For West Edmonton Knights, trying is what matters

By Erin Cripps-Woods

West Edmonton Knights at the Yellowhead Inn competition

Coach Stuart McGrandle, of the West Edmonton Knights, talking to the blue fighter who he is coaching for the Yellowhead Inn boxing match on March 31, 2012. Photograph by Erin Cripps-Woods.

EDMONTON— The coach leans forward on one knee and yells out encouragement to his fighter as the crowd calls out words of advice and support. Red and blue uniforms are the only things that separate the two bodies jostling around in the ring at the Yellowhead Motor Inn. Blue goes in for a right hook before weaving left; narrowly avoiding Red’s jab to his now-exposed face.

Stuart McGrandle, a former boxer and the owner of the West Edmonton Knights Boxing Club, waits for his blue-clad fighter in his corner of the ring. McGrandle moves as close as he can to the side of the ring, coaching Blue as the final round ticks down to the last minute. After Red lands a hit to the ribs, McGrandle shouts, “Get back in there!” With a nod, his fighter hears McGrandle’s words.

He never gives up on anyone, win or lose. It’s about trying and learning to be a better person through boxing — a lesson that the club instills into its boxers.

The people who come to this place all have their story. One woman is a prison security guard and former body builder, and is about to get married in Jamaica. A younger member loves the atmosphere of the club and describes boxing as cool even though not a lot of her friends are in it. An MMA and Muay Thai fighter also comes to the club to teach classes for a few people each week. However, when they arrive they become a part of the history involved with being a West Edmonton Knight. Even kids who aren’t in an age category to compete yet come to train. Some boxers are too young to compete, but they still train hard.

This place is not just somewhere to train. Anyone who walks through the swinging door embellished with a picture of a knight becomes part of an extended family; with Sonia and Stuart McGrandle are the parents. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming. Just like coming home.

When walking down the rather intimidating street at nightfall, opening the door and going down the well-worn stairs, a person can hear dance music and laughter. Walking around the corner Sonia comes over for a hug with a huge smile. Coach says, “Hey bud, good to see ya.” Cesar and Michael run over to see who has arrived. Everyone says hello and asks about any news about each other’s life while they get ready to box.

The West Edmonton Knights Boxing Club runs five days a week from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Almost all the walls of the gym at 10074 151 Street are covered with photos, newspaper clippings and a tally of all the matches where boxers from the club have competed. Win or lose, everyone is up on the wall.

Coach Stuart, 41, opened the club five years ago with his wife Sonia, 42. They have been married for 15 years. Their children Cesar, 9, and Michael, 13, both train at the gym. Cesar loves boxing and is quick on his feet. Michael prefers soccer but still trains alongside his brother.

The people who train at the boxing club usually refer to Stuart as “Coach” as a sign of respect for what he has done for the many youth, adults and families in the west Edmonton area.

McGrandle works as a boilermaker five days a week from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. He works all day, has supper with his family and then heads over to coach boxing. His wife says he won’t take credit for how well the boxers do.

“One kid said to Stuart after a fight, “It’s because of you that I won,” and he would say, ‘No, you did it. You did what I asked you to do and you put 100 per cent into it [the fight].’

Photo of Coach Stuart McGrandle and two of his boxers after a boxing match. Photo by Erin Cripps-Woods

McGrandle brushes off questions about his extraordinary commitment.

“To be honest with you I don’t really think about it. I have a responsibility that I kind of have to answer to every day,” he says. “Come here and keep things going forward. One day turns into a week, turns into a month, turns into five years. I don’t really think about it on the other end.”

McGrandle started with karate at Panther Gym, but then one day he heard people on the other side of his karate club doing boxing. He went over to watch and said, “I can do that.”

His grandfather was a boxer and trainer in the 1930s while his father, Billy McGrandle, was the youngest Canadian selected to represent Canada in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. McGrandle found something about boxing that he liked more than karate. With a history of boxing in his family, he was a natural at the sport.

McGrandle met Sonia awhile after he had stopped boxing and they started a family together. He tried to keep with boxing by training boxers at other gyms but he never really found a place that was right for his style of coaching. So, with three days to prepare, he opened the Knights boxing club and began to train boxers the way he wanted to all along.

While Coach went to go chat with some of the boxers Sonia commented on how humble he is.

“He doesn’t take credit for anything,” Sonia McGrandle says while her husband chats with some boxers. “The kids are where they are because of him.”

McGrandle does this because he wants to help kids achieve things they never thought they could look forward to before. He doesn’t ask for much back besides respect for everyone that comes to the gym and him.

As McGrandle talks about his fighters’ accomplishments, he smiles and his gaze becomes distant as the memories replay in his mind. “It was nice when Robbie Cusine won the Golden Boy a few years back in March 2009 and Cody Gates won four fights in a tournament in Quebec with three being by knockout.”

His hands form loose fists as he mimics the fights. He seems at ease with the motions and his body flows with each punch as he tells the stories of those fights. The boys did well, he says, and he was proud of them.

Coach Stuart McGrandle helps a boxer put his hand wraps on

Coach Stuart McGrandle helps a boxer put his hand wraps on properly before training. Photo by Erin Cripps-Woods

“The West Edmonton Knights Boxing Club has been a safe haven for many youth,” says Sonia. The environment is encouraging and the kids that continue to come become more than good boxers, but also have better attitudes at school and home.

The West Edmonton Knights chose to set up in the west end of Edmonton because the McGrandles saw a need for a place for kids to go. Getting them off the streets and into a set of boots, hand-wraps and gloves is part of what it takes to turn a rambunctious kid into a determined person with goals and dreams. As an organization based largely on donations and sponsorship, the club has been able to help many youth become great.

Sometimes the kids come into the gym with attitude issues, says the coach’s wife.  They won’t listen to their parents and don’t want to do anything besides play video games. But, their attitude changes after a few times at the club, she says.

In February, the Knights taught the basics of boxing to some of the students from St. Edmund school. The class learned about the fundamentals of an extracurricular sport, and gained knowledge about what it means to be an athlete surrounded by a supportive group of people.

The feeling of family is what drives the Knights to stay strong and have their doors always open, even during tough times. When tough economic times hit, the Knights kept together and went throughout Edmonton asking for sponsorship for the club. Sonia McGrandle continues to campaign to potential sponsors almost every day.

The McGrandles built not only a gym, but also a place for people to call home for a few short hours where they can be themselves and be accepted.

“Everyone here is so loving and caring for each other. It’s worth every penny. We wouldn’t change a thing,” said Sonia. “It’s tough, but it’s worth it because you see all these kids doing so good in school. It’s nice to see the difference we’re making in the kids’ lives.”

“If you can make the difference in one kid’s life, it’s worth it. Money is money and if you don’t have it, well, deal with it.”

Back at the Yellowhead Motor Inn, only a few seconds remain in the final round. Blue goes in and, using the last of his energy, he tries to land a hit. His fist connects squarely with the side of Red’s helmet.

In the next instant, the bell rings McGrandle launches into the ring to give Blue some water. He tells him he did great.

Outside of the ring, the Knights family waits to hear the result of the fight.

Blue wins, the Knights cheer. Coach pats Blue on the back, cracking a smile.

As Blue accepts his medal, McGrandle stands in the corner and looks on with pride as another boxer achieves his goals.

1 Comment

  1. Derrick East

    I am his Father’s cousin, they emigrated when I was very young, around 4 years old, I finally met the Canadian side of the family in 1997 when I went to Edmonton for a vacation, I met his father and his uncle John and other family members.

    I have been trying to contact him but with no reply