Last Saturday night, Calgarians had a chance to go the fights. Bowmont Boxing’s Doug Harder and Ginnie Brown got a crowd of about 600 people out to the Deerfoot Casino for the card which featured Calgary based fighters Albert Onolunose and Julius Odion. But before the fighting started, the people who showed up witnessed a tribute to one of the great figures in Canadian boxing.
“Cowboy” Dale Brown has retired.
Dale Brown didn’t think he would be emotional last Saturday night. He thought he was ready for the speeches and the memories because he is happy with where he is in his life and has left boxing on his own terms, with his health intact and his family around him.
But he was wrong.
When the country music started, and Dale stepped into the ring one last time, he came out strong but then had to choke back tears as he thanked his wife and his long time coach, Kevin McDermott. Dale Brown may never have won a world championship belt in boxing, but the ceremonial belt that was presented to him on Saturday was inscribed with the words “Calgary’s Champion.” And that’s what he is.
Brown was a boxer for over 27 years and was one of the most accomplished fighters to ever come out of Canada. He deserves to be celebrated and recognized.
He had over 260 amateur fights. Although as his mother and promoter of Saturday’s tribute Ginnie Brown says, “Not many of them lasted that long.”
He won his first national amateur title at the age of 14. He won back to back bronze medals at the World Amateur Boxing championships. He won gold and silver medals at the Commonwealth Games. He represented Canada at the Olympics.
He fought for three major world titles in the cruiserweight division; the IBF twice and the WBA once. He held the NABF, NABA, and Canadian cruiserweight belts.
He stepped into the ring with the giants of the division, including Jean-Marc Mormeck, Vassiliy Jirov and O’Neil Bell.
He was coached by such notables as Irish Bobby Cassidy, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Jerome Coffee and Stephane Larouche, who helped shape his excellent defensive skills, powerful jab and heavy right cross.
And he did it all quietly. Under the radar. Unnoticed for the most part. Especially in his hometown of Calgary. Which is why this tribute was important.
Let’s be honest. The heroes of boxing are unlike the heroes of other sports. Less mainstream and marketable. More suspicious. Cautiously celebrated. Especially in this day and age where it is not politically correct to even think about hitting someone, let alone do it repeatedly for money.
The funny thing is though when you ask people to describe Dale Brown, the words you hear are not thug or trouble. The words instead are hard working, loyal, honest, humble and respectful. And although that doesn’t make him unique in the sport of boxing, it deserves to be noted that he was the same person throughout his entire 27 year career, from the bronze gloves tournament in small town Alberta, to the world title fight in Las Vegas.
So would Dale Brown have been more of a sports hero had he been born into another time? The 1940’s? The 1960’s? Days when the general public appreciated a good fight and followed the sport of boxing?
Without a doubt.
You’d think that in a city like Calgary, a guy like Dale would get noticed. Cowboys, oil money and boxing sound pretty good together. Not so. Dale had a hard time getting any local press, from the beginning to the end. Calgarians didn’t have much time left for boxing after the Stampede and the Flames.
When a local meat company was looking for a sports figure to pitch their Alberta beef, they invited Dale down to meet with them. He lost the job to Mark Tewksbury, the Olympic swimmer. A good role model for sure, but not exactly the definition of tough. Especially in Alberta. As Ginnie Brown said, “I couldn’t believe it. To me, frozen beef and a boxer always went hand in hand.”
When he fought for his three world titles, one would have been hard pressed to find anything more than an AP wire note in the papers the next day. Granted, Dale moved away from the city when he turned pro in 1995, and didn’t return until 2003 when he split with his Montreal promoter InterBox, and only had two fights in Calgary in his entire career, but as Ginnie Brown observes, “They don’t want to put anything about boxing in the paper unless it’s nasty and just down right ugly.”
And that’s not Dale Brown’s style.
Dale was born into a family that loved fighting. Both of his grandfathers were professional boxers. His parents were heavily involved in the amateur boxing scene in Alberta for over 30 years, and his mother now works as a judge, referee, coach and promoter. His brother Rick was a talented amateur heavyweight and was going to turn pro until a car accident ended his career when he was 19.
Dale’s parents originally put Rick into boxing because he was getting picked on at school. Dale followed him to the gym at the age of 7.
“Rick was like Sugar Ray Leonard. He was a dancer. He was a floater.” says their mother.
“And then there was Dale. He was like Jake LaMotta. Like all your tough guys. He just went toe to toe and he just didn’t care. He didn’t care the size of them. He didn’t care the age of them. It was just toe to toe banging.”
Dale proved himself in the sport with over 200 amateur victories, and medals at the international level. It was after his gold medal win in the 81 kg division at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria that he got noticed by another great Canadian fighter, former WBC light heavyweight champion Donny Lalonde.
He turned pro in 1995, encouraged by his family and managed by Lalonde who came complete with a huge number of connections in the American fight world. There was no doubt in his mother’s mind that he would be a world champion. “He would be in the ring and I would say, he needs to be doing…, and before I could finish my sentence he was doing it. He just knew.”
Lalonde sent him down to New York to train at Gleason’s with Bobby Cassidy. It was the first proving ground in the pro game for Brown. “I was the Canadian white kid. I had one guy rip my head off. So I fought back. Stood up for myself.”
Most of his first fights were in Canada, not many of them went the distance. Out of his first 10, 8 of them ended early. Really early. Brown was slowly but surely adding to his amateur toolbox of tricks an arsenal of skill and knowledge as a professional cruiserweight, which he supplemented further by moving to Las Vegas and studying under Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. He took something different from all of his coaches.
And he learned fast that defense creates offense. His first coach (apart from his parents) was Kevin McDermott who, along with Calgarian Harry Snatic began with him in the amateurs and finished with him in the pros. He believes this is why he was such a good fighter. “He learned a lot down in Vegas with Eddie, because he also had James Toney at the time. When you see Dale move and you see James Toney, you can see a lot of the moves look the same.”
The part methodical workhorse, part defensive strategist style that characterized his career may have been to blame for the lack of support or enthusiasm of fans. That and his lack of braggadocio. You would have been hard pressed to find anything flashy or controversial in Dale Brown. He was consistently considered by many to be one of the more underrated fighters in the division, even through all three of his title fights.
His first was bigger than big. Dale had signed with the Montreal promoter InterBox and won 6 straight when he got the call to go to Vegas and fight Vassiliy Jirov for the IBF cruiserweight title in September of 1999. Oh, and by the way, it was to be on the undercard of the Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad super fight which was, up until about a month ago, the highest grossing non heavyweight fight in history. And Dale was on the undercard. “The funny thing about that one was that I wasn’t even supposed to be in that spot at all. I was supposed to be the 2nd fight as the card gets going when there were about 20 people in the crowd. And then a fight fell through and all of a sudden I’m the semi-main event.”
So was it different than any other fight? “Once you walk out to the ring, you kind of get into the zone and I didn’t notice anything going on. I had to focus.” Brown focused enough to hold his own against Jirov, but was ultimately stopped in the 10th by a left hook. “That body shot made me, it’s very hard to explain what it’s like, but it just paralyzed me. My corner was telling me to get up and trust me, I wanted to get up. I wanted to finish the fight, but there was just no way.”
The fight proved however, that Dale Brown was very much a live dog in the cruisers and did much for his confidence. He crossed the psychological line in a sense between club fights and Vegas lights. He was back in the ring in Montreal a month later.
He went back to the States when he fought the then unknown and undefeated Wayne Braithwaite for both the NABF and WBO International titles in 2000. Braithwaite broke Brown’s nose in the fight, and Brown subsequently lost by 8th round stoppage. He returned again three months later, winning three straight and picking up the Canadian cruiserweight title in the process. He seemed to bookend every major loss with an equally emphatic win back home. But people were wondering if he had the goods to compete on the world stage. And to this end, InterBox maneuvered him into his second title fight against Jean-Marc Mormeck in France in August of 2002. This time for the first defense of Mormeck’s WBA belt. This time, it was the 8th round when Dale got stopped.
2nd time unlucky.
He split with InterBox and moved back to Calgary to consider his future. He decided that his future still included boxing.
The first two title fights may very well have defined his career had he not had the chance to fight for the third. The first two got Dale Brown noticed in the division, albeit as perhaps a bit of a perennial contender, but it was the third that he will be remembered for.
It was now 2005 and Brown had hooked up with the Florida based Warriors Boxing.
He had spent the better part of the last two years winning decisively against legitimate talents in the cruiserweight division. Rich LaMontagne (28-4-1), Robert Daniels (45-6-1), Jermell Barnes (17-6) and Shelby Gross (15-1) all fell victim to Brown’s superior boxing skills.
Warriors had gotten him a slot for the vacant IBF belt against power punching stablemate O’Neil Bell who was 23-1-1 with 22ko’s. Many felt this was his last chance. Dale probably knew it was his last chance. He wanted to go down in history as a world champ, and fulfill the promise that he had made to his grandfather when he was small. Little did he know, he would instead go down in history as the victim of one of the worst decisions of the year.
Brown had a two month training camp at the Top Rank gym in Las Vegas. At the end of it, he took everything that he had learned since he was 7 years old, put it in his suitcase, and brought it with him to Florida for his third chance at the world title.
He was ready to finally prove he had the goods, in front of a national television audience on ESPN no less. But the fix was in. McDermott knew that something was wrong. “When you have two fighters with the same promoter, and then see the promoter’s matchmakers in the other guy’s corner, then you know there’s a problem.”
Brown boxed, banged, brawled and bled that night in the ring against Bell. He dominated the first 3 rounds with his hard right. At one point in the 3rd, Bell was essentially out on his feet. Then he counterpunched with finesse, staving off Bell’s arsenal of power punches and landing his fair share of accurate stunners. He was at his best that night in Hollywood. “That night, Dale Brown proved that he could punch and proved that he could take a punch. He stood toe to toe with O’Neil Bell, took his best shots and gave it all back.” McDermott remembers.
When the scores were read, the judges saw it 117-111, 116-112 and 115-113 for Bell. The ESPN ringside commentators were stunned and said as much in their post fight interview with Dale. As usual, Dale reacted with professionalism and restraint. “A lot of people were like, wow, you took that really well. Well how else am I supposed to take it? Go on and rant and rave when I have two young children at home that are very impressionable? If they see dad doing that then obviously they’re going to think its ok. You’ve got to be professional. It is a professional sport.”
“It still makes me shake my head. They robbed me of something that I worked very, very hard to accomplish.”
“That night, Dale Brown was the best cruiserweight in the world. He won that fight.”says McDermott.
Dale’s mother puts it another way. “We can’t print what I want to say about that fight. It was a royal rip off. You work so hard to achieve that level and then three people just down and out right cheat.”
Dale and his team immediately called for a rematch, but McDermott says that they knew that Bell would be crazy to fight them again. Still, hopes were high due to the fact that Warriors promoted them both and could ostensibly make the second fight happen, just as they did the first time.
So, what does that kind of loss do to a fighter?
“It was a big letdown. I was like, you know what, I fought a good fight. But that night I was coming home and I realized, my God. I kicked his ass. I really did. I don’t toot my own horn, but I’ve watched that fight six to ten times and never once was I like, he was better than me.
But he didn’t lose his passion for the sport. McDermott says, “I think it really, really made him think, what the heck do I have to do here? How bad do I have to beat a guy? Where’s the justice? But then he went right back into the gym and trained with all the fervour he had before.” Dale puts it another way. “I knew in my heart that I did all that I could do and that’s what mattered.”
He was still ranked in the top ten by the WBC, IBF and WBO, but was having trouble getting Warriors to deliver either a rematch with Bell or the title eliminator that he had been promised. He chose instead to fight back in Calgary for only the second time. Against Damon Reed who, with a record of 40-10 was not exactly a pushover. He destroyed him in 5. Ironically, Bell had fought the night before, and had a hard time winning against Sebastiaan Rothmann. Rothmann had gone 12 rounds with Reed. It was a clear message to Bell and afterwards Brown called Bell out again.
But nobody was listening. Brown never got his rematch.
He fought twice more with Warriors in the next year, one victory over Dennis McKinney (27-35-1) and one upset loss over journeyman Shane Swartz (17-4) which was supposed to be an easy win. Brown attributed that loss to a back injury. But he had also started a new job and was starting to make the transition out of the sport. “To be a good professional fighter, you have to be a full time fighter.” says McDermott. The writing was on the wall.
His last fight, in Edmonton in January of this year, with up and comer Darnell “The Ding a Ling Man” Wilson was the deciding factor, as Dale was soundly thumped to the canvas in the 1st and finished off in the 2nd by the hard punching Wilson, making it a very short night indeed. It was that fight that inspired every boxing writer around to make the inevitable cries for Dale to “ride off into the sunset”.
And so he has, played out of the ring by the twang of a country and western song fit for a cowboy.
An Alberta boy.
His mother’s proudest moment was not any of the three of his world title fights, nor was it either of his Commonwealth Games medals. Instead, it came when Dale was 9 years old and was competing in a small amateur tournament in British Columbia. Dale was holding the ropes open for another competitor to get into the ring, when he was admonished by one of the officials for being flashy. According to Ginnie Brown, Dale said something along the lines of “I don’t care, I am going to be sportsman and hold the ropes.”
“He was like my little old man.”
A gentleman. From start to finish.
He retires with a record of 35-6-1, with 22ko’s.
To see the video of Dale Brown’s retirement speech, go to www.fightfan.com