The Matchmaker of Whitefriars Road
In a modern gym what you tend to notice first is the equipment: the exercise bikes, the weight-lifting contraptions, the rowing machines, the treadmills. They crowd the floor; their steel shafts gleam enticingly. The users seem overshadowed by these instruments that measure, if not dictate, their pace and performance like an industrial conveyor belt. In sporting terms they fulfil the role of opponents that you don’t have to make a human relationship with.
There’s something refreshingly low tech, in contrast, about the West Hill Boxing Club training gym in Whitefriars Street. You approach through a courtyard set back from the road and circle past dingy ground floor windows of an ugly brick building – it used to be a morgue, I’m told, with ancient bloodstains still apparent on the concrete base below the floorboards – to reach the reception door round the back. Inside it’s teeming with human energy. A single room (dimensions), with a couple of areas roped off to provide sparring rings, accommodates the exercise of thirty or more boys, a few girls, a few adults. Some work solo, some in pairs, most clad in singlets and shorts or jogging bottoms – no poser fashionwear here – as they jump, prance, skip, strut, spar, shadow-box. Though there are some weights available for use in a room upstairs, boxing gloves, a punch bag or a skipping rope are all the equipment most need to keep them moving and sweating.
The club is open five evenings a week for anyone from age 10 upwards, with one or more adult coaches always on duty to monitor proceedings, including collection of subs, supervision of sparring, coaching of techniques. The general atmosphere is one of individual self-discipline at all ages but also of keenly fostered social harmony. The very fact that boxing is an exercise in outward social aggression seems to engender its opposite between club members.
Dave Bishop, aged 49, started boxing here in 1978 at the age of 11, brought along by his father who had been a national amateur champion in his time. Dave still comes twice a week to coach and supervise, one of eight members of a committee – four men, four women – that runs the club.
None of them receives any payment. Nor does the club get any public funding, either from the national governing body England Boxing or from the local Council. It can only make ends meet – to cover regulatory costs, insurances, equipment expenses etc – because it owns the building and collects modest subs from all users.
Dave is the club’s matchmaker – a kind of fixtures secretary, team manager and results forecaster rolled into one. His job is to find appropriate matches for club boxers with those of other clubs taking due account of age, weight, experience, talent and location, then to negotiate a roster of bouts between matched opponents in a combined “show” on public display at a mutually convenient time and place.
Like the broker of a dating agency? Well, yes, but with potentially more damaging consequences than just a disappointed romance. A mismatched tennis game is just that, while wide disparities in golfing competence can be resolved by handicapping. An ill-judged boxing bout may result in an altogether more bruising encounter. (Cue for an old Tommy Cooper joke: “I was in the ring once with Cassius Clay and had him worried: he thought he’d killed me”). Parents aren’t pleased, he admits ruefully, if he gets it wrong.
Bouts last two or three rounds, one and a half minutes for a round in the lowest age group (10 and upwards) rising to two minutes for older juniors and three minutes for seniors. If these times don’t sound very long to you, think again.The levels of fitness required are extreme. It’s not like a racket sport where contestants can manage their own time between points; it’s not a middle distance race which you run at your own chosen rhythm; it’s not a team sport like football or rugby where there should be someone to cover for you if you’ve just made a couple of lung-bursting sprints and need a breather. Your opponent in the boxing arena is literally in your face without let up, primed to spot any show of tiredness or weakness or shortness of breath and take advantage.
Moreover every boxer other than in the heavyweight class is looking to weigh in at the least poundage compatible with retention of strength and fitness. Looking round the West Hill gym I didn’t see anyone with any excess fat tissues.
Fitness needs to be allied to the fast-twitch muscles that distinguish talented boxers from the mundane. But Dave identifies mental attributes that are just as essential: self-discipline and what he calls being “tough-minded” – the ability to protect yourself and keep out of trouble, but also the resilience to take a punch without showing fear or weakness, without losing focus. Two minutes may be a very long time in the ring when an aggressive opponent is coming for you, all fists blazing.
West Hill hosts a boxing show of its own two or three times a year, not at the Whitefriars Street premises but at a venue that can accommodate plenty of spectators – most recently at the Hollington Youth Centre, where last month Dave matched 16 bouts for a variety of ages, weights and levels, (How many spectators?) These included four for female boxers – the charismatic success of Nichola Adams at the 2012 Olympics has spawned a notable increase at this