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‘An inspiration to everyone’
Brandon Leslie never thought he’d be an athlete.
That's because the Glace Bay native was born with cerebral palsy, often referred to simply as "CP". Cerebral palsy is a group of permanent movement disorders that appear in early childhood. Signs and symptoms vary among people and over time. Often, symptoms include poor co-ordination, stiff muscles, weak muscles and tremors. There may be problems with sensation, vision, hearing, swallowing and speaking.
The 26-year-old has always had an interest in combat sports including wrestling, ultimate fighting and boxing, but he never believed he’d be able to participate in such sports because of his disability.
He was wrong.
While sitting at home one day last year, Leslie received a message from one of his friends. In the message was a video of two fighters — Aaron Kinch and Mitch Comeau — boxing against each other in wheelchairs.
At that moment, Leslie realized wheelchair boxing was an option for him and he knew it was something he wanted to try.
“I never thought in a million years I’d be boxing,” said Leslie with a smile. “When I tell people I’m going to be a boxer and they see me in a wheelchair, they look at me funny, but I know I’m capable of doing it.”
After seeing the video, Leslie contacted the local boxing club, Ring 73, where he asked if it would be possible for him to join. The club welcomed him with open arms and he began attending sessions over a year ago.
“My mother wanted me to get into boxing years ago, but I didn’t want to get in the way of an able-bodied class,” said Leslie. “When I discovered wheelchair boxing, it was really exciting for me.”
The son of Alex and Nicole Leslie was born premature in August of 1993. Difficulties with the pregnancy caused the umbilical cord to wrap around Brandon’s neck, causing swelling to his head and a blood clot in his brain.
“I’m not supposed to be sitting here talking with you,” said Leslie during his interview. “They basically said if I made it, which was unlikely, I would be one of those children who would need to be looked after all the time.”
Despite accessibility challenges over the years, Leslie never gave up and continued to make the most of his life. Right now, he's focused on becoming a better boxer every day.
“I’m enjoying the ride, I’m lovin’ every minute of it,” said Leslie, who prior to joining the boxing program lifted weights at his home for exercise.
“I’m having fun with what I’m doing and that’s what gives me that extra motivation every day.”
Dan Pottie, a coach at Ring 73, has worked with many boxers during his career. He considers Leslie to be one of the best he’s ever had a chance to train.
“When I seen him come through the door at the club, I was taken back because I had never worked with anybody with a disability such as his before,” said Pottie, noting he originally thought Leslie was just going to the club to watch the boxers in action.
“When I seen his work ethic and his drive to be better every day at the gym, I couldn’t believe it — it was simply amazing.”
Pottie believes Leslie’s punching power has improved a lot over the past year, a skill that comes with hard work and determination.
“When he first came here he was just an arm puncher, but now he’s starting to put everything behind the punch and you can feel the power,” said Pottie. “His upper body is strong, he pushes himself harder and harder every day — it’s amazing, every day I’m shocked even more.”
Leslie attends training sessions three days a week and participates in the majority of workouts with his fellow fighters.
“We have floor exercises during workouts and Brandon has no problem jumping down out of the chair to take part in them,” said Pottie, noting Leslie is the first one in the gym and the last one to leave for every session.
“When he first told me the reason he keeps coming to the club, I knew he was for real, simply because of the time he’s putting in every week.”
After a solid year of training with Pottie, Leslie’s hard work will be put to the test next month when he takes part in his first wheelchair boxing match as part of Ring 73’s fight card on Dec. 7.
Leslie will challenge Kinch, a former professional able-bodied boxer who turned to wheelchair boxing following a workplace back injury. Unlike Leslie, Kinch isn't bound to his chair at this stage of his life and can still get around with the help of a cane.
“It’s always been my goal to get to fight someone,” said Leslie, noting he has had interest in swimming at the Special Olympics level, but has turned his focus to the ring.
“I’ve been doing a lot of cardio and working on some different things in preparation for the fight, so hopefully it all pays off.”
The match will be an exhibition, meaning there is no winner or loser, but Leslie believes it’s a step forward to potentially having more wheelchair boxing matches.
“I won’t know how I’m going to do until after the fight when I re-watch it and see what I can work on,” said Leslie. “This fight will only make me better and that’s the goal.”
Pottie believes many of the boxers at the club look to Leslie for motivation and consider him to be a role model.
“If they come in and they’re having a bad day or pushing themselves, they look at Brandon and they go the extra mile,” said Pottie, noting Leslie never takes 'no' for an answer.
“Guys come in now and Brandon is the first person they look for and he’s always here with a sweat on, working hard — he keeps everyone on their toes with his work ethic and he’s an inspiration to everyone.”
- Hometown: Glace Bay, N.S.
- Age: 26
- Sport: Boxing
- Club: Ring 73
- Family: Parents, Alex and Nicole Leslie
Leslie never began boxing to be an inspiration to anyone but admits it’s an honour for him to know people look to him for motivation.
“It’s a great feeling — I never viewed myself as a role model, for me it was working out and coming to the gym like another day,” said Leslie.
“I’m glad people get inspired, but that wasn’t my intention, my goal wasn’t to come inspire people, but I guess it happened.”
Pottie is looking forward to watching Leslie grow as an athlete and to see how he progresses in the ring.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him,” said Pottie. “It’s so rewarding for him and so rewarding for me as his coach to see this, it’s a really good feeling.”
Outside of boxing, Leslie is currently unemployed. He’s been looking for a job in recent weeks but hasn’t been successful in obtaining work.
“All he’s looking for is a job,” said Pottie, noting Leslie volunteered his time recently to help with Mike Kelloway’s campaign during last month’s federal election.
“Hopefully, someone will read this and is hiring right now and will give him an opportunity. His work ethic is outstanding, he’s committed, he’s never late and if they give him a chance they won’t be disappointed.”
Employers wishing to speak with Leslie for potential job interviews are encouraged to contact Ring 73 through Facebook by searching Ring 73.
For now, Leslie will continue to train and prepare for his fight with hopes of taking his boxing career to the next level in the near future.