Scrappy, little boxing club trains champions in ring and beyond in Hamilton
Published September 18, 2023 at 10:20 am
In an unassuming little church basement, the fighters enter the ring in east Hamilton.
They land a medley of jabs, hooks, crosses and uppercuts as they float like butterflies – the famous remark by the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali, which is immortalized in a vintage poster in the venue. The crowd, including families, youth, older residents and a priest, cheer them on.
The pairs of competitors, from 11-year-old girls and teenage up-and-comers to former provincial and world champions, spar in the basement of 100-year-old St. Ann Roman Catholic Parish one muggy night in late July.
They’re fighting during a sold-out fundraising event that brought the unlikely boxing and church communities together at Hamilton’s McGrory’s Boxing Club at Sherman Avenue and Barton Street. Father Jeffery Oehring said the fundraiser raised $1,600 for the church, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this summer, with tickets that sold for $10 each.
The boxers are in the ring to test their skills from countless hours of training at the world-class club. But for McGrory’s, which has been operating since 1965, it’s not about stinging punches, knockouts and using violence to defeat the opponent. Its tagline on its website reads it’s a club where youth “become a part of something greater than just a world of combat.”
“At the end of day, it’s always love at the end,” said Dejaun Lawrence, 17, who was among the boxers at the exhibition bouts for the fundraiser. He won silver this year at the Brampton Cup, Canada’s biggest Olympic-style boxing tournament. “You always pay respects. You always shake your opponent’s hand. It’s respectful.”
Now in Grade 12, Lawrence said he has rarely missed a session since he started attending the gym three times a week when he was in Grade 8.
Lawrence said he fell in love with the sport when he first saw a documentary featuring a mega-fight with boxing superstars Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.
“I feel if I never joined boxing, life would just be really different in a bad way. It’s like a stress reliever for me personally,” Lawrence told inthehammer.com in a phone interview during a break from his boxing session last month. “I know a lot of people are into drugs and gangs and all that. I feel like that’s the lifestyle I would go along with if I never found something to distract me from that. … I love fighting, sparring, just being able to have another community as a family to go to.”
Lawrence said he eventually wants to become a professional boxer and open his own gym one day to teach others what he learned.
Sport is about respect, building confidence and having fun, says boxing studio owner
Lawrence Hay, McGrory’s co-owner and head boxing coach, has won gold, silver and bronze at provincial competitions in 2002, 2007 and 2010. He also won the world championship for Canada at the 2015 World Police and Fire Games in Virginia.
“It’s all about respect for one another and the sport is about having fun and building confidence and self-esteem,” Hay, who is a special constable with Hamilton police, told inthehammer.com. “Nobody tries to hurt anybody. You’re trying to score your points. You’re trying to have fun and do what you have to do to win.”
Hay, who was among the fighters during the fundraiser, as well as his gym’s patrons, describe McGrory’s Boxing Club as being like a “family” that instills positive values and self-confidence in people, especially its young members. Hay himself recalls being an “insecure, skinny kid” who needed confidence before he discovered boxing.
“I know when I’m in the ring and I’m in with an opponent, it’s physical but it’s a mental game of chess,” said Hay. “You’re trying to figure out what that person’s going to do. It’s not just go in there and slug it out. … It’s very much a family environment. There’s no egos. Everyone looks after each other.”
“It’s welcoming and judgment-free,” added Rodolfo Velasquez, one of the coaches at the gym, about the club. He was an Olympic qualifier finalist and won the Canadian championships and Canadian Golden Gloves tournaments three times. “Anyone who walks in, we welcome them with open arms. It’s great for mental and physical health.”
Irish boxing champion starts scrappy, little Hamilton club
Tim McGrory started McGrory’s Boxing Club in 1965, Hay said. It was originally at Normanhurst Community Centre until it moved to the basement of St. Ann’s church in January 2013. When Vinnie Ryan, a three-time Irish boxing champion in the U.K. who later coached Olympians along with national and provincial champions, came to Canada, he began helping McGrory with coaching and officially took over the gym in 1982.
Hay, who runs the boxing club with his wife Maria, inherited the gym in August 2022 from Vinnie and Val Ryan, who have blazed their own trails in boxing.
Val Ryan was president of Boxing Ontario and an executive member of Boxing Canada. Both organizations are governing bodies for the sport for the province and Olympic boxing, respectively.
“She’s like a trailblazer as far as women go in the sport of boxing,” Hay said. “She’s been by Vinnie’s side from day one. Probably like my wife, she’s the brains. I know I couldn’t do it without my wife.”
Hay said he started going to McGrory’s when he was 14 years old in March 1997 and went to the gym religiously three or four nights a week for a few hours after school.
“I was introduced to Vinnie and Val Ryan. They were my coaches and they’ve been like second parents to me ever since,” he said. “He’s one of the most selfless people in the world, I mean both of them. The amount of time and love they’ve given to hundreds of kids including myself since they’ve been doing this, it’s crazy.”
Over the years, the Ryans eventually became like family to him and got him to lead the classes, workouts and the operations. Rather than buying the gym, he said the Ryans passed it on to him. “Vinnie and Val could see the passion that I had for it,” he said. “And when it came time to pass it on, they passed it on to me.”
Hay credits the Ryans for being his mentors. “They’ve made a lot of sacrifices,” Hay said. “They would drive us to tournaments. In a fight, I never felt like I was alone when I had him (Vinnie) in my corner and he would always tell me: ‘I’m here, son.’ And I’m trying to carry that on with the young kids in my club as well as best as I can because he made such a difference in my life.”
‘I just wanted to prove them wrong and prove myself wrong’
Enrico Hontiveros, 12, said before he got involved in boxing and joined the club last October, he had “low self-esteem,” was not assertive and was sensitive when bullies called him names at school. Now, he said the sport has made him more disciplined by attending gym sessions regularly. He said he’s also stronger in terms of his self-esteem and physical health.
“I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” Hontiveros said in a phone interview during a break from his boxing session. “I have a lot more stamina, I’m faster. … Boxing, it just boosts your confidence. When I’m in the ring, I feel a lot tougher. I feel it’s good for mental health and self-esteem.”
Hontiveros said he has become motivated to accomplish goals after he started boxing and the bullying didn’t bother him as much.
“I just wanted to prove them wrong and prove myself wrong,” he said. “They still call me names, but right now it doesn’t really affect me anymore.”
‘It’s the idea of respecting your opponent’
During his late teens in 2017, Ben Eleftheriou, 24, was overweight and wanted to get fit. He said he started going to the club three days a week and changing his lifestyle and diet.
“The coaches became more like family,” he said, noting they helped motivate him and he eventually lost 25 to 30 pounds after eight to 12 months.
As the years went on, going to the boxing gym became more than fitness. “I genuinely enjoy coming here. It’s a very stress-relieving activity,” he said. “They teach controlled aggression and respect. It’s the idea of respecting your opponent, always shaking hands after.”
Today, Eleftheriou participates in amateur tournaments, even winning gold at the Brampton Cup this year.
Marcus Terrana, 30, a construction project manager, began attending McGrory’s seven years ago after he got injured in soccer and wanted to find a new sport.
“The sense of community is important here and just having a place to come every week and work out and get better,” said Terrana in a phone interview. Terrana won gold in the Brampton Cup in 2022. “It’s a sport that brings people closer together. After you fight with someone, it changes how you view that person, and you have a lot more respect and you’re just both trying to reach the next level and get better.”
While many may see boxing as a brutal sport, which a sports commentator likened to one that can cause “neurologically scrambled” blows, Hay said McGrory’s emphasizes the martial art’s skill and technique and would never tolerate participants using unnecessary violence.
“You learn them so you don’t have to use them in real life unless you absolutely had to defend yourself,” Hay said. “But Vinnie always stressed and I stress as well, if we found out any kid that went to the gym was using the skill to be a bully or anything like that in any bad way, they would be gone. We wouldn’t tolerate that.”
Coaches focus on skills, fitness and creating supportive environment
Lawrence Hay said the club teaches boxing skills for the benefits of self-esteem, fitness, discipline and in rare cases, self-defence. “Being a boxer, karate or any of those skills, just because you’re good at it and you have that skill, doesn’t mean that you should use it on somebody,” he explained. “It’s important to know when to walk away. I knew being a boxer and having the skills I had, I had nothing to prove to anybody. I knew what I was capable of. I always knew it wasn’t worth it to risk hurting anybody. … And that’s what I stress to the kids, but don’t go out looking for trouble obviously because that’s not what it’s about.”
Maria Hay, who co-owns McGrory’s with her husband Lawrence, hopes to change the perception of boxing being a violent sport for boys and men. She said about 10 per cent of the gym’s members are women aged 10 to 55. She said the gym and the sport itself hope to attract more girls and women to boxing.
“I think for years (boxing has been) marketed as a male-dominant sport, but we are changing that,” she said. “We’re really pushing females into the sport.”
Maria Hay, who has been involved in boxing for 15 years including coaching at the club, said women who join the gym want to get the community environment and exercise. “It’s such a community environment and we all care for one another, we support each other, we root for each other. There’s a level of respect between the opponents,” she said. “It’s a safe haven for adults and kids because it builds self-esteem and allows an outlet to avoid gangs and violence.”
The club has about 50 members, with regular classes for those aged 10 and up and youth class for those aged seven to 10, she said.
The club has members of all skill levels, ages and backgrounds. “There are people who can’t maybe do the workout as well say as somebody who’s a prime boxer, but they do what they can. There’s no judgment and we encourage everybody,” added her husband Lawrence Hay.
‘It’s more for the community, it’s more to make a difference’
Hay’s connection with McGrory’s stems from his grandfather who shares his name. His grandfather knew the club’s founder, Tim McGrory, and brought his dad there when his dad was a kid.
“It was really special because that was something that I shared with my grandfather,” he said. “He’s no longer with us, but he always came to all my fights and he always gave me the pep talk. Even the last few years before he passed, he couldn’t come to the fights anymore because of his health but he’d always call me to say, ‘Hey, how are you feeling son?’ … I wish my grandfather was around. He passed a couple of years ago, but I know he’d be proud knowing that I got the gym.”
Although the club is registered as a business, Hay said much of the $50-a-month fee goes back to the members. The club pays for the hotel rooms of members who compete in tournaments, for instance. “It’s more for the community, it’s more to make a difference,” he said. “The passion that me and my wife have, we inherited that passion from Val and Vinnie. They did it for the love and for the impact on the community and to make a difference in people’s lives — that’s what me and Maria are after. We’re not after the fame or any big financial gains. We love the gym and we love the people there and we want to keep it going forever.”
Hay credits the club for helping him choose the right path in his own life.
“I’m very proud of the choices that I’ve made and where I ended up in my career and especially now running the gym. I wouldn’t have had all of that if it wasn’t for McGrory’s,” he said. “I try to be that mentor figure that Vinnie was for me for these young kids.”
Hay proudly spoke about one of the members named Moe whom he coached around 2015. Moe got in trouble with the law, struggled in school and hung out with the wrong crowd, Hay said. Moe later on told Hay that his life changed when he joined the gym and Hay became his mentor. Moe is now with the navy. “I’m very proud of that because he was going down a path and now he’s one of the best success stories,” he said. “He’s doing great and I couldn’t be more proud … And I told Vinnie that story and he said Lawrence, that’s what it’s all about.”inthehammer's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising