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Friday, September 2, 2011

Fighting, drugs and death

Sports Other Sports

The demise of a Canadian boxing team

By ,Toronto Sun
First posted:
The 1989 Canadian boxing team (including Mike Strange, left, and Geronimo Bie, third from left) pose for a photo during a competition in Africa. Steve Buffery follows the trail of death, drugs and depression the team left in its wake. (Supplied photo)
TORONTO - After unlocking his pub on a recent weekday morning, boxer Mike Strange pulls out a photocopied picture of the Canadian team from a 1989 tour of Africa.
Half the fighters in the photo are now dead, missing, drug addicts or ex-cons.
• • •
A couple of years ago, John Stevenson, a former Canadian junior team boxer from Newfoundland, stopped by the Highland Tap to visit his old teammate Strange, a three-time Olympian at his Niagara Falls pub.
“We were telling stories and laughing when he said, ‘Did you hear that Geronimo’s dead?’ ” Strange said.
Strange was taken aback.
Geronimo Bie was one of the most popular fighters on the Canadian national team back in the late 1980’s, early 90’s, and certainly one of the most talented — the highlight of Bie’s national team career a silver medal he won at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand.
Bie he had a spark. He was a rascal and his teammates loved him for it.
“We called him a shiny button”, said George Angelomatis, his former coach. “And as a boxer, he was magic.”
“He was always up to some mischief,” said Strange, with a laugh.
But the little Filipino-Canadian also had a dark side, and after he left the national team, his life spun out of control.
Strange had heard that Bie had gone through some hard times, stories of drug addiction and living on the streets in downtown Vancouver’s east side, a notorious drug haven. But he hadn’t heard that his old friend and teammate had passed on.
Strange called Bie’s old coach Angelomatis and some former teammates on the west coast. They too had heard rumours that Bie had died, or that he was in jail or homeless, but nobody seemed certain.
“The last I saw of Geronimo was about a year-and-a-half ago at the courthouse and he wanted to borrow $2,” said former national team fighter Manny Sobral, now a high school teacher for high-risk Aboriginal kids in downtown Vancouver. “He had really hit the skids.”
Sobral heard that Bie spent most of his time in crack houses in East Van. Angelomatis, a retired Vancouver judge, heard that as well and had last seen his fighter over a year ago. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
“He was high, standing in the middle of traffic,” said Angelomatis.
Nobody seems to know where Geronimo is now. He has become a ghost.
There are occasional sightings, though nothing recently, and the proof that he is, in fact, alive can be found in his long criminal record, which shows that, as recently as Oct. 4, 2010 when he was charged by Vancouver police with theft under $5,000.
• • •
Geronimo Bie never lived up the promise of his early years — either in the ring or out — and sadly that’s been an all too common theme with national team boxers. Like NHL enforcers, too many have died prematurely, the result of accidents, drugs, murder or suicide.
“It’s tragic what’s happened to so many of these guys,” said Strange. “I don’t know what it is about boxers.”
Strange remembers the time the Africa team photo was taken.
That trip — which included stops in Kenya, Morocco and Nigeria — was a wild one from the start, with Bie getting nailed trying to steal a Walkman from an airport shop in Amsterdam during a stopover.
“Our coach, Taylor Gordon, managed to get him off that by telling the cops that we were Canadian boxers and were going on a trip to Africa and all that,” said Strange. “They wanted to charge him.”
Later in the trip, while the team was in Nairobi, Welland heavyweight Tom Glesby overdosed on heroin and nearly died.
“The first night there, (fellow Niagara Falls boxer) Billy Irwin and I were out running and we see Tom go by and Billy says, ‘Oh my God, Glesby’s in unbelievable shape’, because he was running past everybody,” said Strange.
The next day, Bie came to Strange’s room and asked him to come take a look at Glesby.
“Glesby’s out on the bed,” said Strange. “And he’s all f---ed up. All his joints are red and he’s moaning.”
They got the team doctor.
“The doc asked Geronimo what Tom had taken and Geronimo said he didn’t know,” said Strange. “The doctor said, ‘Listen, if you don’t help us, Tom’s going to die. And Geronimo then told him that Tom had taken heroin.”
Glesby was sent home before the team photo was taken.
Thankfully, Glesby recovered and rejoined the national team after serving a suspension — winning a bronze medal at the 1991 Pan American Games in Cuba. He later turned pro, putting together a respectable 26-3-1 record, winning the Canadian heavyweight title in 1993, before retiring in 2001. The photograph from Africa includes nine boxers. In the front row are Strange, a fighter from New Brunswick named Barry Woods, Bie and native Canadian boxer Wesley Sunshine. Standing behind them are Toronto fighters Brent (Koko) Kosolofski and Mark Leduc, among others.
Woods and Leduc are dead.
Strange pulls out some more pictures from his time on various national boxing teams, only to find more fighters who have died young ... Arturo Gatti, Corey Burton, Wade Parsons, Eric Grenier, Mario Bergeron, Stewart Hilton. Earlier this year, former Canada Games boxer, Bruce Oake, the son of CBC Sports broadcaster Scott Oake, passed away.
Some other fighters in Strange’s pictures are still with us, but are either in jail, or have been, like Glesby and Kosolofski. One picture is of Strange’s good friend Jeremy Molitor, the 1998 Commonwealth Games welterweight gold medallist, who was convicted in 2004 for murdering his girlfriend Jessica Nethery in their hometown of Sarnia. Molitor, the brother of recently deposed world light featherweight champ Steve Molitor, is serving a life term at a Kingston-area maximum-security prison.
Looking through the photos, Strange points to the fighters who died as a result of suicide and those as the result of an accident.
Woods died in a car accident not long after the team’s tour of Africa. Leduc, the 1992 Barcelona Olympic silver medallist, passed away in 2009 after collapsing in a sauna at a Toronto hotel.
Stewart Hilton, the youngest brother of the fighting Hilton clan, which included former world champions Matthew and Davey Jr. died in car accident in 1986.
Oake died as a result of a drug overdose.
Gatti’s death — he was discovered in his hotel in Ipojuca, Pernambuco, Brazil in July, 2009 — was initially thought to be murder, his wife Amanda Rodrigues was arrested — but then Brazilian police later ruled the cause of death a suicide and Rodrigues was released. Many of Gatti’s friends refuse to believe that the former pro — who staged three legendary brawls with Micky Ward — killed himself. The Quebec coroner is still investigating the death.
Nova Scotia heavyweight Wade Parsons, who lost at the 1984 Olympic box-offs to eventual silver medallist Willie de Wit, was killed in a federal prison in New Brunswick in 2002.
Former Canadian champion Don Downey, also from Nova Scotia, was murdered in 1988 and, in fact, the Nova Scotia government is still offering a $150,000 reward for the capture and conviction of his killer.
Accidents, of course, happen in every walk of life. And perhaps it’s not great shock that a few national team fighters were murdered. Many come from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ as it were and end up back on the streets when they stop boxing. But far too many ex-teammates, whom Strange admired, died from their own hand or as a result of a drug overdose. Fighters like Bergeron and Grenier.
The 1984 junior Canadian championships were held at the BCABA Training Centre in Burnaby, BC. Grenier was named the best boxer of the tournament. Other winners at the competition included Bergeron, Stewart Hilton and Burton. All four are dead. The details surrounding the deaths of Bergeron and Grenier are murky. There are reports that they committed suicide or died from a drug overdose.
Yvon Michel, a former national team head coach and now the operator of Groupe Yvon Michel in Montreal, one of the most successful boxing promoters in Canada, remembers Bergeron and Grenier, though he’s not sure of the details behind their passing. He had heard they committed suicide. But suicides aren’t always made public. Bergeron fought at the 1987 world junior championships in Cuba and later briefly as a pro, going 3-0 with all his fights taking place in Lewiston, Maine between 1990-91. Michel described Bergeron as good kid and he remembers Grenier, who fought at the 1985 world juniors “as a sad kid” who got into drugs.
As for Burton, who fought for Canada at the 1987 Pan American Games, the Montreal-born fighter attended the Olympic team training camp in Burnaby, B.C. prior to the Games in Seoul, but was sent home, along with Quebec boxer Vittorio Salvatore, before the team left for the Olympics. Corey’s cousin, Perry Burton said his cousin was never the same after that disappointment and his life began unravelling.
“He was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. He was lovable. But if he looked at you, he’d scare the hell out of you,” said Perry. “But as soon as he’d open his mouth, you could see that he was a lovable kid.
“He had a good heart, but he could be violent,” Perry continued.
“I heard the same thing about Corey after he was left off the team,” said Sobral, who was Canada’s welterweight representative in Seoul. “I heard he was really demoralized.”
Salvatore certainly was.
Reached at the Italian restaurant he owns in Mascouche, QC, just outside of Montreal, Salvatore becomes emotional when asked about being left off the Olympic team 23 years ago.
“That’s probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Salvatore. “That screwed me up pretty well for life. Still today, I’m 43 and I have a hard time watching the Olympics without crying. In fact, I can’t watch the Olympics anymore.”
Salvatore and Burton attended the pre-Games training camp in Vancouver before Seoul and had both thought they were on the team. But according to Salvatore, the pair were told just before their departure for the Games, that they were being left home because they weren’t considered good enough to win a fight at the Olympics. Canada ended up sending two less than a full boxing squad to Seoul.
“It was a very inhuman thing to do,” said Salvatore. “They decided I couldn’t win in Korea? That’s bullshit. I had beaten plenty of fighters from other countries who were going.”
Salvatore eventually moved on with his life.
Sadly, for Burton, it wasn’t that easy. He couldn’t move on with his life. Perry Burton won’t say how his cousin’s life ended, only that it was far too early, and it was tragic.
“He was never the same after being left off that team,” he said.
Sobral believes that boxers, perhaps more than any other athletes, have trouble moving on with their lives after the final bell because many don’t plan for a life after boxing and often don’t have much of a formal education.
• • •
When any of his former teammates or coaches think of Geronimo Bie, they ponder of what might have been.
He was everybody’s favourite teammate and he was one of the more talented boxers ever to grace the national team — though his success at the international level never quite matched his skills. He had some success, but did not become the Olympic medallist many of his teammates predicted he would become.
“He was always goofing off,” said Strange. “But he had so much natural ability. He could get by against anybody in the world just on that natural ability. And he had the sneakiest right hand you ever saw.”
Strange remembers a long trip the team made in 1990 — a training camp in Hawaii, followed by the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand and then a tournament in Indonesia — which none of the fighters were excited about.
“We just wanted to go home after the Commonwealths,” said Strange. “We were homesick, burned out and we were sick of each other.”
Strange said Bie, especially, didn’t want fight in Indonesia, he was tired of training and tired of having to make his 119-pound fighting weight. The day of the weigh-in, said Strange, Bie was overweight, but instead of trying to drop a couple of pounds, he went for a big breakfast and ended up four pounds over his weight class.
“So he said to the coach, ‘I guess I’m not fighting,’ ” said Strange. “But the coach then put him up, to 139. And he fights this really good, slick American. And doesn’t he go out and knock the American out in the first round. It was just so unheard of.”
Bie hung around the national team for a couple of more seasons and fought at the 1992 Olympic trials, but failed to make the team. After that, he turned pro, fought once in 1992, earning a fourth-round TKO victory over Clint Hanna in Cloverdale, B.C., and then dropped out of sight.
“He’d live with his parents until the welfare cheque came in and then he’d take off for a few days until the money was gone,” said Angelomatis.
The rumours soon began that Bie was a drug addict and living on the streets in East Van. Angelomatis said he became addicted to heroin.
Somehow, Bie managed another pro fight in 1995 — over three years after his first — earning a draw against Cesar Morales in Kent, Washington.
Since then, he’s been a ghost, appearing from time to time in court or spotted occasionally on the streets of East or South Vancouver.
“I heard he tried to commit suicide by drinking detergent.” said Angelomatis. “But he was so strong, he survived.”
Danny Kung, Bie’s former parole officer, left a note with the ex-fighter’s landlord to contact him a couple of months ago, but he never did. The last time Kung saw Bie was about a year ago, and said he actually looked good. Kung said Bie is no longer on probation and therefore doesn’t have to check in with his office anymore.
• • •
Twice, I’ve wandered the streets of Vancouver looking for Geronimo Bie.
The first time, over two cold, rainy days in late January, Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin and myself focused on the downtown east side — the area Sobral and Angelomatis said Geronimo had been spotted.
If there’s a sadder, gloomier place in Canada, I’ve haven’t seen it.
Drug addicts and panhandlers — so many looking like the walking dead — populate every corner and alley.
Bob and I began asking if anyone knew Geronimo. Most answered no, or just shook their heads, though one fellow outside the Carnegie Community Centre suggested that Geronimo was usually selling cigarettes across the street. He wasn’t there.
We continued looking despite the suspicious glares and, at times, open hostility. One guy screamed at Bob when he tried to take a picture. Another guy reached into his coat as if to pull out a knife and told me to go f--k myself.
On my next visit to Vancouver, in mid-March, Sobral said that some Vancouver cops had told him that Bie had been spotted hanging out in South Vancouver, around the intersection of 40th and Fraser.
Turns out 40th doesn’t actually meet Fraser, but a lady at a Filipino store one block south suggested that I check around the Filipino neighbourhood around 43rd. Once there, a lady at a bakery suggested I try to Filipino corner store down the street. Sure enough, the proprietor said she knew Geronimo.
“He’s a great kick boxer, though not anymore,” she said. “He hangs around coffee spot called Breka, down at 49th and Fraser.”
And so I went there.
A couple of people knew the name, but nobody had seen him, or knew where he lived. He’s out there somewhere, but his friends and ex-teammates don’t know where. Strange plans a trip to Vancouver in the near future to try to locate him.
Is it too late to save Bie?
The fact that he still has people out there looking for him says maybe it’s not.
But the longer nobody hears from Bie, the better the chances are that he will join the growing list of sad stories involving athletes who made a career with their fists.

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