The Matchmaker of Whitefriars Road
In a modern gym it’s the equipment you notice first: the exercise bikes, the weight-lifting contraptions, the rowing machines, the treadmills. They crowd the floor, steel shafts gleaming, as they measure, if not dictate, the pace and performance of their human users. If it’s a contest between humans and machines the latter always look like they’re winning.
Not so at the West Hill Boxing Club whose training gym in Whitefriars Road (off Priory Road) is refreshingly low tech. You approach through a square archway set back from the road and circle past dingy ground floor windows of an ugly whitewashed 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 teems with human energy. A small entrance lobby is partitioned off to keep parents and other visitors at bay; the rest of the ground floor consists of a single room painted green and white, around 70 foot by 50, with a couple of areas roped off to provide sparring rings and the rest festooned liberally with punch bags hanging from the ceiling; it accommodates the exercise of thirty or more boxers simultaneously. When I visit they are mainly boys, a few girls, a few adults. Some work solo, some in pairs, most clad in singlets or T-shirts and shorts or jogging bottoms – no poser fashionwear here – as they jump, prance, thump punch bags, skip, strut, spar, shadow-box. Though there are some weights available for use in a room upstairs, boxing gloves or a skipping rope are all the equipment most need to keep them moving and sweating.
West Hill is the only surviving boxing club in Hastings if you exclude kick-boxing and other oriental variants. But numbers of members are rising according to committee member and coach Dave Bishop. It 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 and training programmes. The general atmosphere is one of individual self-discipline at all ages but also of keenly fostered social harmony between club members.
There are eight in the committee – four men, four women. 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 only makes ends meet – to cover regulatory costs, insurances, equipment expenses etc – because it owns the building, collects modest subs from all users and makes small profits from putting on show events. That’s Dave’s province. For though he is a full-time carpenter by day (he says he laid the timbers on the roof of Priory Meadow shopping centre) he is also 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 West Hill boxers with those of up to 400 other clubs all over the country, taking due account of age, weight, experience, talent and location. Then he negotiates a roster of bouts between matched opponents in a combined “show” on public display at a mutually convenient time and place.
England Boxing organise regional and national championships for which Dave and other coaches will put forward suitable candidates. He draws my attention to a couple of current club seniors Brandon Davies and Belinda Skinner as having the potential for national success. But week in and week out he is looking for shows at which any club member who wants to step into the ring can compete. Like the broker of a dating agency? Well, yes, but with potentially more risk of damaging consequences than just a disappointed romance. A one-sided tennis game is just that, while wide disparities in golfing competence can be resolved by handicapping. A mismatched 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.
West Hill hosts a boxing show of its own two or three times a year, not at the Whitefriars Road premises but at a venue that can accommodate plenty of spectators. Around 300 (adults paying £10 a head, juniors £5) attended the most recent at the Hollington Youth Centre in February. Dave had matched 16 bouts for a variety of ages, weights and levels including four for the club’s female boxers – the charismatic success of Nicola Adams at the 2012 Olympics has spawned a notable increase in female competition.
Bouts last three or four rounds, one and a half minutes for each 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 aiming to weigh in at the least poundage compatible with retention of strength and fitness so as to maintain weight class. Looking round the West Hill gym I don’t see anyone with excess fat on them – least of all Dave, who in his fighting days was a featherweight and still looks nimble enough at the age of 49.
Fitness needs to be allied to the fast-twitch muscles that distinguish talented boxers from the mundane. However 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, fists blazing.
If you think you’ve got what it takes and you’re over ten years old, try it out at the gym. The address is 6 Whitefriars Road or phone Dave on 07834 874912.