Boxing coach continues helping kids long after his own personal tragedies
When the bell rings and the boxers approach with aroused muscles, tensed muscles and fire in their eyes, Howard Watts says it’s hard not to be concerned for their safety.
He’s just trying not to let it show.
“I think you’re more nervous than your boxer. But the thing is, you have to show that you’re cool and calm and not upset.”
Watts sits on the edge of the boxing ring, muscles in his weather-beaten 76-year-old hands flexing as he grabs the bottom rope and continues to gather his thoughts.
“They try to go in there as a team. We are together, we are here together.”
Watts, PEI’s boxing coach for the 2023 Canada Winter Games, has been providing that comfort and support to children for 41 years as the operator of the KOed Boxing Academy in Charlottetown.
And not just between rounds of a boxing match.
When Trevor MacKinnon lost his mother in a house fire when MacKinnon was just 10 years old, Watts would pick him up at his grandmother’s house or the mall after school, and then drive him back to the gym and home.
“The boxing club saved me,” said MacKinnon, now 49 and living in Alberta with his wife and children.
He was a strict coach. When you needed to be put in your place, he put you in your place. – Trevor MacKinnon
“Not that I was a really bad kid or anything, but I got into some mischief and it definitely saved me, big time.”
MacKinnon, whose surname was MacAdam before his grandmother officially adopted him when he was 18, won a bronze medal at the 1991 Canada Games at PEI with Watts in his corner
“Howard was a great coach,” said MacKinnon. “He was a strict coach. If you needed to be put in your place, he put you in your place, but [he had a] Heart of gold.”
Sons died 5 years apart
This heart of gold would experience some pain over the years.
His own two sons, who were successful boxers, died of drug overdoses. Darren died in 2007 at the age of 29 and Steven died five years later at the age of 37.
Watts proudly displays her paintings, which hang among many others on the gym’s white concrete walls.
“They got lost there with the… drugs and stuff. So that’s the big deal and that’s what happened to them,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“But whatever, I’ll use it here…when I’m explaining what can happen to you.”
Watts said his sons might still be alive if mental health and addiction services were better then.
He said he and his wife Lorraine tried everything they could. He often drove around town looking for them, worried about whether he would find them dead or alive.
More than once he found her on a bank or behind a gas station and took her to the hospital to have the drugs pumped out of her system.
“I’ll always think there are things I could have done better, right? You know, it’s like last night when Steven came in, he wanted to go into town. I think maybe I should have let him stay for the night… and that night they found him dead. You’ll always think that… there were several ways I could have done better.”
Fit at 76
He said people wanted to hang out with his sons after they reached elite levels in hockey and boxing — “Misery loves company,” he said. He said they got into the wrong crowd.
That’s partly why Watts, as a coach, doesn’t focus as much on winning or losing as he does on the “gentleman” aspect of the sport and the structure it provides.
He tries to set an example of hard work. He is as fit as many much younger people and still works on laying carpets while running the gym as a ‘hobby’.
It’s values he teaches to all of his athletes, including his grandson, Steven’s son Matt Doyle. Doyle is an aspiring boxer.
“I’ve always loved boxing,” Watts said, “but there’s something to look at in the development of children and where they’re going, like as they get older and hit their late teens and everything, then you look at their careers and many of them have made great careers.”
MacKinnon is an example.
To this day, he calls on Watts for advice. MacKinnon followed in his trainer’s footsteps and opened his own boxing club in Lacombe, Alta a few years ago. He has two of his own boxers competing for Alberta in the Canada Games.
He plans to run his gym the way his mentor taught him – by taking care of his athletes in and out of the ring.
“It’s in his blood.” said MacKinnon. “In my entire history of knowing him, I’ve never seen him lock doors on anyone. If it wasn’t for the boxing club, God knows where some of us would be now.”