Monday, May 19, 2008
Haorace "Lefty" Gwynne Olympic Gold Medallist
This November, Lennox Lewis will be inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Lewis won the Olympic Gold Medal in the Super Heavyweight Division in 1988, in Seoul, Korea. Lewis went on to an impressive professional career, at one time the reigning Heavyweight Champion of the World. His name appears on an exclusive list of two hundred Olympic Boxing Gold Medallists. Some of the greatest names in boxing are also on that list: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard, the Spinks brothers, Oscar de la Hoya, Floyd Patterson, and Horace “Lefty” Gwynne.
Lefty Gwynne was born in Toronto in 1913. In his early teens, he began to hang around the old Woodbine racetrack in east Toronto. He and his two brothers were small in stature, with Lefty five feet four inches at the best of times. He became an exercise boy, then moved on to become a jockey.
Lefty rode in several maiden jockey races, without much success. He later recalled: “I rode in every one. Didn’t win one.” In the mid 1920s, he and his brothers headed to Havana to work as jockeys. Lefty remained there for two years.
According to his son, John, Lefty and his brothers must have been young scrappers from the day that they were born. Lefty told John that he and his brothers donned the gloves to entertain the Canadian troops on their way to Europe in the First World War. Lefty was four years old at that time, and he and his brothers would “duke it out” on the ship, much to the delight of the soldiers.
In the mid 1920s, Toronto was a boxing town. Lefty was well suited as a bantamweight-compact, muscular, mobile. He won a few fights and began training seriously at the Central YMCA in Toronto. By 1932, he had earned a spot on the Canadian Olympic team which was heading to Los Angeles, California.
Lefty had to win three bouts to win the Gold Medal. He squared off against the Italian champion, Vito Melis, in his first bout. The fight was no contest, as Lefty won all three rounds by a wide margin, once decking the Italian with a powerful right.
His next opponent was Jose Villanueva from the Philippines. He also offered little resistance to the scrappy Canadian.
In his final match against Hans Ziglarski, a German policeman, Lefty boxed cautiously. The German rushed at Gwynne from his corner at the opening bell, throwing overhand rights and wild lefts. Lefty avoided the onslaught, countering with sharp left hooks to the head and crossing rights to the body. He won the first round easily.
Ziglarski hit the canvas for a count of two in the second round, and the German never recovered. For the first time since Schneider won the lightweight title in 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium, the Canadian flag was hoisted to indicate Gwynne’s victory.
Lefty returned to Canada in the height of the depression. There was no money to be made in amateur boxing. Lefty turned pro, and headed to Detroit. Henry Ford hired him as a guard at one of his automobile plants, giving Lefty time to work out for upcoming fights. He was at Jim Brady’s boxing stable in Detroit, but made little money in the fight game.
In Doug Fisher’s excellent book about Canada’s Sporting Heroes, Lefty recalled: “I made so little on fights around Michigan that it didn’t pay to take time from work. Got a fight against Henry Hook, and we were guaranteed seventy-five bucks apiece.”
Conn Smythe also hired Lefty to fight in Toronto---five fights for $ 1000. But the Major also had strings attached. He also had Gwynne working around Maple Leaf Gardens, and at one time was the stick boy for the Leafs!
Gwynne fought his last fight in 1941, a fund-raiser for the war effort. He then began work as a volunteer at several Community Centres in the city of Toronto. This led to employment as a Recreation Director at a variety of centres in the city---Moss Park and Regent Park, to name a few.
He retired to his favourite area in the Honey Harbour region of Georgian Bay.
According to his son John, who resides just north of Trenton, Lefty never bet a nickel on a horse race, although he knew the game well.
He discouraged his sons from entering the fight game, often referring to it as “a mug’s game”. He followed boxing carefully after he retired. John remembers watching the Gillette Friday Night Fights with his dad. Lefty’s commentary would have been priceless. John recalls that his father was rarely wrong with the decisions he made during the bout.
Lefty Gwynne died in 2001, in his eighty-eighth year.