Gaetan Hart: Triumph and Tragedy

By Ted Sares on February 12, 2014
Gaetan Hart: Triumph and Tragedy
“It was regrettable that no one at ringside can even recollect which one of them died.”

The 26-year-old Canadian was a hard-punching brawler, who always went “balls out and never backed down even when he was getting pounded…”

“It (Hart vs. Nicky Furlano) was for the Canadian Lightweight title, and it was one of the greatest fights in Canadian boxing history, especially with a Canadian title on the line.”—Russ Anber

Gaetan Hart (58-31-5) was a brawling lightweight/welterweight who was a three-time boxing champion in Canada.  In a career that began in 1972 and ended for all practical purposes in 1984 (he made two terribly ill-advised comebacks), he fought 93 times, winning some and losing others but always fighting the best opposition available. He lost his only world title bid against the great Aaron Pryor in 1980. Unfortunately, Hart is most remembered for his fights with Cleveland Denny and Ralph Racine. While Gaetan’s career was marked with both highlights and lowlights, what follows is that which touches on the later.

Canadian lightweight title

In January 1978 and at 24-17 going in, the fit and ready Hart beat highly regarded Ralph Racine by a 10-round decision. Three months later, he took a razor thin SD from Guyanese Cleveland Denny (9-0-1) to win the Canada lightweight title and avenge an earlier loss in Montreal. Guy Jutras was the referee.

In 1980, after several successful defenses of his title, Hart (42-20-3 coming in) again met Ralph Racine (28-8-1) but this time the result would be tragically different. At stake was the Canadian lightweight title which Hart had lost to Nick Furlano but regained a year later. Jutras was the referee in this encounter as well.

Closely paraphrasing the newspaper accounts of the bout, Racine rocked Hart in the early going with vicious straight rights, but Hart changed his strategy in Round 3, and instead of trying to trade he bulled Racine back into the ropes, punching away with hard shots smothering Ralph’s attempts to set up. The strategy worked, but Hart suffered bad cuts around both eyes in Round 4.

Hart dictated the pace in Rounds 5 through 7 as he continued to push Ralph backwards, preventing him from unloading his heavy artillery. But in Round 8, Racine launched and landed hard rights that bloodied Hart’s nose, and opened still another cut making Hart’s face a bloody mess.

However, in Rounds 9 through 11, Hart again mugged and mauled Ralph by pushing him backwards, and hammering away while he kept him pinned on the ropes. Racine was simply too tired to mount an effective offense.

In the 12th and final round, Racine was hopelessly behind, and dangerously exhausted. Gaetan took note, came out, and punched away. Around the 2:10 mark, Gaetan hammered Racine with several hard punches that left him with his back draped over the top rope strand and in bad shape. Then Gaetan pounded away with what appeared to be 30 unanswered head blows that had Ralph “out-on-his-feet.”

Referee Jutras jumped in and stopped the slaughter at 2:43, but the damage had already been done. Racine staggered to his corner where his handlers helped him sit on the corner-stool, but moments later, he fell into unconsciousness and later slipped into the dreaded coma. Thankfully, he eventually recovered, but Hart’s next opponent would not be so fortunate.
Six weeks later

“When Gaetan Hart and Cleveland Denny were breaking the ice for the first match of Leonard-Duran, it was regrettable that nearly no one at ringside so much as bothered to look up or today can even recollect which one of them died. Regrettable, but not precisely regretted.”—Ed Keenan

“When Cleveland Denny died I thought the officiating left a lot to be desired. Because he was taking such a beating; he was so helpless for such a long time and there was no intervention, I thought he died in the ring.”—Lionel Sullivan

“Hart drove the 100 miles from his home near Ottawa and nervously made his way through the crowd of mourners. When he got to Denny’s open casket, he opened a brown paper bag and pulled out his lightweight title belt, carefully draping it about the dead boxer’s waist. ‘It was my first championship belt,’ he says, ‘but I somehow felt it should be his.’”— “Though He Killed One Man in the Ring and Disabled Another, Gaetan Hart Won’t Stop Punching” by Steve Kowich (July 8, 1980)

In June 1980, the rematch was more like the horrific Racine fight than the first Denny encounter.  It was a competitive bout and Denny battled back time only to get smashed by Gaetan’s signature right hand power punches. And then late in the 10th round, tragedy struck for the second time in just six weeks as Gaetan landed some crunching punches on a now badly battered Denny, and the “Guyanese Jaguar” became defenseless and staggered around the ring in front of referee Rosario Baillargeon who did nothing to stop the beating.

Gaetan then moved in, and rocketed six hard right hands into the unprotected head of Denny who went down to the canvas near the neutral corner, and then collapsed, at the 2:38 mark with just 12 seconds left in the 10-round fight The referee, seeing an unconscious boxer in front of him, inexplicably gave the prone Cleveland a 10-count—something we have seen referees shamefully do far too often.

Said Hart, “I saw his eyes rolling around and around…I hit him again on the chin with a right, then a left hook to the eye. When the referee stopped the fight I raised my hands. I was happy I’d won. But a few seconds later when I turned around to see Denny still lying on the mat, I thought to myself, ‘Oh no, oh no.’” 

This lengthy and extremely moving video details much of what occurred and also shows some brief shots of the end of the Racine fight. Warning: the video is not for everyone.

Denny was carried from Montreal’s Olympic Stadium and hospitalized. He never regained consciousnesses and some think he died in the ring. In any event, he was officially pronounced dead 16 days later.

Denny’s widow would file a lawsuit as follows:

“The widow of Cleveland Denny has filed a lawsuit seeking $509,682 for the loss of her husband, who died almost a year ago from head injuries sustained in a fight with Gaetan Hart. The suit, filed in Quebec Superior Court yesterday, names Hart, the Montreal Athletic Commission and the Olympic Installations Board – the Government agency that manages the Olympic Stadium – as defendants along with Hart’s trainer, Ralph Citro, and Pierre Gobeil, a sportswriter who acted as Denny’s co-manager.”— The New York Times (June 27, 1981)

The 26-year-old veteran Canadian was a hard-punching brawler, who always went “balls out and never backed down even when he was getting pounded.” Gaetan was considered to have one of the best right hands in the lightweight division. When Gaetan Hart was in his prime as the Canadian lightweight champion, he was a tough load to handle for anyone. He fought and lost to five world champions, including Aaron Pryor, Livingston Bramble, and Claude Noel, and to this day is considered a legend among Canadian boxing aficionados. A good and decent man, he continues to give back to boxing.

In 1992, Gaetan was featured in a National Film Board of Canada documentary, “The Steak,” by Pierre Falardeau. He now runs a Gatineau (Hull) boxing club.

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  1. Ted 11:40am, 02/25/2014

    Gerrard ‘Willie’ Williams
    Born In: New Waterford
    Born: July 27th, 1941

    Passed on: February 22nd, 2014

    Gerrard Whitney ‘Willie’ Williams, 72, died peacefully on Feb. 22, 2014, following a brief period of declining health.
    Willie was born on July 27, 1941, in New Waterford. Willie was the son of the late Bill and Helen Williams of Low Point.
    Following high school Willie began working in the local coal mines. It was during this period, 1957 until 1961, that he gained notoriety for his boxing achievements. He served in the Canadian Army, becoming their lightweight class champion in 1959. Willie was also awarded Canada’s best boxer that year. He relocated to Boston in 1961 where he became a professional boxer. Willie won his first six bouts and was awarded Ring Magazine’s boxer of the month. He was inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame in 1993. The ceremony included the legendary George Chuvalo and other famous boxers. Willie was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003 and recognized for his dedication and commitment to the sport.
    Willie served as a court officer in the City of Lowell, where he devoted more than 25 years of service. He received multiple awards, including recognition by the governor for his outstanding performance to the community.

    Beloved father of Suzanne, Lori, Lee, son David and the late W. Clair Williams.

    Survived by brother George of Mississauga and sister Sadie of Quebec.
    Predeceased by brothers, Clair, Eddy and Charlie, sisters, Anne, Rose and Susan. Also survived by 11 grandchildren, a great-grandson, many nieces and nephews.

    Funeral services will be held in Boston on Wednesday, Feb 26, 2014.
    Online condolences can be forwarded to the Williams Family through .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  2. Ted 03:00pm, 02/14/2014

    Steve was a judge and ring announcer, but not a referee. thanks.

  3. Ted 08:03am, 02/14/2014

    Kid, I keep an extensive file on boxing tragedies including injuries and fatalities. I have rare footage of many.

    Someone has to write about the Dark Side of Boxing and if that’s me, so be it.

  4. Ted 07:32am, 02/14/2014

    Thanks for the prop, Russ.

  5. Ted 07:31am, 02/14/2014

    Johnny Lira was quite a guy indeed.

  6. Russ Anber 09:01pm, 02/13/2014

    As I said on Twitter, an outstanding article by boxing’s greatest storyteller Ted Sares. In response to Steve Corbo, I remember Johnny Lira very well. In fact, did Johnny not return to Montreal to face another one of the most exciting fighters of his era, Nicky Furlano? I was at that fight, and I can tell you and i am hoping Steve can collaborate, it was a thrilling 10 round war between two guys who gave it their all.

  7. kid vegas 05:17pm, 02/13/2014

    That post by Steve is pretty interesting. It’s like getting two stories for the price of one.

  8. bikermike 04:21pm, 02/13/2014


    anyone who cares about Boxing will continue to read your posts….

    It is getting to the point where most Fight Fans have to go to the PPV…as there is not very current ...nor important matches on mainstream…

    Boxing has become it’s own worst enemy

    Multiply that by the stench from TEXAS BOXING DECISIONS/OFFICIATING…multiple champions who never defend their Titles against the best….
    No wonder tuff man contests have bounced Boxing from where it should be

  9. bikermike 04:14pm, 02/13/2014

    some claim that ...cuz the kid was a Canuck….they owed him nothing..and then..just gave Gaetan Hart….a career equal to testing motorcycle helmets….and bullet proof vests…

  10. Ted 04:12pm, 02/13/2014

    Me too Biker, me too

  11. bikermike 04:08pm, 02/13/2014

    Ted….Gaetan Hart was why Canadian Contenders became respected…and management and promoting became somewhat more respectful of the talent North of the 49th….

    God Rest his soul…..


  12. Ted 12:42pm, 02/13/2014

    The following great story/post was sent to me by my Chicago buddy and referee Steve Corbo:

    By: Steve Corbo

    I will always remember this fight because I was there, at ringside, close enough to reach out and touch Cleveland Denny. In the late 1970’s my friend Johnny Lira was the USBA Lightweight Champion and one of world’s top rated lightweights. In ‘79 he lost in his bid to capture the WBA World Lightweight Title. A year later, Ring Magazine had him rated #5 in the world , he was looking to get back into the mix and get another shot at the title. Johnny was going to fight Gaeten Hart on the undercard of Leonard - Duran, up in Montreal. The bout was scheduled for June 20,1980. But they weren’t able to make the fight and Cleveland Denny wound up in the ring facing Hart, instead of Lira.

    Johnny, myself and Mauro DiFiore decided to go up to Montreal anyway and see the show. What a show it was, taking place at the Olympic Stadium and in the same city where just four years earlier Sugar Ray Leonard won a Gold Medal in the 1976 Olympics. Johnny was on top of his game so we were with Angelo Dundee, Wildredo Benitez, media guys like the dean of all boxing historians Hank Kaplan, etc. We were surrounded by boxing royalty. We had no tickets, but somebody hooked us up and we got in on some TV/Radio Press Passes! We had no assigned seats! I ended up sitting in Leonard’s corner, on a folding chair I picked up from someplace, next to Joe Frazier. We talked about his son Marvis, who was an amateur at the time, and had just won the National’s.
    Anyway, before Leonard and Duran got into the ring and before most of the crowd had filed in, was the Hart - Denny fight. The three of us just walked down to the ring, sat down and watched this fight. We (especially Lira) wanted to get an extra close look at the fight and check out Hart, because Lira thought he’d be fighting him down the road. Possibly in his next fight. I had also seen Denny fight in person, the year before, on a card at the Olympic Auditorium, in Los Angeles. 

    As we know, Denny died from injuries he received in that bout. He clung to life for 16 days, never regaining consciousness, before he passed away. We knew he was in a rough one and when the end came in the 10th and final round he was stopped cold. We, as well as anybody else watching that fight, knew right then and there, he was hurt bad. But we didn’t know the true extent of his injuries. Sometimes guys get knocked out cold and they fully recover. He left the ring unconscious, on a stretcher and that was the last we saw of him.

    The main event was yet to come. Leonard vs Duran, 15 rounds, for all the marbles. There were more than 46,000 people in that Olympic Stadium, to see one of the most anticipated fights in years. Most of those people had no idea what had happened in the preliminary bouts and for those who did, I am sure they just put the Hart - Denny fight on hold, at least for the time being. I know I did… We knew he was in a tough fight, “got his butt knocked out” and it was one heck of a bad knockout…. But we didn’t know until later just how bad it really was. I will always remember that fight and all these years later, every once in a while, I say a prayer for Denny. He was 24 years old at the time of his death.

  13. From Twiiter 07:35am, 02/13/2014

    Russ Anber   Russ Anber
      A MUST read! @tedsares once again shows his class in this awesome piece on Canadian boxing legend Gaetan Hart… #Champ
      02:45 AM - 13 Feb 14

  14. Ted 07:36pm, 02/12/2014

    Lord have mercy. It’s him.

  15. Clarence George 07:22pm, 02/12/2014

    Who the hell is that sitting in the lower left?  He looks like Robespierre!

  16. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:10pm, 02/12/2014

    Ted Sares-In the haunting and jarring photo above Denny appears to be assuming a fetal position….this article and the Ed Keenan quote are pretty damn jarring as well!

  17. kid vegas 06:40pm, 02/12/2014

    Well done Ted- Great attention to detail as always do, but you must have quite a file on ring fatalities? Where do you get this stuff? Very grim and dark.

  18. Tex Hassler 05:38pm, 02/12/2014

    Reminds me of what my grandfather told me when I started working in oil field construction work in the 60’s. He said, “Be careful because if you get killed a few weeks later no one will remember your name.” I worked on one job where 3 men died and I do not remember their names.

    Referees need to be trained, and I mean really trained on how to handle fighters and fights to prevent them from taking too much punishment.

  19. Eric 02:37pm, 02/12/2014

    Remember in that same year an impossibly frail looking bantamweight fighter named Johnny Owen would die after fighting Lupe Pintor. Owen had to be the frailest looking boxer I had ever seen but actually put up a decent fight against the champ Pintor for 12 rounds.  A George Chuvalo or a Jake LaMotta can take horrific punishment from power punchers like Joe Frazier and Ray Robinson, and still be relatively fine. However, someone like Ulrich Regis or Bennie Paret can die from taking shots from relatively light punching fighters like Joe Bugner and Emile Griffith. You just never know what can happen in contact sports like boxing, MMA,  football, hockey, etc.

  20. dollarbond 01:06pm, 02/12/2014

    You really captured the essence of the fatal fight.  It was like I was at ringside.  Thank God I was not.