, he began running 10 miles a day, and before he knew it he was getting into the best shape of his life.
Fights were held regularly at the outdoor site and Sparky became a regular. He also fought in Blue Acres, in Stellarton Memorial Rink, at New Glasgow Stadium and once he even travelled as far as Halifax for a bout.
In last week’s column, I named five great boxers who were developed in the county in later years: Jackie Hayden, Art and Lawrence Hafey, Babe Mason and Barry Sponagle.
Sparky Paris wasn’t in the list, because boxing in his day wasn’t nearly as advanced. Most of his opponents were from the local area. And the paydays? The most he ever got for a fight was $75. Imagine anyone fighting these days for that little.
Not only was Sparky into boxing, he got other members of his family into the sport as well. His younger brother Percy and his nephew Keith became fighters, and pretty darn good ones at that. Percy won Maritime and Canadian lightweight titles and Keith also held the Maritime lightweight crown at one stage.
Sparky’s impact on the sport was even greater as a trainer. In what was called the Paris Boys Gym, he trained not only Percy and Keith, but fighters such as Bearcat Jackson, Gary MacLean, Jo Jo Jackson, Gary MacNeil, Nathan Paris and Joe Borden.
In fact, he trained hundreds of fighters over a period of more than 20 years. He had as many as 40 under his wing at one time. Think of the commitment he had to make to do that. He told me every second guy you saw was a boxer, despite the fact the pay was so small.
Sparky’s work with boxers certainly didn’t go unnoticed. He was inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame and the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame, as well as the Pictou County hall.
He didn’t look for that kind of recognition. Instead, he told me he got more gratification out of helping others in the sport.
Yes, Sparky Paris and boxing were a very successful marriage. Yet it makes you wonder if any of it would have happened if he hadn’t met up with those two promoters on his way to work back in the war years.
To Sparky: a belated happy 90th, old friend.
Hugh Townsend, a New Glasgow native and Nova Scotia sports journalist for almost 60 years, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org