When former boxer Paul Poirier passed away on June 26, New Bedford not only lost a champion in the ring, but a champion human being.
Most who knew him called him “The Champ,” and those who knew of his career referred to him as “New Bedford’s own ‘Rocky.’”
I was just happy to call him a friend, even in our limited interactions.
It’s hard to believe Poirier is gone, passing from a heart attack at age 59. His family told me he’d been having some heart trouble for a while now, but you’d never know it unless you were one of the ones really close to him. Because Paul always had more heart than just about anyone.
I always used to smile when I’d get a Facebook message from him, usually something along the lines of “Hey buddy, saw you were on, just wanted to say hi. Hope all is well, ‘The Champ.’” We’d have a few moments of back-and-forth, always ending with the promise to meet up at Knucklehead’s for a beer or two.
We had developed a friendship because I had once written a story about him for The Standard-Times, a story that I know he appreciated greatly and has even posted on his website, paulrocky.com. Sometimes he’d even message me just to tell me he had just re-read the story, and wanted to thank me again for writing it. It was a good story, sure, probably not my best but to Paul, it was perfect. And that meant more to me than if I had won a Pulitzer for it.
I had never heard of Paul Poirier prior to drawing the assignment in the spring of 2011 to write a story about his upcoming meeting with former world heavyweight champion, and former opponent, Larry Holmes.
See, Holmes was coming to the SouthCoast to speak at a scholarship dinner for the UMass Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research. I’d done other stories in advance of the dinner before, talking to some of my childhood sports heroes like Bill Russell and Bill Walton. I assumed this was going to be another one of those stories — get Holmes on the phone, write up a little piece (I shouldn’t use the world “little”— my Walton story ran over 4,400 words, four times my limit, but tell me, how can cut any quote out of a Bill Walton conversation?) and then move on to the next assignment.
But instead of being a profile piece on Holmes, I was told it was instead a profile on a local guy who had once fought Holmes back in 1993. Paul Poirier was born, raised and still lived in New Bedford, and ended his boxing career by losing to Holmes on national television. This was going to be the first time the two had seen each other in 18 years, and Poirier wanted to reminisce with Holmes, maybe pose for a picture or two together and have “The Easton Assassin” sign some memorabilia.
I had a sinking feeling I was about to interview New Bedford’s version of Al Bundy, a guy who had a moment of glory in his younger days and always talked about it for the rest of his life. Fighting Holmes in 1993 was probably his equivalent of scoring four touchdowns in a single high school game, and while I love having the opportunity to re-live those moments with people across the SouthCoast to feature in stories, perhaps I had seen too many boxing movies where the former fighter ends up a shell of himself and is desperately trying to hang on to some moment when he mattered.
I was expecting it to be a sad story. I learned very quickly that I could not have been more wrong.
Paul Poirier was not a man who was defined by one fight. He was a man who was defined by a lifetime of fighting — against circumstances, against the odds and against expectations. But he didn’t consider that bout with Larry Holmes to be his greatest moment. To him, it was every moment that had come before it, and after it. He didn’t feel his greatest achievement was the work he had done in the ring, but rather the life that he had built outside of it. Yes, he was a three-time New England heavyweight champion, but he was prouder of being a three-time grandfather.
Poirier was a fighter even before he ever stepped into a ring, battling whatever life threw at him from a young age. Poirier lost his father in 1967 after an accidental house fire caused by a lit cigarette, and his mother died three years later of a cerebral hemorrhage. Poirier and his sister Jacqueline were then taken in by their oldest sister, Lillian. It was her husband, Russell Pike, that got Poirier involved in boxing. Local trainer Sassy Leite took Poirier under his wing, teaching him proper technique, before recommending he move on to more advanced training at one of the Brockton gyms. In Brockton, he met the legendary Vinnie Vecchione, who would become his main trainer and manager. Poirier began sparring with boxers like future world middleweight champ “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, and improved at a rapid pace.
At 15, he won the 125-pound Silver Mittens Championship in Lowell, and won the bronze at the Junior Olympics. He reached the semifinals of the 1973 New England Golden Gloves Tournament. All that success led him to turn pro while still just 15 years old, using a fake birth certificate.
After his seventh straight win, the Massachusetts State Boxing Commission discovered his real age, and tried to force him to stop boxing until he reached the legal age of 18. But Senator William “Biff” MacLean introduced a special bill that allowed Poirier to continue to compete, and in December 1974, at just 17½ years old, Poirier became the youngest fighter in history to box at the Boston Garden, beating undefeated middleweight Jesse Bender in two rounds for his 25th professional win.
After an eight-round win over John L. Sullivan in the Garden in January of 1975–and with a career mark of 26-0–Poirier abruptly retired at the age of 18. He wanted to finish high school, and in 1977, he graduated from New Bedford High. His plan was to return to the ring at age 20, but during his hiatus, his family converted to the Jehovah’s Witness religion, which would keep him from fighting.
I remember the regret in his voice when he told me of that time in his life; not so much because he couldn’t continue to box, but because he had let Vecchione down, stepping away from the sport after all the time and teaching his trainer had put into making him one of the top guys in New England.
Poirier reveled in life outside the ring, spending the next 15 years raising a family while working on the fishing docks and in the New Bedford school system. His life was no longer about the ring, but rather about his beloved wife Gilda and their children, Melissa and Bradford. But thoughts of boxing were never far from his mind, even after he considered himself too old to make a comeback.
But then after seeing former heavyweight champ George Foreman make a comeback at age 38, Poirier was inspired. He too returned to the ring, in 1990. When people hear of Poirier making a comeback at age 33, now in the heavyweight ranks, it’s easy to assume he was just a guy trying to relive his glory days, trying to prove something after 15 years out of the ring. But after some early New England competition — his first fight back was a knockout win on November 3, 1990 over Hector Mercedes at New Bedford High, followed by a points victory over Domingo Monroe at the old New Bedford Armory — he moved up quickly in the rankings.
He captured his first New England Heavyweight championship in August of 1991, beating Marc Machain at Nickerson Field in Boston. After a pair of fights with Juan Quintana, Poirier had rattled off nine straight victories in his comeback, and was becoming serious competition in the division, which led to serious fighters as opponents.
Alex Stewart was most recently coming off a loss to George Foreman, and had previously been in the ring with Michael Moorer, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. “The Real Deal” had handed Stewart his first loss after starting his career with 24 straight wins, all by knockout. After that, “The Destroyer’s” most famous fight was losing to Tyson at 2:27 of the first round by TKO. Still, he was quite a formidable opponent for Poirier, having just lost a narrow majority decision to Foreman.
Stewart, rated No. 1 by the IBF, WBC and WBA, gave Poirier his first loss of his career.
Next up was a loss to Tony “TNT” Tucker, a former world champ who had been one of many victims of Tyson during his undisputed championship reign of the late 80s. Two fights after beating Poirier by TKO, Tucker had a shot at Lennox Lewis and the WBC heavyweight championship. He later fought Bruce Seldon for the vacated WBA title as well.
After Poirier defeated New England competitor Marc Machain for a second time, Vecchione then got Poirier the fight with Holmes. It didn’t matter that Poirier was 34 at the time and Holmes was 43 — this was the same Larry Holmes who had been world champ for seven years, the same Larry Holmes that had once beaten Poirier’s idol, Muhammad Ali.
Poirier put up a valiant fight in a bout that was televised on USA Network’s “Tuesday Night Fights,” before having to throw in the towel before Round 7 after Holmes had broken one of his ribs. I’ve watched the fight more than a few times on YouTube, seeing that moment in the sixth round when Poirier went down for the second time that round, taking a second to get up, perhaps realizing his time in the ring was coming to an end once again. He fought with Vecchione to go back in for the seventh, yelling “more, more more” and showing the heart and determination of the champion that he was, but Vecchione knew better.
After that fight, Poirier turned down a $50,000 offer to fight Eric “Butterbean” Esch (who, by the way, lost to Holmes in 2002, when Holmes was 52 years old in the final fight of “The Easton Assassin’s” career). Poirier instead decided that, having lost three of his last four fights and approaching 36 years old, it was time to retire for a second and final time. He finished with a 36-3 career mark, with seven knockouts. In 2005, he was inducted into the Ring Four Boxing Hall of Fame, with Vecchione where he had always been, right by his side.
Poirier worked in recent years as a custodian at Third District Court and in the New Bedford school system. As he became a grandfather, spending time with his grandchildren soon surpassed riding his Harley as his favorite thing to do. He built up a little business for himself building Adirondack chairs. He was a beloved member of the community, and outside of a permanent exhibit of his boxing mementos on display at Knucklehead’s Bar and Grill, he wasn’t a guy who wanted to live in the “glory days” of his boxing career.
To Paul Poirier, every day was glorious.
So back in 2011, what I thought was going to be just another “stroll down memory lane” feature on a former boxer turned out to be something more. It taught me that no time in someone’s life should ever define them, but rather construct them toward the days that are to come.
Paul Poirier — “The Champ” — may have three losses on his professional boxing record, but in life, he was undefeated.