- Distinction Earned: Cape Breton’s Boxing Legends 1946–1970
Paul MacDougall’s Distinction Earned: Cape Breton Boxing Legends, 1946–1970 tells the stories of several influential members of Nova Scotia’s mid-century boxing fraternity. The book is organized as a series of narrative biographies, covering nine boxers, one trainer/manager, and one cutman. MacDougall is an instructor at Cape Breton University and the author of numerous works of fiction including an award-winning one-act play on the life of boxer George “Rockabye” Ross. His experience as a writer shines through in Distinction Earned, providing the reader with eloquent biographies based on his interpretations of newspapers, magazines, interviews and, to a lesser extent, secondary sources. The book’s wonderful descriptions and captivating characters, however, are at times overshadowed by a sometimes inadequate treatment of scholarship.
MacDougall presents Cape Breton boxing to his readers as a sport passed from man to man, through the decades, beginning largely in the 1920s with Joe Uvanni. Uvanni was a New York boxer who eventually settled in Sydney, Nova Scotia, to train and promote fighters himself. According to MacDougall, Uvanni took on a young Italian immigrant named Johnny Nemis, a coal miner who, with help from Uvanni, became one of the most successful Canadian boxers of the interwar period. After retiring in 1938, Nemis went on to train some of Cape Breton’s best boxers and, as MacDougal puts it, “played a pivotal role in the heyday of Cape Breton boxing” (p. 28). Uvanni’s influence on Cape Breton boxing far exceeds MacDougall’s description. He was more than the trainer of Nemis. In 1923, with boxing virtually dead on the Island, Uvanni and the local police worked together to clean up the sport by providing professional contests to hand-picked spectators, in hopes of excluding those fans responsible for the rowdyism associated with the Island’s rings at the time. Indeed, if not for the efforts of Uvanni, there might not have been a professional boxing scene in Cape Breton from 1946 to 1970.
After introducing Uvanni and Nemis, MacDougall spends most of his book discussing three boxers: George Ross, Tyrone Gardiner, and Blair Richardson. MacDougall’s chapter on George Ross, though an intriguing story, appears out of place. Unlike the other boxers represented in Distinction Earned, Ross was not born in industrial Cape Breton, nor was he raised there. Quite the contrary, Ross was born at Marble Mountain in Cape Breton’s Inverness County, where he spent the first five years of his life. “Rockabye’s” family then moved to West Bay, on the opposite side of the Island from Sydney, Glace Bay, New Waterford, and the other industrial communities mentioned by MacDougall. Nonetheless, George Ross’s biography is a well-written narrative, detailing the ups and downs experienced by one of Canada’s most talented pugilists. MacDougall tells readers how “Rockabye” rose to fame, won the Canadian middleweight title, saw his British Empire championship hopes dashed by a nagging eyebrow injury, lost his Canadian title and, in the end, failed to regain it against future world title contender Yvon Durelle. [End Page 187]
The portion of the book dedicated to Tyrone Gardiner reinforces the importance of Johnny Nemis to the development of young fighters in Cape Breton. Under the guidance of Nemis, a teenage Gardiner fought thirteen times, losing on only three occasions. Despite his success, Gardiner left Nemis in 1957, took some time off and returned to the sport under the tutelage of trainer Johnny Cechetto. With few lightweight boxers competing in Nova Scotia, Gardiner fought against heavier opponents to stay busy and gain experience. Although Gardiner struggled against the larger men, he eventually excelled against men his own size winning the Nova Scotia, Maritime, Eastern Canadian, and Canadian lightweight titles.
MacDougall’s best writing appears in his section on Blair Richardson of South Bar, Nova Scotia. He eloquently captures the fascinating career of this rare boxing personality, displaying Richardson in all his glory as a boxer...