Ray Casal has always had a knack for teaching young people how to box.
It’s a gift that came to the forefront during his childhood when the then 10-year-old instructed neighborhood kids on the nuances of the sweet science in his father’s backyard just so that he could have some sparring partners around his age.
That ability to connect with youths and teach them how to box is something that never went away. It is the reason the 59-year-old Niagara Falls native and longtime owner of Casal’s School of Fighting Arts was inducted into the Buffalo Veteran Boxers Association Ring 44 Hall of Fame on Friday night during the annual dinner ceremony at Salvatore’s Italians Gardens.
Casal, who had more than 60 people purchase dinner tickets to see him get his due, was one of three inducted into the Ring 44 Hall before an estimated 175. Other members of this class of inductees included five-time amateur national champion and former world No. 1 light middleweight boxing contender Ross Thompson and the late Tony Sisti.
“It’s a humbling thing,” said Casal, who officially started training boxers and kick boxers in 1971 and opened his gym in the Falls in 1982. “I’m very proud of it. … I’ve always had my heart with the kids, training the amateurs. That’s what’s special about this award. They’re giving me respect as an amateur coach. I’ve worked hard, 40 years dedicated to it – working with kids and watching them grow into teenagers and young adults and then older, mature adults and then they bring their kids to me and now their grandchildren.”
Casal currently trains two-time state Golden Gloves women’s 152-pound champion Brianna Smith – who was in attendance Friday. She’s the daughter of Mike Smith, whom Casal trained as a kickboxer during the early 1980s.
Casal, who recently was appointed Chairman of the Junior Olympics for the Niagara Region, has trained 22 national Golden Gloves champions and four national PAL champs.
The bulk of those national titles were captured by his proteges during the early 2000s – a list that includes his son and current professional welterweight Nick, step-son and professional Anthony Lenk, John Harless, Joey Trusello and Matt Remillard.
Casal has coached the region’s Junior Olympic team that went to nationals, the Empire State Games Western Region team and the prestigious Fran Jones Under-19 national tournament team. He was named the most outstanding coach of the tournament in 2003 at the Fran Jones when two of his boxers, Nick Casal and Remillard, won national titles.
Casal, who has also trained 78 state Golden Gloves champions and 28 Silver Gloves champions, works with all types of kids – those from solid homes, those from not-so-solid ones, those from single-parent homes, those looking to escape gang life, those looking to be able to defend themselves and those who just want to get in shape and build up their self-esteem.
“We wear a lot of hats” as trainers, said Casal, who has also worked the corners for headlining professionals like his son, Meldrick Taylor, Tony Tubbs and Ray Mancini. “I’m a coach, I’m a psychiatrist, I’m a counselor, I’m a disciplinarian. I’m a chiropractor. You wear so many hats when you’re a trainer in a gym like this because everybody talks to you. Everybody has issues. So we’re doing more than just teaching boxing. There’s a lot of life going on in this gym but I like that. That’s what’s fun. That’s what I live for.”
While Casal has a knack for connecting with youths, he also was one of the more progressive thinkers among trainers as he began training women how to fight during the 1980s. He said now-retired Buffalo Police officer Kathy Hanley was one of his early protégés.
Casal estimates females account for the majority of his business, which he says is good because “they always pay their gym fees on time.”
Thompson won four national PAL titles and the 1991 national Golden Gloves championship before turning professional in 1992. He fought for the world title in 2000 and lost to then unbeaten Fernando Vargas. Thompson, who lost to nine times to fighters who either held or fought for a world title, went 27-16-1 with 17 KOs and won three regional-type belts.
“This is the biggest moment in boxing for me since fighting for the title,” said Thompson, whose entourage included close to 40 family members and friends. “I feel good.”
Sisti was an artist and boxer who won a state Golden Gloves title in 1918 before turning pro. He lost only 15 times in more than 100 pro fights.
He used the money he earned in the ring to pay for art school in Italy. He also fought in Italy to pay tuition fees and to finance his return trip to Buffalo. He last fought at age 42 in New York City, beating Fred Sulanto via first-round knockout to finance his first art show in the Big Apple.
Sisti painted portraits of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and former Buffalo mayor Frank A. Sedita and murals of boxers Joe Walcott and Joe and Phil Muscato.
“He would be very proud of the honor that’s being bestowed upon him,” said Nick Romano, Sisti’s nephew. “He traveled with Ernest Hemingway. He taught the Agnelli family, which owned Fiat, how to box. ... He was one of Western New York’s true characters.”