A few months ago, Johnny Mac was driving around the city, thinking about ending his life.
Johnny didn’t know if he could get up one more time. Growing up in Inverness, Cape Breton, he had to be tough. Bullied as a child, he began boxing in his teens, hoping to lose some weight and learn to defend himself. He turned out to have a knack for the sport. Johnny dreamed about boxing professionally some day, but it seemed like life had other plans for him.
When Johnny told people he wanted to be a professional boxer, they told him he’d never make it as a pro, that it would never happen, that he wasn’t good enough.
“And I kind of let them in, and they got to me, and I got depressed. I kind of let myself down, and I let my trainer down,” says Johnny.
Johnny fell in with the wrong crowd, and turned away from his dreams. He talks about those years as “losing his way,” a shorthand for long years of pain, and hopelessness, and shame about himself.
“Life has a way of kicking you down,” Johnny tells me as we sit in Alexandria’s Pizza, across from the boxing gym where he is training for his first pro fight on June 15.
Johnny looks the part of a blue collar boxer. He’s tattooed, wiry, a super welter weight fighter. Talking about his life and his struggles doesn’t come naturally to him; he’s used to putting his emotions into the ring.
I made some bad life choices, fell into drugs. I was a paramedic for a while and I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I fell into a bad depression and stuff. Just everyday personal problems.
Johnny doesn’t like to speak too much about the past. Sitting in the pizza shop, he’s quiet but confident. When we talk about fighting, he has the swagger you’d expect from a boxer. It’s a long way from where he was before he found his way back to the gym.
I was on my last night. I was driving around the city for six hours contemplating the end. I was on my last legs. I just really didn’t want to be here anymore, and then I ended up running into Spryfield Gym.
I was looking in the window and Tyson looked out and told me to come in. And that’s how I got back into boxing. It basically saved me.
I told them, I’m down, I think for the last time, and I don’t think I can get back up. And they turned to me and said, we’ll get you back up. And that’s what they’ve done since I’ve been here.
Tyson is Tyson Cave, a professional boxer, and owner of the Spryfield Boxing Gym. Cave has had his own problems; it’s one reason he wanted to open a gym that anyone could come to. “I’m a product of this environment,” Cave tells me.
I opened up the gym about two years ago. We don’t charge any kid. Boxing saved my life from where I come from, so if we can save one kid it’s good for me.
Cave isn’t speaking empty words. What he saw in Johnny, he has seen in so many other young men, has fought in himself. This is what boxing has always been for so many people without resources, or without other supports. It’s therapy, healing, peer support, all rolled into one.
Talking about Johnny, Cave is a mixture of tough trainer and proud teacher. “We don’t play boxing,” he tells me in one breath, describing the discipline and hard work he expects. But he also knows that boxing is more than that, for him and for Johnny:
Johnny used to box when he was a kid. Boxing, it’s a tough sport. He loved boxing, and then he went through what he went through. He walked in the gym and he asked me if I could train him, and I said yeah. This is what the gym’s for. Not just kids. People use boxing for rehabilitation. Rehab is really expensive so if this works for you, why not.
On the day I go to the gym to meet Johnny, it’s lunchtime. The gym is exactly what you’d imagine: men punching bags, two men sparring in the ring, music blaring and boxers grunting and yelling. I’m on the phone when I walk in, and I don’t tell the person on the other end where I am. They hear the noises in the background and panic, thinking someone is being killed.
So it’s an environment you wouldn’t expect to see a boxer with his boyfriend. But today, Johnny has brought his partner, Creed Matton, to watch him train.
Johnny is, as far as he knows, the first out gay male professional boxer in Canada. He knows the image of the boxing world, the stereotypes about masculinity. But, he says, he’s not afraid. “I’ve lived in fear,” he tells me.
I was 27 before I came out. I’d lived with it so long, and it was a heavy burden to bear. And I don’t have that fear anymore.
This is the first time Creed is coming to the gym. I ask him how he feels about Johnny’s upcoming fight. “It’s his dream,” he says, “I’m proud that he’s accomplishing it.” Later, after we talk, they play fight in the ring for a bit, messing around for the camera.
Just very recently, I actually came out in the boxing world. Not that I was hiding it or anything, but it never really came up as a topic. I don’t just walk up to somebody and say, “hey I’m gay.” It’s pretty much irrelevant.
Just through talking with guys at the gym and that, I’d always refer to Creed as my partner. And that raises eyebrows sometimes. So somebody asked me for clarification one day, and I told him, “yeah, I’m gay, and if you got a problem with it, that’s too bad.”
“I think it’s really brave of Johnny,” Cave reflects.
There’s not a lot of gay boxers, and there’s not a lot of gay fighters because people perceive us as tough guys. And in this world today they don’t see that as being tough. So I think it’s really commendable for him to do that.
Johnny has been surprised at how accepting the other boxers he trains with have been:
Surprisingly, they were really accepting, and really supportive. Really encouraging me to follow through with this and not to be discouraged. Because professional sports and openly gay athletes, it’s kind of like barren land. You don’t hear a whole lot of them.
I don’t think it’s because we don’t exist. I think it’s mainly fear of being judged, fear of being labeled. You know, is it gonna hurt my career. Am I going to lose my sponsors, what are teammates or my coaches going to think. Are they going to want to undress with me, stuff like that. And I think that fear hinders a lot of people from actually following their dreams to their full potential.
That dream has driven Johnny to get up, over and over again, to come back, to take more punches, to keep swinging. All the boxing metaphors that, as cliche as they may be, make sense of his life.
It’s not an easy dream though. Months away from his first fight, Johnny still doesn’t have any sponsors. He works as a truck driver, fitting his training around 13-hour work days. He’s up at 3:30 in the morning, lifting weights and running, before he heads down to the gym for hours of footwork, drills, and sparring.
And then there’s the pressures of going pro on top of the training. Johnny needs a manager, needs to learn to promote himself. It’s a lot. Johnny doesn’t even have social media; Creed offers to make him an Instagram as we talk.
With all that work, Johnny is still broke. The financial strain adds a lot of stress, but he feels like it’s worth it to show himself what he can do. He doesn’t want to live his life anymore, he says, wondering if he could have been something else.
Cave is hoping the LGBTQ community will support Johnny. He’s proud of Johnny for being out, but he knows that the pressures of coming out in the boxing world will make things harder. Cave sees Johnny as a trailblazer, someone who youth can look up to, someone who can change some stereotypes about who gay men are and what they can do.
And he’s someone, Cave hopes, who can help open the boxing world up to new fans as well.
Hopefully the gay community does come out and support him. Because he knows the pressure that he’s putting on himself coming out right now. It’s easier for someone to just go and fight, but now being a gay boxer, in Halifax, the first one, he’s putting pressure on himself.
I explained that to him, and he said I want to do this, I want to come out.
I hope people do support him because he’s working very hard to make a statement for this community.
Speaking to Johnny about the fight, he’s focused on winning. But he also knows that this fight can’t help but be something more. There’s so much personal struggle that’s gone into this fight. At 29, he knows he’s old to be making his pro debut. Even though he believes in his skills in the ring, he sees the symbolism of what he is doing:
This whole thing is about proving something. It really doesn’t matter who’s in the ring with me, or who I’m facing, or what their record is. That’s irrelevant to me. Basically when I get in the ring, I’m up there facing myself. This is all about me. I’m 29 years old. I’m not young getting into the pro ranks. So it’s a chance of redemption for myself.
I’ve been fighting my whole life. I’ve fought a lot of battles in my life outside the ring. And even though I’ve lost my way, I’ve always bounced back. So in a way this is kind of like metaphorically the same thing. I get knocked down, I get back up. That’s what it’s about for me. I’d love to win. It’s not necessarily always about winning. It’s about keeping on going.
Johnny sees his story as one of redemption. And he hopes that now, he can mean something to LGBTQ youth who may be struggling with the same issues that made him lose himself as a young gay man. I ask him if he feels like a role model for gay youth:
I don’t really feel like one. I have a feeling that I may be one. These stereotypes still exist. It’s not as common as it used to be, it is getting better, but it’s not where it needs to be. Like there’s still the stereotypical view of a gay man and who he should be and how he should look and how he should act. And it’s not a one size fits all scenario. We come in all sizes and shapes and colours and backgrounds just like everybody else.
This stereotypical view that a gay man is fragile, and feminine and flamboyant — if that’s who you are, then great! Embrace who you are! But that’s not all of us, and it’s not me. People look at me and they don’t even believe me. But I am. This is me. It doesn’t make me any less of a man, and if anyone has any doubts, I’ll prove that on June 15th.
It’s taken years to get here, but now he has a message to share, one that comes from years of struggling to be true to himself. When I ask him what he’d say to people, what he’d like people to know, he doesn’t even pause.
Don’t ever be ashamed. Be comfortable in your own shoes and don’t let fear of anybody else’s judgment hinder you from what you have to do in life. You only have one life and it’s yours and go do what you have to do.
And then, because he’s a boxer, he smiles, and adds:
I’ve taken punches. I’ve been knocked off my feet. I’ve been down, and you can get back up.
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