Pictou Advocate sports

Sponagle overcame many tough times


Evidently I haven’t been alone among newspaper columnists.

My former colleague John DeMont at The Chronicle Herald was explaining last week how the COVID-19 virus, followed by the mass murders in northern Nova Scotia, delayed other subjects he planned to write about.

I had similar issues.

After 66 years of never missng a week without writing for a paper, the Advocate included my column in cutbacks caused by the pandemic. I spent three weeks on the sidelines, then addressed the coronavirus and the murders in the past two issues.

A tribute to boxer Barry Sponagle, who passed away six weeks ago at 73 years of age, kept getting pushed aside. It wasn’t intentional.

He was too good a guy — inside and outside the ring — to be overlooked. He was a Pictonian who overcame many tough times – in his sport and in his life — to be inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame and the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame.

Honours he deserved.

Another noteworthy trait, nothing kept him down. Not the knockouts by talented fighters. Not the misfortunes he faced in his childhood. Not the setbacks that would destroy many people.

Knock him down, he’d get up.

Our paths crossed numerous times. I watched many of his bouts from ringside, in Pictou County, in Halifax and other locations. We chatted about his life several times — in interviews for the Herald, the Evening News and the Advocate, in conversations before and after fight appearances.

He was always forthright when we talked. He never pulled a punch, even when my questions got a bit on the personal side. I respected him for that.

When I was in grade four at the Brown School in New Glasgow, Barry was born to a large family that lived up the Mountain Road from the school. For years, there were Sponagles in just about every grade. An older sister was in my class.

Barry’s years as a kid were filled with problems.

He told me how he became a foster child, got moved from farm to farm in Green Hill, River John and Guysborough County. He only went to grade seven, packed his books away and started working in the woods when he was 12.

One time, years later, he told me, unembarrassed, that he was geared to the tough life.

He began smoking cigarettes fulltime at 13, smoked through his boxing career and never really quit the habit. He admitted it was the stupidest thing to do, one of his greatest mistakes. At 14, he left for Ontario in search of a better life. He didn’t find it during five years there.

Even when he was what he called “a wee tiny fellow,” Barry got into kids’ fights on the streets. It motivated him. He discovered he had lots of strength, something that helped him mentally later on.

When, at 19, he returned from Ontario – what he called the best decision he ever made – he began working with his brother Wayne who had a body shop in Westville.

Then came the boxing.

He started working out in a gym with Lawrence Hafey, one of the prime fighters in the area at the time. He accompanied Lawrence to a fight card in Dartmouth one night and – with little training – entered the ring when one of the undercard fighters didn’t show up.

He was knocked out by New Glasgow’s Tiger Jackson.

Just a one-bout stand? Not for Barry Sponagle. He began training more seriously and started getting fights. But he kept getting beaten.

There was no quit in him and, suddenly, he went on a winning streak, one that got him better and better opponents. That’s when he beat a talented Jackie Burke. That’s when he beat another busy New Glasgow boxer, Jo Jo Jackson who, just this past week, died in Halifax at 75.

In 1970, when he was 22, Barry stunned the boxing community when he entered the ring in New Glasgow for a 12-round title fight with Cape Breton veteran Les Gillis, the reigning Canadian junior lightweight champ. Guess what? He won a unanimous decision.

As a lightweight, he wound up in three fights with Canadian champ Johnny Summerhays. He won the second one to take the title, which he held for 18 months before losing to Summerhays in their third match.

One thing Sponagle never did: he never refused to fight any opponent, no matter how good.

That was the story when Halifax organizers suggested he face Stellarton’s heralded opponent Art Hafey. Barry accepted and the fight was booked for October in 1973. I remember it well.

Here was Sponagle, who often trained in the basement of his home, going into the ring with one of the best young boxers ever developed in Pictrou County, who later took his talents to California and became the number one challenger in the world.

The Hafey-Sponagle matchup stood out as one of the most debatable battles in provincial circles in that era. Nobody gave Sponagle a chance.

And yes, the expected happened. The surprise was that the fight went into the ninth round before Hafey knocked Barry out.

That just made Sponagle more determined.

Nobody would have ridiculed him if he had hung up his gloves right then. Instead, he was back on his feet, back in his gym, back fighting.

His career ended in 1978, after 66 fights. He began a new job at the Trenton steel plant. He and his wife Marie settled in a home in Durham.

His bad luck returned on a winter’s night in 2008.

A raging fire ripped through their home. Barry and Marie escaped with only the clothes on their backs.

A good guy had suffered another knockdown.

It was no surprise to anyone when the one-time Canadian champion pronounced that he would once again be back on his feet.

He always managed that.