The sweet science of the ring

By Daniel Dunkle | Nov 09, 2017
Courtesy of: Paul Benjamin Paul Benjamin, left, defends his Maine Cruiserweight Title at the Rec Center in a fight with Frank Dunton of Pittsfield in October 1983. The photo was shot by former Courier-Gazette Editor Michael McGuire, who covered the fight.

The 64-year-old man sitting across from my desk brings his fists up, swivels his body and, with a snap so fast I hear it cut the air, brings one bony fist within a millimeter of my nose.

"Like this," says Paul Benjamin with a smile.

I had just asked him how to throw a punch fast enough to keep my opponent from seeing it coming, and sure enough, the former state boxing champion moved like lightning, and it was clear he could have moved much faster and harder if he had wanted to.

Benjamin appears in The Courier-Gazette regularly these days as co-founder of the North Atlantic Blues Festival, but in the 1970s and 1980s he made headlines in the sports pages for his boxing career. I got interested in talking to him after reading in old editions about boxing in Rockland going back at least to the 1930s.

Benjamin's career in boxing started when he was in the Marines in California and got bored and frustrated in martial arts class doing the same move week after week. He decked the officer running the class and was given a choice -- the brig or get in the ring with the base boxing champion. He chose the ring, and even though he was assumed to be outmatched, managed to knock the champion out. A boxer was born.

From Rumford originally, he settled in Rockland, starting out working at a grocery store and then putting his knowledge from the Marines to work teaching self-defense to Rockland police. Before long, he was a police officer, and he got involved in boxing in the area both as a contender and as a coach and trainer.

Amateur and professional boxing in the 1970s and into the '80s was an important pastime in Maine. Fighters of all ages competed both locally and out of the area with teams from Bangor, Lewiston, Waterville and Portland.

"Boxing was huge," he said. "You could go to a fight every week."

Boxing classes and matches were held at the Samoset Resort in Rockport. He said they would put the ring on the tennis courts, which were down where there are conference rooms now. A lot of the training and fights also took place at the Rec Center at the corner of Limerock and Union streets, officially known then as the Rockland Community Building. The Park Street Arena was another local boxing gym in the city's history, and he said there was another gym near the ferry terminal.

Joey Gamache of Lewiston, who would go on to be a famous professional boxer holding two world titles, had his first amateur fight at the Rec Center in Rockland, Maine. And Benjamin took his corner.

Benjamin confirmed for me that when a trainer takes a boxer's corner, it is like the scenes in "Rocky" where Mickey and Paulie are shouting advice and warnings at the champ between rounds.

"Once the bell rings, it's the longest two or three minutes of your life," Benjamin said. "When the bell rings, it's me against you."

Asked the appeal of a sport that involves being punched in the face, Benjamin laughs and says, "The object is not to get punched."

He explains that boxing is the "sweet science." It's not about strength and power as much as it is about skill and strategy. A trained boxer moves around, keeping his or her defenses moving where the opponent plans the next punch. Raise a hand to defend your face, and you might leave your body open. Knowing how to punch using not just your arms and fists, but your whole body allows you to increase speed and power. Timing is everything and a well trained, talented boxer can defeat a stronger, bigger opponent.

In the ring, Benjamin was a winner, becoming state Cruiserweight Champion. You would see ads in the papers advertising the matches: "Burley Ron Gabaree vs. Fighting Cop Paul Benjamin." I might have called him the "Police Cruiser," since he was a Cruiserweight.

Coach Ed Mazurek would send half the football team to train with Benjamin's boxing team in the off-season.

"They were in the best shape of their lives," Benjamin recalled. "We trained hard."

The Maine State Prison, then located on Main Street in Thomaston, had a boxing team. It even released eight to 10 inmates at a time to Benjamin, who would take them around to fights.

"I told the inmates, if you want to run, be my guest; I'm not going to be able to chase you, but when you get caught and go back and this whole program gets stopped because of you, you deal with it inside of prison. I never had any problem."

The logical next question was, what happened? Why did the boxing go away?

Benjamin points to several factors. The Maine Athletic Commission stepped in toward the late '80s with more rules, which he acknowledges were needed, but that made it harder to organize the fights. Kids started doing other things with their time. And gyms, which had been donating space for training, started charging.

"No one was making any money on it," he said. "You did it for love."

Benjamin also sees another problem. He travels all over the country promoting the blues these days and said the same issue is everywhere -- kids stay inside and play on computers and phones.

"Technology is great to a degree, but it's destroying the youth. Drive around the streets, even on a sunny day, how often do you see kids outside playing? You don't."

Boxing and football are high-impact sports, but the epidemic of the sedentary lifestyle is a bigger danger.

Paul still trains people in boxing, stepping in to instruct a class here and there at the YMCA. And even at 64, he tries to stay in shape.

If you question it, just ask him to show you how to throw a punch.

Editor Daniel Dunkle of The Courier-Gazette lives in Rockland. We want to hear from you, so tell us what you think! Send in your responses, stories, photos and memories via email at: ddunkle@villagesoup.com; or snail mail to: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841. Hand-written notes are welcome and appreciated.

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