By CHARLES R. SAUNDERS*
PAUL MACDOUGALL’s recently published book, Distinction Earned: Cape Breton’s Boxing Legends 1946-1970, chronicles the exploits of an exceptional group of gloved warriors from one of the smallest Canadian provinces. As well, it’s about the last years of a time when boxing was part and parcel of the community, rather than the niche sport it has become today.
From the beginning of the last century up to the late 1960s, boxing was a dominant sport in North America. In the United States, it shared the spotlight with baseball. In Canada, it was second only to hockey. The biggest Canadian cities and the tiniest towns sported rinks and rings, and there was never a shortage of young – and not so young – fellows eager to strap on the ice skates or lace up the boxing gloves. Or sometimes both.
Cape Breton Island – which is part of the province of Nova Scotia, on the East Coast of Canada – was at one time such a hotbed of fistic activity that it produced five Canadian professional boxing champions over a 25-year span immediately following the end of the Second World War. This was at a time when the Canadian title held international significance.
The five champions were: George “Rockabye” Ross at middleweight; Tyrone Gardiner, junior welterweight; Blair Richardson, middleweight; Francis “Rocky” MacDougall, featherweight; and Les Gillis, junior lightweight.
Author MacDougall does more than recount the exploits of these remarkable ring heroes. He weaves the champions’ experiences into the fabric of their time and place. Numerous other good local boxers who didn’t achieve the heights of the Fabulous Five are given much more than honorable mention in this book. As well, the trainers, promoters, referees, arenas and gyms are given due – and often colorful – credit.
So is Cape Breton Island itself, which is one of the most storied parts of Canada. In Cape Breton, page after page of telephone books are filled with surnames that begin with “Mc” and “Mac.” Yet there’s an appreciable amount of ethnic diversity there, too. MacDougall (yes, he’s a Cape Breton “Mac”) pays appropriate tribute to the contributions of people of Italian, black, Lebanese and other backgrounds to the sport of boxing and to the island’s community as a whole.
The book is packed with illustrations, including dramatic action photos. MacDougall’s love for his subject and his dedication to detail are apparent on each of Distinction Earned’s 180 pages.
As a window on an era when you could walk to your friendly neighborhood punch palace to see a good fight, rather than rack up charges on your credit card to order pay-per-view, Distinction Earned can’t be beat. I rate this book five gloves out of five.
Distinction Earned: Cape Breton’s Boxing Legends 1946-1970 is available from:
Cape Breton University Press, P.O. Box 5300, Sydney, NS, CANADA B1P 6L2
Cover price: $24.95 (Cdn)
*Charles R. Saunders is the author of several books including Sweat and Soul: The Saga of Black Boxers in the Maritimes from the Halifax Forum to Caesars Palace. Considered by many to be one of the leading authorities on boxing in Canada, he is the current Vice-President of Boxing for the Society of North American Sports Historians and Researchers.
SONAHR – Nova Scotia, December 22, 2010