Les Vegas, 71, no stranger to adversity in or out of the ring, is about to work himself off the ropes. Since 2004 he’s been running an all-ages, not-for-profit boxing club and relying on the kindness of strangers to keep it going. Now the Powell River Boxing Club has been given space at Oceanview Education Centre to continue training and Vegas is excited about the future.
“We moved six or seven times because we were getting the places for free,” said Vegas. “It’s been a struggle, but the adversity doesn’t bother me.”
Vegas, who’s real name is Laz Vaja, is a veteran of 47 pro bouts over 10 years across Canada, the United States and Europe.
“I’m just trying to give something back to the game that took pretty good care of me over the years,” said Vegas. “I decided to train kids after I retired.” That was 34 years ago. “I just wanted to run a little club, keep the kids off the street and keep myself busy.”
Many, if not most, of the members are from low-income, single-parent families. Membership is free, the club is drop-in and donations are always welcome.
Vegas and friend Doug Martin started the Powell River club in 2004. Martin has since retired from the boxing scene, but the club has bounced around the city over the years as free space has become available. From humble beginnings in a room at Vancouver Island University, the club moved to the space in Crossroads Village Shopping Centre now occupied by Quality Foods, then to the basement of Garnet Rock Appliances’ building and finally to the old Oceanview Middle School where it has been bumped around a bit.
“We moved to a room at Oceanview that was the old computer room, but then they rented the room so we had to move to a room alongside it,” explained Vegas. “When they decided to refurbish the building, they moved us out again. This space now is permanent, though.”
The club’s new home is the old band room off the side of the gymnasium.
“It fits really well for us here because it’s part of the gym, so now we have this fitness component,” said Troy Marshall, coordinator of Dual Credit Programs at Oceanview Education Centre. “To us it’s a perfect fit and we like what he’s been doing with the kids.
“There will always be some controversy around this type of sport, but we think it’s a great thing for youth in Powell River,” he said. “I knew a couple of kids who worked out with him and it was absolutely an excellent avenue for them to get rid of excess energy.”
Despite having to move so often over the years, the task hasn’t become any easier. Nothing in the move is light, easy to handle or easy to assemble. “I have to rely on the kids to help me move all this,” Vegas said.
Chin-up bars and all manner of punching bags are bolted onto walls or to the ceiling so they can take a beating. Vegas has had to borrow tools and ask for help from friends to set the gym up. “Luckily the move hasn’t been too far this time,” he said.
Vegas had hoped to have the club moved to the permanent space and opened up in the summer, but then its opening was delayed due to complications with Oceanview renovations.
“We’re really happy that he’s back up,” said Marshall. “It has been a pain for everyone that he had to shut down due to the construction and the move. Now he’s in a better spot, he may even be able to rebuild better than he had before.”
Vegas is especially happy about having showers onsite. “It’s a real plus,” he said. “It’s great to have a shower after working out. When you’re all sweaty, you don’t want to have to walk or cycle home.”
Over the years, the club’s membership has been as high as 50, but recently the number has taken a hit. “I’ve got 18 to 20 kids and sometimes more than 30,” he said. “It all depends if they like what they see.”
The most prominent feature of the boxing gym stands in the middle of the room: a boxing ring. Four metal turnbuckles are bolted into the floor to mark the boundaries of the ring. Pads on the wall protect the fighters.
“It’s not pretty, but it does the job,” said Vegas. “The ring’s not regulation size, but it gives fighters the feeling of boxing in the squared circle.”
A typical workout for boxers starts with heading up to the gymnasium to warm up with calisthenics. Then participants learn how to punch with the striking pads. Vegas likes to work one on one to teach fighters how to throw punches. “I teach them that the power comes from their whole body, not just their arms,” he said.
A set of weights for strength training and jump ropes for cardio help the fighters with their conditioning. For some this is the key.
Aaron Nicholson, 17, a student at Brooks Offsite Program, has been training with Vegas for the past two years. Nicholson said he’s lost a lot of weight and gained confidence while he’s learned how to fight. “It’s amazing how you improve in such a short time,” he said.
Nicholson is one of Vegas’s more committed students. He works out two hours four days a week and has his eyes on competing in the Golden Gloves competition this spring.
“It’s a lot of fun once you get into it,” said Nicholson. “You have to stick with it.”
Up until now Vegas’s boxers didn’t have much time to actually box in a full-sized ring. Up a short flight of stairs from the boxing club is the gymnasium’s expanse of hardwood floor that Vegas hopes to be able to use from time to time for setting up his full-sized ring and hosting public boxing matches.
Vegas, a pipefitter by trade, built the ring with help from welding students. The materials were donated, like most of the equipment in the gym.
He’s hosted public boxing matches at Brooks Secondary School and he hopes that he’ll be able to do that again as the club builds up.
“It’s a good sport,” he said. “It teaches you to respect your fellow human being because everyone’s got two arms and two legs. It’s the sweet science, don’t ’cha know.”
The boxing club holds regular training sessions three days per week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Sessions are free and everyone is welcome. For more information, readers can call Vegas at 604.485.7095.