Salute to a hero…Guyana’s lone Olympic medalist Michael Parris is a Special Person
By Michael Jordan
“It was a joyful feeling…just standing there and seeing the Guyana flag in the air. I think I got cold sweat from joy, and seeing so many people…I don’t think I could get that feeling again…”
He doesn’t strike you as someone who is a national hero.
No trophies or plaques adorn his home in Shirley Field-Ridley Square. He doesn’t flaunt the medal he won 32 years ago, or the national award he got last year.
These days, he’s just another hard-working taxi driver hustling to provide for his family.
But it’s when he speaks about boxing that you see the fervour and passion that made him who he is—-Michael Anthony Parris, former national bantamweight champion, and the only Guyanese to have won an Olympic medal.
Boxing was his legacy from the time he was born on October 4, 1957, into a family of six boys and six girls, to Ralph Parris, a stevedore, and Doreen Parris.
He grew up in tough Princes Street, in Lodge, near to the D’Urban Park, where he would watch the likes of Maxie Sergeant and Mark Harris brawl in illegal street-fights on Sundays.
By the age of nine he was already lacing on boxing gloves, and he literally grew up in a boxing gym.
“My old man used to box and he set up a bottom-house boxing gym,” the boxing icon recalled. Eventually, the six brothers joined the Save the Children Boxing Gym, which was located at Freeburg Primary School in Norton Street. Aside from his father, his first coaches were Cedric Williams and Joseph Spencer, both now deceased.
That period can be considered the golden era of amateur boxing in Guyana. “There was Salem Gym, Bauxite Bombers, Ricola Gym, the Republican Gym (where the boxers were mainly tough men who were serving time) the Police Force and Guyana Defence Force Gyms,” Parris reminisced.
“There was stiff competition back then, especially when you competed against the Republicans.”
His brothers, who were regularly getting into street-fights, considered him the weakling of the pack. He preferred to do his fighting in the ring, and if he was the ‘weakest,’ he was also the brother who trained the hardest.
“My brothers always liked to show that they were rough…they never wanted to make the kind of sacrifices that I used to make. I would train early in the morning and afternoon, whether there was a competition or not. I would train every other day because I used to say that I have a goal to achieve.”
His dedication paid off. At 15, he won the Junior Amateur Championship while competing as a featherweight (125 pounds). He then began competing in the bantamweight category.
Back then, there was a stronger emphasis on sports and when he gained employment at the Guyana Marketing Corporation, he was given time-off to train.
He also competed in road races. It was there that he met Ursula Perreira, who would later become his wife.
“Even before we married she was always supportive of me. Without her help I could not have achieved all that I did.”
The fighters he remembers competing against during this era are Canada-based Guyanese Cleveland Denny (who died from brain injuries after a professional bout), Walter Smith of the Bauxite Bombers, Paul Wiltshire and Darius Forde, nephew of Reginald Forde and the late Patrick Forde.
“With me and Darius Forde it was always a big showdown. He was young but I had dedication. I beat him twice as an amateur and twice as a professional. I also competed in the US, Canada, Jamaica the Bahamas and Cuba, so the experience was there.”
Except for the Cubans, Guyana dominated practically every Caribbean amateur boxing championship. “We used to dominate back then. The government was really dedicated to sports. I got great support from the government at the time, but you yourself have to make the sacrifice.
“My goal was to be at the top, and obviously the highest stage is the Olympics.”
That opportunity came 1980, with the Olympics in Moscow.
The Guyana Amateur Boxing Association selected several boxers, including Parris, to participate in a tournament for a place on the team to Moscow. Parris defeated Darius Forde to secure his berth on the Olympic team, along with Alfred Thomas of the Guyana Defence Force, Barrington Cambridge, and Dansford Brown of the Bauxite Bombers. The coach was the late Courtney Atherly.
In chilly Moscow, the young boxer went to almost fanatical extremes to attain his goal.
“When I go to cold countries (to fight) I would exercise half-naked. I locked myself in the room (at Moscow), and turned up the air conditioning. I did not go to the (Olympic) march-past, I just stayed in my room and trained.”
But he admitted that he was intimidated by the presence of so many great athletes and by the atmosphere of the Olympics. “There were so many people, but you would not see anyone from Guyana. Security was tight. Everywhere you went there were soldiers.
“I never saw so many athletes together at one time. When you go into the training camps and see athletes training and hitting the boxing pads you get nervous. I was the smallest of them (in the bantamweight category); even though we were the same weight, they were more muscular, so it was scary seeing them. Of course that fear is within you until you enter the ring.
“Dansford Brown (from the Guyana contingent) was the first Guyanese to win a fight at the Olympics, and I told myself that I had to do better than that.
“I had to fight three boxers before I got the bronze medal; a Nigerian (Nureni Gbadamosi); a boxer from the US Virgin Islands and a Mexican ( Daniel Zaragoza). The Nigerian tried to scare me…he was muscular. At the weigh-in, he popped (flexed) his chest; but in the ring, I was skillful.
“He was coming with one punch to kill me, but I wasn’t there (when he punched).”
The elusive Parris easily defeated the Nigerian. “From then, I won the support of the crowd.”
He was also encouraged by other athletes from the Guyanese contingent, which included track stars James Wren-Gilkes and June Griffith.
Parris said that he then defeated the boxer from the US Virgin Islands.
On August 6, 1980, Michael Parris fought Mexican Daniel Zaragoza, defeating him in two rounds. He then fought Cuban Juan Hernandez, but lost what the Guyanese considered to be a close decision.
However, by defeating the Mexican, Parris had earned a bronze medal; Guyana’s first and still only Olympic medal. He also received an award from Cuba.
“It was joy,” he said, smiling at the memory. “Joy, because some felt that other boxers should have gone in front of me. Just standing there and seeing the Guyana flag in the air. I think I got cold sweat from joy, and seeing so many people…I don’t think I could get that feeling again.”
Unfortunately, back then, television was a novelty here, so very few Guyanese were able to witness the historic feat and share in the boxer’s elation of standing on the podium to receive his medal.
When he finally returned to Guyana, Michael Parris, along with Patrick Forde who had won a Commonwealth title, were paraded around the city in a motorcade. The government also rewarded him with a house. Of course, he was also voted Sportsman of the Year.
The accolades, somewhat belated in some cases, have continued. Last year, he was awarded the Medal of Service (MS) for his contribution to the sport of boxing. The Guyana Amateur Boxing Association (GABA) has established the Michael Parris Boxing Championships in his honour.
But Parris still feels somewhat slighted by the present administration, which he feels is not investing enough to sports and boxing in particular.
The Olympian said that a few years ago, he approached a senior female Government official in the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, seeking duty-free concession to buy a car. “And she said ‘it’s more or less for Government officials,’ and I said ‘I’m not a government official but I’m a national hero. ’”
He didn’t get the duty-free concession.
And attempts by the former champion to attend the London Olympics have also been ignored by sports officials. According to Parris, when he approached a senior member of the Guyana Olympics Association, he was told that he would be given a berth, “once the (Guyanese) boxers qualify.”
“The boxers did not qualify and nobody got back to me,” Parris said.
The father of eight, who now makes a living as a taxi driver, also discovered that his feat has been forgotten even by some in the sports fraternity.
A few years ago, the Olympian visited the gym at the National Park, which had been set up for national athletes. While there, Parris saw that his portrait had been hung in the building.
“I asked whose picture was up there, and someone said ‘is somebody name Michael Parris.’”
Watching the London Olympics leaves him despondent at the sorry state of boxing and other sports here.
“You can’t wait until the Olympics to start preparing. Imagine we didn’t send a cyclist (to the Olympics); we don’t have a synthetic track.”
He’s especially disturbed at how the quality of amateur boxing has deteriorated from the time when Guyana dominated the Caribbean.
“What I think has happened is that too many amateur boxers are turning professional; they are looking for a dollar. Some of them are fighting professionally but they are still amateurs (in terms of their quality.)”
“We back home need the facilities. You have to have the tools to work with; you just can’t pick yourself up and go.”
If this investment is made, the time may very well come when more young Guyanese stand proudly on the Olympic podium.