Another champion fighter from Nova Scotia’s greatest boxing era has passed on to the big squared circle in the sky.
Lenny Sparks was 81.
His obituary last week said he had “an amazing boxing career.” That, I’d say, was a pretty accurate assessment when you consider that he won several championships and was honoured by a number of sports organizations.
He built his fine record during the 1960s when professional boxing was at its highest peak in this province, centred in Halifax, Stellarton, New Glasgow, and Sydney.
Lenny came out of Halifax’s Creighton Street Gym, operated by the Paris brothers from New Glasgow, themselves star boxers in earlier times. He told me one time it was valuable training at the Halifax gym under Keith Paris that turned him into a hard puncher with a knack of good defence.
While overshadowed by some of the best fighters ever to come out of the province, he won the Maritime welterweight championship, plus the Canadian welterweight and junior welterweight titles.
As a result of his key victories, Sparks was inducted into the Maritime Sport Hall of Fame and the Black Ice Hockey & Sports Hall of Fame. He was also given a Lifetime Champion award by the Canadian Professional Boxing Council.
Nova Scotians who were around in the 1950s will remember his knock out of Jackie Hayden, which dismayed Pictou County boxing fans and gave the Haligonian the national junior welterweight belt.
At that time, the talented Westville native was in the midst of a dramatic five-fight series of matches with Howard. To this day, there has not been a series of fights to equal that back-and-forth sequence of thrilling matches.
But back to the Creighton Street Gym. Sparks wasn’t alone in saying a family atmosphere at the club, fighters sometimes facing their fellow gym members, was one reason its members did well in amateur and pro ranks.
Fighters developed in Halifax under Paris included Lenny’s younger brother “Spider” Sparks, who won an undercard decision the night that Lenny knocked out Hayden.
Anytime I heard of Lenny in recent years I couldn’t help but think of a story author Charles R. Saunders wrote in his 1990 book, Sweat and Soul. It went like this:
“One of Sparks’ most interesting adventures occurred when a brawl broke out in the audience while he was fighting in the ring. Lenny turned to see if anyone he knew was involved. Next thing he knew, he was on the canvas, listening to the end of the referee’s 10-count. For the rest of his career, Sparks concentrated on what was happening inside the ropes.”
Saunders also mentioned the time, not long before Sparks retired from fighting, when he captured the Canadian junior middleweight crown with a knockout of Montreal’s Clement Sarazan. Sparks, the author quipped, “thus achieved a rare ‘hat trick’—Canadian titles in three weight divisions.”
I can’t talk about the production at the Creighton Street boxing factory without talking about its founders.
Keith and Percy Paris left Pictou County in the 1950s and established the famous club, remaining in the city for something like 50 years.
My memories of Keith and Percy reach back to my childhood in the 1940s when both were regulars in local rings. They were from a great boxing family and both were among the first boxers I watched from ringside.
When Keith fought, he was known as “Hard Rock” for good reason. Anytime we chatted through the years, he loved to point out that (like the great heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano), he was never knocked out in the ring. Yes, that was a great feat.
Of course, by referring to the Paris brothers, the story moves to another local legend: Buddy Daye.
Buddy had been a merchant marine seaman and, in the early 1950s, he arrived in the Paris-run gym and, before he knew it, he too was pulling on the big gloves.
The way that story went, Daye was a bit reluctant to give pro fighting much of a go.
Then came the night when Keith talked Buddy into going down to Bridgewater to work in a corner during the card there.
Buddy didn’t know what Keith really had in mind that night.
Arriving in the South Shore town, Buddy found out he was listed on the undercard to face a boxer from Yarmouth who was listed as the Maritime featherweight champ.
Keith explained to Buddy that if he fought the opponent, he would get paid $30. Buddy responded that he wanted $60. Finally, though, he reluctantly agreed to the lesser amount.
Being realistic, Buddy expected to get beaten.
Two minutes into the fight, he landed a hard blow that flattened the champ, breaking his jaw.
Buddy would fight another 88 times, winning 83 times, 71 by knockout or stoppage.
Later, Buddy became a community activist and held roles in the Nova Scotia and Canadian boxing federations. In 1990, Delmore (Buddy) Daye distinguished himself by becoming sergeant-at-arms in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, the first black to hold the position.
Time has marched on.
Richardson, one of Canada’s great fighters, died 50 years ago this month from a brain tumour at the young age of 30. Keith Paris passed away in 2011, Percy Paris died in 2012, and Hayden died in 2015.
Perhaps Lenny Sparks, way up there somewhere, will be able to reunite with some very familiar faces from that Creighton Street Gym.