PUNCHING THROUGH PANDEMIC

1/14/2022

PUNCHING THROUGH PANDEMIC

The New England Golden Gloves Celebrates 75th Anniversary By Facing Toughest Opponent Yet

By Andrew Cook

Maybe it’s something in the bricks, in the canals, in the grease from the Owl Diner - who knows? - but something about Lowell has produced not one, but two all-time boxing sagas. It seems to strain outsider logic, but the fact is that same town which unleashed Jack Kerouac’s beatnik-hipster scene on the world and hosts the second-largest annual Folk Festival in the United States also lends itself peculiarly well to nose-crunching, knuckle-splitting glory played out on a sweat-soaked canvas mat. 

The first story, familiar to international moviegoers who supported 2010’s The Fighter (and the overexaggerated Boston accents it contained) all the way to the Oscars, is local icon “Irish” Micky Ward. Ward claimed the 2000 WBU light welterweight title, but is even more widely remembered for his legendary trilogy of fights against Arturo Gatti from 2002-2003. The Gatti fights demonstrated to a worldwide audience Ward’s trademark style of enduring seemingly-unbelievable amounts of punishment, only to miraculously withstand the barrage, rally, and respond in kind with body blows that sent his opponent sprawling on the mat.

 

“Boxing’s an old sport,” says Bob Russo, president of Golden Gloves of America and executive director of the Golden Gloves New England franchise. “And it’s a sport that works especially well in certain areas - tough, old areas like Lowell. The kinds of places that have a blue-collar background and a lot of grit and resilience at their roots.”

 

Perhaps appropriately for Lowell’s working class roots, there’s no prize money or endorsement contract awaiting the winners at the end of the multi-week tournament, no guarantee of a professional agent waiting ringside with a blank checkbook, ready to sign the next fight night superstar. All proceeds from the yearly tournament directly benefit charity, something that Russo claims is not just a highlight of the franchise’s longevity… it’s a necessity.

The fighters themselves (ranging in age from eighteen to forty) who wrap their fists and don their gloves every year do so purely for the sake of pride and respect. More often than not, they’re inner-city amateurs who took to boxing as an alternative to crime or as a refuge from a hard life on the streets, young men and women who have endured a lifetime of societal right-hooks before they ever step foot in a gym. With the Gloves, they have a chance to represent their local boxing gym in a very public way and earn the distinction of saying, for the rest of their lives, that they once fought in the same event and in the same building as titans like Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mervin Hagler, and - yes - Micky Ward.

The last Golden Gloves season, the 74th anniversary, was a resounding success. Ticket sales soared to their highest attendance rates in a decade, active online campaigns and giveaway promotions got tongues wagging around Lowell’s social circles, and fresh faces of every age, race, class, and gender began appearing in seats alongside the perennial stalwarts who had been attending Gloves bouts for decades. As Russo puts it, “There’s not a better ticket around at this time of year. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a college kid, January, February, what else is happening around town on Thursday nights? Not much, right? Nothing for this kind of value. And here in Lowell, it’s not just the ticket price itself: it’s more people in garages, eating out at restaurants beforehand or after they leave, supporting local businesses, boosting the town economy in a huge way every week during this otherwise-slow time. It’s important for a lot of reasons.”

By any and all measures of success, the Golden Gloves had rebranded itself for the 21st century into a multi-generational, vitally fresh and exciting “event” in the area’s calendar of attractions.

 

And then, seven short days after the last punch of the year had been thrown, the Gloves finally met an opponent it couldn’t contend with - an insidious heavyweight that couldn’t be dealt a right hook or warded off with a well-placed uppercut, who broke through all defenses and had an astounding K.O. rate within a six foot reach. We’re talking, of course, about Covid-19, and since well-placed miracle jabs from Pfizer and Moderna were still in preliminary rounds of development and distribution, the deadly virus did what wars, political upheavals, and the odd economic recession or two never could - it sent the longstanding sports franchise into a corner and kept it there for over a year. 2021 marked the first time in all the competition’s long and storied history that no fights were held, and big plans to observe the 75th anniversary in style were disappointingly put on hold.

 

“We were lucky to squeeze the 2020 Final in just days under the wire,” says Russo, “but unfortunately, we then lost all the good momentum we’d built up over that very successful season. Like the rest of the world, we couldn’t do anything but sit and wait it out. From a purely logistical standpoint, it just became impossible to try and proceed with business as usual in 2021, let alone roll out any plans we had for the 75th anniversary.”

Now, however, the ring has been assembled on the Lowell Memorial Auditorium’s main floor, the seats are ready and waiting, and the fighters are back, ready to do what they do best. Like the underdog hero in your boxing movie of choice, like Micky Ward, like the factory town of Lowell itself - maybe it is something in the Owl Diner breakfasts? - the Golden Gloves have taken a pounding. The franchise has been cut, bruised and battered… but it’s never been out. And with a masked-up crowd in the stands and fresh legs again, it’s coming back swinging, hard and with a vengeance. For a sport, town, and franchise marked by resilient toughness, what else could be expected?

Take your seats, ladies and gentlemen. Once again, Thursday night is Fight Night at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium.

 



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