Make your way down a set of concrete steps at the side of the Port Kells Community Hall, and you’ll find a small basement room where boxing dreams, and a pair of potential Canadian champions, are made.
The Port Kells Boxing Club gym is wallpapered with wrinkled boxing posters and newspaper articles painted yellow with age.
Well worn heavy bags and double end bags are attached to the ceiling.
At the back of the room is a sparring ring.
The gym is dark, cramped, and simple.
And it’s a second home for amateur pugilists including Russ Lavery and Julian Kim, both going for Canadian titles on Friday at the Coast Hotel ballroom, beside Cascades Casino.
With 20 boxers on the card, the WBC Canadian championships is billed as the best from the east taking on the best from the west.
“The connection with the WBC is significant and meaningful,” said event organizer Dave Allison of the host club, Langley City Boxing. “There is going to be some great fights and there is a certain electricity when you have the best fighting the best.”
The newly formed World Boxing Council International Amateur System will see the first ever national team selected Sept. 13.
Lavery, 21, is facing a familiar adversary in Marcus Sandhu of the North Burnaby Boxing Club for the lightweight (135 lb.) title.
“It’s all I’ve been really thinking about,” said Lavery, who carries an 8-4-2 record into Friday’s bout. “Not a second goes by when I’m not thinking about it. I don’t think the full extent has really hit me yet. Once I get there that night, the full extent of what’s going on, I think it will really hit me then. I’m just going to stay positive, stay focused on myself and my game plan, and not get too caught up in the extra curricular stuff.”
A former B.C. champion, Sandhu is a skilled, crafty counterpuncher.
He edged Lavery by split decision during a Clash at the Cascades show at the Coast in May.
“He’s a real crafty guy,” Lavery said, regarding Sandhu. “I’ve never seen that sort of a style before. We’ve worked on everything in the gym and it’s definitely not going to be the same fight as before. I have a game plan now, you know?”
The day after the bout, Lavery, who a teammate described as having the “fastest hands” in the Port Kells club, flies with a couple of friends to Thailand where they’ll be building school classrooms and infrastructures through International Volunteer HQ.
Lavery said he’s so focused on the bout that he hasn’t thought about the trip recently. He does know one thing: he can’t board a commercial flight concussed.
“I’ll have to keep my hands up,” Lavery said with a smile.
Looking ahead to Friday, Lavery has extra motivation in taking on Sandhu, especially with several friends and family there to cheer him on.
That said, hitting the slippery Sandhu is easier said than done; it might be like trying to punch a piece of paper swirling around in a windstorm.
Lavery predicts Sandhu will be the one backing up, waiting for his opportunity to catch him reaching or being careless with his punches.
“I have to be smart,” he said. “I can’t just go in there. There’s a counter for every counter, too.”
Lavery’s trainer Cal Bennett said the game plan might have to scrapped if Sandhu decides to alter his style.
“He did already fight [Sandhu] once so you kind of get a feel for his style,” Bennett said. “There are certain things that you can work on.”
While there is no personal animosity on Lavery’s part, he says he has “never had this much motivation for a fight.”
“I really want to beat this guy,” Lavery said.
Bennett added, “He’s a very skilled opponent. He had a lot more experience than Russ in the first fight. Winning against a guy who comes from a good gym, who is a good fighter… and for a national title, it’ll be quite a feather in Russ’s cap, that’s for sure.”
Lavery started boxing just three-and-a-half years ago and was dealt a bad hand in 2011, when he said he was assaulted and sucker punched outside the ring. He was knocked unconscious and in the process wrecked his ankle. He had surgery with five pins and a plate put into his ankle. The injury forced him out of the sport for the better part of a year.
Once back in the gym, Lavery said he grew as a boxer and a person.
“I’m way stronger than I was before, both mentally and physically,” Lavery said. “Getting to know Cal so much, we’ve given each other our own personal development. We’ve both come a long way. I have trust in him, he has trust in me, and that’s why I’m so confident for this fight.”
Lavery said one of the most important things he has learned in the sport through the years is “being calm when someone is trying to take your head off.”
“It’s not normal, but I’ve been working on it lots,” he said. “But I look back on my first fight, and I’m just a completely different fighter. If I’m on my game, mentally, I’m unbeatable. I know I am.”
KIM VIES FOR NATIONAL TITLE
A Surrey resident, Kim is scheduled to take on Marti Aereola in the 175-lb. light heavyweight division.
Al Harper trains the 24-year-old Kim.
“Julian’s looking really good in training, as is Russ,” Bennett said. “They both look the best I’ve ever seen them. [Kim] and Russ winning would be huge for this club. It’s an individual sport but everyone’s a sparring partner and everyone’s being supportive and positive.”
Featuring local boxers including Lavery, Kim, Ken Huber, Lev Jackson, Jennifer Yager, and George Vourtsis, the WBC Canadian championships get underway at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets for the all-ages show are $30 each at the door. Those under the age of 12 get in free. All bouts are sanctioned by the British Columbia Combative Sports Association.
Kim and Lavery were originally trained by Roy Witts, who on the local scene is considered to be a hybrid between Mickey Goldmill (Rocky Balboa’s fictional manager played by the late actor Burgess Meredith) and Yoda.
Witts, who trained countless amateur boxers and mixed martial arts fighters over the past half century, moved back to Wales a year ago and is missed by all in the gym.
“He was the guy behind the scenes,” Bennett said. “A lot of people don’t know how much he’s been part of the club. He’s been huge for Julian, for Russ, for me as a trainer. He’s a real stand-up guy.”
“He’s one guy I’ll never forget,” Lavery said. “He’s just such an interesting guy. He’s someone you want to be around, you know? He gives off good vibes.”
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