One of the best things about my job is getting to meet inspiring people like Bridget Stevens. Boxing was life for her. After growing up in Eskasoni, she found herself in the ring. Fighting and training, she learned values like dedication, commitment, and accountability.
And then suddenly, she lost the ability to box forever. In the ring, she received a catastrophic jaw injury. It would be some 27 months before she’d eat solid food again.
“In that amount of time I was still delusional, in a state pretending I could go back to it,” she recalls. “I knew I would go into a wicked depression. Everybody struggles with depression when they can’t box.”
So she didn’t let herself ponder what she’d do next. She kept training and not thinking too much about the idea of never fighting again. She worked with Dickie Ecklund (a renowned trainer and brother of fighter Mickey Ward; see the excellent Mark Wahlberg movie The Fighter).
“I was still in my zone, needing my junk: to get tired and exhausted to get through my day with my mental issues,” she says.
After a few years of that, a new boxing path emerged. “There was an Aboriginal guy named Nathan Millier from Big Cove, New Brunswick,” she says. “He was brought over to me … He was fighting pro with absolutely zero amateur fights and that’s dangerous when you have no experience at all and you’re just fighting with your heart with no skills.” They talked and she realized he had no trainer, and not much idea why he’d need one.
“So I took him in and I trained him and five years later made him into a Canadian champion as a professional fighter,” she says. “That’s how I started, and switched channels without getting discouraged … There was still a role for me. I’m excited. This is just the beginning.”
Now she’s head coach at Tribal Boxing Club in Dartmouth. Upstairs in an HRM recreation building on Windmill Road, the boxing club looks exactly like you’d expect: a sparring ring dominates the room. Weights, speed and heavy bags, and all manner of training equipment surround it. Papering the walls are vintage boxing posters, featuring names like George Foreman, Butterbean, George Chuvalo, Mike Tyson, and local heroes like Kirk Johnson.
Dozens of people train every day. It’s a mix of pros, rising-star amateurs, and newcomers. The training regimen is pretty much what you see in movies like Rocky (with fewer musical montages and less drama). A typical boxer is there at least three hours per day. In addition to the endless jogging, they spar, do defensive drills, work the punching bags, and do calisthenics.
Many people coming into the sport have tough backgrounds. They’re often angry, bitter, mistrustful. “You’ll see a transformation coming to this gym,” Bridget says. “Positive reinforcement … They all end up leaving feeling really good about themselves, even if they’ve had a bad day because they’ve accomplished something.”
It’s not what many people expect from boxing. “People say boxing is a lonely sport, but at this gym it’s not,” she explains. “It’s very friendly. The majority of the gyms you go into you get the scowls, people look at you and size you up. Here, you come in and you make friends instantly. You’re coming into a family.”
That kind of environment takes work. “I’m a really strict trainer,” Bridget says. “If they cross me—disrespect, not wanting to listen—if I see them start acting up with one another, I’m on them like a schoolteacher. They’ve got to be friends. And if they don’t, they get grounded … They’re not allowed to go out or go to other gyms. So they’re all scared, they don’t want to do nothing wrong. I have them in tight whip and they’re really good kids.”
It’s not just a place to train, it’s a community. “It’s Tribal gym,” she says. “They come to sweat lodge with me. One [Muslim] kid, when it’s Ramadan he can’t eat or drink [during daylight], and when he’s training and he can’t, the rest of the class won’t either to support him.”
Five fighters from Tribal Boxing represented Nova Scotia at the Canadian National Boxing Championships. They won two gold medals, one silver, and one bronze, which is a heck of a tally for one small club from a relatively small city.
And while the in-ring success is exciting, that’s not what really counts.
“The fighting, the tournaments, the titles: all that stuff is really not that important to me,” Bridget says. “When they bring their marks and show me they’re making 90s and 100s and following a good path, not drinking, not doing drugs … it feels 100 times more rewarding than them being champions.”