Never too old: Hull’s O’Brien returns from Kansas a national boxing champion
Editor's note: Photo to come.
If you happen to be strolling the beach at Nantasket around dawn and come upon a fellow shadow-boxing in the sand, don’t be alarmed.
You’ve probably just met the South Shore’s latest champion.
John O’Brien of Hull just came back from a trip to Lenexa, Kansas, where he defended his 201-pound National Masters Championship at the Ringside Boxing Tournament, Masters’ Division.
O’Brien, you see, is 58, but twice as active as most men half his age.
When he’s not training for his own bouts, O’Brien can be found most nights at the South Shore Police Athletic League Gym in Whitman, mentoring young boxers or conducting private lessons. At other times the retired carpenter might be at Boston University, where his boxing and kick-boxing classes are part of the physical education department’s course of study, and many Terrier athletes have benefited from his expertise. At other times O’Brien might be polishing his karate technique, a skill that won him a national black belt master’s title in 1995.
Wouldn’t you think golf would be a more relaxing sport for someone like him? ‘‘My whole family is pretty active,’’ said O’Brien, taking a break recently at the SSPAL. ‘‘My wife Mary runs and works out, and my daughter Maureen has been on three national teams for Tae Kwon Do. She currently teaches at Boston Tae Kwon Do in Abington.
‘‘My son, Richard, has been in the service 11 years, and he’s now an Army Ranger serving in Iraq.
‘‘I was a track man in high school,’’ O’Brien said. ‘‘I ran a 2:01 half-mile for Cambridge Rindge and Latin, which was a very good time back then. I also got into boxing, at the New Garden Gym in Boston.
After graduation I went into the Army National Guard in 1967, and when I finished that hitch I began amateur boxing. I trained with Ray McPeck and Billy Halpin at the old St. Ann’s Gym in Quincy. They were two great guys who did a lot for a bunch of kids back then, and unfortunately they’re both gone now. I won the Southern New England Golden Gloves, at 175 pounds, in 1978, but by ’79, I was getting into my 30s, I had a family, and I was working construction, so I got away from the amateur boxing.’’
O’Brien gradually got back into athletic pursuits, and found his work as a carpenter, involving even making concrete forms, had kept him in top condition. As he approached his middle age, he developed an interest in karate, and worked with Billy Blanks at the Boston Sport Boxing Club. That led to his winning the ’95 national master’s black belt light-heavyweight title. Around that same time O’Brien began frequenting O’Malley’s Boxing Gym in Quincy, which later became the Farrell Boxing Gym, and ultimately the SSPAL. His role then was basically teaching, assisting trainers Jimmy Farrell Sr. and Jimmy Farrell Jr. in developing young amateur talent.
But 2002, the prestigious Ringside Tournament, an annual showcase for the nation’s best boxers in a wide range of ages and weight classes, announced the formation of a masters’ division.
O’Brien and some of his teaching cohorts gave it a lot of thought and decided to take a shot.
‘‘Even though the tourney started in ’02, we didn’t enter until 2004,’’ O’Brien explained. ‘‘A few others and I made our minds up to do it, and we took the next two years to get back in shape. My last fight had been in 1979, after all, so I took my time and got myself ready. In ’04 I lost in the semis to the eventual champion, and then in ’05 I lost in the championship fight. In 2006 I won the title, and I won it again this year, ironically facing the same two guys I’d beaten last year to get there.’’
O’Brien defeated Ron George, a sheriff from Iowa, in the semifinals this year, just as he had in 2006. In the finals, he had a rematch with Canada’s Terry Mitzu, and a pair of standing-eight counts in the middle round helped propel O’Brien to his second straight championship.
What kind of athletes compete in these tourneys, and what rule changes apply?
‘‘The masters divisions start after age 35, and at that level you initially get a lot of guys straight out of the amateurs,’’ O’Brien reported. ‘‘At the older levels like mine, you get a lot of coaches, a lot of policemen who work with kids, and some teams - like the carpenters’ union, which had a team in this year, but there is some serious talent.
‘‘One good example is this year’s middleweight masters’ champion, Ray Daniels, who defeated Sugar Ray Leonard as an amateur. Ray went on to become a Chicago cop, and coaches in their youth programs, and he’s 57.’’
There’s even another Boston-area masters competitor, who traveled with O’Brien. Boston’s Justin Canard, 53, has won two previous masters’ titles, but lost in the finals this year at 152 pounds.
‘‘They’ve changed the rules around a bit this year, but we do three two-minute rounds,’’ said O’Brien, ‘‘and they’ve gone to 16 ounce gloves, instead of the 18 ounces they used before, which are pretty heavy and hard to use.’’
O’Brien, 6-2 and 198 pounds, competes in the 201-pound class. He typically hits the SSPAL gym six nights a week, and runs three times a week.
‘‘I run on the trails in the Whitney Thayer area in Hull,’’ O’Brien said, ‘‘because it’s better in that preserve area, where the roads won’t hurt my knees. I also love to run and shadow box in the sand along Nantasket Beach, early in the morning, before anyone else is out. I try to eat right, and reserve Sunday as my junk food day: ice cream is my weakness, but I only eat it on Sundays. I have always eaten good and stayed away from junk food all my life.’’
O’Brien’s connection with Boston University came about in 2000, and he has worked with most of the college’s top athletes since then, as part of the phys-ed curriculum.
‘‘I have taught a lot of athletes from their crew to the hockey players,’’ he said. ‘‘I do both boxing and kick-boxing, and they know it’s one of the best classes for learning proper conditioning and movement they can get. It is a regular part of the phys-ed program, and I have to mark them at the end of the term.’’
When it came down to his own conditioning for these masters battles, O’Brien was smart enough to enlist outside help, in Dorchester’s beloved boxing guru Papa Ray Drayton.
‘‘You can’t train yourself, no matter how much you think you know,’’ O’Brien noted. ‘‘Because then, you end up thinking every day is perfect. I think I am more a boxer now than I was in my youth.
‘‘Papa Ray believes a guy who can move will win in the masters division, because most older guys just want to stand and punch. So he had me moving a lot in training. He’d have me do a lot of leg work, from circle drills to up-and-down box drills, to what he calls ‘old man squats’ off the ropes. He had me in great condition.’’
Although O’Brien loves to get a good workout demonstrating technique to his young pupils, Drayton also stepped up his sparring.
‘‘Going back to my own younger days with Ray McPeck in Quincy, I remember he always used to say, ‘It’s easier to teach a kid if he can see you do it,’’’ said O’Brien. ‘‘That’s definitely true, and I try to demonstrate what I want to teach these kids.
‘‘I work with businessmen, young kids, athletes from other sports, and guys with serious ambitions in the sport. A lot of them just do it for the fitness factor, but I just love being around the gym - it’s a great stress-reliever, every single day.’’