Josh McAuliffe paused, and then let a little laugh escape when asked how he went from being a three-sport athlete at Bangor High School to becoming a successful amateur boxer.
“You really want to know the real reason?” McAuliffe asked. “To be completely honest, I was 19 and at a friend’s house one night and outside waiting for a ride. A car went by and I put my arms up to make it stop because I thought it was my girlfriend.
“It slowed down, but didn’t stop. Well, it came around again, and it was a car full of guys I knew. They stopped and a bunch got out and jumped me. I got away, turned around and took off.”
McAuliffe knew most of his attackers, one of whom would go on to become a professional mixed-martial arts fighter. He knew a Bangor police detective named Paul White, who also happened to be boxing instructor for the Bangor Police Athletic League.
“The next day I called Paul. He urged me to press charges, but I said I didn’t want to press charges because I knew these guys, McAuliffe explained. “I just wanted an apology.”
White told him to come to the gym the next day and one of McAuliffe’s attackers was there to personally apologize to him.
“I stuck around after and talked to Paul. He convinced me to try boxing,” he said.
So McAuliffe took good friend and fellow Bangor High sports standout Hampton Clarkson and they hit the gym.
“I trained for two weeks and then went to a tournament in Vermont and won the whole thing,” McAuliffe recalled.
It wasn’t just a case of beginner’s luck for McAuliffe. The 29-year-old has gone on to win three Northern New England (Maine, Vermont, N.H. and Upstate New York) Golden Gloves heavyweight championships and four light heavyweight Northern New England Golden Gloves championships en route to a 42-8 lifetime record.
Now he’s loading up for his first regional Golden Gloves title, a shot at an invitation to the Olympic trials, and a chance to turn pro.
Rolling with the punches
McAuliffe’s most recent title came Nov. 28 in Portland at the 123rd annual New England Tournament of Champions. The New Englands have been a source of particular frustration for McAuliffe as seven of his eight losses have come in New England title bouts.
“He always gets the guy who ends up going to the nationals,” said trainer and manager Ken “Skeet” Wyman of Stockton Springs. “One year we thought he’d win on points, but he didn’t and another time they actually announced him as the winner and then brought him back later because there was a mistake.”
There seems to be no mistake that McAuliffe may finally be in the best position of his career to finally punch his way into regional and maybe even national elite status as he trains for the Northern New England Golden Gloves tournament in Burlington, Vt., which starts this weekend and continues through Jan. 30, and the New England tournament Feb. 20 in Lowell, Mass. McAuliffe received a first round bye and will fight his first match Saturday, Jan. 30. The finals are set for Feb. 6.
“This last tournament, I was the 19th fighter from Maine ever to win it, according to the organizers we talked to,” McAuliffe said. “We think I’m probably the first one from Bangor to win it because even Marcus Davis never won it.”
That title win qualifies McAuliffe to compete in a tournament box-off in Lake Placid, N.Y., in May. The ultimate prize would be an invitation to Denver to compete in the Olympic trials in June.
One of the key developments in McAuliffe’s recent development as a contender was his decision to drop down from heavyweight to light heavyweight and drop 20 pounds to a fighting weight of 178.
“Coach Skeet made me drop down,” McAuliffe said. “I got up to 230 after my divorce and I was down and not feeling good about myself and got back into it and fought heavyweight.”
For trainer and coach Ken “Skeet” Wyman, it was a no-brainer and deal-breaker.
“I told him if I was going to keep training him, he had to,” Wyman explained. “I just knew looking at his build that he carried a little extra weight he didn’t need to.
“I just knew he’d be a better athlete at 178 and not have to fight guys who came down from 215. His stamina level is much higher since he came back to 178, and his jab is really setting all his punches up well.”
The 45-year-old Wyman, a commercial fisherman who owns Wyman’s Seafood in Stockton Springs, was an AAU boxer from 1976 to 1983, when a hunting accident ended his career. Wyman was shot in the armpit when his rifle accidentally discharged.
Six years ago, he started up Wyman’s Boxing Club in the same town. He has been training McAuliffe for seven years.
“My goal with Josh is hopefully he’ll end up his amateur career, turn pro, have two or three decent fights, go to Europe, where the good money is, and prove himself there,” Wyman said. “Then maybe he can come back and make a few good paydays.”
Wyman has a detailed plan for McAuliffe, a plan encompassing life inside and outside the ring.
“I want him to be able to take prize money and put two-thirds of it away for the future because he’s working and making money as it is,” he explained.
McAuliffe, who works full time for his father as a carpenter for All Phase Quality Construction in Bangor, has high hopes when it comes to his pro boxing aspirations, but remaining grounded has never been a problem.
“I had a son when I was a junior in high school and now I’m divorced with a 12-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter,” McAuliffe explained.
In an effort to maximize his time available to train, McAuliffe has a gym in his basement, which allows him to play with his children and train all at once.
“Yeah, I don’t have a lot of free time,” McAuliffe said with a laugh. “It’s demanding, but it keeps me disciplined.”
Expanding his ring of influence
The next few months are crucial ones for McAuliffe, who is trying to make up for lost time.
“I do feel like the clock is ticking a little bit, and that’s why I want to turn pro now,” McAuliffe said. “I am late coming to the sport.”
McAuliffe and Wyman are trying to find any way possible to cram as much training and workout time in before his championship bouts.
“I started right after I graduated high school in 1999. Started at Bangor PAL with Paul White, who was a detective.
“It’s been a winter hobby for me the last nine or 10 years,” said McAuliffe, a Little League baseball coach for the last four years. “Continually falling just short made me convinced that I could do it if I put more work and dedication into it.”
McAuliffe isn’t alone in his confidence and conviction.
“I do believe in him,” Wyman said flatly. “I have a lot of faith in Josh and his ability, and I really think that if it’s going to happen for him, it’ll be this year. That’s why I’m doing this.”
Wyman thinks McAuliffe’s lack of experience and boxing longevity could actually work in his favor.
“Some people mature mentally and physically later on in life, and he’s more dedicated now probably than at any other time in his life,” Wyman explained. “And it does help that he hasn’t taken all the wear and tear on his body through the years that other boxers his age have.
“Bernard Hopkins started boxing at age 26 and he’s done very well.”
That’s not to say McAuliffe will go on to win 50 (21 of them for titles) of 55 bouts over 16 years and fight into his mid-40’s, like Hopkins has, but you never know.
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter where you come from. It’s who you are,” Wyman said. “I like his finesse and he has a good heart, which is very important.”
McAuliffe has a more simplistic self overview:
“I just love to win,” he said with a chuckle. “Seriously, I don’t give up and I have a big heart with some drive. I just fight even harder when someone hits me.”
Wyman calls him a very skilled boxer.
“He has a tremendous jab, a nice straight right hand, and he’s able to put it all together,” Wyman said.
Wyman’s opinion isn’t just his own. McAuliffe received an unexpected compliment at his most recent fight from New England chief of officials Gary Bevis.
“He asked to talk to him after the fight, so we were thinking he must have done something wrong,” Wyman recalled. “He put his hands right in front of his face and put his fingers real close together to tell him he was this close to doing something special and becoming a national champion.”
That story puts a big smile on McAuliffe’s face.
“This is something my kids can be proud of me for, but something like that? Wow. That would be amazing.”