BURLINGTON, Vt. – On three Saturdays in winter, people from all across the region weather the cold and snow, even some thunder and lightning, flocking to historic Memorial Auditorium. Fans wait patiently in line as tickets are processed and doled out by hand from the old-style ticket booths. No, Phish isn’t playing a reunion show; it’s the annual Northern New England Golden Gloves, one of boxing’s biggest events in the Northeast.
Hosted annually in Burlington since 1946, the Golden Gloves gives amateur fighters a platform to shine and make their mark on the event’s rich history, which has seen participants go on to stellar professional careers in many areas of the sport. Memorial Auditorium, the venue since its inception, is a true relic, where the wooden bleachers aligned across the balcony have likely never been replaced. Its classic band-box look creates an intimate atmosphere, where time almost stands still, beckoning generations of fighters and fans to witness one of Vermont’s true sports traditions.
“Memorial Auditorium is the place for boxing, you couldn’t have it anywhere else,” says tournament director Ernie Farrar. “From the seating in the balcony to the floor, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.”
There are no hype-men here. No Top 40 radio blasting throughout the auditorium in the lead up to the bouts. That would be totally out of place. Instead, there is simplicity and an understated elegance from public address announcer Mike Cameron, who calmly recites a script thanking sponsors, or advising attendees to pick up a program or grab some snacks in the lobby. There is a sense of familiarity among most here; many family and friends gathered to support participants. Some simply fans of the sport, wanting to see the region’s best. Even first-time attendees, not knowing what to expect feel right at home within a matter of minutes. Given the aggressive nature of the sport, viewer atmosphere feels quite comfortable.
The lights dim, the ring the focus of attention. We are ready to rumble.
The night begins with the 123-pounders; skinny men who prove looks can be deceiving, progressing up the ladder to the heavyweight division. No matter the weight class, the sights and sounds are similar. The breaths of the fighters echo through the auditorium as they follow through with their punches, their weaves and dips. Pockets of supporters for each boxer remain a constant, offering general encouragement down to technique tips. The crowd comes alive, cheering as a fighter lays a heavy hit on his opponent, not taking sides, but appreciating the effort, hard work and skill each has put in to get to this point. After each round, the men and women head to their corners but not before giving each other a touch of the gloves to indicate a good round sparred. At the conclusion of the three-round fights, the winner is announced, and after a few seconds of celebration by the victor, the fighters embrace, showing a genuine respect for one another. They know the dedication they’ve spent. The dedication all the competitors and trainers have spent. The countless hours honing skills to bring them to the Golden Gloves have paid off, no matter the outcome. Both parties admire the commitment of others, and the opportunities they have been afforded.
Noise and intensity is ratcheted up a notch each time a fighter from the most local of all the outfits, Precision Boxing Club in South Burlington, is introduced. Winooski’s own Danny Mott, a 141-pounder and reigning Golden Gloves champ, gets the backing of most the crowd. As he stays low on his slightly bigger opponent, Mott comes forward with his deceptively long arms, seemingly using every muscle in his body to get behind it, delivering a strong punch to the head of the competition. Mott then fires a string of body shots, exuding an infectious energy that ignites the crowd. Mott’s performance leaves no question, as he is awarded victory, moving one step closer to defending his title, which ultimately was lost by decision in the finals. While Mott and most other fighters’ workmanlike effort and humility appeals to the fans, the Golden Gloves is not devoid of flash and showmanship. It comes in the form of South Burlington’s own Dan “Nitro” Magistrale.
Prior to his 178-pound open class bout, Magistrale leads a procession of “entourage” members that would put Floyd Mayweather to shame. The swagger the young man has is evident, as he comes literally, and figuratively swinging, dominating his opponent in the first round. It’s a strategy that at times does not please the referee, prompting the official to break the action and issue a wag of the finger to Magistrale. The proceeding rounds, Nitro and his opponent, Mike Kasper, go toe-to-toe, but eventually, Magistrale takes hold of the match, and in a break in the fight, Nitro pumps both fists in the air in celebration. It is met with cheers, but also unleashes a chorus of boos from some in the stands by those who believe it isn’t very sportsmanlike. That doesn’t faze Magistrale, in fact, he seems willing to embrace his bad boy role. In the end, he backs it all up as he wins the match by decision, and like all other fighters, shows the respect towards his opposition.
There are those out there, mostly the firmly entrenched talking heads, who say the sport is dying on a national level. Tell that to those who fill up the Auditorium for these week. Here in Vermont, boxing is seeing growth, thanks to people like Farrar. More boxing clubs are forming in Northern New England, with that more events, and more exposure for the sport. In Vermont, the result is proving fruitful. Precision boasted the most members out of all the clubs in the semi-finals. Tri-Town Boxing out of Saint Albans had two fighters on the docket. More importantly, is the impact it has on it has on the young men and women’s lives.
“[The clubs] are getting kids off the streets, letting them find their niche,” Farrar says.
For some, the Golden Gloves can lead to bigger things: a chance to compete against New England’s best in Lowell, Massachusetts, or a chance to become professional down the road. For most, getting a chance is the biggest reward. When all is said and done, a few will continue careers in boxing while others will carry on in lives of normalcy; going to work and raising families. No matter where life takes them, all the fighters can say that for three Saturdays in Memorial Auditorium, they were the center of the boxing universe.