An aging Hardwick trainer fights to keep boxing alive in Vermont
The staccato beat of boxing gloves on a leather speed bag fills the air of the dilapidated old barroom on Wolcott Street in downtown Hardwick; it's now home to the Hardwick Amateur Boxing Club. As the chickita chickita patter announces the start of another Tuesday night workout, Armand Gelin-eau, the club's 78-year-old trainer, paces impatiently and swears to himself. He's waiting for the rest of his young boxers to trickle in the door.
"Sonofabitch! They come and go like a bunch of sheep," Gelineau gripes. His thick Northeast Kingdom accent is garbled by a mashed lower jaw, the result of countless bare-fisted blows he took in his youth. "There's five already gone to a basketball game, and four more right here in the village that haven't showed up and probably won't. So, it's hard getting 'em in."
Gelineau is short, with wiry, salt-and-pepper hair, poor hearing and dark eyes that dart about behind his thick, black glasses. About 15 guys and one girl have signed up for the Hardwick Amateur Boxing Club since Gelineau opened it in September 2002. They range in age from 14 to 30. The unsteady rhythm of the speed bag is a reminder that most of them haven't had much experience hitting anything that moves or hits back.
But if the boxers are new, nearly everything else in the gym is a holdover from a bygone era: The old brass ringside bell mounted on a loose piece of ply wood, the antique boxing glove spray-painted gold that someone mounted on a stick, the faded black-and-white poster advertising the "Cy Perkins' Boxing Show" at Community Hall in Montpelier. Reserved seats for that February 1942 event cost 90 cents, but soldiers and sailors could get in for a quarter.
Another fight card on the wall announces a bout featuring Burlington's Charlie "Buster" Beaupre, a lightweight state champion in the mid-1930s. Beaupre's cousin was a dentist who made Gelineau his first mouthpiece so he could go train in Boston — until Gelineau's mother got wind of the plan and forbade it.
Actually, nothing in the gym is as much of a holdover from Vermont's pugilistic past as Gelineau himself. Local boxing old-timers describe him as "definitely old-school," someone who "swears like a parrot" but has a heart bigger than a racehorse's, or simply "a character."
Gelineau has spent much of his life pursuing his boyhood dream of owning a gym, becoming a trainer and promoting amateur bouts. And while no one in the boxing world would describe his career as a success in the traditional sense — he's lost far more money than he's made and never sent a boxer to a national championship — Gelineau has yet to throw in the towel. In fact, despite a hardscrabble history marked by heavy drinking, fighting and personal tragedies, Gelineau still devotes most of his time, energy and money to teaching young people in his working-class community what he calls "the sweet science of boxing."
On a recent evening, Gelineau is readying three of his four boxers who are heading to the Burlington Golden Gloves Saturday night. Among them is 17-year-old Lori Martin, the club's only female and heavyweight. Martin, who used to get into frequent brawls in high school, says she switched to boxing after watching the Rocky movies. Though she has never fought competitively, she is dying to climb into the ring. "I try to get some of my girlfriends to come down so I can spar with them, but a lot of girls aren't really interested in boxing," Martin says.
Unfortunately, without a female sparring partner tonight, Martin is stuck helping a couple of 14-year-olds with their workouts. Later in the evening, they'll pummel each other in three rounds, leaving one with a bloody nose.
Gelineau points out one of his more promising fighters, 26-year-old Brock Billings, who is shadowboxing in front of a mirror. The 163-pound propane technician from Walden, whose shaved head and "Mad Dog" tattoo complement an already intimidating stare, used to compete in kick-boxing and Tae Kwon Do tournaments before joining the Hardwick club several months ago. When asked what kind of coach Gelineau is, he says, "hard to understand sometimes, but other than that, it's up to the individual if they want to work hard."
The third rookie in the tournament is 25-year-old Peter Hirschfeld, a cops-and-courts reporter for the Times-Argus who is working on a first-person account of training for the Golden Gloves. Hirschfeld, who's only been boxing with Gelineau for a couple of months, recalls how on his first day at the gym he met a boxer in his mid-twenties who never returned. Hirschfeld later found out the guy has been sent back to jail. Gelineau had bailed him out a couple of times, gave him a blanket and let him sleep in the gym until he was back on his feet.
Gelineau knows what it's like to be down for the count — both inside and outside the ring. "I used to drink a lot. I spent 20 of my best years drinking," he admits. "So I says, look, I don't want the kids to do what I done, lose the best part of their life. I'm gonna start a boxing club, a gym, so they can be straight. So I did."
When Gelineau tells a story, it's hard to know whether he's talking about last year or 1930 — he shuffles back and forth in time a lot, like a prize fighter dancing around the canvas. He says he only stepped into the ring once as a boxer himself, and that was enough. It was years ago — Gelineau can't recall when — and the Hardwick Fire Department had sponsored a town fair that included a boxing match. His opponent, a big bruiser from New Hampshire, climbed into the ring weighing 50 pounds more than he did. "Oh, by God, boy!" exclaims Gelineau, looking back on the fight. "He threw a right hand and bounced it off my head, and my head's still dizzy since then."
Which isn't to say that Gelineau never threw his share of punches outside the ring. He grew up on a farm in West Charleston and learned to box at age 14 from his older brothers. "Back then, we used to fight for jackknives and fish poles," he recalls. Then the Great Depression hit. The family farm went belly up and they had to abandon the place. "We left there with a one-horse buggy, three bags of potatoes and the clothes on our backs," Gelineau recalls.
"I came to Hardwick in 1938, 'cause Hardwick was a fightin' town in the stone-shedding days," he continues. "There were 14 barrooms in Hardwick and three restaurants. There was no suction device in the granite buildings in them days, so that dust — ah, Jesus! — plugged their lungs right up, so they'd only last 40 years and come down with the stonecutter consumption."
For men like Gelineau who didn't get jobs in the granite sheds, money was hard to come by. Occasionally, he picked up a few days of work building roads for the Civilian Conservation Corps, then supplemented his income at the Saturday night bouts, where spectators threw money right into the ring for the contenders. And with all the granite sheds, there were plenty of burly-armed brawlers around looking to prove themselves.
The fights weren't exactly formal affairs. Gelineau remembers how the men used to gather in whatever space they could find — a barn, armory, schoolhouse, even a farmhouse kitchen — and slug it out for $5 or $10. "We used to move the chairs and tables out, round up a mess of boys and let 'er go. No mouthpieces, no head gear, no gloves, nothing!" Gelineau recalls. "We learned the art of fisticuffs, the sweet science of boxing, the hard way."
The 1920s and '30s were a heyday of sorts for Vermont boxing, according to Vermont boxing historian Robert Winkler. In the years leading up to and including World War II, boxing matches were a ubiquitous feature at county fairs, civic events, picnics, VFW halls and CCC camps. "It was something to do, something to pass the time. You could make money at it, even though that's not what it was all about," explains Winkler, who has been compiling a history of Vermont boxing based largely on newspaper accounts from that era. "There was an excitement to it. It was a way of getting your aggressiveness out in a legal way, instead of going out in the streets and fighting."
Though Vermont never developed a professional boxing circuit, in those years the line between amateur and professional bouts was hazy at best. Many Vermont fighters would cross into Massachusetts, New York or Canada to pick up some extra cash in the professional rings. "In the 1930s, particularly, fighters were often called Kid' somebody," Winkler notes. "That was basically to cover up your name so that your mother or girlfriend didn't know you were doing this on the side at night."
In 1946, Burlington got its first Golden Gloves tournament. Since 1948 they've been held in Memorial Auditorium. Over the years, the sport's popularity ebbed and flowed depending upon the vagaries of national tastes, public sensibilities and, according to Winkler, whether a war was underway. "As I look back through history, there seems to be a flurry of boxing activities up to a war period," says Winkler, "and then everybody gets their fill of fighting during the war, and then afterwards they're busy doing other things."
Amateur boxing in Vermont saw a resurgence in the 1970s with the arrival of the U.S. Olympic team, which trained at the University of Vermont for the 1976 summer games in Montreal. That team included such legendary names as Sugar Ray Leonard, John Tate and Michael and Leon Spinks, all of whom went on to professional fame.
Of course, amateur boxing has never been about earning a living — after Michael Spinks won his gold medal that year, he quit the sport and went to work cleaning floors and scrubbing toilets in a St. Louis chemical factory. During the 1970s, Gelineau also worked as a janitor in the Concord manufacturing plant in Morrisville while operating a boxing gym out of the old Hardwick fire station. After scraping together enough money to build a ring he could move from town to town, Gelineau started sponsoring annual tournaments and "smoker matches" in places like St. Johnsbury, Newport, Morrisville and Hardwick. Invar-iably, those events lost money.
In 1979 Gelineau put on the Northeast Kingdom Tournament, which drew boxers from all over Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He raffled off a ham to make some extra money while his wife sold cookies, donuts and coffee. The event cost him $6000. He didn't fare well. "Lost my shirt," he admits. The following year, he shaved $1000 off the cost of the event but still ended up deep in the red. "I never got a dime. I was busted broke all the time," Gelineau says. "I spent $14,000 out of my own pocket to keep that boxing thing going for 12 years. There's no money in this gosh-damned business."
A common misconception about amateur boxing is that it's dangerous. Actually, unlike in the more lucrative and risky sport of professional boxing, serious injuries are rare in amateur bouts, and deaths exceedingly so. Statistically, you're more likely to suffer a serious head injury playing soccer or ice hockey than stepping into an amateur ring. Likewise, arm and shoulder injuries are far more commonplace in little league baseball. According to Ernie Farrar, who's been promoting the Burlington Golden Gloves for the last 27 years, the worst injury he's ever seen in the tournament is a broken nose. That said, all boxers know that when they step into the ring, there are no guarantees.
In the fall of 1980, Gelineau put on what would be his last boxing tournament in Hardwick. It was a lean night and there weren't many sparring partners available. So when Shaun Moore, a 24-year-old schoolteacher new to Hardwick's Hazen Union School, volunteered to spar with a young welterweight, Gelineau didn't think much of it. Both boxers were outfitted in headgear, mouthpieces, athletic cups and 16-ounce gloves, and the canvas had the standard 3-inch pad.
When Moore took a single punch to the nose and collapsed in the sitting position, neither the referee nor the spectators suspected anything unusual had occurred. Three days later, he died of a concussion.
"If a boxing match is a story, it is always a wayward story, one in which anything can happen," writes Joyce Carol Oates, an avid boxing enthusiast. "In no other sport can so much take place in so brief a period of time, and so irrevocably."
About a week later, Gelineau returned from Moore's funeral in Holyoke, Massachusetts, locked the doors on his gym and had nothing to do with boxing for another two decades. These days, the usually talkative old trainer doesn't offer many clues about how he spent those intervening years, except to say that he drank a lot.
Gelineau probably never would have returned to the sport if he didn't care so much about young people. Two years ago, he began to notice a lot of Hardwick kids hanging around with nothing to do. "I see the kids running around the streets with their skateboards and their Rollerblades and — oh, my God! — playing chicken in the road, futzing and farting and you name it!" Gelineau recalls. "So I say, someone gonna get killed on this street so I better do something. So I started up the boxing club again."
At 76, Gelineau began visiting local businesses to raise money. He says he scraped together $5500 in three weeks and bought new boxing gloves, protective gear and a new ring, which he set up in the local teen center. But a dispute with one of the center's organizers cost him his space and his equipment. For a time, he tried to hold some matches in the rectory of St. Norbert's Church, but that didn't work out, either. Eventually he told the priest, "Boxing and being in the church business don't go together too good."
Undaunted, Gelineau started again from scratch, visiting more businesses and scraping together another $1200 so he could buy a ring and rent out the long-defunct hotel on Wolcott Street. Like the old trainer, the hotel seems frozen in time — in the adjoining barroom, where the ceiling sags, there are still glasses on the bar and cigarettes in the ashtrays.
It's a struggle to make the gym work. On Gelineau's modest Social Security checks, supplemented by a part-time job as church custodian, he can barely afford the cost of heating the leaky old place. But he doesn't charge his club members more than $25 a month for their three-hour sessions twice a week. "That's 24 hours of training for 25 bucks. And I have a hard time getting that. What I get, I get," Gelineau says with a shrug. "But I'm going to keep it open. Even if there's one or two of them, they'll learn something."
It's Saturday night in Memorial Auditorium — the first of three weekends of the Burlington Golden Gloves tournament. At the start of the evening, just after the national anthem is sung, the announcer calls for a moment of silence. Everyone pauses as the bell rings a 10-count, honoring the memory of John Miserak, Gelineau's 18-year-old grandson who killed himself last month. For Gelineau, the solemn tribute is a painful reminder of why he keeps his gym open.
Downstairs, the locker room is abuzz with beefy-armed boys, a few of whom look like they've had their noses broken more than once. But there are plenty of nervous faces, too, including the Hardwick club's Dan "Bear" Bovat, a 172-pound middleweight newcomer who's built like a fireplug. Bovat, whose grandfather was a Golden Gloves champion, hops around anxiously trying to shake off his nervous energy.
"I just want to get in there, fight, and get it over with," says Bovat, sipping water and spitting repeatedly into a trash can. He's vomited four times already, he admits, not to make weight but because of butterflies.
Gelineau and teammate Lori Martin wrap Bovat's hands while Gelineau gives him a last-minute talk.
"You got your cup?" Gelineau asks.
"No," Bovat says nonchalantly.
"No? You don't got a cup, you can't box," the coach informs him.
"I don't like cups," Bovat answers.
"Three months training, he forgets his cup. I gotta be his mother," says Gelineau, to no one in particular. "Brock, get him a cup!"
Later that night, the cup doesn't do much to protect Bovat from the blows he takes from Newport's Todd Tewksbury. During the three-round bout, Bovat delivers a number of slow but solid punches of his own, but late in the second round he gets pinned in a corner and has trouble getting out. He's still somewhat dazed as the third round begins, and the ref finally calls the fight in favor of Tewksbury. As Bovat spits out his mouthpiece and climbs dejectedly through the ropes, the spectator beside me comments, "That kid's got a lot of heart."
Hardwick's Brock Billings fares better. Just 30 seconds into the first round, he delivers a devastating uppercut to the Bantam Boxing Club's Matt Huntington, sending his opponent to the canvas face down with one of the night's best-thrown punches. Huntington survives the rest of the match, but the judges hand Billings the victory.
Hardwick's most surprising showing that night, however, is Peter Hirschfeld's three rounds against Green Mountain's Jeremy Bissonnette. From the opening bell, it's clear that neither fighter has set foot in the ring before, and the fight is anything but graceful. By round two, Bissonette is bleeding from the nose and both boxers are literally staggering with exhaustion. At the final bell, the contenders hug in a gesture of mutual respect. And when the announcer declares Bissonnette the winner by decision, the crowd lets out a chorus of sustained boos.
Back in the locker room, Hirschfeld is just beginning to sense what he's going to feel like in the morning. Smiling weakly, the former sports writer expresses his unabashed relief that he won't be back next week to compete.
"I don't want to bust on the Golden Gloves at all," Hirschfeld says, "but I don't ever want to do that again."
While Hirschfeld jokes about his impending punch hangover, two EMTs from the Burlington Fire Department are giving Bovat a thorough once-over. Apparently, he's still feeling dizzy, and Gelineau isn't taking any chances.