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Jim Kenyon: Windsor Boxer Knows His Town Is in His Corner

The rows of cars and pickups that once filled the giant parking lots at the old Goodyear and Cone Blanchard plants in Windsor were a testament to the town’s vitality and blue-collar spirit.

But for the last 25 years or so, those lots have mostly sat empty.

So to drive into town on a Saturday night last month and find a chock-full parking lot — this one behind St. Francis of Assisi Church — was a sweet reminder on the way Windsor used to be.

On this early spring night, more than 400 people streamed into the town’s recreation center, which was the high school gym back during my student days, to watch boxing.

They paid $20 each for a bleacher seat. Not that many in the crowd were still in their seats when Chris Gilbert, the 28-year-old hometown fighter who has developed a growing legion of fans, stepped into the ring for the night’s final bout. For five rounds, Gilbert slugged it out with a gritty veteran fighter named Raymond Virmontes, of Worcester, Mass. When the time came to start round six, Virmontes — or more precisely, his coaches — had seen enough.

Gilbert’s record as a professional boxer improved to a perfect 7-0.

“It was crazy that night,” said Harry Ladue, the town’s recreation director for the last 20 years and a standout Windsor High athlete before that. “I’ve never seen it get so loud in here.”

For days after Gilbert’s fight, “everywhere you went in town, people were talking about it,” said Ladue.

Chris Gilbert’s story is Windsor’s version of Rocky.

He was washing dishes at the now-shuttered Windsor Station restaurant when he heard about a boxing club that John George, a retired Massachusetts State Police trooper, was starting in town.

“I was hooked,” said Gilbert, looking back on his first workout with the club. The next week, he brought his mother, Beth, who remains, nine years later, active behind the scenes in her son’s pro career. She did much of the heavy lifting for last month’s nine-bout card in Windsor, which was Vermont’s first pro boxing event in a dozen years.

Jim Fox, an editor at this newspaper, also was involved in organizing the event for the nonprofit Windsor Boxing Club, which he helped start. He’s also one of Gilbert’s volunteer coaches. At the Valley News, Fox is my coach, too, but he didn’t edit today’s column or suggest the topic. (Given a choice, I think Fox might prefer tutoring a promising young boxer to repairing the mangled prose of a curmudgeonly columnist, anyway.)

Before turning pro in 2011, Gilbert fought 40 amateur bouts. He is a three-time Vermont Golden Gloves champion, won the New England Golden Gloves championship once and in his final amateur year reached the quarterfinals of the national tournament.

But it was a bumpy ride to the top. Hand and wrist injuries led to three surgeries. He also had a knee repaired. Two years after graduating from high school, he started at the University of Vermont. He scheduled all of his classes for Tuesdays and Thursdays so he could return to Windsor on his long weekends to work 40 hours for building contractor Kelly Hull.

“There were days when he could barely hold a paint brush because his hands hurt so bad, but he’d keep on working,” Hull said.

Gilbert, who graduated from UVM in 3 1/2 years, doesn’t have the luxury to devote all his time and energy to his boxing career. He’s still toiling in the sport’s minor leagues, where a $1,000 for a fight is a good payday.

Gilbert works 10-hour days at Sunnymede Farm in Hartland, where he spent last week lugging buckets of sap for the farm’s maple sugaring operation before heading to the Windsor rec center. On Monday, I watched Gilbert walk across the empty gym, still wearing his overalls and mud boots. A few minutes later, he was in sweats and sneakers, jumping rope and doing sit-ups for 20 minutes before Andrew Carmichael, who helps run the boxing club, and half a dozen members filtered into the gym.

At 5-8 and 150 pounds (his weight goes up and down a bit depending on his next opponent), Gilbert is not an imposing figure. But get him into the ring and he takes on the personality of an old-fashioned brawler. “A short, stocky guy like me” is best suited to fight in a “phone booth,” he said. “That’s what I want. I sit low. Elbows in. Dip and roll. I don’t want to give (an opponent) much of a target. I want to wear them out, and make them not want to fight anymore.”

George, who now lives in South Carolina, told me that Gilbert’s style of always moving forward makes him popular with crowds. “He fights with his heart, too,” said George.

Mel Peabody, a professional boxing trainer from Lawrence, Mass., oversees Gilbert’s career now. To his credit, Peabody carefully screens Gilbert’s potential opponents to make sure he’s not overmatched. In boxing, the temptation to go for the quick money can be hard to resist. “I don’t want to go up against a guy who is 25-0 just to make 10 grand,” Gilbert said.

He wants to fight for another six years, leaving plenty of time still for a shot at the big time. Meanwhile, he’s scheduled to fight on Saturday at the SportsZone in Derry, N.H., as part of a 11-bout pro card.

There’s talk of him fighting again in Windsor this fall. Ladue, the town’s recreation director, figures the next Gilbert bout could draw a crowd twice the size of the first.

Windsor has lost hundreds of good-paying blue-collar jobs over the years, but it was good to see those parking lots full again, and to know that the town still has some fight left in it.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.