In this corner with Russ Anber: A rainy night in Montreal

Russ Anber
06/07/2019 6:33am

In his latest column, Russ Anber pays a personal and poignant tribute to boxer Cleveland Denny, who died 39 years ago today...

Whenever it rains on a fight night in Montreal I always think of Cleveland Denny.

It was raining the night that the 24-year-old Guyanese-born Canadian lightweight lost to Gaetan Hart in the Olympic Stadium in Montreal on the undercard of the first Sugar Ray Leonard vs Roberto Duran fight.

Cleveland lost by tenth-round TKO and died of his injuries 16 days later.

In the lead-up to the fight Cleveland was training in the gym where I got my start in boxing. I was just finishing up my first year of coaching and I saw him every day.

I vividly remember that summer - it was so hot in the city, one of those really baking hot summers. We were training at the old Olympic club on Park Avenue, which was on the third storey of a building that used to house an old movie theater. It had a tar roof and the gym was right below that tar roof. It was fucking hot in there that summer.

We’d be standing around not even working out and we’d still be sweating buckets. Cleveland, when he was training, would be wearing plastic garbage bags. And not just on the last day to shift the last pound or two, he was training every day like this.

I was only a year into coaching but I thought: ‘this isn’t right. This can’t be good’. Among the guys in the gym we’d talk about it. To this day I have always forbidden any of my fighters to train like that. It freaked me out and scared the shit out of me.

I saw Cleveland every day but I didn't get to know him all that well. From all accounts he was a real nice guy though and when he died he had a baby that was just six months old.

Cleveland started his pro career in Montreal and beat Gaetan in 1977 before then losing the Canadian title he had won against Jean Lapointe in a rematch against Gaetan in early 1978.

Then Cleveland went off to California and had a couple of fights there. When he came back to Montreal for his third fateful fight with Gaetan in 1980 he had a California trainer with him.

Taking on a guy like Gaetan, who was knocking on Hilmer Kenty’s world lightweight championship door and would fight Aaron Pryor a few months later for the WBA super lightweight title, was a tough task for Cleveland. Gaetan was always in gruelling fights - no matter who you were he always put you through a tough fight.

There was already a sense of doom in the air. In Gaetan’s previous fight just a month earlier he had fought Ralph Racine with tragic results. Ralph was stopped in the last round, collapsed on his stool, suffered brain damage and went into a coma. He didn’t die but was left in far from perfect shape. He suffered real damage.

I was in the stadium for the fight. There had been an amateur fight card maybe a week before the event and one of the prizes they gave to participants was a ticket to the fight.

It was raining when the fight took place. I knew Gaetan well, I knew his trainer, his manager, his assistant and I’m still friends with Gaetan to this day. So when he won we were all very happy, I'll never forget his corner man Billy Mellish bounding over the top rope after they stopped the fight to celebrate.

But then Cleveland didn’t get up.

He slid down that ring post. His hands were kind of crossed in front of him, like someone in a coffin with their hands crossed in front of their chest.

That’s how he slid down the ropes and that image has stayed with me my whole life.

Whenever anyone asks about Leonard and Duran and the brawl in Montreal the first thing I think of is Cleveland.

A lot of people don’t know about it, or they’ve forgotten. Or they don’t care. And then you have some fighters talking about how they’re going to kill someone or Deontay Wilder saying how he wants a body on his record or this or that. Those people have no idea what something like this means to a fighter, or a fighter’s family or a fighter’s children.

I’ve never liked that sort of talk in boxing and it all stems from the night I saw Cleveland slip away in that ring. I saw Ralph Racine before that. I saw Willie Classen die in New York. I saw Duk Koo Kim die on TV.

I saw all that. Those deaths happened and I watched them, I didn’t just hear about them. That’s why I take a lot of offense when people talk shit about wanting to kill someone in the ring.

I wouldn't say what happened to Cleveland and what happened to Ralph and Willie and many others made me question the sport but it has made me question the practices of some of the people around boxing.

I still wonder why Cleveland’s people let him train like that. In those days weigh-ins were the same day so he didn’t have time to hydrate or anything. He must have been so weakened.

Cleveland’s funeral was a crazy day. Everybody who was anybody in boxing was at that funeral. I wrote a eulogy for Cleveland. I was just a young kid who wanted to write about what I’d seen. I never got to speak it at the funeral or anything like that. I just showed it to people and said: ‘this is what I wrote’. I wish I could still find it. Maybe it's among all my junk somewhere. A lot of people read it and said it was very nice. At that time there was a part of me that wanted to be a writer.

I remember how very quiet it was at the funeral, then all of a sudden a buzz started, whispers and a din in the room - Gaetan was arriving. Everyone was worried. Were emotions going to kick in? Were Cleveland’s family going to blame him and try and start a fight?

Anyway that didn’t happen. Gaetan walked in, he went to the coffin and took his Canadian championship belt and he laid it on Cleveland in the coffin, crossed himself and said a little prayer. He offered his condolences and paid his respects to the family and friends of Cleveland before leaving. All the while he was also having to deal with his own emotions and the frenzy of the media around the funeral.

Later Gaetan said: “It was my first championship belt, but I somehow felt it should be his.”

That night has guided me throughout my career. It made me realise very early on in my career how brave fighters are. The photo of Gaetan by the coffin was on the front page of all the newspapers. It was a huge thing at the time, massive.

But then it fades away because the only thing that matters to most people is right now. Most people don’t give a shit any more.

But I’ll never forget Cleveland Denny, particularly when it rains on a fight night.

Russ Anber is on Twitter and Instagram @russanber.
Russ was speaking to Luke G. Williams