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Chimps halfway to champs 

Courtesy Kevin Nelson

Kanien’kéha immersion students are known for their discipline, and Hank Sha’tekaronhí:io Tolley is no exception. The 20-year-old gets out of bed at 3 a.m., well before it’s time to hit the books. Instead, he hits the shower and he hits the road – all to be at the Tristar Gym in Montreal to see the place come to life. 

When he walks in before the clock strikes five, it’s a couple degrees colder than it is outside, and it’s “dark as hell,” Tolley said, but it’s peaceful. He trains a little, hitting the punching bag, relaxes. Soon the gym is warm, the sounds of sparring and laughter filling the room. 

“I’d say it’s one of the happiest environments, at least in the morning time,” he said. 

Camp starts at 6 a.m. Monday to Friday. The 12-week Chimp 2 Champ program, about halfway done, trains nine students in mixed martial arts (MMA) as they work up to a showcase bout the day after camp ends. 

Tolley is just one of three Kanehsata’kehró:non taking part, with 25-year-old Dylan Gabriel and 13-year-old Martin Larente, Jr., also putting in the work. 

Exercises like blocking and shadowboxing teach the fundamentals, while on Fridays one of the coaches ratchets up the energy with a take on basketball in which players wrestle for the ball. 

“It’s something I look forward to every day,” said Gabriel of the training, adding that his passion for boxing runs in his blood, with multiple family members boasting accolades in the sport. He had always wanted to follow in their footsteps, but he wasn’t in the right headspace, he said. 

When Gabriel’s mother died two Christmases ago, he decided to make changes. 

“Losing her, it was like I lost everything,” he said. “I was never able to see my mom again, so the best thing that I could do is live a happy and a good life for her, a healthy life. I stopped drinking, I stopped doing drugs. I was around 300 pounds and now I’m 210 pounds.” 

When he is boxing, his mind clarifies, he said, leaving him feeling the best he’s ever felt. 

“My family’s proud of me, and that feels really good to hear,” he said. 

He’s not sure whether he will follow the path of MMA or boxing, but he’s determined to continue past the showcase and keep fighting, hopefully becoming pro. 

“I want to make a career out of this, and I want to pursue my dream,” he said. 

According to coach Neil Sheppard, whose company Caged Ape Fight Club runs the program, dedication is the number-one quality he looks for in fighters. “Consistency is key,” he said, and he believes his students have what it takes to keep going after the program is finished. 

“I want to make them better fighters,” he said. “I would love for them to fight in the amateur circuit, so this is also a great stepping stone for the amateur circuit.” 

Sheppard is no stranger to Kanesatake, having started delivering martial arts training in the community years ago after accepting an invitation from Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) chief Serge Otsi Simon, who was then grand chief. Sheppard is once again facilitating training each Tuesday night, teaching Kanehsata’kehró:non about jiujitsu through the Kanesatake Health Center (KHC) at Rotiwennakehte Elementary School. The drop-in program continues through May 7. 

Tolley also helps deliver the sessions – Hank the Tank, Sheppard called him. 

“These guys are some of the hardest workers I’ve ever trained,” said Sheppard of the three Kanesatake athletes participating in his program at Tristar.  

“I’m riding a lot of the motivation off these guys; these guys motivate me to work harder and become a better coach.” 

For Tolley, his lifestyle is tiring, but he never doubts he’s doing the right thing pursuing training and the language at the same time. “I always wanted to know how to speak my language. I think it should be a standard,” said the student of the Ratiwennenhá:wi Kanien’kéha immersion program through the Tsi Ronterihwanónhnha ne Kanien’kéha Language and Cultural Center. 

“Everything I do is worth it.” 

The showcase fight for the Kanesatake athletes will take place on Saturday, May 25, at the Tristar Gym, with doors opening at 6 p.m. and the show kicking off at 7 p.m. Tickets will be available online and at the door. 

marcus@easterndoor.com 

Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter 

This article was originally published in print on April 12 in issue 33.15 of The Eastern Door.

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Marcus is a journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.

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Marcus is a journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.