Teaching life lessons inside and outside the ring
It didn’t take long before Paul Zahra was hooked on being a boxing coach.
His introduction to the role came when he was a fighting in Scotland and Ireland as part of a boxing tour that included coaches and athletes from the St. Catharines Boxing Club.
“I remember being a fighter listening to my coach and having a fighter in front of me and going off my instructions, I kind of got the bug,” said the 52-year-old St. Catharines native who will be honoured at the Niagara Legends Boxing Show Friday at the Merritton Community Centre along with fellow St. Catharines Boxing Club coaches John Robertson, former pro boxer Ralph Racine from Niagara Falls, Napper’s Boxing Club coach Julia Dimarcantonio, and Steeltown Boxing Club founder and coach Bob Wilcox.
The former boxer describes coaching boxing as different to being the one in the ring throwing punches.
“When you are in the ring, you are getting punched and you get that adrenaline,” the Holy Cross alumnus said. “When you coach a fighter for so long and spend so much time with them like we do, their successes are our successes and when you see them win, you get that adrenaline rush. It is not the same as fighting but I think that it is more satisfying for me.”
He has been coaching at the St. Catharines Boxing Club for more than 20 years and is motivated by his passion for the sport.
“As a coach, we all love the sport and we have an awesome responsibility as coaches,” said the academy sergeant major at Robert Land Academy, who is in charge of drill discipline, deportment for staff and students and helping to run the day to day operations at the school.
“We train our fighters and they trust in us that we are going to give them the skills they need to be successful in the ring. And they trust that when they are being overwhelmed in the ring, that we will keep them safe and throw in the towel and make sure that they don’t get hurt.”
Getting fighters ready to step in the ring is a long process.
“You learn a lot about them. You interact with those fighters, male and female, and you learn whey they joined the club. Maybe they have been picked on or bullied or they want to lose weight or they love the sport. When you talk with them, you become part of their lives.”
That relationship becomes much more than just about boxing.
“We talk to them about dealing with girlfriends and boyfriends and moms and dads and how to navigate different things at school and life,” he said. “We just don’t train a fighter. We train a whole person and their successes out of the ring are our successes too because we spend so much time with them and we watch them grow up.”
Zahra’s has a number of coaching philosophies.
“We are not going to put anyone in the ring unless they can be safe. We want to make sure that they are well-trained.”
In sparring, Zahra will never put two inexperienced fighters against each other.
“They just beat the crap out of each other so I will put an experienced one in against an amateur so he or she can learn. When I have an experienced fighter, I tell them to work with the guy.”
Another unbreakable rule of Zahra’s and the club’s is they don’t want their athletes fighting on the street.
“Most fighters don’t fight on the street because they get enough in the gym. If we find out they are fighting on the street and they are coming in here so that they can be thugs on the street, we are not going to have them. We don’t want them.”
Zahra has had many highlights in his coaching career.
“Going to Ringside and having some of our fighters win the world championships was great. Every coach wants a senior open fighter and we have had a number of them over the years,” he said. “You have a guy like Jim (James Hughes). He went to the Olympic trials and that was pretty amazing. I brag about that all the time and I brag about all these kids. As coaches, I think we live through them a little bit, especially if we have fought before.”
Zahra is thrilled to be recognized as a Niagara Boxing Legend.
“I am honoured to be inducted into the Niagara Boxing Legends. When I look at the people on that list, I feel very fortunate and and very humbled to be included amongst them. It is a pretty awesome group.”
Tickets for the boxing show, which starts at 7:30 p.m., are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For more information about tickets, call 905-988-1244 or email the club at email@example.com
Several St. Catharines Boxing Club members will be fighting on the card, including current Ontario senior open champion Dennis Steingart. Also scheduled to fight are Gavin Freel, Dylan Maisonneuve, Omar Nori, Riley Willis, Kyle Dickson, Josh Erb and Phoenix Young-Lazo.