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Boxing was once very big in Berlin

Phil Tardiff's boxing mitts and shoes were donated to the historical society by his nephew. Photo by Debra Thornblad. (click for larger version)
October 17, 2012
BERLIN - Boxing used to be very big in Berlin, starting with the early 1900's and up through the 40's, when many of the potential boxers went off to war to fight, instead of in the ring.

Boxing matches took place in many buildings, most gone now. The building known as the "Music Hall" sat on Mechanic Street where the parking lot of the Northway Bank is now. It is one of the most interesting buildings, having housed in its history the town hall, a roller-skating rink, police station (during which time a prisoner burned to death, probably in a cell), a church, school, movie theater and store. It was torn down in 1965.

Another building used was the Bell Block. It had burned down in 1911, but the owner said it was insured and vowed to rebuild. It apparently was, as fights were said to be held there in the teens. It had had stores on the first floor and a dance hall on the second, probably where the fights were held.

A third building used was the Gem Theatre. It was built in 1908 and apparently had multiple uses, including a dance hall, as well a boxing ring. It was located where Bickford Place is now and eventually became J.J. Newbury Store. It burned in 1930, was rebuilt and burned again in the 1990's, when the remains were removed for good.

The fourth building used was the city hall.

There were apparently many young Berlin men participating in boxing in those years. Many worked for the Brown Company and boxed on the side. Several Brown Company Bulletins contain information about their boxers.

The July 1927 Bulletin has a picture of three local boxers, along with Bulletin sportswriter Jack Rodgerson, described as "popular Tube Mill sportswriter and leading step dancer." The three local boxers were Fred Cadorette, "local ring sensation", Irish Paddy Flynn "welterweight boxer of Everett, Mass, formerly of the Blacksmith Shop crew, and K.O. Leroux, "rugged ring star of the Tube Mill.

In the January 1931 issue Rodgerson has a column on boxing. Included in the column was the following about local boxers: Jack O'Leary (perhaps a promoter) "has a big interest in these of our boxing best here, namely, Georgie Paulin, Felix King (who is now in training with Johnny Lereux), and our heavyweight champ of Berlin and surroundings, Axehandle Bernier," whom Rodgerson said was also in training with King.

He goes on to say, "One of the best crowd-pleasers in the country, Phil Tardiff (uncle of local historian Paul "Poof" Tardiff) is angling for a shot at two of the State of Maine boys, namely, Paul Junior and Newsboy Chalifoux. There are several Berlin boys who think they would like to meet Phil, but they had better reconsider."

Rodgerson then identifies a couple of Gorham boys who he thinks will do well, Young Tiger Dixon and middleweight Cal Stuart.

The same Bulletin issue included the following "Eddie Desilets of the electric crew, who has been training with Wee Ace Hudkins and K.O. Phil Tardiff, is anxious to meet either Louis Kid Roy or Jerry Vallee."

That article goes on to say "Felix King, who has been training with Johnny Leroux and Axehandle Bernier, is gunning for a chance to meet Bluenose Parent, Lewiston's new middleweight who has just invaded that territory." "Poof" Tardiff has donated a photo of his uncle Phil, as well as his boxing mitts and shoes, to the Berlin Historical Society.

The Berlin Historical Society has a couple of articles concerning "Tiger" Al Sinibaldi. One article from December 1937 states the following "Al Sinibaldi, sensational 175 pound Catholic Boys Boxing Club amateur boxer, is slated, along with Norman Villeneuve, 135 pound novice ace, to compete in the Eastern Amateur Championship at the Boston Garden on Monday, December 6."

Another article dated Feb. 29, 1940 concerns "Tiger" Al Soinibaldi and his fight with Danny Needham of Bath, perhaps in Maine, as the article was datelined Lewiston. Sinibaldi was at that time the light heavyweight champion of New Hampshire.

Sinibaldi was ahead for the first nine rounds, the article states. He carried the day, but was knocked out in the 10th and final round. He stayed down for nine counts, but managed to get up for the 10th. He clung to his opponent and the referee couldn't break them apart. When time was up, Sinibaldi was declared the winner, to the boos of the Lewiston fans.

Another short article dated April 1940 says Sinibaldi was going to fight Art McAlpine at the Brattleboro Area, seeking the Vermont light-heavy-weight crown.

Bob Gendron and Felix King

Two of the well-known local boxers were Felix King and Bob Gendron. Both men were the subjects of two of local historian Paul "Poof" Tardiff's great columns and in the third volume of his book series "One Upon a Berlin Time..."

Felix King, mentioned earlier in this article, may have been slightly better of the two. He seems to have been better known and to have fought more widely than Gendron.

The following information about these two comes completely from "Poof" Tardiff's columns. It is a brief synopsis of the full article. Anyone wanting to know more should read the articles in full in Tardiff's third book.

Robert Gendron was the older of the two men. His best years were the early 1900's through about mid-1920's. J. Harvey Gendron (his real name, he took "Bob" when he began fighting) was born in 1896 and lived here all of his life.

Gendron was apparently one of those boys who just loved to fight as a schoolboy. He was known as the "kingpin" by his schoolmates and would fight whenever given the chance, and he was good. He won 46 of the 58 bouts he was in as an amateur, semi-pro and pro.

The man who got him into the boxing business was a man called Sambo Michaud, Gendron's first manager and trainer. He was still a teenager when he had his first boxing match in 1910. It was in the old Music Hall on Mechanic Street. He won that first fight with a "haymaker," that knocked out his opponent, known as a very competent fighter.

For that win he got a new pair of tennis shoes and $3.

A dictionary of boxing terms describes a haymaker "A haymaker is a wild swinging punch thrown with all of the person's weight behind it in an attempt to knockout the other person. You usually see haymakers in street fighting or in the movies. Haymakers are also used in boxing as a last resort. They deliver enough force to break a man's jaw. The term first appeared in 1912, perhaps from the 1880 "hit the hay" or "go to sleep". "

He continued to win all of his bouts, many with his now-famous "haymaker," and received many offers to come fight in the big cities, but Gendron stayed here.

By now Bell's Hall had become the main place for boxing matches to take place. It was here that Gendron fought Huey Coyle, a local firefighter, for the city championship, which Gendron won.

Gendron also won a bout against Felix King (whom he had fought as a schoolboy - see below in King's story). He later won a second fight against King, but the two Berlin fighters remained friends for life.

Gendron continued to win fights, but received a broken collarbone in a fight with Ah Chung, a fighter from Salem, Mass. His first fight after that was against a fighter from Manchester. He lost that bout, his first loss. But he then came back and started winning again.

For a while Gendron was part of a traveling show, fighting in different towns.

Gendron served his country in World War I and came back and continued boxing, and winning. His last match was against a boxer named Young Joseph of Waterville, Maine. Gendron was knocked out. That, and because he had started a family, led to his decision to stop fighting.

Felix King was born in 1898. His first known fight was against Gendron. Although a couple of years older, Gendron had heard King, still a schoolboy, was tough, and he wanted to see how tough. Gendron won, but it took almost an hour and King vowed he wasn't going to be beaten like that again.

King was just 15 when he had his first fight in a ring, in the old Starr Theatre on Mechanic Street (probably the Music Hall). A year later he started working at the Brown Company, in the woods, where he would practice his boxing skills when he could.

King did most of his fighting at this time in the old Gem Theatre, which would be jam packed for these bouts.

He began fighting out of state, in Maine, Vermont and Montreal and Quebec. It was while he was in Quebec that he fought the middleweight champion of Europe, Rene Devos, a fight he lost.

At 24 he moved to Boston and because a professional boxer fulltime, known as "Lumberjack."

King stopped fighting when he was in his mid-thirties. Perhaps he went back to working full-time at the Brown Company after that. "Poof" Tardiff's article doesn't say what ultimately happened to King, but no doubt the answer is somewhere within past issues of the Berlin Reporter, which was the only newspaper covering Berlin in those days.

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