ONE OF BOXING'S GOOD GUYS
Globe & Mail - Friday, October 11
Few glowing words are written about the people in boxing, and perhaps that's not without cause.
The professional game is filled with hustlers and opportunists, a flesh-peddling free market in which most loyalties are temporary and in which most acts of kindness carry a price tag. Even the amateur sport tends to bog down in politics and corruption, and ulterior motives abound.
But still, there are good men and women in the fight world, and Arnie Boehm was one of them. He died of a heart attack on Wednesday at the gym where he trained young fighters in Kitchener, Ont. He was 69.
There's nothing about the town that ought to make it as much a hot bed of pugilism as it is a hot bed of sausage making, but largely because of Boehm, that's exactly what it became.
Lennox Lewis was his star pupil. He first came to the gym as a 12-year-old and left Boehm's tutelage when it was time to take the final steps of his amateur career, which culminated in a super heavyweight gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. It was the first one won by a Canadian fighter in more than 60 years.
Chris Johnson, another Boehm protégé, won a bronze medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. His brother Greg also fought for Canada. Art Binkowski, a heavyweight, was part of the 2000 team in Sydney and recently turned pro. The Vanderpool brothers, most notably Sid and Fitz, became first-rate, world-ranked professionals.
In a big city, those fighters would represent a great legacy for any single trainer. In a place the size of Kitchener, in a country where the sport has hardly flourished, that list is nothing short of remarkable.
Not that Boehm would have told you about it if you'd crossed paths in the gym or on the street. He was a quiet, modest, frail man who took enormous pride in his fighters, but lacked the ego that even modestly successful trainers almost invariably develop.
Rather than attempting to ride his charges to fame and fortune in the pros, or using them as leverage to line his own pockets (as is the accepted norm), Boehm never took a nickel from a professional promoter and chose to remain behind in Kitchener, understanding perhaps that this was where he belonged. Still, the bonds remained strong, especially with Lewis, for whom Boehm was a true father figure. The heavyweight champ attempted to help him out financially (a proud man, Boehm did his best to resist) and made sure that he was accorded a place of honour at all of his fights.
You'd see Boehm there, in Las Vegas, in New York or in London, wearing a jacket and tie, always fretting before the bout began, then smiling like a proud papa when Lewis was successful or consoling him on those rare occasions when he lost. All has not been sweetness and light over the years in the Lewis entourage, but Boehm was one of the few constants and unique in that he never had a bad word to say about anyone.
In Memphis, Tenn., in June, when Lewis capped his career by knocking out Mike Tyson, Boehm was in attendance, as always, thrilled to watch a fight that had played out in his head so many times before.
But to see Boehm in his true element, you had to back up a few weeks before that, to a small amateur show at a basement gym, with no bright lights, no celebrities at ringside and no future world champions on the card. He had brought a young girl from Kitchener — women's boxing being one of the new realities that he embraced — and offered her quiet encouragement in the moments before it was her turn to step into the ring. Between rounds, he provided advice with a smile on his face, and when the decision was announced (a draw, if memory serves, not that it really matters), he greeted her with a warm enveloping hug.
Yes, it can be a nasty sport and it is always a nasty business. But some who came to it were lucky enough to find their way to Arnie Boehm.
Every one of them was the better for it, which even more than producing the heavyweight champion of the world ought to be considered his legacy.