'Heart of gold': Boxing coach still helping kids long after his own personal tragedies

Howard Watts is P.E.I.'s boxing coach for the 2023 Canada Games. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC - image credit)
Howard Watts is P.E.I.'s boxing coach for the 2023 Canada Games. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC - image credit)

When the bell rings and the boxers approach each other with dukes up, muscles flexed and fire in their eyes, Howard Watts says it's hard not to worry about their safety.

He just tries not to let on.

"I think you're more nervous than your boxer. But the thing is, you've got to show that you're cool and calm and you can't get excited."

Watts sits on the edge of the boxing ring, the muscles in his weathered, 76-year-old hands bulging as he grips the bottom rope and further gathers his thoughts.

"You try to go in there as a team. We're together, we're in here together."

Watts, P.E.I.'s boxing coach for the 2023 Canada Winter Games, has been providing that comfort and support to kids for the past 41 years as the operator of KOed Boxing Academy in Charlottetown.

And not just between rounds of a boxing match.

Submitted by Trevor MacKinnon
Submitted by Trevor MacKinnon

When Trevor MacKinnon lost his mother in a house fire when MacKinnon was just 10 years old, Watts would pick him up at his grandmother's house, or at the mall after school, and drive him to the gym and home again afterward.

"The boxing club saved me," said MacKinnon, now 49 and living in Alberta with his wife and kids.

He was a stern coach. When you needed to be put in your place, he put you in your place. — Trevor MacKinnon

"Not that I was a real bad kid or anything like that, but I got into some mischief and it definitely saved me, big time."

MacKinnon, whose last name was MacAdam before his grandmother formally adopted him at 18, won a bronze medal with Watts in his corner at the 1991 Canada Games on P.E.I.

Shane Ross/CBC
Shane Ross/CBC

"Howard was a great coach," said MacKinnon. "He was a stern coach. When you needed to be put in your place, he put you in your place, but [he had a] heart of gold."

Sons died 5 years apart

That golden heart would experience some aches throughout the years.

His own two sons, who were accomplished boxers, died of drug overdoses. Darren died in 2007 at the age of 29 and Steven five years later at the age of 37.

Watts proudly points to their pictures, hung among many others on the white concrete walls of the gym.

"They lost their way there with the … drugs and stuff. So that's the big thing and that's what happened to them, so," he said, his voice trailing off.

"But anyway, I use it here ... when I explain what can happen to you."

Submitted by Trevor MacKinnon
Submitted by Trevor MacKinnon

Watts said his sons might still be alive if better mental health and addiction support were in place back then.

He said he and his wife, Lorraine, tried everything they could. He would often drive around town looking for them, worried about whether he would find them dead or alive.

More than once he found them on a bench or behind a gas station, and would take them to the hospital to get the drugs pumped out of their system.

"I'll always think there's things that I could have done better, right? You know, it's like the last night that Steven came, he was going to town. I think I should have had him maybe stay for the night … and that night they found him dead. You'll always think that … different ways I could have done better."

Fit at 76

He said people wanted to hang around his sons after they reached an elite level in hockey and boxing — "misery loves company," he said. He said they fell in with the wrong crowd.

It's partly why, as a coach, Watts doesn't focus as much on winning or losing as he does on the "gentlemanly" aspect of the sport, and the structure it provides.

He tries to set an example of hard work. He's as fit as many people much younger, and still works installing carpet while running the gym as a "hobby."

Shane Ross/CBC
Shane Ross/CBC

They're values he teaches all his athletes, including his grandson, Steven's son Matt Doyle. Doyle is an up-and-coming boxer.

"I always loved the sport of boxing," Watts said, "but there's something to see in the development of kids and where they go, like, as they get older and they hit their late teens and everything, then they're looking at their careers and a lot of them went on to great careers."

MacKinnon is an example.

To this day, he still calls Watts for advice. Following in his coach's footsteps, MacKinnon opened his own boxing club in Lacombe, Alta., a few years ago. He has two of his own boxers competing for Alberta at the Canada Games.

He plans to operate his gym the same way his mentor taught him — by caring about his athletes in and out of the ring.

"It's in his blood." MacKinnon said. "As long as I've known him I've never seen him shut the doors on anybody. If it wasn't for the boxing club, God knows where some of us would be right now."