Canadian boxers fight for Pan Am Games spots

Around the country, athletes are battling for the right to compete in front of a home crowd at next year's Pan Am Games in Toronto. For Canada's boxers, that sometimes means having to step into the ring against a friend, writes Scott Russell.

'Sometimes you have to fight your friends' in battle for Toronto berth

Canadian Pan Am Games hopeful Mandy Bujold, right, won a bronze medal at this year's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where women's boxing was on the program for the first time. (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

In the lead-up to the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, we've been talking to athletes who desperately want to compete there in about nine months from now.

We've encountered the synchronized swimmers, the golfers, the badminton players and this week had a chance to speak with the Canadian boxers who are presently contesting the national championships just outside Toronto in Mississauga, Ont.

Boxing at the amateur level in this country is one of those sports that rarely surfaces from under the radar. Yet it has a fascinating history, and the fighters, at least the ones we spent some time with, are both interesting and remarkably thoughtful with regard to the intricacies of their age-old sport.

A Canadian has not captured a boxing medal at the Olympics since Nigerian-born David Defiagbon won heavyweight silver at the Atlanta Games in 1996. Only three Canadians have won pugilistic gold — welterweight Bert Schneider (1920 Antwerp), bantamweight Horace "Lefty" Gwynne (Los Angeles 1932) and super heavyweight Lennox Lewis (1988 Seoul).

Men in tough

At TO2015, the Canadian fighters are bound to run up against the dominant Cubans, who have won 84 gold medals since the debut Pan Am Games in Buenos Aires in 1951. By contrast, Canadian fighters have found their way to the top of the podium only three times at the Pan Ams.

Although the Commonwealth Games champion in the 91-kg category — 34-year-old Samir El-Mais — and Chechen-born teenager Arthur Biyarslanov, who fights at 64 kg, demonstrate potential and talent, the Canadian men may be in tough next summer and also at the Olympics in Brazil in 2016.

Still, they're putting up a fight.

"You don't want to get on the wrong side of me," said the affable but intense Biyarslanov. "I can get pretty aggressive."

Missed opportunities

That said, it's a core group of female fighters who have the best chance to fashion a resounding success story in the home ring come TO2015.       

"Canadian boxing has to do something ASAP to bring our sport back to the spotlight," said Mary Spencer of Windsor, Ont., who competes in the 75-kg division. 

Spencer, a three-time world champion, was highly touted as the gold-medal favourite in 2012 as women's boxing appeared on the Olympic program for the first time in London. She was beaten soundly in her first bout by a Chinese fighter.

"It hurts physically, but it hurts more emotionally when you lose," Spencer reflected.  "It's like losing a battle… a war… it's losing a fight."

Spencer is the reigning Pan American Games champion, having captured one of the inaugural medals as women's boxing got the green light in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2011. But in the wake of her Olympic defeat she has struggled against one-time close friend and rival Ariane Fortin of Quebec.

Fortin, not Spencer, won the right to compete in Glasgow, Scotland this past summer as women's boxing made its debut at the Commonwealth Games. Fortin claimed a silver medal before 12,000 frenzied fans in the packed arena while Spencer watched back in Canada.

Spencer says it motivated her to continue on her pugilistic path and a potential shot in the ring in Oshawa, Ont., at the TO2015 Games.

"I know it will be time to hang up the gloves when I no longer want to be a better athlete and that time hasn't arrived," she stressed. "I do not want to miss this opportunity to fight at home. I missed a big opportunity as women's boxing made its debut at the Commonwealth Games. I dare not miss this."

'Sometimes you have to fight your friends'

Mandy Bujold of Toronto, who won flyweight gold in 2011 at the Pan Am Games in Mexico and a bronze at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, knows what missing an opportunity is all about. She failed to make the cut for the London 2012 Olympics and is determined to get to Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

She knows, like Spencer, that means defeating a closely connected Canadian teammate because only one spot is available in each weight class.

"That's the sport of boxing," Bujold said. "Sometimes you have to fight your friends."

Similarly, Caroline Veyre, who was born in Paris and came to Canada with her Brazilian mother as a teenager, hides a seething ambition to get to the Olympics. Her shy smile, which reveals braces on gleaming white teeth framed by a fat upper lip, quickly disappears when the talk turns to ambition.

"I never fight with emotion. I'm smart in the ring," she said. "My mom wants me to go to Rio so much. I know it will be magical when I get there."

All this comes together as part of a starkly simple yet profound philosophy which dominates the boxing mentality. It would seem that the right to perform in the home ring before supportive fans at the Pan Am Games needs to be earned, plain and simple. 

It means winning the fight to be the last Canadian standing come TO2015 and beyond.

Follow Scott Russell on Twitter @SportsWkndScott.


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