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AS I SEE IT

Boxing’s glory years in Lowell

“As I See It,” a weekly photo column by Pulitzer Prize winner Stan Grossfeld, brings the stories of New England to Globe readers. This week he gives a look inside the time-honored boxing community in this Merrimack Valley city.

Jordan George Bellitti, a 147-pound boxer, waited behind the curtain to be introduced at The Golden Gloves.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

LOWELL — Deep in the bowels of the 3,000-seat Lowell Memorial Auditorium works Cleo Suprenant, 93, skinny as a rail, feisty as a featherweight, and a Golden Glove official for more than 20 years. Although never a fighter, he still bobs and weaves better than just about anybody who has a touch of gray.

He has seen the glory years of boxing and knows the game. “You want to win?” he says. “Never back up.”

As tonight’s amateur boxers wait to get their gloves on and check in with the doctor, he throws a couple of playful jabs to keep them loose.

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Suprenant scans the list of gyms participating in the Lowell/Central New England Golden Gloves Championships. There used to be five boxing gyms in Lowell that trained Golden Glove fighters.

Now there are none.

That makes him feel almost as bad as the time he saw the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, employed as a greeter at a Vegas casino.

“That broke my heart,” he says.

“If I was 25 years younger, I’d raise hell,” he says. “If you have a gym, you take bad kids and turn ‘em into good kids.”

This year marks the 77th anniversary of the Golden Gloves Championship being held in Lowell. This is not your great-grandpa’s fight night. The card of 12 fights includes four women’s bouts on a recent night.

“Some of these women are real good boxers,” he says.

Katie Donahue landed a punch to the face of Kathryn Rindo. Donahue won a three round unanimous decision.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff
Cleo Suprenant, 93, is a long-time Golden Glove official. Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff
A handler taped a boxer's hands in the dressing room. Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

The Golden Gloves have a rich history.

A 1955 Sports Illustrated article writes about the 25,000 combatants vying for eight titles. The article says “most are from the lower end of the social scale.”

“The odds against winning are terrifyingly long, yet there has never been a dearth of entries.”

The finals used to pack Madison Square Garden.

Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), and Joe Frazier all won championships.

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Rocky Marciano, Marvin Hagler, and Lowell’s own Mickey “Irish” Ward started their boxing careers in Lowell.

Boxing was arguably once the king of sports along with baseball, according to Bob Russo, national president of the Golden Gloves of America.

“But then mixed martial arts went on TV, and we went off. They kind of stole the young generation of fans from us,” says Russo. “But it’s making somewhat of a comeback. New England is still a hotbed of boxing.”

Upstairs, the auditorium has multi-colored lights and a festive feel every Thursday night from Jan. 11 to March 7. Attendance is strong with about 15,000 fans going through the turnstiles.

The field is a United Nations roster of names. Bashir, Chhay, Delgado, Pierre, and Riaz.

There are college students, social activists — and a female elementary school teacher — putting on the gloves to benefit Lowell-based charities. Women have been allowed to enter the Golden Gloves since 1995.

A boxer used a dressing room to warm up before the fight. Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff
Kimbomg Chhay (right) is greeted by Cleo Suprenant.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff
Katie Donahue defeated Kathryn Rindo in a three-round unanimous decision. Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

The eighth bout illustrates how the Golden Gloves has changed. In the 125-pound female novice division final, Kathryn Rindo, the Lowell elementary school physical education teacher, battles Walpole’s Katie Donahue, who works for Haymakers for Hope, a non-profit that organizes charity boxing events to raise money to fight cancer.

The lanky blonde Rindo, a 5-foot-8 muscular woman, has an intense Larry Bird no-nonsense game face on. In her previous fight, she upset defending Golden Gloves champ Amy Pole.

Her opponent tonight, the feisty Donahue, says she felt calm despite being 5 inches shorter and having less reach.

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“I did a 15-minutes meditation, just on focusing on the breath,” she says with a shrug. “That’s it. Breathing for 15 minutes.”

The three-round battle is action packed. Rindo lands several solid punches. But Donahue responds with several overhand hooks and is awarded the unanimous decision.

The two women hug, then Rindo flees to the dressing room.

“I just took it one punch at a time,” says Donahue. “We knew she held her hands low, so we went overhand.”

Rindo refuses to speak to reporters.

“She’s very upset,” says Boston Boxing owner Ed LaVache, who believes Rindo clearly won.

“The other girl was just hook heavy and every time someone throws a wild hook, the crowd goes crazy and the judges hook into it,” says LaVache.

Donahue has a lot of respect for her opponent. ”She’s tough. She’s got a good heart. She’ll be back. I know she will.”

For the fans, it was a great night.

For those who think boxing is hazardous to your health and should be banned, Donahue just smiles.

“Those people haven’t tried it,” she says. “It’s therapeutic.”

Katie Donahue hugged a supporter after defeating Kathryn Rindo Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

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Stan Grossfeld can be reached at stanley.grossfeld@globe.com.