Sorry, been too busy to blog of late. But I thought you might like a piece I wrote a couple of years back for the Herald Magazine about a Glasgow boxing club.
24 Aug 2009
And then the bell rings.
It’s more of a rattle, really, a dry, asthmatic reverberation that cuts through the noise of the gym and for one rare moment brings everything to a stop. Chests still rise and fall, beads of sweat are wiped from brows and eyes, or gather in the smalls of backs, and punchbags swing in a diminishing arc, but a silence falls on the room. Men stand motionless, like a freeze frame in a Scorsese or Tarantino movie. A suspended moment, a drawing of breath, a gathering of energy. It lasts just a few seconds before the bell rattles again and everyone comes to life, swinging punches, skipping, sparring, pulling weights, joking, bantering.
Wednesday evening in Kelvin Amateur Boxing Club, Glasgow, and all (male) human life is here. Businessmen, bouncers, teenagers with the bloom of acne still on their faces, pensioners who’ve seen their three score and are working on the 10, ex-drug addicts who – you can tell from the broad, muscular shoulders – have found a new fix, salesmen, minor pop stars, the unemployed, former amateurs and pros with noses buckled and splayed by nights in the ring, newbies who’ve never set foot in the place before tonight. Asians, Africans, eastern Europeans, Glaswegians. All finding something in this scuff-marked space that keeps them coming back, all with stories to tell.
Here’s one. Tommy Fairfield is 54 years old and dressed in a sweat-soaked jacket and hoodie. He wanders over to show me his leg, hiking up his shorts to reveal burn marks on his upper thigh. "That leg’s the same," he says, indicating the other. "It was 25,000 volts, third-degree burns." A few years ago he was out running along a railway track when he got hit by an iron bar thrown by some kids. "It came over the main wire so I’ve walked into it. Or I’ve run into it." He ended up on the track. And that’s where the colossal voltage comes in. "It blew me away. I was lucky it wasn’t raining, because the next night the rain apparently was bouncing off the ground."
In the burns unit he would try to do pull-ups using the triangular pulley above his bed as soon as he was off the danger list. He spent three months and underwent four operations in hospital. The first night he returned to the boxing club his legs were still bandaged. "When I started coming here I thought, ‘Good, that’s me on the road to recovery.’ And most of the boys here were very helpful. Then three or four months down the line I was out running very lightly." A different route, presumably? "Aye," he says, laughing mordantly.
Behind him Jools Gizzi is pedalling hard on a stationary bike. He comes to the Kelvin two or three times a week. "There’s no hiding in here," he says as he cycles. "You come here to train. They’ll put you through your paces and you train like mad." Once upon a time Gizzi was in a Glaswegian rock band called Gun. They were almost famous 20 years ago and even had a couple of minor hits. These days he’s writing songs and planning a Gun reunion for the autumn. A year and a half ago he was some 35 pounds heavier than he is now. "That’s just eating properly and coming in training. The sweat pours off you hitting those pads. And the skipping alone … When I first came here I skipped like a big girl." He cycles on.
Over at the punchbags John Gilbert and Frank McGuinness introduce themselves. "I own a wee establishment called The Fish Plaice at Glasgow Cross," says Gilbert. "That’s where they had the gallows and in the olden days everyone would come to watch the hangings." "John is the sole proprietor of The Fish Plaice," chips in McGuinness, a 63-year-old retired bookie who still runs the odd half-marathon. "We smell him before we see him." He makes sure I’ve spelled "sole" correctly.
All these people, all these stories. David Stone is 39, with shoulders the size of an American footballer’s (though his are not padded) and a face that on one side is tender with swollen tissue and bone. Soon he will be getting reconstructive surgery, but he’s already done much to rebuild his life. "I’m an ex-user," he says. "I used to do a lot of drugs, used to drink, a smoker all my life. I felt my life was going nowhere." And then, encouraged by his friend James Docherty, he started coming to the Kelvin. "At first I was terrified to come along, but just coming and watching him," he says, pointing to Docherty who is sitting beside him, "kind of motivated me. I’ve not looked back since. The amount of respect you get in here … I love the place. I feel so confident, I feel great." Now Docherty and Stone have encouraged their friend David Degnan to join them. "I saw them going and getting in good shape," says Degnan. "I used to do it years ago and fell away from it. I got caught up in other things – drinking, taking drugs and that."
"None of us drink or do anything else," adds Docherty. "It’s replacing that stuff with positive stuff. Come in here and you get a bit of self-esteem and self-confidence. You can feel good about yourself."
The bell rattles. Time to go back to training. Punch, spar, skip, pull, push, laugh.
Despite the name, the Kelvin ABC is in the south side district of Govanhill. Charlie Kerr, a former pro boxer and Scottish champion, moved it from the west end to Belleisle Street in 1979. It now sits snug in a corner behind the looming weight of the Holy Cross Chapel. Once upon a time the building was a police station. It has also served as a stable for fire station horses and a day-care centre for the elderly. Actually it still was a day-care centre in 1979. "We used to have to lift carpets and tables," recalls Jimmy Reilly, a 54-year-old oil rig worker who’s been coming to the Kelvin for all of those 30 years. In the early days in Govanhill the place smelled, the walls were damp and those training skipped or shadow-boxed around buckets. Things are a little better these days – there’s decent equipment and a roof that doesn’t leak – but in winter it’s cold and in summer it’s a hotbox. "An old gritty boxing gym," is how James McCosh, a club regular, sums it up. "If you go to a modern gym you’ve got plasma screens, running machines, rowing machines, heat in the building. It makes you soft in the way you train," says David Cardwell, the club’s (voluntary) manager. "If you’re not down here to train there’s nothing else to do."
Cardwell started coming to the Kelvin in 1982. He was 12. "My uncle Michael brought me because I was getting bullied a bit in primary seven, and I never looked back. I stopped coming when I was about 22, 23, and went travelling a bit. I came back about four years ago and I’ve been involved in the club as a sort of club manager cum dogsbody/cleaner."
The club had been struggling at the time. Kerr’s death in 2004 had plunged it into a period of uncertainty. Even as far back as 2001 it had been closed by the city council over fears about the safety of its electrical wiring. It was in need of someone to give it a bit of direction. Cardwell and club coach Mark Gillan have helped provide that. The club opens four evenings a week, with another night just for kids. Everyone pays £2 a session. If there’s a shelf needing fixed Cardwell will ask a member who’s a joiner to help. Now and then there’ll be a donation from one of the club’s better-off members.
Football tops are not allowed, and there’s no football talk either. The Kelvin majors in boxing lessons. Life lessons too. "You find out about training, about what things not to do if you’re outside and you get in a fight," suggests Cardwell. "The best thing to do is run away. So I learned a lot of lessons from the guys who were older than me and had maybe made a lot of mistakes on the streets."
"It’s a life-changing experience when you come to one of these places as a Glaswegian," agrees Frank McDade, who has just completed an impressive set of pull-ups, his sweatshirt wet from the effort. McDade, 38, who works for Arnold Clark, first came here in 1984, when Charlie Kerr was running the place. "Every guy’s a tough guy in Glasgow growing up," he says. "Coming here puts you in your little place. You come in here as a big guy. Your granda says, ‘I’ll take you to the boxing,’ and you look at your granda and say, ‘You’re an old man, what do you know about fighting? I’m a tough guy.’ You come through those doors and there’s a wee guy standing there and he’s a cheery wee guy, and it’s still not sunk in you’re in here with hard cases. Then after a couple of sessions you’re in the ring; you get a couple of biffs in the face and you realise, ‘I’m just a pup.’ That alone gets you on track in life."
The Kelvin is a gritty, old-fashioned club that provides a gritty, old-fashioned vision of life, then. For some that’s the problem. Boxing is a sport that trails baggage in its wake; a notion of machismo, a vision of violence, an inheritance of damage. But that’s not baggage anyone here recognises. "Obviously in the past few years there’s been a bit of a stigma around boxing," admits Cardwell, "maybe because of injuries or a death that’s been highlighted." Boxing though is nowhere near top of the charts for fatalities in sport, he points out. Hillwalking, motor-racing, horse-racing and rugby are more dangerous, he reckons. And anyway, he says, "I wouldnae like someone’s son coming in here and going in sparring and the next minute they go up the road with a burst lip or maybe worse. The sparring needs to be supervised by an adult or the people who are sparring against novices have to have a bit of experience to hold back."
"Boxing’s an art," says Jimmy Reilly forcefully. "If it was just savagery the bigger guy would win all the time. There’s an art to it. There’s a lot of brainwork as well. Boxing gets a bad name but if you look at all these boys, if they’re in here they’re not breaking into your house or scratching your motor. It gives them a goal in life. It gives them a bit of discipline."
Everyone I speak to at the Kelvin uses the D word. Respect, too, is something of a mantra. Almost everyone says or alludes to the idea that training conditions the mind as well as the body. "When I first started boxing I learned to keep fit, eat the right things, drink the right things," recalls Cardwell. "I don’t smoke, I don’t take drugs and I’ve never really done that. I’ve never smoked and I’ve been drunk maybe six times, and I’m glad I’m not a typical working-class Glaswegian where a lot of my money and my time and my energy would be spent in bookies or pubs."
While the Kelvin is a male environment (they’ve had women come to train, but not often), it’s not a macho environment. It’s also, these days, a club for fitness training. Sparring is optional. The Kelvin does not organise bouts for anyone, although it has in the past. It has even bred a champion.
Donnie Hood is a wee, wirey man with a Catweazle beard. His grandfather boxed with Charlie Kerr in the old boxing booths. Everything he learned about boxing he says he learned from Kerr and his grandfather. "They knew how to parry, duck, dive, weave, box. All the ringcraft you needed." It made Hood a Scottish champion. In 1987 he won the Scottish bantamweight title, beating Brian Holmes after 10 rounds, despite having only one good eye. And, he points out, only one good hand. "I broke my hand in the second round. I shifted that knuckle up to there …" He indicates somewhere halfway up his wrist. "I couldn’t feel anything until the sixth. That’s how I couldnae finish wee Brian. Wee Brian was a hard man to finish anyway. And we had a lot of respect for each other."
Hood was living rough at the time of his victory. Boxing was his life. It still is. He comes to the Kelvin with his 17-year-old son, Colin, and helps him train. He talks about the great fighters he remembers watching when he was growing up. Sugar Ray, Roberto Duran, Ali of course, Willie Pepp. There’s a freight of sadness in there too. He has just been reading about Alexis Arguello, the great Nicaraguan boxer, a three-times world champion who entered politics and was found dead at his home in Managua last month with a gunshot wound to the chest. A possible suicide.
Hood mentions Kerr too. "I’ve got a big hole missing since Charlie [died]," he says. "My world dropped. I don’t know what to do with myself."
Kerr’s ghost hovers benignly over the Kelvin. All those old enough to remember him talk about him fondly. "His whole life revolved around boxing," recalls Reilly. "He used to work for the [Glasgow] corporation and as soon as he finished he was down here. He never missed a night, no matter what."
"On the day of his funeral there was a funeral Mass for him in the Holy Cross," says Frank McGuinness, "and after the Mass we all stood at the end of Belleisle Street, and as the cortege passed the hearse there was spontaneous applause."
Next to Hood, McDade is perhaps the most effusive. "Charlie Kerr was a friend of my grandfather’s from the Gorbals," he says. "Boxing was very much a way of life for a lot of people. There wasnae Playstations in they days. Charlie instilled in us a lot of his ways and his philosophies – about how to train and carry yourself as a person in Glasgow."
There are Playstations today, of course. Maybe that’s one reason why boxing clubs in Glasgow have been closing in recent years. It’s not the only reason, Cardwell reckons. He points to rising insurance costs, the fact there are more and more forms to fill in (council disclosure forms for a start) and more and more health and safety requirements to be met. It demands a commitment to run a boxing club. And maybe boxing has become a bit marginalised. "There’s been a lot of funding for swimming and tennis and squash and golf," says Cardwell, "but there’s not a lot of working-class kids running around saying, ‘I’d like to pick up a squash racket or a tennis racket.’"
They still come to the boxing club though. In the ring Rehman Mehmood is sparring while Iain Patterson is just back from a run. Patterson is from Cathcart. He’s 15 and has just sat his Standard Grades. He comes three or four times a week. "There’s not much do around here," he says. He always wanted to do something physical. "This way it’s controlled and I can learn to do it properly." He’s ambitious too. Ask him what he wants to become and he says: "A pro, without doubt. I’m no’ gonnae start something and not finish it. I’m going as far as I can, defin-ately."
His mate Kami Afzal, a year older, is a little more restrained. "My dream when I’m older is to be a personal trainer," he says. His first client is himself. "I’m asthmatic. I was really fat three years ago. My health and weight and everything was terrible." That’s changed. Everything is in flux when you’re a teenager, of course. "At primary school we had a group of guys who worked out together and when I got to first year [because of] all the bad things they do – getting drunk, smoking and all that – I split up from the group because I didn’t want to be in that place. Most of them will probably have criminal records [by now]. Usually people think teenagers take a long time to grow up but for us time flies, so I came here and changed a bit."
Four nights a week the bell rattles, constantly urging everyone in the Kelvin to train more, to do better. And the doing of it changes things. Changes people.
"The fitness level you get in here and the way it makes you feel are tremendous," says McDade, wiping the sweat from his brow. "No jacket or car’ll gie you that."
It’s 8pm now and the room is a blur of motion. Punch, spar, skip, pull, push, laugh. Paul Weir, another former world champion, is in the club now. He’s hoping to open a club of his own at some point. Boxing has had a hard few years but he’s optimistic. "You’ve got the Commonwealth Games coming up in five years’ time and no doubt there will be guys wanting to get back involved with boxing because there’ll be a lot of stuff on TV and in the newspapers," he says. "When you get young guys who are fighting and being successful it encourages young kids to go to the gym. These are young kids aspiring to be something when they grow up."
David Stone stops to speak to me again, telling me he’s hoping to play in the Homeless World Cup in 2010. In Brazil. "By next year all my reconstructive surgery will be done," he says. "I’ll be fitter. I’ll have stopped smoking and I’ll be representing my country in a Homeless World Cup."
Watching all this I realise the Scorsese and Tarantino comparisons are wide of the mark. There’s no movie machismo here. There is no posing or showing off. This is about work and the dignity of work. The bell rattles. No-one stops. Everyone is moving forward.
Kelvin Amateur Boxing Club, 21 Belleisle Street, Glasgow, is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 4.45-9pm, and Sunday, 10.30am-2pm. Children’s night is Thursday, 5.30-8.30pm.