Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The city's still got fight

Night of boxing a homecoming for boxer, and for Winnipeg

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It's fight night tonight, the Winnipeg Convention Centre decked out with the ring and the ropes and bright lights, and Andrew Gardiner is ready for the show.

He's been waiting a long time to come home. The last time he visited was back in May and the last time he fought in Winnipeg was... oh, a while ago. Not since he packed his stuff last year and moved to Ottawa to take his fists pro. Not since he started slaying on that end, winning nine in a row to start his professional light heavyweight career and dealing the lights-out on five of those.

So yeah, Gardiner is ready to battle Hungarian Daniel Regi in tonight's Peg City Massacre, the first pro boxing card to hit the city in three years. It's not the main event -- that is the title fight between Manitoban Junior Moar, who will go for a rematch of his 2011 Canadian light heavyweight bout against Mike Walchuk. But it's a homecoming, a chance to show the city how this south end kid did good.

He kind of had to, after dropping his drywalling trade at home in Winnipeg to take up the gloves full-time.

"It's a little bit of a struggle, but I don't work, I just box," Gardiner said on Friday, surrounded by family at the media weigh-in downtown. "I just train three times a day. Here, I was working and training. There, I figured if I'm going to go out there and do it, I'm going to do it all out."

In Ottawa, close to the boxing hotbed of Montreal and under the tutelage of coach Eric Belanger, Gardiner has that chance. He pulled the trigger on the professional move after missing a chance to make the last Olympic team, but that wasn't such a hard decision. Climbing the professional rankings was always more his dream, ever since he started throwing hooks when he was 16 years old. He wants a world title someday.

It wasn't going to happen in Winnipeg. Nobody to spar with, really, and not much of a path to money. A man can't eat on glory alone, and the Winnipeg boxing scene has a prairie mile of space to grow.

"There wasn't much going on out here for me," Gardiner said. "It needs exciting fights. To be honest, it needs more local guys... but I think it's growing again, and I'd like to see this happen more often. Winnipeg has a big fanbase for boxing."

What John Vernaus is betting on is hungry fans will turn out. After a few years away from the boxing biz juggling other endeavours -- including a run for MLA in Point Douglas in 2011 -- the promoter pieced together this card looking for a certain rough 'n' tumble flavour. He remembered Gardiner well from his amateur years, and he seemed a good fit. "Andrew's a tough cookie," he said.

Bingo.

"I want action fights," Vernaus said of the philosophy behind this card. "I don't want guys who are just dancing around. I want guys who are going to slug it out, and that's what we've got. They're good boxers, but they're going in there to take a guy out."

That's Gardiner's plan, at least. He doesn't know much about Regi, his opponent -- just that he's got a tight defence, and a mean left hook -- but that's okay. "I know what I have to bring to the table, and we'll see if he can take it or not," Gardiner said, with a smirk.

Either way, after tonight it's back to Ottawa, and back to work. Gardiner may fight again in November before coming home for a break, but he can't afford to relax too long. Literally, of course, though he has some sponsors to help him make ends meet.

But it's also a matter of other sacrifices made to get this far: since going pro, Gardiner dropped his social life cold turkey: "I just train, and go home, and sleep," he said.

Instead, he fills that time with long calls home to his fiancée, Dana Johnson, who flies out to visit when she can. Johnson has seen the change in Gardiner, the way turning pro also turned his life upside down and fostered a sort of single-minded focus. "He's got heart," Johnson said simply.

That doesn't mean its ever easy to watch him take and throw a punch. "I look away," she laughed. "It's like, oh gosh, we're doing this again, okay." But if he wins in front of friends and family on Saturday night? "It's all worth it," she said. "Everything's worth it."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 C8

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