The B.C. boxing community is reeling after boxer Mike Heathfield was found dead Tuesday in his Maple Ridge home at the age of 53.
The cause of death is unknown. Coroners are investigating.
A Ridge Meadows RCMP spokesperson said foul play is not suspected, and the death is not considered a suicide. The coroners service is responsible for investigating all sudden and unexpected, unexplained, unattended, or unnatural deaths.
Sources close to the Heathfield family suspect it may have been a heart attack that felled the larger-than-life boxer.
He spent close to 30 years as a professional fighter and was well known in the B.C. professional boxing world as much for his gregarious personality as his acumen and longevity in the ring.
After a long and successful career as a Muay Thai kickboxer, Heathfield won the Canadian Toughman Championship at age 49 in 2007, successfully defending his title later that year.
Heathfield made the move to professional boxing soon after, winning a handful of fights against boxers half his age.
By his own count, Heathfield compiled a 64-8 record in the various fighting disciplines he competed in.
Fight promoter Gerry Gionco first met Heathfield 20 years ago, and the two soon became training partners, working under Robbie Dellapenna and Chris Franco. Heathfield eventually fought at a number of Gionco’s events, often donating the money he made to the charity Gionco founded in memory of his son, called the Kyle Demsey Gionco Foundation, which helps underprivileged children afford martial arts training.
“Mike never took a dime for a pro fight,” Gionco said. “He always gave it to his trainers or to charity. For fighters, the ring is a stage, and he just loved to be on that stage.”
Gionco said Heathfield will be missed by the B.C. boxing community.
“A lot of people cared about him,” he said. “I’m not sure that he knew just how many, but a lot of people did.”
Connor Redmond of the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants trained with Heathfield prior to the 2010/11 season, teaching him how to fight in the rough-and-tumble major junior leagues.
“He was one of the most unique people I’ve ever met, and I mean that in a good way,” Redmond said. “It goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover, because he can come across as this big scary guy. He’s intense, but honestly, he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.”
Redmond said that although his family could afford it, Heathfield refused to charge him for his private lessons, all summer.
“The only thing he asked for was some autographed pictures for his neighbours and an autographed stick for this kid he knew who was going through cancer,” said Redmond.
Former Team Canada Olympic boxer Manny Sobral said he was shocked to hear of Heathfield’s passing.
“This is such sad news,” he said. “My heart goes out to his family. We’re all really going to miss him.”
Heathfield is survived by his two children, Zach, aged nine, and Shannon, six.
Heathfield originally hails from Montreal. Prior to stepping into the ring, Heathfield spent time in the Canadian Football League in the early 1980s, playing for the Edmonton Eskimos. A trade to the B.C. Lions brought him out west, where he stayed after his short stint on the Lions’ practice roster was over.
The loquacious pugilist was also successful outside of the ring. Heathfield owned a labour placement company with more than dozen offices across B.C., and his success afforded him the time needed to train for the sport he loved.
Heathfield was featured earlier this year on an episode of The Score television network’s Gotta Grudge?, on which he fought a disgruntled former employee, defeating him handily.