Brian the boxer

(This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts about interesting people that live in or around River City. If you know of any such persons that you could suggest, please let me know. Thank you!)

Like a sea of immigrants before them, Brian Duncan* and his wife Linda came to Canada to give their children a brighter future. For Brian, it came down to a more basic reason even than that. He wanted to give them safety. Safety in a new world, far from the violent streets of Glasgow, Scotland.

Three years ago, Brian and Linda along with their three young children put down roots on an acreage here in the River City area. They’ve settled in nicely: the kids took quickly, as kids are wont to do, to their new school, new friends and new activities. They’ve already lost their Scottish accents, too. Linda has continued her career as a psychiatric nurse.

Brian has not resumed his career as a journeyman carpenter, choosing instead to work part-time as a handyman in a retirement and seniors care centre, in between morning and afternoon stints behind the wheel of a school bus in Strathcona County.

Brian is a man at peace with himself. He’s quick with a smile, lightning fast with wit, and a twinkle is rarely missing from his eyes. Looking at him now, you’d never think that violence was something he dealt with daily as a child growing up on the mean streets of Glasgow. And you wouldn’t think he used controlled violence as a boxer to prepare for a better life here in River City.

Canada is different that Scotland, he says. He describes how people here go about their lives, mostly minding their own business. He has a Scottish friend living here in River City who was amazed that he could walk from one end of Jasper Avenue to the other end without anyone wanting to fight him.

Not so in Glasgow.

“If someone is looking at you in Glasgow, they’re looking at you for a reason,” Brian states, with a knowing nod. “Aye, they’re looking to fight you.”

Brian would know. Born and raised in the tough, poverty-ridden neighbourhoods of Glasgow’s East End, Brian spent his childhood years fighting in street fight after street fight. Fighting and violence was and remains commonplace in Glasgow and Brian cannot recall how many fights he’s been in. When asked, he looks to the ceiling and mentally tries to land on a number. He shakes his head and says in his thick Scottish brogue, “No, I canna remember how many times I fought. I was always fighting.”

At the age of 12, Brian’s father enrolled him in one of Glasgow’s 40 or so boxing clubs. Boxing, his father believed, wouldn’t stop the violence his son experienced but it would give young Brian the skills and ability to defend and protect himself. It worked…to a point. Brian proved to be an excellent student and a game, determined and talented boxer. But it also made him a bigger target for Glasgow’s street thugs.  

“When I started boxing, I soon became what’s called a ‘take-on’,” Brian recalls. At 16, he stood just five feet four inches tall. At such a diminutive height, Brian soon began to hear the taunts from those who wanted to take him on.

“Aye,” he says, “I would be walking by two or three bullies and they’d say things like ‘Oh, there’s the boxer, he really thinks he’s something. Ah, but he’s just a wee man.’” And then the fight would start because – boxing skills or not – Brian’s height made him look like easy pickin’s…an easy take-on. Mostly though, he did okay thanks to his training. “Oh, they went to the floor rather quick. Gone, good night. Have a sleep.”

At 17, he turned semi-pro and two years later, he was boxing professionally while apprenticing as a carpenter. Hard training became a regular part of this life, including a 10-mile morning run– seven days a week, 365 days a year. He worked the weights hard every night at the gym. Every night except for rest after matches, he sparred in the ring. Life never came in the way of training – no, he worked his life around his training. If, for example, he had a mate that was getting married, Brian would leave the reception to get in his night’s training and then head back to the celebration only when his routines were completed.

Brian poured all his energy into boxing. Soon he was boxing in officially sanctioned bouts every two months. And the money was good – far better than carpentry. As a 17 year old apprentice, Brian was earning about 17 pounds a week with his tools at the jobsite. With his fists in the squared circle, he collected 200 pounds for each fight. As he made his way up the ranks, becoming a featured fighter on bigger boxing cards, Brian earned a thousand dollars a fight.

Brian also made money on the side. A common practice was to fight unsanctioned fights in between the bi-monthly official fights. These bouts were arranged by the boxers’ managers and often paid 2,000 pounds to the winner and 1,000 to the loser. Boxing was good money.

And Brian was a solid boxer. Twice he made it to the final bout of an international competition. Each of these accomplishments was three years in the making, with Brian fighting his way up the ladder locally, regionally, nationally, and finally internationally. Both times, the final was held in Houston, Texas. Both times, Brian came up just short to the eventual American champion. He beat me the first time, Brian says, “Fair and square.” But the second time? Brian shakes his head. “No sir.”

One wonders: do boxers get intimidated? Are they ever scared in the ring? “No,” Brian states firmly. “Never. You never get scared of your opponent. I never had a care about what size my opponent was, how fit he was, how muscular he was – wha’ever! Basically, it’s a three minute round; you don’t have time to think about that. If you’ve been under pressure, you just get back to your corner and your manager says (and here Brian repeatedly thumps the table for emphasis): ‘You need to do this and you need to do that; he’s gettin’ you here or he’s gettin’ you there.’ And you never think: Oh, I’m beat…I’m done here. Never say you’re done. Never.

(Coming next: Brian’s altercation with a road rage driver on Victoria Trail. And he shares what he likes about River City, and that he’s not so fond of winter here: “Six months wasted of your life!”)

* Although Brian was comfortable with having his real name used in this post, I’ve changed it in the interest of privacy for all.

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