Bill Ahern gave his life to boxing, and his stable of fighters never forgot

  • Bill Ahern, a former boxer with deep ties to the area, died Sunday at the age of 80. Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 6/26/2019 5:22:35 PM

A few members of the state’s boxing community knew their mentor was dying.

His name was Bill Ahern, and he made a major impact on these tough guys without ever throwing a punch at them. They knew Ahern, a lifelong smoker, had lung cancer. They knew he needed help getting in and out of the car for his doctor’s appointments. And they knew that when Ahern was gone, one of the most important figures connected to this sport – a combination of brutality and finesse – would be lost.

So they went to the Foothills of Warner for breakfast, invited by Ahern’s longtime friend and fellow trainer Cameron Ford of Hopkinton. They sat at a table, hid behind menus, and after Ahern had taken a  seat – told by Ford there was no place to sit and they’d have to share a table with strangers – they lowered their menus and gave their old mentor a love tap with the force of a left hook.

“He was smiling like crazy,” Ford told me this week by phone. “He had no idea.”

Ahern died Sunday at the age of 80, eight days after that final meal with fighters whom he had helped to focus their anger, moving it from the streets to the ring.

They appreciated this opportunity to say goodbye, because they appreciated what Ahern had done for them, the rides to arenas, the training, the gym space, the equipment, the pure love for the sport and the pure concern he had for those who joined his stable at the Capital Area Boxing Club back in the ’90s.

“He had a way about him,” Ford said. “People trusted him and he never asked for anything in return. Some kids did not have decent clothes and he’d find something for them. He helped so many of those kids.”

People like Ahern, Ford and the late Dave Gates of Belmont would not let amateur boxing absorb a knockout punch. Let’s face it, the Granite State isn’t exactly known for its rich boxing history. Not like hockey and skiing and even baseball.

Ahern was a lightweight amateur boxing champion in the 1960s, when the New England Golden Gloves and Silver Mittens tournaments drew big crowds, mostly in Lowell, Mass., and Vermont, in cramped, smoky arenas with the gritty feel of a black-and-white movie.

He was a skinny fighter with a dynamite right hand and quick feet, according to one of his sons, Bruce Ahern, of Loudon.

“He would try to teach me his style, but he was more of a boxer-puncher and I liked to be more of a slugger,” Bruce said.

He was also a romantic son-of-a-gun who went to great lengths to marry, according to his obit, his “best friend.”

“My mother was 20 and my dad was 16, so he quit high school so she wouldn’t find out he was still in high school,” said Jeanne Duford, one of Ahern’s two daughters. “They went to get the marriage license and he said they had to pick up his mother so she could sign it. That’s when she found out how old he was.”

From there, Ahern went back to school at night, earning his GED and college degree before becoming a recreational therapist at the N.H. State Hospital. He taught his five children to always, always, get off the canvas after a knockdown, never quit.

So when Duford was suffering personal problems that caused great stress in her life, she recalled what her father had always preached to her. Something about toughness. Something about resiliency. She’s now a psychology professor at New Hampshire Technical Institute, after working with trauma victims as a psychotherapist.

She credits her father with helping her get back on track, telling me, “He instilled in us to fight and never quit, so I did what he did, went to school nights while working fulltime and (raising) three kids.”

Ahern, who lived most of his life in Concord but recently moved to Hopkinton, had a gentle side, often quiet and soft spoken. But when you’re a boxer, something burns inside you, something harsh and disciplined and just plain tough.

Ahern trained his late son, often driving behind while Bill Jr. ran, pushing him, making him reach his potential, no matter how hard the task. Duford said someone once called the cops, thinking a father might be abusing his son.

Duford experienced this side of her father as a teen, this dichotomy of two worlds – gentle and strict – crashing together.

“Boxers would say they loved him, but I could not stand him,” Duford said. “When the patience gene was handed out, he didn’t get one. He wanted us to be our best.”

She continued: “He did not want anyone to know, but he was a real teddy bear. He would cry at the drop of a hat. If he heard something bad happened (to one of his boxers), he would ride over to help them.”

He opened a pair of gyms, one at the state hospital and later in Concord with Ford. Through the years, boxing and its painful essence helped Ahern deal with a different sort of pain, more acute, more damaging, after taking an initial break from the sport.

He lost son, Bill Jr., to a motorcycle accident and his wife, Elaine, to lung disease, prompting Ford to tell me, “He still tried to enjoy life. A lot of times he was not happy. He missed his wife terribly, and his son was part of the reason he was not going to the gym.”

Eventually, Ahern became one of the faces of boxing in the state, a cornerman and trainer and motivator at a time when the New Hampshire Boxing Commission was in a power struggle with USA Boxing New England.

That pushed the sport here into the background, forcing boxers to fight independently, without their home state emblazoned on their trunks or robe.

When New Hampshire boxers traveled to fight, Ahern was there, driving the van, and when they needed to train, he was there, too, providing the equipment and the gym and the encouragement to young people with police records and nicknames like Mad Dog.

One of his boxers, Arthur Overlock of Danbury, declined to talk about his past because he wanted the focus to remain on his old trainer and friend. He grew up in Danbury and works at the county jail in Boscawen. He said he owes Ahern a lot.

“A great mentor,” Overlock said. “We would go to the Golden Gloves in Vermont and he would drive there and dedicate his time and he would open the gym on Saturdays just for us. He was just a guy who wanted to help people.”

His relationship with Ford grew through the years as both men dedicated themselves to troubled youth, keeping them in check, teaching them discipline.

He and Ford would sing Karaoke on Friday nights. They’d meet at the dump Saturday mornings, then go out for breakfast. That’s why Ahern suspected nothing earlier this month, when Ford suggested they eat at the Foothills of Warner.

Overlock and four others showed up, a group of hard-boiled eggs with tough backgrounds and a soft spot for their mentor, who by then needed a cane and help moving in and out of a car.

They hid their faces behind menus. They waited for the pair to settle into their chairs. Then they lowered their menus and greeted Ahern, catching him totally off guard.

He died eight days later.

“It was great,” Overlock said. “We were all sitting there, and just the smile on his face was worth everything. A great guy.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)




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