Hafey’s journey never easy

Pictou Advocate sports

It’s probably difficult to realize, but it’s been 41 years since it happened. That’s half a lifetime to most people.

Yet even the passage of four decades plus a year isn’t enough time for boxing fans to forget, especially knowledgeable ones in Pictou County and other parts of Nova Scotia, real hotbeds of boxing in those long-ago days.

It was 1976 and most of us who followed boxing in these parts wanted to believe the promise that was being made in California to Stellarton-born featherweight Art Hafey. A promise that he was going to get a world title shot. A promise that was made to him over and over again.

A promise never kept.

He had earned the chance. Sixty-seven fights in eight years. Fifty-three wins, 36 of them by knockouts. A majority of his bouts were in California, where he had moved to get the best opportunities in the fight game.

Though his final fight — against Danny Lopez in Inglewood — was stopped by a TKO, he had rung up 15 consecutive victories prior to that one. In California, he lost only four of 43 bouts.

He earned a crack at the crown. He was the natural contender, officially recognized as number one behind the champ.

I said it in print many times, and I’ll say it again for the record: Art Hafey was robbed. Art Hafey got a raw deal. Put it in any terms you want.

No wonder the Toy Tiger’s boxing days ended at the age of 25. No wonder he returned to Pictou County, discouraged and downcast.

If the truth be known, Art’s journey was never easy. He told me all about his early problems when we reviewed his career years ago.

Before he entered a gym, before he pulled on the gloves, he was suffering from a medical disorder that ended his childhood experiences in hockey and baseball.

“I didn’t even realize I had a problem, though I knew there was something the matter,” he told me. “I enjoyed hockey but, all my life without realizing it at first, I had a bit of a muscular disorder called Thomsen’s, where my muscles seize up. I just thought it was something normal. It’s a hereditary disorder and my dad had it.”

So he quit hockey.

“I had the same problems playing ball. I’d be at the bat and hit the ball and, for three or four seconds, I couldn’t move.”

He gave up ball, too.

The disorder was diagnosed by a Halifax neurologist when he was 12. But he was determined not to end all sports participation.

He and his brother Lawrence began working out with Donnie MacIsaac’s Archie Moore Boxing Club in Hillside.

“Donnie was a very devoted and dedicated trainer who loved the sport of boxing. He didn’t have a lot of money, but I’m sure he put a lot of his own money into his club to get it operational.”

Soon Art was fighting.

“I was nervous, but not scared. I was nervous before every match I ever had. If I wasn’t nervous, I couldn’t perform at the level I was capable of. Going in and taking an opponent lightly, you can make mistakes.”

At 17, he turned pro.

“The only difference is you start receiving money instead of trophies. I had enough trophies.”

Soon he left for California.

“If I had stayed home, I would be in bad shape today. I never learned any technique around here. All I could do was throw haymakers. It’s all I knew. If I had stayed around here boxing, holy geez, I might have won some matches, but I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.”

In four years, he had 43 fights in the Los Angeles area, moving up in the ratings and, with mostly victories, becoming number one.

“I was always optimistic a title fight would materialize. Not until it was all over did I realize it wasn’t going to happen. They kept saying, ‘You’ll get it.’ The ratings committees ganged up on me, that’s what they did.

“I was fighting all the top contenders and beating all the top contenders. What’s the sense of rating you number one if they’re not going to acknowledge you by giving you a rightful and deserving crack? You know, I’ll take that to my grave.”

Why bring it all up again?

Because the little guy, now a senior at 66 years of age, has gotten a wee bit of recognition from our neighbouring province.

You probably know about it. The Moncton-based National Boxing Authority presented him with what was called The Uncrowned World Championship belt. It was given in absentia in Miramichi because Art had suffered a heart attack and couldn’t attend.

I was happy to see that an organization from outside Nova Scotia stepped up and gave him some recognition, and I was pleased to see the Advocate story saying Hafey was surprised and pleased about the honour.

There have been honours, certainly. He was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame in 1980, the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame in 1991, the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame, and the California State Boxing Hall of Fame.

There were other highs.

Like knocking out former world bantamweight champ Ruben Olivares. Like being named “fighter of the year” by the Latin American Press Club. Like Muhammad Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, calling him “the best little man” he had ever seen.

Yet when I visited Art long after he returned home, he talked about still having frustrations, still having bitterness about what had happened in California.

A comment he made that afternoon lingers with me. “I don’t hate anybody,” he told me, “but it’s been a major disappointment. I haven’t had the opportunity to really enjoy what I accomplished.”

He deserved better.