BY STEVE BUFFERY, TORONTO SUN
FIRST POSTED: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 27, 2013 09:48 PM EDT
Now, Tony’s tales were about as tall as Raptors rookie centre Jonas Valanciunas, so you had to take them with a grain of salt — like the time he fought a “tough little Filipino” named Ferdinand Marcos while serving with the U.S. Marines in WWII. Hey, that could have happened, but … Well, let’s just say we always gave the Tony the benefit of the doubt. He was a boxing guy and boxing guys like to tell stories. And back in the day, I liked listening to them. Part of the fun was just hanging around the gym, whether it was Newsboys or the Cabbagetown or Sully’s in the west end. The atmosphere in the old gyms was terrific — bare walls covered in boxing posters, the big ring, heavy bags, ancient trainers, unlit cigars in their puss, yelling at their young charges to keep their chin down and their hands up. You don’t see many like Tony or Sully or even Peter Wylie around anymore, though Peter, thankfully, is still putting the fighters through their paces down at the Cabbagetown.
A lot of gyms now are sanitary palaces filled with buffed young business types hoping to pump up to impress the boss, or college students checking out the “feasibility” of becoming a mixed martial arts fighter. But one Toronto gym that still has an old-time feel is the Kingsway Boxing Club, situated in the back of a metal “supermarket” in an industrial area of central Etobicoke. Dominating the room is an extra large ring with heavy bags along the walls, fight posters, and a small office near the side door.
But while the Kingsway is in many ways typical of an old-time gym, the owner is anything but. For one thing, Jennifer Huggins doesn’t smoke cigars, nor does she sit around telling old war stories. What she is is part of the new face of amateur boxing. The love and dedication to the sport is the same, but her journey into boxing is as unique as it comes.
Huggins’ introduction into the sport came via figure skating. A former singles and dance skater, the Etobicoke native once trained out of the prestigious Granite and Cricket clubs. And while she had high hopes of developing into an international-calibre skater, a bad injury suffered at 14 while training at the Cricket Club curtailed her dreams. Attempting a triple lutz, she fell on her head, breaking her neck.
“I felt something crack,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what it was. But I never complained. I was always one of those push, push, push people.”
So she kept on training until, attempting the same jump, fell again, and experienced pain and tingling in her legs. She was later diagnosed with a fractured C3 vertebra and spent a couple of weeks in hospital in traction and then more weeks in rehab, at a facility that was attached to a Premier Fitness Club, which had boxing program. It didn’t take long for Huggins, the figure skater, to fall in love with a sport that is about as far from twirling around the ice as you can get — though both sports push the boundaries of physical and mental endurance.
“I soon realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I can get the same feeling with another sport that I could with skating,’ ” she said. “My nerves used to consume me when I was competing in skating. Boxing, I never felt the nerves. I felt all the adrenalin and the rush, but without the nerves and the nauseous.”
Because of her injury, Huggins was unable to reach the same heights in skating, so boxing was the perfect way for her to keep her love of sport and competition alive. Soon, Huggins was going to York University and working as a personal trainer. She decided to set up a boxing gym over a store in the west end on Bloor St. and was advised by her landlord to set up a table during the annual Taste of the Kingsway Festival. The idea was hit. Though the Kingsway certainly isn’t a scrappy hood, the type that usually spawn boxers, dozens of people signed up for a chance to try the sport at her small gym. Soon she needed to expand and rented a space above at car wash at the corner Royal York and Bloor and then, in 2007, took the plunge and opened her present gym.
Huggins lives and breathes boxing, but it doesn’t define her. When she isn’t at the gym, or referring, she is organizing her annual Fight to End Cancer event, which will be held this year on June 15 at the Old Mill Inn and Spa. And when she isn’t doing that, she’s travelling the world as a assistant for Toronto magician Richard Forget.
Basically, Huggins is your typical figure skating, boxing, ballroom dancing, philanthropist, magician’s assistant. Nothing unique about that.