May 19, 2022

Sometimes a loss defines a champion

I’d always tried to maintain a skeptical viewpoint when writing about the deeds of young Mr. Joseph Gamache of Lewiston.

I go back with Joey as far as the spring of 1984. At that point, he was a 17-year-old golden gloves fighter with a dream of making the U.S. Olympic boxing team. When he didn’t make it, I wrote him off.

I remember the call I got in early 1987 from Joey’s dad, Joe Gamache Sr., informing me the Olympic wannabe was about to turn pro. Please cover his first fight, his father asked. I agreed. It turned out Joey’s first bout, scheduled for the Lewiston Armory, was postponed when the opponent failed to make the weight. Joe Sr. was so embarrassed he never called me to cover the next fight, which Joey fought and won.

Gamache’s second pro fight was in May of ’87 at Bucksport High. I covered that one and came away impressed with the handspeed Gamache displayed in dispatching a New Yorker named John Pitts. But how far could any fighter go from a high school gym in Bucksport?

The years passed. So did Gamache’s fights. As the digits on the left side of his record ticked upward, the inevitable talk began about his winning titles.

Then the titles started coming.

I was there when he knocked out Irving “Sweet” Mitchell for something called the IBF Intercontinental junior lightweight title in Lewiston.

Before I knew it I was there, at Lewiston Raceway, in June of ’91, when Gamache faced Jerry N’Gobeni for the vacant WBA junior lightweight title. He knocked N’Gobeni down. Suddenly, the dark-haired kid from Maine was a world champion.

Amazing, I thought. So easy.

By now I was reading Ring and KO magazines, trying to learn something about the boxing world, which inexplicably seemed to be opening itself up for this kid from Maine. I kept noticing none of Gamache’s opponents were ever rated above him. Then Gamache vacated the 130-pound title, without defending it, to move up to 135 pounds.

I got more skeptical. I never dumped on Gamache, like one columnist, who labeled the boxer a phony. I just wasn’t sure how good he was. So I became one of those pain-in-the-butt media types always asking the embarrassing question of Gamache promoter Johnny Bos, like, “who is this guy?” I asked Bos that before Gamache TKO’d South Korean Chilsung Chun for the WBA lightweight title this past June.

Which leads me to last weekend’s first title defense, in which Joey Gamache, nobody from Lewiston, Maine, WBA champion of dubious making, stepped into the ring against Tony “The Tiger” Lopez.

I thought I might feel some sense of vindication by Gamache losing. I thought I might have to stifle a giant “told you so” in the postfight press conference.

It didn’t turn out that way.

What I saw was Gamache fight his heart out for 10 rounds plus. I saw him rise to a level I had never seen against the stronger, more experienced Lopez, who, unlike Gamache, had beaten two past or current world champions. Even after his left eye closed, leaving him blind on one side. Even after Lopez cut him under his right eye and bloodied his nose. Gamache…. kept…. coming.

And when Lopez, his eyes cold as microchips, clubbed Gamache senseless with a concussive series of blows to the head in the 11th round, causing the kid from Lewiston’s body to shudder and begin to fall, I felt a part of me fall with him.

I realized at that moment I had witnessed the essence of courage, a rare privilege in this world made all the rarer because I saw it in someone I had come to know.

Gamache’s handlers can point fingers all they want this week and make a mockery of a sport that, in the eyes of many, doesn’t have to fall very far to find the gutter. Gamache never made any excuses because he knew what his corner did ultimately was irrelevant. He fought hard and was beaten by a better fighter.

Joey Gamache may never regain his world title. But after his performance in a ring on a rainy Saturday in Portland, he no longer has to prove anything to me. He deserved the golden belt he wore for four months. He has the heart of a champion.

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