Knowing you might be outmatched in a fight is one thing; choosing to step into the ring when you know that is something entirely different.
In the heyday of Pictou County boxing with pro fighters from the area hitting double digits and boxing gyms packed, to make it somewhere you had to be good.
Although ‘good’ isn’t what likely came to mind the first time Barry Sponagle fought, he certainly went on to prove himself and take on two championship titles in his boxing career. First stepping into the ring having never fought an amateur or a pro fight at the age of 20, Barry hopped into the boxing ring in Dartmouth for his first-ever fight — against a pro boxer.
“Lawrence (Hafey) set up a pro fight against Tiger Jackson,” his brother Wayne Sponagle recalled.
Standing ringside was his brother Wayne, rooting for him the whole time until he lost in the third round. His second fight came only three weeks later with Sponagle no more well-trained than before and against the same opponent, this time in New Glasgow.
After four lost fights with pro fighters, the boxing community was getting worried about the man who came out of nowhere to step into the ring. Spongle had only trained with his brother and Lawrence in his brother’s auto shop and had two small kids at home. But he couldn’t get enough of the fight.
“After the first four fights I tried to get him to quit because he lost all four fights,” said Wayne, adding that others were urging him to get his brother to stop before he got hurt. But Barry told him that he really just wanted to make it four rounds against someone. Wayne let him continue but came back to his younger brother when he made it four rounds in a fight and urged him to stop then. Barry’s reply was that he just really wanted to win one match.
With no one else to train him, Wayne became his brother’s coach. Growing up the two had been close after their father deserted the family of eight children when Barry was just a baby. The siblings went in and out of foster care through their childhood but always had each other, knowing they were going through the same thing. When their mother died in 1960, Barry was taken to Ontario with his oldest brother Jack. When he returned to Nova Scotia at age 20, he was married with two kids and began to get into boxing.
After taking time off of boxing to train intensively with his brother, Barry came back with a winning streak. He took on pro boxers and people he hadn’t been able to beat before, and won. Not in the best of shape with his pack a day smoking habit since the age of 12, Barry was winning matches against pros and caught the eye of those who booked cards. Due to having an unusual start in boxing, Barry wasn’t able to draw a crowd in Pictou County but he fought a lot of cards in Halifax and Montreal. Wayne even recalls it being written about his brother that he got more standing ovations in Halifax than the Halifax Voyagers hockey team got goals.
“He loved to fight; he was a beautiful boxer when I could get him to box,” chuckled Wayne. Things only improved for Barry, taking the Canadian Lightweight title then beating the lightweight champion in London. Although Wayne was his coach, he was not able to go with him to the European cards.
He had even fought with junior middleweight champion Johnny Sham in Johannesburg, losing the decision to the heavier boxer.
He may have been his coach but Wayne could not make fight decisions for Barry so when it was proposed Barry fight the number one featherweight champion in the world, Art Hafey, also from Pictou County, Wayne advised against it, but Barry took it anyway. He was told he would have eight days to prepare for the fight, after having not boxed for three months. Barry ended up winning his fight against Hafey.
Barry retired from boxing in 1978 after a total of 66 pro fights, and what he had achieved after starting his career with no training was nothing sort of spectacular.
Wayne eventually moved out west but he would always come home to visit Barry. Sadly, Barry Sponagle passed away at age 73 on March 25 after living in Durham for some time.
Perhaps the best description of Barry’s boxing career came from friend and fellow local boxer Lawrence Hafey who shared with Wayne: “If guts could win a world championship Barry would have been world champion a long time ago.”