Call it a strange string of coincidences or maybe a twist of fate when a personal family history merges with an all-but-forgotten history of a town to bring new life to many of its residents.
For almost two years, the father and son duo Gil and Dominic Sopoco of Championship City Boxing Club have been sharing their passion for the sport of boxing with people of all ages in downtown St. Thomas. More than that, though, they are seeing fruit in their other passion of bringing positive change into their students’ lives by providing a community of belonging and the learned skills and disciplines of boxing.
Gil grew up in the Philippines surrounded by boxing. His father and grandfather were coaches, and his uncle, who went by the fighter name Baby Pancho, was a well-known professional boxer. Gil met and married Lini, the love of his life, soon after he immigrated to Canada. As they raised their three sons (of which Dominic is the youngest) Gil inadvertently passed the boxing bug on to the fourth Sopoco generation. Dominic says some of his earliest memories are of gathering in a living room with his father and uncles to watch a match. By the time he was nine, he convinced Gil and Lini to let him take lessons. He never looked back.
Railway City or Championship City?
It was in the 1930s that St. Thomas was referred to as the “championship city” of boxing for the high-calibre and well-known boxers produced there. Among boxers of high standing are two former St. Thomas mayors, Vincent Barrie, known as the “Patent Leather Kid” for his smooth performances, and Peter Laing, who also won provincial titles in wrestling. Ross Galloway is also from St. Thomas and appears in the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame (watch the Elgin Historical Society’s feature on Galloway here). Many of the boxers trained at the YMCA in St. Thomas, and while they travelled to other cities for matches, fights were also hosted at the Armoury on Wilson Street.
The discovery of St. Thomas’s boxing history was a surprise and a delight to the Sopocos, and it provided the inspiration they were looking for as they searched for a name for their new club. But for this family team, it goes beyond love for the sport to a passion for the people who come to learn. The mantra they go by is “Empowering confidence, building identity, supporting community.”
Fighting to Change Lives
Many of the students they have had initially came unwillingly. They were signed up by frustrated parents looking for a way to get their kids away from screens and involved in a physical activity. Other parents have come out of concern and looking for ways to boost the confidence of a child who was being bullied or at risk for being bullied. Boxing, says Dominic, is a highly skilled sport that requires a great deal of discipline and respect, and coming here “has changed a lot of kids.”
Soon, kids who begin as dejected, rebellious, and reluctant come eagerly because they love it. The change is apparent even in the posture of the kids, says Gil, and parents have reported significant positive changes in confidence, attitude, behaviour, and performance at school and at home. Even the kids are noticing changes in themselves.
“I used to be so angry all the time, until I started boxing,” one young member told the Sopocos recently.
Keeping Kids Off the Streets
The passion for helping people is not incidental for the Sopocos. It brings them all to a full circle that has a bittersweet aspect: it is in the exact space where their club is that Dominic took his first lessons, but as a young teen, his life was derailed for a time because of drug use. It was boxing that helped him through, and it is his and his parents’ experiences during that time that drives them to try to make a difference for others who are at risk or already using.
“I don’t know where I’d be without boxing,” Dominic says. Now he uses his past to connect with the people who are struggling, and boxing, he says, gives them a positive outlet and alternative. “If they’re in here, they’re not using.”
Coaches That Care
Championship City boasts three certified coaches: head coach, Dominic; club president and assistant coach, Gil; and volunteer assistant coach, Wayne. Wayne’s extensive history in boxing and martial arts spans over 40 years of award-winning experience and includes coaching many athletes at national and provincial levels.
“As a coach, it’s an amazing thing to see someone go to the Golden Gloves,” says Wayne. “Being a teacher is really gratifying.”
All three coaches agree that boxing is a highly skilled sport, and although it’s ranked as much less dangerous than many other sports kids get involved in, the safety of the boxer is a top priority at Championship City. Students are not allowed to spar until the coaches are confident of their skill and ability.
“Good coaches don’t let their students fight until they’re ready,” says Wayne. He also adds that it is a coach’s job to watch his students at all times. Club policy states that if a student is found to be using his skills offensively outside of the club, he or she is barred from coming back.
A Labour of Love
One of the most recent developments at Championship City is their application for non-profit status. Lini says that they have been very fortunate that from the first month they opened, all their bills have been paid through membership fees, but anything extra is put towards equipment. There is no financial benefit in running the club for any of them.
“We do it because we love it,” says Gil.
If their application for non-profit status goes through, they will be eligible to apply for funding from service clubs and government grants. Any funding they receive, they say, will go towards updating and adding equipment, and also towards financial assistance for families in need.
Learn More About Championship City Boxing Club
Currently, Championship City is open on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings, and on Saturday mornings. Lessons are available in group or private lessons. You can contact them by dropping by at their location on 36 St. Catherine St., through their social media account on Facebook, or by calling them at 519 670 5353.
Note on the author: Helena Bergen has been writing for different mediums for 20 years and now writes about life and faith for her personal blog, which you can see here.