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Colourful characters in the corner of the ring

Boxers have long provided some of my most colourful interviews.

Now bring together five boxing brothers born within a span of just six years and you have created a veritable cornucopia of colourful characters.

It really couldn’t be any other way.

Given that the start of this story sees the Rannelli siblings of Valley East lore assembled for their introduction to pugilistic greatness in the basement of the fabled Woodland Hotel, tales of feistiness and frivolity were only natural.

Yes, that Woodland Boxing Club, the one that was founded by local entrepreneur Leo Bertuzzi and housed in the very same establishment where women quite often enjoyed dancing, er, …. sometimes on tables.

“Leo got really busy with his restaurant at the New Sudbury Shopping Centre and the hotel, and that’s when my dad took over,” noted Bill Rannelli Jr. “My father did a little bit of boxing with Johnny Teale when he was a teenager, but he never pursued it the way that my brothers and I did.”

To his credit, Bill Sr would not only make the change of venues that would see the Valley East Boxing Club firmly entrenched in the upstairs portion of the Confederation/Raymond Plourde Arena in Val Caron (where it remains to this day), but would also keep actively involved for a few decades following the move.

And yes, he also played a big role in the creation of the fighting Rannellis - which kind of goes without saying.

“Living in Minnow Lake by the railway tracks, the train would go by in the middle of the night and wake my dad up,” laughed Bill Jr, reminiscing on the closely bunched children that also included his older sister Cathy, just one year his elder. “So what are you going to do then?”

Did I mention boxers can be quite colourful when sharing their stories?

This, however, was no ordinary collection of fighters. Each and every one of the boys - Bill, Rick, Tony, Dan, Chris (in descending order of age) - would go on to become a Canadian champion at some point in their careers. The eldest would claim a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1978.

Rick, Chris and Bill can all boast a very small handful of professional bouts to their credit.

And they all share the history of their youth, working with their father, who spent much of his life raising homes, building basements below them, or perhaps moving them from one site to the next.

“I can remember houses in Capreol and Copper Cliff that were built right on the ground,” recalled Junior. “We would have to dig a trench to get our 10 by 12 timbers in there, each one forty feet long, just to be able to jack up the house. The old man knew that the boys were tough.”

That reputation did not take long to spread. At a time when boxers were much more bountiful than they are today, finding suitable opponents for the Rannelli clan was no easy task.

“It was harder for us to get fights in town once we were national champs,” said Bill Jr. “Nobody in town, or in Toronto, really, would fight me. There were some good match-ups - one fellow from Quebec, one from the east coast.”

And then, of course, there was simply that matter of family bragging rights.

“We did a lot of sparring together,” said Rannelli, now 62 years young and still active in the coaching ranks. “I was more of a brawler boxer and Rick was more of a stand-up boxer who would jab all the time. When we would spar, just to throw him off his game, I would throw like a hundred jabs.”

“He would get so mad at me, because I never threw jabs. I was the oldest, so I knew how to work the boys.”

If they were relatively close in age, the same applied to their respective sizes, as the Rannellis dominated the likes of the welterweight, bantamweight and featherweight divisions. As such, there was no such thing as an inter-family scuffle that was considered off limits.

“We all started at the same time and Chris was such a young fella,” said Bill. “His nickname, back in those days, was “Hurricane Chris”. He was a trooper. You didn’t want to see him at the other corner, across the ring.”

Mind you, the same held true for the eldest of the Rannellis, the one who travelled the world, from Finland to Greece, from Germany to Albuquerque, donning the Canadian singlet. In 1977, Bill Rannelli Jr captured the regional Golden Gloves in Syracuse (New York), earning a trip to nationals in Hawaii.

He would battle through five fights in four days, pitted against top American amateurs, losing only in the final. He did it all, despite overcoming a typically northern Ontarian challenge along the way.

“Two weeks before, I was playing hockey and took a skate to my lip and on my cheek - and it cut right through,” he recalled. “I went down there with stitches and had to get the stitches out before my fights. It never opened up, but I got new cuts in different places. There’s all kinds of battle wounds that you get at tournaments.”

Retiring at the age of 27, Bill Jr had one last item to check off his list.

“I fought a couple of pro fights, just to say that I tried it,” he said. “I didn’t want to retire and wonder. There was no money in it, I was married, I was working, supporting a family. I just didn’t want to stay with boxing anymore. It was a tough job.”

Tough, indeed - just like each and every one of the Rannelli boys whose many accomplishments remain immortalized on the walls of the hockey first facility that now sits closed.

Some day, hopefully soon, the doors will open up again. And when they do, take a moment to stop in at the Valley East Boxing Club. Just be sure to give yourself a little time, because the stories to be told are as plentiful as they are colourful - and that is saying something.

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