World-class boxer Tony Luis, Cornwall native, headlines at Civic Complex

Dennis Taylor, Courtesy of Liveco Boxing
World-class boxer Tony Luis, Cornwall native, headlines at Civic Complex

CORNWALL, Ontario – He’s only 11 years beyond his graduation from Collegiate High, but Cornwall native Tony Luis will be shouldering a lifetime of hard knocks as he walks to the ring Oct. 14 for the main event of a professional boxing card at the Civic Complex.

The 29-year-old Luis, 24-3, with eight knockouts, will defend his North American Boxing Association lightweight title against Giovanna Straffon (14-2-1, 9 KOs) in the feature fight of an 8 p.m. show that will co-feature a fast-rising heavyweight prospect, 6- foot-5, 220-pound Ukrainian Oleksandr Teslenko.

Teslenko, a Ukrainian who had more than 300 amateur fights, is 10-0, with eight knockouts as a pro and projected as a future world title contender. The showcase at the Civic Complex will be the third in six months for Luis, who won a technical decision there over Noe Nunez in April, then returned in June to capture his NABA crown with a unanimous-decision victory over previously undefeated Cam O’Connell.

His opponent, a 24-year-old native of Veracruz, Mexico, brings a hardscrabble reputation and a big punch to face Luis in the scheduled 10-rounder. Luis admits to a healthy measure of respect for Straffon — nicknamed “Impacto” — who has won eight of his lastnine fights.

“He’s a southpaw, which automatically makes him difficult, he’s just 24, and he’s tough as nails — he’s going to be there all night,” said Luis, who has a 2-year-old son and a hometown wife (the former Manon Latulippe). “If I stand in front of him and get comfortable, he can turn it into a long, hard fight, so I’m going to have to be smart, use my speed, my skill, my experience, and stick to my game plan.”

Luis is no stranger to adversity, either in or out of the ring. As a 17-year-old he temporarily abandoned a stellar amateur career and turned to heavy drug and alcohol abuse to cope with the death of a beloved paternal grandfather, Fernando Luis.

“What saved me was a handwritten letter I got from my mother (Maria), begging me to go back to boxing,” he said. “As much as the sport scared her, she knew how much I needed it in my life.”

His decision to rededicate himself to the sport also helped alleviate what had become a tense relationship with his father, Jorge — his boxing trainer — reviving their close fatherand-son relationship.

Over the next two years, he set his sights on representing Canada at the 2008 Beijing Olympics — a dream ultimately dashed by chaos and outrage. Luis reached the championship match of the Canadian Nationals, where he was leading three-time national champ Ibrahim Kamal after two rounds of the four-round fight.

“I came out of the third round feeling like I was in control, then was told that somehow, all of a sudden, I was behind by two points. I didn’t understand that,” Luis said. “So I came out in the fourth round laying it all on the line, and was having a good round with just 20 seconds left when they blew the whistle.”

The referee halted the action. Confusion ensued. The fighters were told that the computer system used by the judges to score the fight had allegedly frozen (for the first and only time all week, after hundreds of fights).

All fourth-round action was disregarded. Scoring reverted to the end of three. Kamal, now a four-time national champ, a fighter with more international experience, was declared the winner and went to Beijing.

Kamal’s coach, by the way, also happened to be one of Canada’s Olympic boxing coaches, and the coach’s wife not only was a board member for Boxing Canada … but also happened to be operating the main computer on which the final scores were tallied.

“Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think I’d be naïve to believe that these people’s hearts were in the right place,” Luis said with a time-healed laugh.

Luis turned pro, won his first two fights, and was 11 days from his third bout when his 43-year-old mother — otherwise the picture of health –collapsed at a health club and died of an aneurysm.

Three years after the loss of his grandfather, he dealt with an even-more-devastating tragedy in a very different way: He continued training — on his own since his father was too distraught to come to the gym. Luis paused five days before the fight to bury his mom, then went back to training. And on Oct. 4, 2008, he won.

“It was that letter from my mother that kept me going three years later when she passed away,” he said. “I realized I had to move forward, and felt like it was the best way I could honor her in death.”

No doubt, those painful hours also have buoyed him through a handful of potentially demoralizing disappointments in his boxing career.

On January 25, 2013, Luis was 15-0 and the World Boxing Council’s reigning Continental Americas super lightweight champion. He was suddenly world-ranked and primed to make is U.S. television debut on the ESPN2 network. But the opponent for whom he had trained — a lefty — was a last-minute scratch. A replacement, right-hander Jose Hernandez, was flown in at the 11th hour, packing a mediocre 13-6-1 record.

“I underestimated him,” Luis concedes today. “I looked at his spotty record and completely ignored the fact that he had been matched very tough throughout his career.”

Hernandez taught Luis a career-altering lesson, scoring a technical knockout.

“He took advantage that night of mistakes I’d been getting away with for years,” he says. “After that fight, I addressed those mistakes and started listening, started leaving my ego at the door when I came to the gym. As much as that loss hurt, it helped me evolve as a fighter.”

Not that more hard times weren’t ahead. In boxing, they usually are. A year later, he was back on TV to fight the infamously violent Ivan Redkach (15-0, 13 KOs) on the Showtime network for the United States Boxing Association lightweight crown. Luis knocked Redkach down in the opening round, but ref Randy Phillips declared it a slip.

Later in the fight, when Luis tripped over Redkach’s leg, Phillips ruled it a knockdown. The fight went the distance, and the Ukrainian was awarded a unanimous decision victory.

“This guy was supposed to be the next killer at 135 pounds, but I exposed him and took away his aura,” Luis said. “I don’t think he’s had the same menace since that night, and I’ll always feel like I did enough to win that fight.”

He rebounded from that setback with back-to-back victories over unbeaten fighters — Wanzell Ellison (11-0-1) and Karl Dargan (17-0), the latter for the WBC Continental Americas belt.

Luis laughs today that he was a 7-to-1 betting underdog going into the Dargan fight — a fact he discovered afterward. He insists he would have placed a substantial bet on himself if he had known.

“For me, the Redkach fight was my own redemption — the fight that proved to me that I had bounced back from the Jose Hernandez loss — but the Dargan fight was my chance to show that to the rest of the world,” he said.

One more heartache lay ahead in April 2015, when Luis, who was training for a U.S. fight to be televised by CBS Sports, was offered an opportunity instead to fly to Liverpool, England, for an interim world title shot against Derry Mathews. The opportunity was huge. The money was right. The catch? The fight was 3 1/2 days away.

A jet-lagged Luis lost a narrow decision to Mathews — a Liverpool native. True to his history, Luis has won five in a row since then, lifting himself back into consideration for a world title fight. If he beats Straffon on Oct. 15, his next opponent could be three-time world title challenger Ray Beltran, or Jorge Linares himself for the World Lightweight Championship.

More than 2,000 flocked to the Cornwall Civic Complex for Luis’ last appearance in Cornwall, a roaring throng that gave him an unmatched thrill, he says, as he walked to the ring.

“Training camp felt the same. It didn’t really hit me that I was fighting at home until I came to the ring and heard that response from the crowd,” said Luis, who works as a substance-abuse counselor for a youth treatment center on Cornwall Island. “It didn’t really hit me that I was fighting at home until I came to the ring and heard that response from the crowd.”

He’s hoping for similar support from the community this time around. Tickets starting at $20.00 are on sale now at the Cornwall Civic Complex Box-Office or online at VIP Tables packages which include a 3-course catered meal and other perks are available at

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