Tuesday, October 12, 2010

halifax magazine comes out swinging

one of the joys of freelancing is that you'll hear a whisper on one assignment that you can turn into a roar somewhere else. that happened this summer when i covered a community meeting in mulgrave park, north end halifax, to discuss a response to the murder of a young father. it was a front-page story for metro, but i wasn't able to go into much depth.

when i arrived at the meeting, i went inside and grabbed a seat to hear what residents, police and politicians had to say. a few minutes later i was tossed out by the police - i think that was a first for me. at the request of residents, the meeting was closed to media so i slunk outside and sat on a wall with the other journalists. as we waited for the meeting to end, a big, bullish man strode up to us waving a piece of paper. he was an ex prize fighter and wanted to spread the word about palooka's boxing club's free after-school boxing program for kids. he was convinced that it could get kids off the streets and away from the sort of trouble that left the young father dead.

in the tight space i had for metro, all i could fit in was this quote:

“It took a murder to get you guys down here, but maybe something positive can come out of it.”
– Paul Talbot, Mulgrave Park resident

i talked to paul for a while and we eventually met up to talk about the program. the resulting article is halifax magazine's cover story this month. it's a potent issue - grab a copy from a news stand to see mike dembeck's great pictures of palooka's.

the october edition also has a superb editorial from trevor adams about eddie carvery. trevor was emcee last month for a discussion eddie and i had at the north-end library about the hermit of africville. they've also published some photos from the night.

you can read my halifax magazine article about palooka's on my website, or below.

A Fighting Chance

A week after Ryan White was shot dead on a doorstep in Halifax’s Mulgrave Park in July 2010, community members met with police and politicians to discuss the senseless killing of the 21-year-old father of three.

Outside, a bullish man with a bald head patrolled the streets like a Humvee, waving a piece of paper and explaining that if you want young people to abandon violence, you’ve got to teach them how to fight.

“It took a murder to get you guys down here, but maybe something positive can come out of it,” Paul Talbot told the media, politicians and police who were suddenly very interested in his north-end neighbourhood. The piece of paper was a flyer for Palooka’s Boxing Club and its free training program for kids. Talbot says those skills can change lives. The man called the Mayor of Mulgrave Park ought to know.

Talbot packs the fighting power of a small army into his stocky body, holding a black belt in two forms of karate, a brown belt in judo and a Maritime Tough Man title. He started off as a street fighter, though, after he fled an abusive home at age 12. He battled the streets for three years before landing in a correctional facility when a break-and-enter went wrong. Inside, he smashed a warden in the face, earning himself a two-month stint in solitary confinement.

When the attitude-heavy 16-year-old was about to be released back onto the streets, an older, wiser prisoner suggested he channel his energy into a martial art. “Do you want to be a criminal all of your life, or do you want to try and do something positive?” the man asked him, handing Talbot the number of a karate sensei.

Talbot called the sensei, who agreed to teach the teenager so long as he obeyed him, behaved and promised not to swear. Talbot learned discipline and kicked the chip off his shoulder.

“The karate gave me a positive outlook on things. It gave me a sense of not being alone. When you’re on the streets and you’re 12 years old, believe me, you’re alone,” says Talbot, now 57, as he lounges behind a desk at Palooka’s.

“It took that attitude of being a punk, a grease ball and a street fighter; it took that attitude away and gave me a sense of – well, they call it chi. Your inner being.”

Talbot resumed his education and graduated from high school. He trained as a welder and found work at the Halifax Shipyards. In his off time, he discovered a gift for organized fighting. He learned how to box first from books and later from sparring with men such as Trevor Berbick, the Halifax-trained world champion who fought Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.

“Guys who tried to murder me every time I got in the ring,” Talbot says. “My style of fighting was hit and don’t get hit.”

A newspaper article captured his rise. “You’ve heard of sweet 16 and never been kissed? How about a rugged 28 and never been hit,” read the headline.

In 1980, he demolished eight pretenders in one night to be crowned Maritime Tough Man in Moncton. Promoters started calling and he took to fighting full time. He won the Atlantic heavyweight kick-boxing belt and snagged a few boxing titles.

“I’d fight anybody,” he says.

When he got knocked out in a 1983 fight, he decided to hang up his gloves. He started a “Karate Kid” self-defence course and took it to Halifax and Dartmouth schools, but found himself missing his adopted family in the boxing gym. When his old friend and sparring partner Mickey MacDonald opened Palooka’s in 2007, Talbot found a new home.

The converted movie theatre on Gottingen Street has a cinematic feel. The steps up from the street lead to a platform overlooking the gym. Heavy bags line the walls while fighters grapple on mats, pound pads and lift weights. Two combatants struggle in the ring in a mixed martial arts contest. After a particularly vicious takedown, the victorious fighter steps out of the ring, ties her hair back in a pony tail and takes a long drink of water. Her foe slinks out of the ring, rubbing his arm.

Talbot fits in here like an old pair of boxing gloves. When MacDonald opened the non-profit gym’s doors to kids under 18 in Halifax and Dartmouth for free after-school boxing lessons, Talbot volunteered to lead the community outreach.

“My main goal here is to get kids off the street,” he says. “It’s kids like [Ryan White] at 12 years old, 13 years old, that I’m trying to reach. You got to get kids in their youth to make them good teenagers, then men.”

Some of those men have become police officers and members of the armed forces. Others have just stayed out of trouble.

“They get a safe place to come to where there’s no liquor, no drugs, no guns. They can fool around and be kids,” Talbot says. “Somebody’s got to step forward and help these kids. I’m the right guy for that.”

Josh Lyon, Palooka’s assistant manager, runs the program. Beginner classes go from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays and an intermediate class operates from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. The gym provides the equipment and trainers.

“It’s the mandate of the gym, the reason it was built. It’s to give the kids in the community a place to go. A lot of them come from broken homes and they have a lot of issues with concentration and stuff like that,” Lyon says. “They’ve made big improvements and school and socially. It gives them guidance and a positive place to come where people will listen to them.”

The dozen kids throwing body blows at the heavy bags are in good hands. Tyson Cave, the “Prince of Hali” and Canadian Super-bantamweight champion, watches each punch, correcting technique and offering encouragement.

“I’m a perfect example of what a kid can do,” the north-end Halifax man says. “It’s what boxing can do for a kid. It kept me off the streets and I ended up being a Canadian champion five times over. It took me around the world. I’d rather be in here than out there, where the trouble was.”

He says it’s not about making every kid a fighter, but fighting for every kid. “It’s a safe haven,” Cave says. “Life is hard. No one ever said life was easy. Being a boxer and a fighter, you transfer that over into life and then you’re ready for life.”

Calvin Royal, a 15-year-old with floppy blond hair, takes a break from his workout.

Dripping with sweat, he says he’s hooked on learning how to throw a hook. “It’s really good exercise,” he says, eager to get back to work.

Asia Jones, 12, followed her brother Unique, 13, to the classes. Unique wanted a change from basketball and hanging out on long summer days and leapt into the ring when Lyon told him about the program.

“A lot of the boys say I’ve got faster hands than him,” grins Asia as her brother laughs in disbelief.

“I don’t know about that,” Unique says. Even with his sister’s speedy slugging, he loves coming to Palooka’s. “It’s a very safe place,” he says, running back to his

Watching from the back of the gym, Talbot smiles.
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