LEWISTON – Imagine Michael Jordan running a Twin Cities basketball clinic in his prime.

The chair where he sat and ate lunch would be bronzed. Signs proclaiming that His Airness slept, spoke or even spat here would stand for a century to come.

Hard to fathom, then, the minimal amount of long-term love reserved for Muhammad Ali’s first-round knockout of Sonny Liston in their heavyweight championship fight at the Central Maine Youth Center, of all places, on May 25, 1965.

This collective yawn has less to do with the ignominious ending than our pride. Maine enjoyed fistic fame before Ali-Liston II, and most spectators walked away believing their local heroes put on a better show for the promise of two bits than the great heavyweights gave for their estimated $600,000 apiece.

“I think, more than anything, it put Lewiston on the map,” said boxing promoter Joe Gamache Sr. of Litchfield. “Nobody heard of Lewiston until Muhammad Ali fought here. Everybody knew Muhammad Ali, even people who didn’t care about boxing.”

People in Lewiston, Farmington and Rumford recognized the Louisville Lip. Truth be told, though, they were more enamored with neighbors nicknamed Kid and Spider.

Fighting for life

Four hundred eighty-nine.

Paul Labbe Jr. rattles off the number with all the certainty of a corporate accountant reporting end-of-the-year surplus to his boss.

That’s how many times his father, the late Paul Junior, fought for a jingle in his pocket.

“You can’t argue that,” Labbe said. “Nobody can prove it or disprove it.”

Dick Redmond of Sidney published the “Maine Boxing Records Book” in 2000. It confirms Junior’s participation in 186 bouts.

Much of Redmond’s information came from newspaper clippings reporting Friday night fights in Lewiston, Portland, Bangor or Waterville. Many times, editors weren’t privy to spontaneous slugfests that transpired Tuesdays or Thursdays.

“These guys fought for a dollar, two dollars, three dollars,” Labbe said. “If you fought three times a week, you could make a living.”

Junior took home a pittance for title bouts that might yield $3 million today.

“I heard those stories,” his son recalled, “and I asked him, Dad, how am I here?’ And he’d say, You aren’t kidding.'”

In his prime, Junior fought more than 10 consecutive years without getting knocked out and earned two shots at Henry Armstrong’s world welterweight title.

On April 26, 1940, Junior hung in for seven rounds before Armstrong won by technical knockout at Boston Garden. Less than two months later, Armstrong stopped Junior in three, to the chagrin of 5,000 Junior partisans at Portland Exposition Building.

Prior to Ali-Liston II, Armstrong-Junior was Maine’s last world title fight.

Another Maine fighter, Al McCoy (LaBrasseur) of Winslow, fought Joe Louis at Boston Garden in 1940. The “Brown Bomber” defended his heavyweight title by sixth-round KO.

“It was no secret to Maine boxing fans,” Redmond wrote in 2000, “that Paul Junior and Al McCoy were past their prime when they got their big chance. It was also unfortunate that they were up against the two most dominant champions in boxing at that time.”

Something to smile about


These blue-collar heroes, like town-affiliated baseball teams, entertained the masses during a time of economic and political uncertainty.

“We used to fight at City Hall,” said Chuck Frechette of Lewiston.

They were colorful characters with unforgettable stage names: Newsboy Chalifoux, K.O. Mayo, Frenchie Belanger, Cannonball Cote and Bluenose Parent.

“I think the popularity was a cultural thing,” Labbe said. “You had French-Canadian fighters who adopted these nicknames and people could identify with them.”

More local fighters shone during the war years.

Maurice “Lefty” Lachance of Lisbon Falls won more than 130 featherweight fights and battled world champions Willie Pep, Ike Williams, Sal Bartolo and Phil Terranova.

Welterweight Aurele (Al) Couture laced up his gloves nearly 300 times and once was ranked No. 6 in the world ahead of Jake LaMotta. On Sept. 24, 1946 in Lewiston, Couture sent Ralph Walton to the canvas less than a second after the opening bell, still boxing’s quickest knockout according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

New England middleweight champion Coley Welch of Portland was ranked No. 10 in his class by Ring Magazine in 1941 and poised to challenge Tony Zale. Then the world champ enlisted in the Navy and his title was frozen.

“Ali just made people notice Maine,” said Gamache Sr. “Coley Welch, Lefty Lachance and Paul Junior were as tough as anybody. They didn’t have the connections because of where they were from. Today a local kid can get noticed because of ESPN and the other TV networks. It’s a different time.”

Finally, a world champion

Gamache’s son, Joey, was a 10-year-old Little League infielder when he watched the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and discovered Sugar Ray Leonard. Soon, he was ready to swap the brown, leather glove for two red ones.

“Leonard inspired me, like a lot of fighters, with his charisma and style,” Gamache said.

Director John Avildsen and actor Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar-winning “Rocky” also dominated the silver screen in ’76, when Gamache set up shop at his father’s gym in the Lewiston Armory basement.

Boxing in Maine had virtually vanished after Portland-area pugilists Tony Lampron, Jimmy McDermott and Pete Riccitelli enjoyed regional prominence in the 1960s. By 1974, the state stopped issuing rankings due to lack of a talent pool.

That didn’t dissuade Gamache, who treasured every word of each Paul Junior and Lefty Lachance anecdote.

“I was drawn to it. It was an opportunity to take my family along for the ride,” Gamache said. “We grew up in tough times. I had my father’s work ethic. I felt like I was prepared for anything life could throw at me.”

Gamache won countless amateur accolades and turned pro with 29 consecutive wins. And after another quarter-century drought without a title fight in Maine, junior lightweight Gamache gave the state its first world champion with a 10th-round knockout of Jerry Ngobeni at Lewiston Raceway on June 28, 1991.

“It was because of the fans,” Gamache said. “The networks like ESPN, USA and MSG came to Maine because the arenas were full.”

Gamache won and lost the WBA lightweight title in Portland in 1992, stopping Chil-Sung Chun in June before Tony Lopez seized the crown with an 11th-round TKO in October.

Two years later, Orzubek Nazarov effectively ended Gamache’s run as a contender with a brutal second-round KO. Similarly violent stoppages by legendary Julio Cesar Chavez in 1996 and Arturo Gatti in 2000 sent Gamache into retirement at 55-4 with 36 KOs.

Final round?

After promoting five pro-am cards in Lewiston and Oxford three years ago, Gamache trains fighters in New York City.

His departure, coupled with the recent postponement of a local charity card twice due to a lack of available fighters, seems to signal a dead end for Maine boxing. But Gamache heard that hundreds of times before he picked up a jump rope and hit the speed bag.

“Absolutely, somebody could succeed as a promoter in Lewiston,” Gamache said. “You have to be consistent with the shows, twice a month like the old days. I think there’s a market out there. It’s a fight town. It always has been.”

But you can’t have fights without fighters, and Gamache concedes that it’s impossible for fighters to develop without a support system.

His talent aside, Gamache said his father, lifelong trainers Lampron and Roland Fortin and promoter Johnny Bos made him a champion.

“Fighters are driven by destitution. They see boxing as an opportunity for the family to improve their lifestyle. It was a whole team, and I couldn’t have done it if any of those people weren’t involved,” Gamache said. “And the same goes for the fans. They supported me from day one.”

For some of those ringsiders, Gamache’s ascent, like Ali’s appearance, afforded another precious chance to tell an unbelieving generation about their hometown’s forgotten fight lore.

“There aren’t too many people who can say they’ve seen all the history I’ve seen,” Labbe said. “I am fortunate.”

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