Even a club that has produced a world heavyweight champion and been visited by a prime minister is struggling, writes John Dennen
IT looks like gyms will be able to open on April 12, though what forms of boxing training can then happen are still to be confirmed. There is a long way to go and this lockdown has been especially trying for amateur boxing clubs. Steve Egan, the head coach at the wonderfully successful Jimmy Egan’s, explained, “We exist on a shoestring. We always get by on the kids coming in paying three quid. If they can’t afford it, we don’t turn them away. Like all boxing clubs. Most of the kids are on a council estate, there’s not many parents that have got money.”
Keeping up with bills is the challenge. They pay a peppercorn rent but subletting prevents them from applying for certain grants. But Jimmy Egan’s is the kind of essential community centre that must be preserved. “In the 2000 census it [their area] was the poorest ward in the country. Obviously it’s not in the top 10 now. The estate’s come up a bit in the last few years, but it’s still pretty rough. A lot of kids who are rough round the edges, we put them on the right track and we teach them discipline, manners and respect. Boxing’s the last thing,” Steve said. “I’m not horrible, I’m passionate. I scream and bawl but I encourage and pat you on the head and put an arm round the shoulder. You can tell when a lad’s feeling a bit off, feeling a bit down, you take them to one side and have a quiet word with him to make sure everything’s alright, make sure everything’s okay at home.
“We’re everything as a coach, boxing coach, male role model, life coach, step dad. You name it we’re it. I don’t think there’s a sport like it!
“It’s like family and that’s the way we treat everyone.”
Not only that, the gym also gets championship results. “[My father] was a superstar on the estate. Everyone knows who Jimmy Egan is. That’s why we changed the name to my dad’s name when he was passing away,” Steve said. “We have had six different names now and 13 different premises since we started in 1980. We’ve been kicked in the teeth every couple of years. That someone fancies your building or ‘sorry you can’t use it no more.’ We’ve heard all the excuses… We’ve been shut that many times but my dad wouldn’t have it, he kept going and going and going.
“Since my dad passed away, we’ve had 33 national champions and that’s on a shoestring, against some of the great gyms you’ve got in the country.
“33 in 16 years, it’s not bad.”
One of the club’s greatest triumphs was Tyson Fury. He began there as a teenager and won the ABAs with them. Steve always felt Tyson was going to do something special. “There was just something about him, I always told him – think like a middleweight, don’t be a big daft plodder like the rest of them. Do the pace, work rate, think like a middleweight,” he said.
That is an inspirational example of what an amateur club in the heart of a community can do. But Jimmy Egan’s serves a wider function. They tried to explain that to Boris Johnson when the prime minister visited the gym for a photo op. “We did talk to him as well after that. In the kitchen we spoke about how many agencies get involved when a kid goes the wrong way, probably five, six different agencies and they’re all getting paid, I think it’s £2000 a week for one young offender. Give us £1000 a week, we’ll sort five or 10 of them out, not just keep them in the system,” Steve said. “We have wrote to Boris since, telling him the gym is struggling. We’ve had no reply yet.”
“[Boxing] deals with kids that wouldn’t go into other sports. Other sports couldn’t handle them. Football would just kick them out straight away,” he continued. “We’d 42 carded fighters, which is a ridiculous amount really for the size of the gym… We can have 60 to 70 kids in the kids session.
“[Eventually] we can bring the kids back in and reignite their boxing careers. Get them on the right track again because God knows what they’re doing now.”
To support Jimmy Egan’s visit their funding page: https://www.gofundme.com/f/jimmy-egans-boxing-academy-community-support.