It's hard for Shawn to remember a time when one of his brothers wasn't sparring with his father in or around the house. "Dad had an old pair of gloves and they got a lot of use," he says in a voice that could have come out of Bantry, too. "Sometimes my brothers would enter the city championships. But boxing in the late '60s and early '70s was very disorganized in Toronto. Michael was the oldest, and when he was 15 he started drifting away from the sport. Then it sort of filtered down to Brian to Kevin to Gerald and then to me."
When Shawn was 15 and had been working out for several months, his father, tattered gloves in hand, said, one summer afternoon, "Well, let's go see how strong you are now." That one sparring session between father, who was then 48 years old, and youngest son led to a second, and soon they fell into a daily routine. Shawn remembers it as one of the happiest summers of his young life.
"We boxed all summer, and I enjoyed it," he says. "I'd wait for my dad to get home from work at night. We'd box and go running. It was fun to talk to him a lot, and just to be with him. At the end of the summer, he said to me, 'Maybe you should train with guys your own age and maybe get a coach and see what happens.' "
They tried several places, the Community Center, the West End YMCA, but none offered a proper boxing program. Then one day the father chanced upon a newspaper article about John Raftery, a 139-pounder from Ontario, who had just won a gold medal at a competition in Finland. Raftery, the paper reported, was trained by Peter Wylie, a bomb disposal expert, at the Cabbagetown Youth Centre.
Wylie, who at the age of 18 became an amateur boxer—he won 11 of his 13 bouts—joined the Toronto police force in 1967 when he was 21. His love for the sport endured, and even after he got his badge, he kept fighting. When his name appeared in the newspapers after an exhibition bout in 1968, he was called in by the inspectors in charge of his division. They gave him a choice: He could stay on the force or in the ring, but he couldn't do both. Wylie chose the force.
In the fall of 1972, Wylie's wife, Jacqueline, said to him: "Peter, you're bringing your work home. You should really get a hobby, something on the side to keep you busy."
Shortly thereafter, Wylie ran into a former boxing acquaintance, Cliff Beverly, on a subway platform. Beverly said he'd located a place downtown and was thinking of setting up a gym. He invited Wylie to come and have a look. "I'll run by and try and give you a few ideas," Wylie said.
The prospective gym turned out to be a ramshackle warehouse on Lancaster Avenue in Old Cabbagetown, a five-square-block area which got its name in the 1860s when Irish settlers grew vegetables there. The main crop was, of course, cabbages. Today the cabbages are gone, but the Irish—joined by those with Scottish or English bloodlines—remain. When Wylie took over the warehouse, "it was a total wreck, a real mess. There were 165 broken windows, 15 tons of garbage and about a half-inch of oil on the floor."
Wylie used his contacts in the city government to get garbage trucks to help haul away the mess. Seven local youths were enlisted in the clean-up crew. When they were finished, Beverly had his gym and Wylie was the head boxing coach. Subsequently Beverly bowed out, and Wylie devoted himself to the gym.
On a Sunday in the fall of 1977 Michael Sr. brought Shawn by bus the 10 miles from their boxy two-story house in Leaside to the Cabbagetown Gym. Until then, Shawn had worked out in a garage at home, pummeling a heavy bag so ferociously that the beams from which the bag hung had become weakened.