Ringside for Youth punching above its weight

Twenty-five years after it began as a small charity event, boxing fundraiser is retiring a winner with over $3.5M raised for the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa
Ringside for Youth
Members of Ringside for Youth’s organizing committee are staging the popular boxing fundraiser’s 25th and final event on June 6. Photo by Mark Holleron

In sports, it’s considered a virtue to go out at the top of one’s game.

That’s why, after years of entertaining the masses and raising funds for charity, Ringside for Youth is hanging up its gloves for good.

The popular boxing dinner will be celebrating its 25th and final year when it returns to the Shaw Centre on Thursday, June 6, featuring celebrity guest “Sugar” Shane Mosely. It will retire knowing it has raised roughly $3.5 million for the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, along with boosting awareness and support for the non-profit organization.

In the beginning, nobody thought Ringside would go the distance, recalls event founder Steve Gallant, a vice-president and investment adviser with CIBC Wood Gundy.

“I was told by my friends that it wouldn’t work,” he acknowledges during an interview at the firm’s Ottawa office at 150 Elgin St. while joined by several longtime Ringside committee members.

Gallant wanted to organize a benefit that was different from the typical fundraising walks, golf tournaments and charity auctions. He proposed a dinner that featured amateur boxing bouts involving fighters from the Beaver Boxing Club in Ottawa. The funds would help the Boys and Girls Club with its after-school and weekend activities for at-risk kids living in Debra Dynes, one of the most troubled community housing neighbourhoods in Ottawa at the time. The organization has a clubhouse in that area on Prince of Wales Drive.

Ringside started off as a lightweight, drawing only 140 people and raising just $10,000 in its first year. Today, it carries considerable heft on the charity gala circuit, attracting annual crowds of 1,200 and easily raising six-figure amounts. It’s also sanctioned by Boxing Ontario.

In attendance as a guest and sponsor that first year was Tom Hicks, co-founder of software maker Jetform. He offered to help Gallant after the inaugural dinner and to quote him verbatim: “The bastard said yes.” Hicks has been on the committee ever since.

“We grabbed a hold of the event and ran with it,” says Hicks. “It was our event, and it’s a huge source of pride to say we went from 140 people to 1,200 people now.”

Also in Ringside’s corner from the beginning has been musician Dick Cooper from the country-rock band The Cooper Brothers. He often maintains a behind-the-scenes presence because he’s so busy producing the big night.

The evening resembles something out of Vegas, with its bright lights, big screens and live entertainment. Musical guests have included jazz vocalist Kellylee Evans and guitarist Colin Linden, among others.

The ring is positioned smack dab in the middle of the Shaw Centre’s expansive Canada Hall. It’s surrounded by giant banners showcasing the names of past celebrity guests, from Sugar Ray Leonard to Lennox Lewis to Roy Jones Jr.

Ringside was traditionally a guys’ night out, but women now make up about 30 per cent of the attendees. The evening remains a popular business networking night and counts former Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson among its major sponsors.

“I never imagined that this would last beyond five to seven years,” says Gallant, who instead predicted volunteer burnout. “Somehow, we manage to go 25 years. Our committee has somehow stuck together through thick and thin.”

Longevity and passion

Jeff O’Reilly, the general manager of D’Arcy McGee’s pub on Sparks Street, has been chairing the committee for the past seven years. “It’s a role that I’ve been so proud to do,” says O’Reilly.

The group also includes: Sheryl Bennett-Wilson, Mark Bonneau, Michael Bowser, Phil Chin, Brian Cooper, Jane Denny, Scott Doubt, Lyne Faucher, Erin Fraser, Monica Gallant, Tony House, Heather Johnson, Ron Loves, Chris Paine, Virgilia Partridge, Isabelle Perreault, Jill Perry, Tony Rhodes, Imre Rohonczy, Sean Sisk and Steve St. Jean.

“It’s shocking to see how long people have been able to commit to being on the committee,” O’Reilly adds. “The longevity speaks to the passion they have toward the charity and the event.”

Five things to know about Ringside for Youth

1. Last year, Ringside had to compete with voting night for the Ontario election. In 2016, a giant sinkhole opened up on nearby Rideau Street one day before the event. There was also the time its former venue, the Aberdeen Pavilion, was hit by a giant bolt of lightning during the fights.

2. Dick Cooper played tour guide to one of the greatest trainers of all time, Angelo Dundee, after he arrived to town four days early. He took the celebrity guest everywhere, including to different gyms, where Dundee ​– who trained Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and actor Russell Crowe for Cinderella Man ​– kept insisting Cooper throw a punch. Cooper didn’t want to, but he finally gave in. He probably wished later that he hadn’t, judging by Dundee’s response: “That’s pathetic.”

3. Organizers had a scare when celebrity guest Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini disappeared while they were having a drink at the Prescott before the Ringside event. They eventually found him talking recipes with the kitchen staff.

4. Ringside wanted to bring in Muhammad Ali, but he couldn’t commit for health reasons. George Foreman was too expensive, and Arturo Gatti died before they could make it happen.

5. Ringside wouldn’t be the same without the participation of Canadian sportscaster Rod Smith, emcee Angelo Tsarouchas and former American heavyweight Gerry Cooney. Cooney is Ringside’s longtime ambassador and has a Canadian connection ​– his dad was from Newfoundland.