WEST FORKS, Maine — The frank suggestion from a former trainer that he didn’t have a future in boxing wasn’t what Brandon “The Cannon” Berry wanted to hear a few years back.
So Berry literally hit the road and has been driving ever since — and not only is boxing still prominent in his life, but his modest imprint on the state’s sports scene is growing larger by the bout.
Since that crossroads conversation, the 26-year-old Berry has made the 250-mile round trip from his home in this community of 30 year-round residents some 25 miles south of Jackman to train at Wyman’s Boxing Club in coastal Stockton Springs at least three times a week — for 6½ years.
“I’ve never had anyone make that type of commitment,” said Ken “Skeet” Wyman, owner of the boxing club and Berry’s trainer as well as a full-time commercial fisherman. “I don’t know if there’s another fighter in the country that does something like that. I can’t say there is because I don’t know, but I do know that’s an extreme amount of dedication.”
Berry estimates he’s gone through “four or five cars” to cover the hundreds of thousands of miles he’s driven across the state virtually every Monday, Wednesday and Friday after working a day shift at his family’s general store.
“I think the toughest part for me is worrying about him driving to the gym and back in bad weather,” said Jillian Plourd, Berry’s longtime girlfriend.
Berry admits the weather can change frequently and dramatically during those trips, but he adds that he’s slid off the road just once, that along Route 201 in Solon during a winter drive home.
“It does get tiring sometimes,” said Berry, “but it’s just so normal for me because this is where I’ve lived my entire life. I know what it’s like to travel — our closest Wal-Mart is an hour away each way.
“There are nights when we get in a tough workout and I’m not getting home until 10:30 or 11 and there’s no doubt about it, I get tired. But I never get tired of doing it.”
Berry’s current mode of transportation is an older Saab he purchased nine months ago. Since then he’s added 40,000 miles to the odometer traveling to training sessions — as well as a 200-mile round trip from Skowhegan to Jackman every Saturday night delivering Sunday newspapers to subsidize those travel expenses.
“I’m in the car a lot,” he deadpanned.
So far it’s paying off in a boxing sense and in ways he never imagined.
He is 6-0 while fighting as a light welterweight (140 pounds) since turning professional 14 months ago.
That success and his determination to remain true to his small part of the world also has transformed him into a folk hero of sorts throughout northwestern Maine.
He headlined a boxing show at Carrabec High School in North Anson this spring that drew nearly 1,000 fans, and when he fights at more distant locales a charter bus full of supporters follows.
“The bus holds around 50 people and we’ve sold it out every time so far,” said Berry. “It works out well because a lot of the fan base I’ve grown the last few years are truck drivers and their families. The last thing a truck driver wants to do on the weekends is drive, so the bus has worked out awesome.”
Berry also receives scores of emails and text messages from supporters young and old, as well as fans who stop at Berry’s General Store for a T-shirt and an autograph.
And already this year he has been featured in a Skowhegan parade and was a graduation speaker at Carrabec High School.
“It was an honor, especially for someone who barely graduated from high school and didn’t go to college who makes hardly any money,” said Berry. “I think it was cool that they could recognize that you don’t have to live a certain lifestyle to be able to motivate someone to do the right thing.
“What it boils down to is it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s all about what you consist of.”
An education, in and out of the ring
Berry graduated from Upper Kennebec Valley High School in Bingham a year ahead of schedule in 2005 despite some doubt that he’d ever receive his diploma.
“I wanted to quit my sophomore year,” said Berry. “My parents wouldn’t have allowed me to do it, but I just didn’t like school. But a few people talked me into staying and got me into a cooperative education class my sophomore and junior years to get six credits, then I doubled up on English and math. I passed my classes somehow and got out of there in ‘05 with a big smile on my face.
“There were a lot of teachers who didn’t think I was going to do it, and I didn’t blame them, either.”
Berry discovered boxing as a youngster from older brother Gordon, an amateur boxer who was training at Gamache’s Boxing Club in Lewiston.
“I would box with my brother at home all the time and he was just a little guy,” said Gordon. “I really probably wouldn’t want to box him anymore, but back then we always trained together.”
Brandon Berry began competing in amateur bouts at age 18 before briefly leaving West Forks to live in Old Town while he worked for a cousin in Ellsworth. It was then he initially began training at Wyman’s out of geographic convenience.
Berry made a full-time commitment to Wyman’s in 2008, and while the switch wasn’t geographically convenient since he had moved back to West Forks he found it to be best for his boxing future.
“Skeet was very welcoming, the doors were open and after a few months we decided to make the switch,” said Berry. “I was told by a previous trainer that maybe it wasn’t in my best interests to continue boxing. I respected his opinion, but I wasn’t going to stop.”
Wyman, once a promising flyweight who went 22-2 as an amateur before his boxing career was cut short by injuries suffered during a 1983 bird hunting accident, saw plenty of raw material yet room for growth in Berry.
“When Brandon first came here, he couldn’t spell jab let alone throw one,” said Wyman. “He had no desire to do it, he relied on his right hand. It’s taken some time, but know that without a strong jab you’re going nowhere in the boxing world.”
The relationship between Berry and Wyman has blossomed since they first met at a Golden Gloves tournament in Burlington, Vermont, perhaps not surprising given that Wyman’s mother grew up in Caratunk, just a few miles south of West Forks.
“My grandfather was a wood chopper who did log drives on the East Branch of the Kennebec River, so I’ve known Brandon’s family a long time,” said Wyman. “I knew his grandfather Cliff Berry when I was a little kid because we’d stop at their store when we were going fly fishing up north and he always gave me a candy bar and a piece of sharp cheese.”
That initial encounter lingered with Berry, and helped shape his decision to train with Wyman.
“Right then I had a great feeling about the guy,” he said. “Who’d have thought back when he’d come into the store and talk with my grandfather that he and I’d be working together in boxing.”
And as Berry worked with Wyman to expand his boxing arsenal to include the jab, positive results followed. He was a finalist at the 2012 Northern New England Golden Gloves tourney, then reached the 2013 New England Golden Gloves finals.
But he had a grander ambition.
“When Brandon first came here he said he’d like to be a boxer and he’d like to be a professional boxer, and I told him there were plenty of goals to reach before he’d get to that point,” said Wyman. “He knew what I expected, I knew what I felt he was capable of doing, and I told him as long as we got it done together we’d take that next step and that’s the way it’s been.”
Berry left the amateur ranks in May 2013 when he defeated Billy Jones by a fourth-round technical knockout in the first professional bout held in Maine in eight years.
An estimated 500 fans turned out for the show at Skowhegan Area High School, foretelling the following Berry continues to build.
“People have taken a liking to him,” said Wyman. “He’s a fine young man and he’s become popular not only in the state of Maine but in New England.
“So who knows where it goes? I hope it goes to the sky.”
Taking the next step
Berry’s boxing future ultimately depends on how he fares as the competition intensifies.
His first six pro bouts all have been scheduled for the minimum four rounds but that’s about to change, likely with his next fight scheduled for Sept. 18 in Manchester, New Hampshire.
“It’s ultimately up to Skeet, and it’s a beautiful thing that he’s here for these decisions because he’s going to make the right decision and I know that,” said Berry. “In my own head I feel like I’ve been ready for two to three fights to take the next step, and I think he feels that way, too.”
Berry had hoped to fight a six-rounder in his most recent bout June 14 at the Portland Expo but settled for a four-round fight against Moises Rivera of South Boston, Massachusetts, that ended in a second-round technical knockout.
The fourth stoppage of Berry’s pro career also provided him his most immediate goal, or at least it stemmed from that night’s main event when Portland’s Russell Lamour Jr. won the New England middleweight title.
“I want to be a New England champion by the end of this calendar year,” said Berry. “Skeet might say something different and that’s what we’ll do, but I want to hold one of those belts. If I could go out and become an undefeated New England professional champion people would understand that this kid is serious.”
Berry also is serious about the people and area he has come to represent, and while future success may lead him to fight in larger venues he has no plans to be based anywhere other than West Forks, Maine.
“No matter how far we make it in this,” he said, “I want to let everyone know that this is where I’m from and the reason things are happening like this is because of my family, this store, this town, this county and the people here.
“My support system here is unbelievable, and as long as we have adequate sparring, I already have a great trainer so I think this area is perfect for where I want to go. I plan to prove a lot of people wrong who think I should leave, to tell you the truth.”