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fighting 50

Kevin Van Paassen

Wayne Bourque stumbles backward, separated from his opponent by 20 inches and a generation gap. The young man pounces - pow! - trapping Mr. Bourque against the ropes.

Mr. Bourque is slower, stiffer and almost two decades older than the former Canadian middleweight champion currently pounding his ribs, but with a couple jabs and a quick right hook, he hints at the speed and power that once earned him the nickname "the Flurry from Fort McMurray."

"Breathe deep. Deep from the guts," shouts his coach, Carlos Varela Jr., from the sidelines. "You're not gonna run out of gas."

Faltering would have been unthinkable 25 years ago, when Mr. Bourque was a chiselled amateur talent gunning for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team. But now Mr. Bourque has only the souvenirs: a brace that hugs his knee. Black boxing gloves that hide arthritic knuckles.

And a milestone looming: Mr. Bourque is turning 50.

Boomers shape up for their golden years

Two weeks after this sparring session, he will travel to Kansas City, Mo., to compete in the world's largest amateur boxing tournament for boxers his age. He's been preparing for seven months, and carved 20 pounds off his frame through a strict diet and a punishing regimen that often forces him to bed by 9 p.m., too tired to watch a football game with his 13-year-old son.

Don't get him wrong, he built a good life after retirement: a family, a happy marriage, a successful boxing gym in downtown Toronto frequented by the likes of Russell Crowe and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But something is missing.

Anyone can have a midlife crisis and buy a hot car, find a new wife, he jokes. Mr. Bourque craves one more fight.

"I've got to get it out of my system," he says. "Just the one time."

The ring is luring him, but there's another, more powerful, draw. It's the pride he would feel after stepping out of it, knowing he had earned a championship through months of sweat and sacrifice.

"The release of hitting the bag," he says. "And getting so tired you want to vomit. It's that feeling … that personal thing inside." He's fighting to get that back.

The ring beckons

The e-mail arrived from Ringside World Championships last fall. Mr. Bourque had already declined the invitation several years in a row, telling himself he was too busy, too injured, to take part. At 45, he had quit sparring even for fun.

He also had his family to think about. He actively discouraged his son, Brandon, from boxing. His wife, Carol, had cried the last time he boxed, in a charity match 15 years ago.

But this time he couldn't ignore the message.

He'd learned to box at age 13 in Fort McMurray, Alta. One of five children born to Métis parents, Mr. Bourque originally fought to silence racist taunts during his hockey games. Boxing eventually made him the pride of his hometown and exposed him to the world outside of it.

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He was junior national champion in 1973 and won the North American Native title three times. He won bronze at nationals in 1983 and had a good shot at representing Canada at the 1984 Olympics. Instead, he tore his right knee in a skiing accident months before the Olympic trials. His career was over. Removed from the rigid routine of training and fighting, Mr. Bourque bounced around southern Alberta, trading six-mile runs for six-packs after his shifts as a plumber ended.

"Next thing you know, it's a couple of years of partying and drinking beer," he recalls. "I looked at myself and I said, 'Wow. Nothing against Fort Mac, but I've got to get out of here. Because I'm gonna be a small-town boy saying I woulda, coulda, shoulda.'"

Toronto was far enough away for a fresh start. He supported himself with plumbing and selling cellphones, and met Carol pool-side at the downtown condo building where they both lived. But boxing still tugged at him. Then he read a magazine article about a trend called "boxercise" taking Los Angeles by storm. Carol encouraged him to seize the moment.

Fifteen years later, his gym, Centre Ring, has become a bustling centre in one of Toronto's wealthiest neighbourhoods.

Still, when he watched younger men train, he would sometimes envy them. "It's the self-confidence," he explains one morning, taking a seat after putting a half-dozen pro hockey players, including Maple Leafs Matt Stajan and Nik Antropov, through a 90-minute workout.

"When you're in that zone, when you train hard.… It's that satisfaction."

He jumps up off the bench, bends into a boxer's stance and begins jabbing the air.

"Sometimes you'll hit the bag once in a training session where the punch just goes down your leg and you're like, 'Wow. What a feeling.'"

The void weighed on him when he considered the Ringside e-mail.

The old feeling was back: woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Return to form

The training began in December. Mr. Varela, one of Ontario's top amateurcoaches, set the rules: First, improve your fitness, then we'll work the bags. And no sparring until you're in top shape.

Mr. Bourque began rising at 5 a.m. He rode the stationary bike for 45 minutes before leading his 7 a.m. boxercise class, the first of three he leads each day. Between classes and personal training sessions, he did crunches or lifted weights on the machines. "You don't feel like doing it, but it's a mind thing," he said.

But even with medication for his joints, jogging six miles a day, as he used to, is impossible on ruined knees.

As spring arrived, so did the bag workouts. Twice a week, Mr. Varela pulled pads over his hands and Mr. Bourque would work them with his punches: Jab-jab-jab. Step away. Duck. Jab-Jab. "Oldest boxer in Canada!" Mr. Bourque joked one day, drenched in sweat and accentuating each punch with a loud exhale.

By May, 20 pounds had melted off of his already trim 194-pound frame. His six-pack abdominals had re-emerged. His tree-trunk core, ropey shoulders and biceps burned calories like a furnace. He was eating piles of fruit and protein shakes for breakfast, steaks and pasta for dinner. Alcohol was banned. In June, Mr. Varela finally gave him the green light to begin sparring.

Wayne Bourque on his last go in the ring

His opponent would be Stephan Boyd, a lanky, muscular, 33-year-old professional fighter who was Canada's amateur middleweight champion in 2003. Mr. Boyd was no slouch: Oscar De La Hoya once hired him as a sparring partner.

Those three-minute rounds on that first day flattened Mr. Bourque. He went home with a black eye.

"My reaction time is not even close [to what it was]" Mr. Bourque said.

But he suspected he could hold his own against someone his own age. And as the sparring sessions continued, he could tell his training was paying off. Still, two weeks before the Aug. 4 tournament, Mr. Bourque lay awake at 3 a.m., tormented by what-ifs. What if his middle-aged brain couldn't take a big hit? Maybe it was foolish to push his body so hard.

"I've never been knocked out. I don't know what knocked out is. But at 20, you're young. You can come back. At 50, you're a little more vulnerable," he said.

Even more troubling: What if he had forgotten how to win?

Fight night: a 7 p.m. bout in a crowded Kansas City arena big enough to fit six boxing rings.

Mr. Bourque, dressed in red shorts and a white tank top, stands sweating in the blue corner of ring No. 4. In the opposite corner, popping body shots with his trainers, is Mr. Bourque's opponent: Guili Coix, 46, of Chicago.

"Okay, this guy's good," Mr. Varela tells him. "He hits from his head. You can tell."

Of the approximately 100 Masters-aged male boxers who have registered, Mr. Coix is the only one deemed fit to fight Mr. Bourque. He too is back after a 15-year hiatus from competitive boxing, hungry to prove he still has what it takes. Because Masters fighters range in age from 35 to as old as 78, tournament organizers match boxers not just by their weight, as in regular tournaments, but by their age and how many fights they have under their belts. Mr. Bourque, who has fought more than 110 bouts, and Mr. Croix, with 69, are the most experienced fighters in the 178-pound weight class, 45 to 55 age division. Watching him across the ring, Mr. Bourque wonders: Am I over my head?

His hands feel heavy. The rules are different here. Masters fighters wear thicker gloves and head gear for protection. And instead of three-minute rounds, they will fight three one-minute rounds.

But when the bell rings, all doubts are knocked away. "Everything just turned off. I was burning. I was on fire," Mr. Bourque recalls.

First round: Mr. Bourque explodes early. He hammers Mr. Croix's head and stomach with powerful blows, putting him on the defensive. But Mr. Bourque is eager - too eager. You're letting him get close, Mr. Varela warns Mr. Bourque during the break. "You have to use your jab. You have to keep your distance."

Second round: Mr. Varela's words are prophetic. With a quick combination and powerful left hook, Mr. Croix smashes Mr. Bourque's jaw so squarely that Mr. Bourque will feel it for days.

Third round: Mr. Bourque smartens up. He jabs, keeps his distance. He takes control. Then he pounces in the final seconds, trapping Mr. Croix against the ropes and hammering his ribs and face. The buzzer sounds.

The decision seems to take forever. As the minutes tick by, Mr. Bourque and Mr. Croix pace and bounce. Finally, they join each other in the centre of the ring and the official grabs each of their wrists.When Mr. Bourque's arm is hoisted skyward, he does something he's never done before at the end of a fight: He lets out a whoop and leaps into the air.

"I don't think I've been so happy in any of my previous fights," he says.

Mr. Bourque calls home to Carol and Brandon, who have been getting text-message updates from Mr. Bourque's friends who've travelled to see the match. On the phone, they all cry.

Finally, celebration: He and his buddies go back to the hotel to smoke cigars and drink Dom Pérignon.

It's been two months since the fight. Mr. Bourque has happily resumed his role as entrepreneur, trainer, husband and dad. The heavy workouts have been pushed aside by other priorities: Centre Ring is moving to a bigger location.

The new place, like the old one, will have a glass trophy case crammed with Mr. Bourque's mementos. Two are recent additions: the six-pound silver belt from Kansas City and the hand wraps he wore in the fight.

Is it enough to satisfy him?

"It's over. I'm gonna soak this up. I've proven something," Mr. Bourque says. Then he laughs. "I have enough to hold me over now for another 25 years."