1980: The Year When Canadian Boxing Was Brought To Its Knees By Gaetan Hart And Ralph Racine

Forty years ago, a near-fatal encounter between Gaetan Hart and Ralph Racine from Niagara Falls Ontario would generate a premature end to the 24-year old Racine’s promising career.

Heading into May, Racine was Canada’s number one ranked lightweight. He was hoping for a rematch with Nicky Furlano. He had lost a very tight 8-round decision to the Torontonian at North York’s Centennial Arena back in March 1977.

A chain of events prevented the rematch from materializing.

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A razon-thin loss to Hilmer Kenty at Detroit’s Olympia stadium had made Racine consider retirement. However, six months later in March 1980 Kenty won win the world lightweight title which convinced Racine to stay active since he had registered two knockdowns against the Detroiter in their set-to.

An earlier come-from-behind TKO win in the tenth round against #10 world-ranked Ezekiel Sanchez at New York’s Felt Forum also boosted Racine’s confidence.

Meanwhile, Furlano was in “cold storage” after getting convicted on an assault rap.

Racine referred to 1980 as “a make or break year”. Aside from Gaetan Hart, only Al Ford offered a chance at a decent payday. Al Ford was a huge attraction in his native Winnipeg, but his most notable achievement was a close loss to reigning world lightweight champ Ken Buchanan in a non-title tilt back in 1972 at Wembley Stadium in London. Ford never lived up to his hype. He would lose three scraps with Racine while only garnering one victory in four tussles with Furlano: the last defeat being a 14th round TKO in February 1979. Ford also failed in his only shot at the Canadian title against Johnny Summerhays in 1975.

Three years later, Summerhays lost the crown to Furlano via majority decision. Furlano defended it successfully via majority decision against Hart in August 1979, but Hart avenged that loss in late March 1980 via split decision.

Fate had made a Racine-Hart match a virtual lock. Paul Sauve Arena in Montreal would be the setting; the date being May 10th; and the gate was 4,000.

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In round 12 at 1:43 Hart landed four unanswered combinations, forcing referee Guy Jutras to intervene and call a halt to the bout. Racine collapsed walking back to his corner, and underwent emergency surgery to relieve pressure on his brain.

On June 2nd – three weeks after the devastating encounter – by which time the swelling on the left side of his brain had receded, Racine was flown from Montreal’s Maisonneuve Hospital to St. Joseph Hospital in Hamilton for continued treatment for his devastating brain injury. Reverend Cajetan Menke, a friend and spokesman for the Racine family declared: “The current prognosis is that he will continue the therapy and convalescence there for a couple of weeks before he can be released.“ Racine was conscious but there will still occasional lapses of memory, although he recognized everybody who came to see him.

Irving Ungerman, ex-manager of George Chuvalo, announced that his 20% cut from the expected $36,000 gross for the closed circuit showing of the Duran-Leonard fight scheduled for June 20th at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Queen Elizabeth Amphitheatre would kick off the Ralph Racine Fund.

On December 27, 1980 , the Globe and Mail’s Allen Abel conducted an interview with the debilitated ex-pugilist. The column was titled: Racine Still Feels Boxing’s Mysterious Allure. Asked about his best Christmas gift, Racine replied: “All I know is I got happiness.”

Seven months before, Racine’s prognosis had been touch-and-go. Ralph could not recall any details of the notorious match, other than his warm-up in the dressing room. “It’s the only part of my career I don’t remember. I can’t picture myself in the ring that night. I’ve seen films of the last round. I’m still on my feet when they stop it. When I woke up, I was in the hospital in Montreal.”

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Months later, Ralph was doing a little jogging and even swatting the bag, but the futility of any comeback was emphasized when he confessed: “I go to the gym and everything seems normal except my foot drags a little.”

Despite the bull raging within: “They told me not to take chances for a year or so, maybe a year and a half..two years..who knows” Racine’s fighting days were over. The Ministry of Transportation & Communications wouldn’t let him get a driver’s license to reach the rehab center in St. Catharines on his own. His mom Mary or dad Florent would drive him there.

This story would’ve have ended at this juncture, were it not for an unexpected Act II to the drama. Six weeks after nearly robbing Racine’s life, Hart and his previously un-feared fists once again reaped tragic consequences against Cleveland Denny (10-1-2) at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. It was part of the June 20th card featuring the first Leonard-Duran clash.

The brutal pounding ended via 10th round TKO. Sixteen days later, the Guyana-born Montreal-based Denny succumbed from his injuries. Like Racine, Denny was only 24 years old.

Racine bore no ill will toward Hart who would visit his Niagara Falls house on several occasions after the near-tragedy. In November 1980, Hart’s accidental notoriety garnered him a shot at the super lightweight title held by Aaron Pryor.

They put Pryor on a telephone hook-up to a press conference in Cincinnati where Prior vowed to do to Hart what Hart had done to Racine. This bothered Racine no end: “I don’t blame Hart for anything. I really like the guy (and) what happened to Denny could have been his fault. The other guy must not have been in shape.”

Hart lost his chance at the word title via a 6th round TKO.

As expected from all the commotion, calls for the abolition of pro boxing ensued but Racine would have none of it. “I really can’t see anything wrong with boxing”.

Then, Racine made some telling remarks which suggested, in hindsight that he could’ve have done things rather differently and prevented his boxing career from getting shattered: “A lot of fighters think that fighting every couple of weeks is great ‘cause it keeps you in shape and it is great. Then maybe you win a fight, but still take a few good ones. And then you fight again, and it all catches up with you. I know that’s what happened to me.”

A check of the record indicates what Racine was hinting at. A mere ten days before the tragic bout, Racine had “laced up the gloves” on two occasions over a mere eleven days, winning via TKO and KO in Kansas City on April 13th and then Winnipeg on the 24th, against opposition that weren’t walkovers: Dale Hernandez (36-3-0) who knocked Racine down once in the fifth round and Bruce “the Mouse” Strauss (26-12-2) who got kayoed in the fifth round (this was before Strauss became known as a professional opponent).

Racine’s body had endured 13 rounds of tough bruising, or as he said to Abel “but a lot of time you take a few shots and you don’t notice because you feel alright.”

Now, 64-years old Racine is in full command of his faculties, but if he could go back in time probably wouldn’t have waged those two contests.