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When Hall of Famer Orlando Canizales fought at a leisure centre in Sunderland

Orlando Canizales
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Orlando Canizales had absolutely no idea what he was letting himself in for when he journeyed to North East England to take on Billy Hardy in January 1990, writes John Evans

THERE is a park in Laredo’s District 8. It has a basketball court, a green and an area for grilling. It is a 10-minute walk from the Rio Grande river. Orlando Canizales comes here sometimes to sit and watch the world go by. Some of the older residents of the Texan border town have known Canizales for years and stop to say hello, but most of the youngsters run past or stay lost in their ball games, oblivious to the presence of the man whom their favourite park is named after.

As the former bantamweight champion of the world watches visitors pass by the sign which welcomes them to Canizales Park, memories of the fights, the faces and the places that earned him the accolade flood back. There were a record-breaking 16 consecutive defences of the IBF title. There was Jesse Reid, the trainer with whom he enjoyed such a strong and successful relationship. There was a cold January night in a Sunderland leisure centre.

“It’s super-hot today,” Canizales told Boxing News from his home in Laredo. “We’re at 90 degrees [°F] – almost 100 – but it was January when I went to Sunderland. It was cold. In fact it was super-cold. There was a big difference.

“I’d never heard of Sunderland. I’d only heard of places like London, Glasgow, Birmingham. Never Sunderland.

“I think it was a purse bid and that’s how we ended up over there. I spoke to my manager, he told me about it and I accepted. To be honest, I would fight anybody, anywhere. It really didn’t matter to me. I travelled all over the world defending my title. To me, it was never a difficulty.

“What’s the population of Sunderland? Laredo has about 250,000 people,” Canizales asked. “Ah ok. It’s not that small,” he replied when told the two places are about the same size. “Sunderland was so-so. It’s ok I guess.”

Crowtree Leisure Centre stood right in the middle of Sunderland’s shopping district. There were basketball courts, a swimming pool and squash courts. ‘The Leszh’ was a 10-minute walk from the River Wear.

Billy Hardy worked and fought at the Crowtree. Hard-nosed and red-haired, as well as being a pool attendant Hardy was the British bantamweight champion and a local hero. “One day I’m saving kids from drowning, the next I’m fighting for a world title in the same place,” Hardy told BN. “It was all a bit surreal.”

­* * *

Texas may have its cold snaps but a typical January in Laredo sees around three days of rain and the typical daily temperature hovers around the 20-degree (°C) mark. Those type of conditions would have locals battling for space on Roker Beach. When the brilliant Canizales arrived in Sunderland for the third defence of his IBF title, he quickly found out that there is a difference between a crisp and clear Texas morning and the bone-chilling damp of a northern winter.

“It was totally different. It was cold in Texas too but we train and run in it here. I knew it was going to be cold over there so I was prepared to get over there and train in the conditions,” he said. “I was over there for maybe 10 days before the fight and I stayed right there in Sunderland. I just remember that we only had three channels on the television. We had cable television [back home] but it was all news. Either local news or the BBC – is that what you call it? I wouldn’t go out much. I’d go to the gym and the restaurant that was right there in the hotel and that was it really.

“There would be a lot of kids and fans who would come to watch me train and work out. Everybody was really nice. They treated me good. You know what? I had a good time. It wasn’t that bad.

“I didn’t have a problem making 118lbs. I would make it easy. I was in great shape. When I went to Sunderland I was only maybe a pound or two over the limit. The weight wasn’t a problem. The cold though… I would go out to run and it was hard for me.”

Canizales would go on to fight in France, South Africa and Japan but this was his first professional fight overseas and an already unfamiliar week had an extra twist. With the fight scheduled for a Wednesday night, Canizales woke up on Tuesday morning to sweat out the final couple of ounces but before he donned his thermals and hit the streets of Sunderland he had an important phone call to make.

While he was preparing to step on the scales in the North East of England his brother – and former lineal bantamweight champion of the world – Gaby, had spent Monday evening attempting to win the WBC version of the title on the West Coast of America.

“I called my parents to find out how my brother had done. I was in Sunderland and my brother was fighting out in California. I was just focused on my fight but I knew my brother was fighting. Unfortunately, he lost. Two or three days apart, two brothers fighting across the world from each other for titles in the same division. He lost but it is what it is. I went to England to take care of business and I still had to do that.”

Sunderland’s sports fans had been starved of major events but now one of their own – bedecked in the city’s famous red and white colours – had the opportunity to shock the world and the city came out to support him. Usually aggressive, Hardy had worked long and hard on blunting Canizales’ razor-sharp angles and pushed on by a fervent crowd, he carried out the plan brilliantly. 

Becoming a world-class boxer takes more than physical ability. Canizales had outstanding footwork, a computer for a brain and a rock-solid chin but the mindset which would enable him to reign for over six years was still forming. He had committed one cardinal sin in the build-up to the fight but dug in and showed another quality crucial to a champion. Heart. He escaped with a split decision victory.

“I think I underestimated him,” Canizales remembered. “I thought it was going to be an easy fight for me. It turned out to be a very hard fight. It was one of my toughest ones. I really did think it would be easy for me. When we fought I had a little bit of a cold. I wasn’t 100 per cent for the fight.

“Everybody was against me on the night. That’s understandable and expected but I went there to do my job and do what I had to do. It’s not like I went there to make friends or anything like that. I had to defend my title and come back home. That’s the bottom line. I fought all over the world. My experience taught me to block everything out and not to pay attention to other people or the crowd. My goal was to stay focused on the fight and do what I needed to do to win.

“I was just happy to get the win. I think the big difference in the fight was the knockdown [in round nine]. That was a 10-8 round. It was a tough one. Billy fought at his best that night. The crowd lifted him up and he fought above his level.”

Billy Hardy
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Annabel’s was one of Sunderland’s more popular nightspots and Wednesday night was ’70s night, but marked up, tired and keen to get home, Canizales passed up the chance to celebrate his victory with DJ Brutus Gold and a few pints of Vaux brown ale. In his absence, arguments raged about the decision. “Billy Hardy fought a great fight. We’ll fight him again. We’ll bring him over to our hometown and see how well he does.” Canizales’ trainer, Reid, said in the ring after the fight. It would take 16 months but Hardy would get his opportunity. 

“Afterwards, everybody disagreed with the result and they started throwing beer and cans into the ring. I just ran back to the dressing room, got dressed and got back to the hotel,” Canizales said. “We had to take a flight all the way to London and from there we flew home to Texas. We had to leave at about 5am so I just went back to the hotel to relax and rest.” 

“I got told that Orlando had to put his hands on the shoulders of Frankie Deans [a North East fight figure] and be led through the airport,” Hardy said. “His eyes were so swollen he couldn’t see.” 

* * *

By the time Hardy and around 200 supporters arrived in the Laredo heat for the rematch, Canizales had rounded out and matured into one of the best fighters in the world. 

Just two months earlier, Gaby had finally regained his own bantamweight world title and the chance to show their support for two hometown boys who were dominating the world built the rematch with Hardy into a major happening for another city starved of significant sporting occasions.

The city erected a ring in the grounds of the Civic Center and under the full glare of the afternoon sun and a deadly serious Canizales, a determined but rapidly reddening Hardy finally wilted. During the first half of the fight, Canizales arguably hit his peak. By round eight the fight was over. Canizales would go on to make 10 further defences of his world title before finally vacating the belt. Hardy would fight on successfully for six more years.

“Never in the history of Laredo had we had a world title fight,” Canizales said. “There had been some local shows but no big title fights. My manager talked to the city council and the mayor and talked to them about having a world title there. Luckily they accepted the idea. I was also going to be televised across the world. It was good publicity for the city.

“It was phenomenal. It’s a great feeling to have the whole city – especially your own people – back you and support you. It was very special. I feel very blessed that the people came out to support me in the way they did. 

“Nobody was going to beat me. I was mentally and physically ready for this fight. It didn’t matter who I was fighting, I wanted to win this one. This was for my hometown and for my own people. There was absolutely no way I was going to lose that fight. I’d stepped up to another level with my type of fighting and skills. 

“Not to disrespect Billy but I knew what his style of fighting was. The second time it was totally different, I was moving around him and using my footwork and boxing skills. It was totally different.”

“It was 120 degrees [°F] in the ring under the lights,” said Hardy, whose career efforts resulted in his hometown also naming a sports centre in his honour. “A Sky Sports technician died that day due to the heat. I’m not sure whether it was heat exhaustion or a heart attack and I was told about that before the fight. Even the guy who interviewed me before reminded me about Barry McGuigan losing his title in the heat. I think Orlando was pretty much the same fighter and I could take shots like that all day. The conditions were unbelievable though.

“Orlando had to deal with the cold in Sunderland and I got the heat. He got the better deal.”

The location of Laredo’s first-ever world title fight is gone. The area where the ring stood no longer exists. The home of Sunderland’s only ever world title fight has also been consigned to history, Crowtree Leisure Centre was demolished back in 2013.

Although, maybe, when the occasional chill wind blows through the park in District 8, Canizales gets a sudden flashback to his week in Sunderland, he is happy with his lot and has no need to live in the past. Laredo has ensured that his achievements will never be forgotten.

“They have the park. They have a water tank with my name on it. They have a sign which says ‘Welcome to Laredo, Home of the Boxing World Champions Gaby and Orlando Canizales.’ I work for the city and run my own gym, which is also named after my brother and I,” he said proudly.

“It’s almost 30 years ago that I was a world champion now. Time goes by fast but the older generation remember me and whenever I go to the store they always say, ‘Hello, Champ.’

“Sometimes some kids will look me up on Youtube and stop me and say, ‘Hey, we saw your fights.” It’s really nice.

“Life is great. I still work out and train. I love boxing. I’ve been in boxing for almost 40 years whether it’s fighting or training and boxing will be my life until I die.

“I wanted to be the best that I could be and I’m blessed that everything came out the way I wanted it to.”

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