Boxer had spark in and out of ring
Winnipegger known for kindness and love of Sals once sparred with Ali
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A weekly series in honour of Black History Month, Taylor Allen highlights the stories and incredible accomplishments of Black athletes and coaches in Manitoba.
How many people from Winnipeg can say they’ve stepped foot in the ring with Muhammad Ali?
Probably only one, and that person is Al Sparks.
The year was 1969 and Sparks, the Canadian Light Heavyweight boxing champion at the time, was training for an upcoming fight with Bob Dunlop in Australia for the Commonwealth Light Heavyweight title. It was the biggest fight of his career, and to help him get ready, his manager Kenny Dusang took Sparks down to Miami to train at 5th Street Gym — a place legends such as Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano frequented over the years.
Sparks ended up sparring with Ali for a few rounds.
“Al looked good, but Muhammad Ali was too fast,” laughed Dusang.
“He was just a total gentleman when he worked with Al. There are fighters that would go in there and try to knock you out, but Al was such a nice guy and he loved Muhammad Ali and always respected him. The two of them hit it off.”
Despite spending some time with ‘The Greatest,’ Sparks didn’t get the result he was hoping for, or likely deserved, in Australia. He knocked Dunlop down twice in the 12th round, but the judges gave the Australian the decision.
“It’s very hard sometimes to get a decision in somebody else’s territory,” said Dusang.
Back in Winnipeg, you’d find Sparks, who grew up in Halifax, N.S., before moving to the Prairies, honing his skills at Pan-Am Boxing Club and starting his days with a run at Kildonan Park with close friends Carl Tynes and Bill Turner. Sparks, who worked on the railway as a porter, also played hockey weekly.
The place Sparks may have frequented the most was the Salisbury House on Main and Matheson. You’d often find him there sipping a cup of coffee after a run.
“One time we were at Sals and there was this guy that didn’t like Black people for some reason. And Al was such a gentleman, just an ordinary, quiet, nice guy. And this guy didn’t know Al was a fighter and wanted to pick a fight with him. So, we went outside, hoping the guy wouldn’t follow, but he did, and then he started to fight Al and Al just defended himself. And finally, I said to Al, ‘Don’t hurt him, but teach him a lesson.’ So anyway, Al floored him, then we picked the guy up, and he was on his way,” said Dusang.
“Al was one of the nicest guys you’d ever meet. You can check all over Winnipeg, I don’t think you’ll find anyone that would say a bad word about him.”
Sparks, a southpaw, beat Montreal fighter Les Borden for the Canadian Light Heavyweight belt in 1968. Six months later, Sparks would lose it to Rene Durell. Later that year, the two would meet again at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and this time, Sparks was the one who had his arm raised. It’s a title Sparks would successfully defend until 1973 when Brantford, Ont., product Gary Summerhays beat him. Sparks would retire a few years later in 1977, but stayed involved in the sport for many years and helped teach the next generation of local boxers, including Donny Lalonde.
Sparks is easily one of the best boxers the province has ever produced.
“I think if Al would’ve been in the states, he would’ve been a world champion. He was very, very skilled. I went to a lot of fights with him. We went to Detroit and he fought a guy in 1973 that was in the top 10 of light heavyweights in the world and his name was Len Hutchins,” said Turner, a fellow Winnipeg boxer who was often in Sparks’ corner.
“The way I see it, and I was at the fight, of course, I thought he beat Len Hutchins.”
Sparks met his wife of 54 years, Lillian, at Pilgrim Baptist Church and they went on to have a daughter, Twyla, and son, Pernell. Sparks passed away suddenly at the age of 75 in 2008. The family, including 91-year-old Lillian, still lives in Winnipeg.
While Sparks was known around town for what he could do inside the ring, Twyla and Pernell remember their father more for the type of family man he was. The railway and boxing took him out of the city quite often, but when he was home, he was present and loved being a dad.
He’d pick them up from school and treat them to his homemade hamburgers and french fries for lunch. He’d always be up for a game of catch in front of their family home. He’d take Pernell to the Winnipeg Arena for Jets games. He’d play dolls with Twyla and would offer to braid their hair. And he’d entertain them by playing the guitar and using his church choir skills to sing classic tunes such as Green, Green Grass of Home.
“He was just our dad,” said Pernell. “He was a humble guy who just happened to be in the boxing realm.”
Although neither Twyla or Pernell pursued boxing, they did learn a thing or two.
“He’d teach me some pointers. Growing up, there was this little boy that was bothering me and he showed me what to do. So, I remember one time I got some boxing gloves on, and this little boy was annoying me, so I popped him one,” recalled Twyla.
“I know that wouldn’t go over well today, but I remember my dad was outside and he had a little smirk on his face. So, that was my boxing career.”
Sparks was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
“I’ve never met a man so humble,” said Turner.
“He was always very giving of his time. He sort of reminded me of Muhammad Ali, but Muhammad Ali wasn’t humble, of course. But Al was a very likeable guy, and I was in a lot of circumstances with him and he always showed his good side. I always had immense respect for him. Always.”
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of...