Whether it’s the food bank or the blood bank in the Kitchener Waterloo Region, say the name Fitzroy Vanderpool, and eyes light up in recognition. The six time professional title belt holder (including a World Championship) has carved out a niche for himself post-career that has seen him become a larger than life character, known as much for his philanthropy and community leadership as for his storied boxing career.
I sat down with him in his WHIP (With Hope It’s Possible) Boxing Academy in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, to talk boxing, community, and life in general. He walks with the distinctive easy gait of the elite athlete; not quite a swagger, but with the self-assuredness of a man’s man – completely confident in his ability to look after himself in any situation. His face is unmarked and he seems impossibly young for his 52 years. Hard to believe that this man stepped into the professional ring 38 times in his career – losing only 7.
Despite this, Vanderpool’s boxing career isn’t quite as celebrated as one might expect; especially given that Kitchener, Ontario isn’t a particularly big town. He’s well enough known – but for many, that’s because he ran for public office a couple years back, finishing a very close second to the eventual winner. I asked him about this, and various other topics. His answers were insightful; tempered with a wry humour that he approaches life and all its challenges with.
David: Fitz, why did you run for office?
Vanderpool: Dave, it’s all about trying to help and putting my celebrity status to good use. My boxing career gave me the gift of celebrity and I try to use it to give back. I thought I could best do that on a much larger scale as a member of our provincial parliament.
How are you trying to help?
I’m particularly interested in the food bank and the blood bank. I’ve got about 40 members that I’m training at my gym and sometimes we’ll go down en masse to donate blood. Food bank is the same thing. I’ll make a financial commitment to the local food bank then challenge the community to match or exceed it. This is Canada. There’s no need or excuse for us to have community hunger.
As a Black man with some celebrity status, I’m lending my voice to the BLM movement as well. It’s important to me that we are seen as more than just athletes, entertainers, or statistics in the media. I believe that “with hope, it’s possible”. I live by that and I never run out of hope.
How do you go about engaging today’s young people? They seem so distracted and they have so many options.
I like using social media platforms because it keep things relevant and they are largely used by young people – and those are the people I’m trying to reach.
I was wondering why you believe your boxing career is maybe a little “overlooked” for want of a better word? I mean, you’ve accomplished so much!
Part of that is that boxing has never been particularly big in this area. I’m trying to change that by raising the profile. I mean Kitchener has produced some pretty impressive boxers. My brother Syd, was ranked Number 1 for a time and fought people like Bernard Hopkins. Chris Johnson was an amateur boxing champion and then, of course, there’s Lennox Lewis, former Heavyweight Champion of the world. Despite this, boxing hasn’t really been able to gain a footing alongside hockey or basketball in this region. Sometimes, I think it’s because guys like me, Lennox, Syd and others are a little “historic”. It’s been a while since we’ve had a true world contender from here. Maybe that’s what we need.
You fought Fernando Vargas at his absolute peak. You went into that fight concussed, with management issues and a host of other problems. But you held your own for six rounds. Your proudest accomplishment in the ring?
Yes, yes I’d say it was my proudest accomplishment in the ring. You’re right too. I had a ton of challenges to overcome going into that fight but I gave it my all. I’m proud of some other things too. I was the oldest man to ever win a Canadian boxing championship. I was 45, breaking the great George Chuvalo’s record who held his Canadian Heavyweight title until he retired at age 43. I actually fought for and won the Canadian title at 45-years-old, I became the oldest Canadian boxer to go 10 rounds.
We pause for a few minutes here as Fitz tends to some of his charges starting to arrive for evening lessons. I have a moment to look around the gym. There are plaques, awards, framed media articles – it truly is amazing to take in all that this modest man has achieved.
I see a photo of Lennox Lewis. There’s no bitterness in Fitz’s voice when he talks about Lewis, but maybe a certain wistfullness. Lennox Lewis left Kitchener, and, in fact, Canada entirely, to seek his fortune in Great Britain. Lewis casts a long shadow in this region and it’s easy to get cloaked by it and go unnoticed.
To his credit, Vanderpool always kept Kitchener as his “home base”, even when he was away training for a fight. He’s enormously proud of his community and it shows.
After a few minutes, we resume our chat.
How do you feel about the state of the pro game today?
It’s not perfect but it isn’t as bad as some people make it out to be either. The main problem is that there’s no real superstar; no Tyson, no Leonard, no Ali. If we can have one of those arise, the sport will be in great shape again.
Are you going to watch the Tyson/Jones Jr. exhibition?
Yeah, I’m going to watch it. All the power to them. I actually think Jones has a better chance of looking good. He’s lighter, faster, more agile. It’s going to be interesting for sure. I see Oscar is toying around with the idea of a comeback as well. He needs to be careful though. He took some real beatings towards the end of his career.
Do you ever see or talk with Lennox?
Once in a while, yeah. I saw him a bit ago at a show he put on in Toronto. He’s doing well for himself. Had a hell of a career. Nothing but props to him.
Where do you see “The Whip” in ten years?
If you mean the gym, I’m hoping to have several more locations established by then; maybe a national chain. If you mean me, I’m aiming to be in elected office by then. The only way to change the system and make it more equitable for all is from within. History has shown us that it’s almost impossible to change things from the outside looking in.
What do you want your headstone to say? What do you want your legacy to be?
One word; “Humanitarian”
Take every negative thing you’ve ever heard about professional athletes and leave it at the door before you enter Fitz Vanderpool’s circle. As refreshing as a breath of fresh air, Fitz Vanderpool represents all that’s good about humanity. He’s a man who squeezed every last drop of potential out of his body to achieve remarkable success in the squared circle. Yet, he has surpassed all of these accomplishments in his post career life. Rather than be engulfed by his celebrity status, he continues to use it to help others. Father, coach, mentor, activist, community leader, and above all else, humanitarian – they all apply. Fitzroy Vanderpool; “The Whip”; a shining beacon of decency and hope at a time when we all need one.