Come Out Swinging: Boxing saves

Carshalton Boys secondary school is one of few schools with a boxing club in South London. The club sits across the road from the school, which itself is down a winding pensioner road. Upon first glance, it looks to be a home for the elderly. On the inside, lives that have just begun are being shaped and saved. Most of the boys who attend the boxing club reside in the borough of Sutton where both the club and the school are planted, a borough on the outskirts of South London with a population of just over 40,000. It’s a working-class town that has seen an increase in violent crime of 34% over a five-year period, a rise that is symptomatic of a nationwide issue.

London’s rates of violent crime over recent years are unnerving. With over one million incidents over the last five years, 600 murders and an overall increase of 20%, its rise has been monitored with an intensity.

Public fear is perhaps so profound because these numbers overwhelmingly affect London’s youth. The Office for National Statistics revealed last year that those between the ages of 15-24 are six times more likely to be murdered, while males between the ages of 10-19 are the most impacted.

For some, the solutions for protecting young people are as clear as day. Government cuts over a ten-year period have decimated youth services. £422 million worth of funding cut in the last six years has seen a colossal amount of youth club closures, and the suspension of a range of activities, sports clubs sitting among them. Calls for a restoration of these services and provision of opportunities, outlets and productivity for London’s youth have long gone unanswered. But some have acted. Sport has saved lives. It has provided opportunity and hope to those with little to none, and moulded lives through its principles. Historically, no sport has done this like boxing has.

The Carshalton boys boxing club was established with this in mind. I first spoke to four of the club’s prodigies, the boys with aspirations of forging a successful career in professional boxing, each (I’m told) with a raw talent that makes their dreams probable. At the school they all attend, many of the coaches double as teachers, patrolling the corridors for boxing talent. Though the boxing club trains boys from secondary school entry age (11) to sixth-formers (18), Lero, Joseph, Liam and Donny all range from the ages of 14-15- the age range that (I’m told) is perfect to begin honing the skills needed to build an effective boxer. Much of the group began attending the club when they enrolled at the school.

“When I had my viewing day, I saw the boxing club and I just knew I wanted to box.” Lero, a tall boy with laughing eyes tells me.

The other boys have similar stories for why they first began to attend.

“I had always liked boxing, but when I came here, I saw the boxing gym and I went with one of my friends and just fell in love with it.” Joseph adds, who like Lero, towers over the other two boys, much of the club and his coaches.

Liam, who perhaps most fits the stereotypes of a young boxer describes an entrance into boxing that seems more deeply rooted. “When I started coming to the school, I saw it. I’ve always done boxing, and then I saw this trained in different levels. So, I carried it on.”

Donny, the smallest of the pack and a year older than the others, which accounts for his no-nonsense attitude tells me he’s never really had an answer for the question. “I never knew anything about boxing. I was kind of just lured into it and I’ve been with it ever since. I’m good at it.”

Most sports clubs that are run through schools have certain connotations. They’re often compared with standalone clubs, and their links to sporting excellence and quality training are assumed to be null and void. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. Training appears to be cutthroat. The coaches are relentless in fulfilling their desires to craft the boys into fighters that could compete on world stages.

“Before I came to this club, I was just swinging. Here I learnt how to actually box.” Liam tells me.

I ask each of them what the sport means to them, and all ask for a minute to gather their thoughts before answering. Lero begins.

“Boxing’s kind of like a religion to me. I always do it, I want to keep on doing it, and I don’t want to stop.”

“Boxing is very important to me,” Joseph leads on. “It’s the only thing I can really see myself doing when I’m older, and as it’s time consuming, it keeps me out of trouble because when I wasn’t boxing, I was getting into trouble. So, yeah.”

To Liam, boxing is a routine that equates to life itself. “I wake up thinking of it. I go to sleep thinking of it. I want to be it when I’m older.”

“It’s pretty much everything,” Donny concludes. “It’s literally everything.”

Finally, I ask the boys how life might have been if they’d never joined the club. After some silent consideration, they each offer me an alternative reality in which boxing was never discovered.

“I’d probably be sitting at home, fat, eating chips on my bed playing PlayStation.”

Liam agrees with Lero’s admission.

“I would be at home, fat, playing video games.”

The other two describe a bleaker existence.

“I’d probably be out with my friends on the road doing things that I shouldn’t be doing, getting into a bit of trouble.”

“You know what?” Donny erupts thoughtfully. “I’d probably be homeless. My mum probably would’ve kicked me out by now. I’d be nothing.”

***

Fadi and Shaheen, otherwise known as Mr Khawaja and Mr Sharif, or ‘Sir’ to the boys are two of four coaches at Carshalton boys boxing club, and two sides of the same coin. Both are 35, both spent much of their early years in Putney, and both teach the boys by day and build boxers by nightfall. Fadi Khawaja is founder of the four-year-old club. Over ten years ago he set up a boxing club while at university after “catching the bug” attending a boxing club at the age of 17 with a friend who also now coaches the boys. For a little while after graduating, the coaching continued, before life got in the way. And then in 2015, he began plotting out the boxing club that now runs every Monday, Wednesday and Friday after school.

“It started from so many broken promises from other people who would say “come join us, come help us out here.” But no one wants to give you anything, so you’ve got to do it on your own.” He’s a young man with a kind face that ripples with intensity during training sessions. As a philosophy teacher, he is thoughtful towards his role as a coach, considering it a “moral obligation.”

He considers himself to be an honest and transparent person- two qualities that combine with his willingness to push the boys to make him feared.

“They think I’m a monster.”

With a physical disability that obstructed any plans to box, he’s fuelled by nurturing the dreams of others, as well as his own to be the best boxing coach in the world he tells me jokingly, but candidly. Shaheen Sharif joined the club as a coach a year into its establishment. Like Fadi, he too first engaged with the sport during his younger years as a teenager, “messing around with it for a bit” before picking it back up in his 20s after getting to his heaviest. After losing the weight, he continued, even though he considered himself to be too old to pursue a career in it.

“There are boxers that have started in their mid-20s, but those are the exception to the rule. I didn’t have the talent.”

He instead qualified as an English teacher, joined Carshalton boys, and began to help at the boxing club, which has now transformed into a full-time gig. Shaheen is a little more smiley than Fadi, a little more relaxed. He doesn’t too much mind that the boys come to him with excuses for why they’ve missed training. He doesn’t too much mind being the good cop. That being said, he takes his role as a manager of fresh boxing talent very seriously; it is him in the corner of boxing rings during fights, offering quiet words of wisdom that contrast Fadi’s exclamations. The two have known each other for the majority of their lives having met as boys, which infuses their dynamic with the style of banter that distinguishes many iconic double acts. Their difference in approach is necessary, both are integral parts of the training process which sees young boys transformed into athletes. Good cop and bad cop, or in Fadi’s eyes, “Mother and father.”

Their responsibilities as boxing coaches are vast. There are the legal obligations, CRB’s on all new coaches, risk of safety assessments, the provision of safe guarders for the children. There’s the most obvious responsibility of delivering physical training and transferring knowledge from coach to boxer. But as teachers of the youth, and like many boxing coaches across the globe, they feel they have a responsibility not just to build good boxers, but good people too. There’s an obligation felt to extend themselves past the role of trainer to offer general guidance.

“We’re trying to teach them about life through boxing. We do want to make boxers, but we need to make sure they’re learning life skills through it.” Says Shaheen. “As important as education is, it’s this sort of stuff that sort of rounds out a person.”

I ask Shaheen if the coaches often manage other issues the boys are having that don’t relate to the sport.

“They’ll never just come straight to you. Sometimes you have to coax it out of them. But because we’ve spent that extra time with them, sometimes we can coax it out whereas some teachers don’t have much time. It’s a different environment, they’re a bit more open.”

Boxing instils values. It is considered commonplace for many of those who first come to the sport to have had little exposure to the principles that are not only essential to boxing, but real life. It requires coaches to lean on values, putting them at the forefront of training sessions and fights.

“Values like working hard, being disciplined, being polite etc, I try to instil those values across all the boys. I try to instil ethics in them, understanding what the right thing is to do and what the wrong thing is to do but also why is it right and why is it wrong?” Fadi states.

A value that stands tall amongst the rest, expectedly, is discipline. Speaking to the boxers, it’s clear that this is something they’re forced to understand if they’re to get the most out of the sport. The boys are required to train no less than three times a week, and daily leading up to fights. The four-hour training sessions are formed of two-minute rounds with 30 second rest periods. The boys are also expected to complete 5K runs. This is all juggled with any academic obligations.

“I think almost all of the boys have shed tears at some point. The training is hard. Your body’s drained.” Shaheen relays sympathetically. “You’ve got to really dig deep. You’ve got to be very resilient, the sport is hard enough, and then you’ve got Mr Khawaja shouting at you.”

In boxing, there is no reward without hard work. The boys’ dedication is encouraged by incentives. For some, the most gratifying of rewards- being a successful pro boxer is a long way off. However, for all, the commitment is met with worthwhile benefits.

“Nothing’s going to get you fitter than boxing. If you see some of them now, their shapes are completely different from what they were when they first came.” Shaheen tells me, eyes wide.

“For some of them, joining tends to be more about being overweight with a lack of confidence.” Fadi adds. “They lose weight, and their personalities come out.” Amongst its benefits is boxing’s ability to conjure up hope. “Some of our boys aren’t that academically inclined, they haven’t necessarily caught any other breaks in life. So boxing is their thing. We give them something that they’re about.”

Boxing saves. For many, it’s the light that pierces the gloom. Many excel in boxing with little to nothing else to elevate them out of an existence decimated by a lack of opportunity, channelling their fighter spirit against everyday struggle into competitive combat. It is no coincidence that the sport holds a historic place in the hearts of working-class communities across the globe.

“It’s a tough sport at the end of the day. I think a lot of world class boxers, they almost have to have some of that struggle coming up to give them that sort of fire. Most of our boys are from working class backgrounds.” Shaheen informs.

“Once upon a time, people used to be literally hungry, fighting their way out of the ghetto or the projects.” Fadi recalls. But he notes that when the boxing club first began, he was shocked at the lack of numbers in such a working class borough. “I thought ‘we’ve got over 1000 boys and it’s going to be absolutely oversubscribed’, that didn’t transpire.”

The borough of Sutton is largely white. Carshalton boys’ secondary school echoes the sentiment. The Boxing club however is extraordinarily diverse in comparison. This means that minorities, African and Caribbean boys in particular train at the club, and according to the coaches, have excelled at the sport. There seems to be two tales within boxing’s history. The ‘white working class male hero’- built from struggle whose boxing abilities helped him to transcend deprivation to go down as one of the greats- exemplified by Jack Dempsey, Tyson Fury and Tom Stalker- and his black counterpart- the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr, Mike Tyson and Anthony Joshua. Fadi believes the latter may be at play in his club.

“I believe we’ve had more success with black groups because I believe they’re hungrier than other ethnic groups. The struggle is still there. That doesn’t necessarily mean “I don’t have food on my plate.” I think it comes from the parents and the parent’s parents and the understanding that you’re not just going to get life handed to you on a plate. You’re going to have to work hard and maybe harder than the next person.”

The essence of crime prevention is youth management. Mayor Sadiq Khan made February announcements detailing plans to pour £16.4 million back into youth services in attempts to reverse the impact of austerity, with a specific focus on youths most at risk of being impacted by violent crime.

I ask the two coaches if boxing should be promoted as an effective method of lowering rates of violent crime.

“Massively.” Shaheen erupts. “I honestly think if every single teenager was boxing, there’d be no knife crime.”

“The kids have too much time on their hands,” Fadi declares. “We can occupy that time. The boys finish at 2:45pm, and then they’ve got 48 hours on the weekend. What are they going to do? They’re not doing their homework. We need to take that time away.”

An article written by a collection of crime experts for ‘The Conversation’ last year put a spotlight on the importance of children having relationships and experiences that nurture and push them to reach their full potential, directly linking it to crime prevention.

“It’s about positive adult relationships.” Shaheen adds. “That extra time with an adult makes a huge impact in some people’s lives because there are some parents that aren’t around as much to give their kids that time. So other adults need to fill that gap.”

According to the mayor, over the last six years 3500 jobs in the youth services have been lost, 600 youth centres closed and 130,000 places in youth services removed since 2010. I ask Fadi what it was like to set up a youth sports club after the cuts and during the limbo period before Sadiq Khan announced funding.

“When I first started the boxing club, to say I was extremely proactive is to put it lightly. The Boxing ring which is a £3500 ring, I had to negotiate for £2000. We have to hold fundraisers every season, parents donating money and head guards and gloves.”

“When you look at it in the cold light of day, it’s a bit ridiculous that I’ve got to do any fundraising.”

Both, and I suspect many of those who run youth clubs and training opportunities believe that the money has always been available, just withheld.

“The money’s there.” Fadi states. “The country’s got no problem going to war and spending billions on that, I kind of feel they should probably look after their citizens here first.”

“The money’s only being provided now because knife crime’s a problem. If the number of stabbings dropped, the funding goes and then when the funding goes, that’s when the numbers go up again.” Shaheen calculates. “It’s tokenistic, the government isn’t actually doing anything, it’s a bandage what they’re doing.”

“When you think about how much it probably costs to send one of these kids to prison for a year, we’re asking for a fraction of that.” Fadi concludes.

The boxing club works with ‘Gloves not Guns’- a charity that uses boxing clubs as a safe space for mentoring children at risk of being impacted by violent crime. Based in Croydon, it began with the running of community boxing sessions once a week, and now provides Yoga and Jiu Jitsu sessions.

“Boxing is just to get people in the door.” Shaheen, who works closely with the charity tells me. “It’s mostly a lot of talking. It’s an hour where they’re not on the streets. Sometimes that’s enough.”

One of boxing’s most significant benefits is its impact on mental wellbeing. During a recent discussion of crime prevention tactics, Sadiq Khan made a link between serious youth violence and those who are affected by poverty and poor mental health. For the coaches, watching their boys in the ring is a window into the state of their emotions, which allows for any issues to be confronted.

“Whenever we’re watching the boys, we can see their whole personality.” Fadi relays. “You know which ones get angry easily, the ones who lack confidence, it all contributes to how negative or positive someone’s mental health is. It’s short sighted to say mental health is just depression. I think you’ll get someone who’s an attention seeker, and you’ll get someone who’s filled with rage. We have them all here, and we’ve helped all of them.”

He also believes it’s about ending a potential mental health issue before it’s begun. “Before anything’s happening, we’re trying to create positive characteristics.”

To both coaches, bad behaviour is a good indicator of poor mental health, stating that many of the boys who fail to come to boxing often get into trouble at school.

“If you look at any boy in our boxing club that has struggled with serious behaviour issues, all their struggles have happened when they’re not attending boxing.”

“You’re releasing endorphins, it’s good for your body, it’s good for your mind. When they stop doing it, that’s when those mental health issues have started to arise. It’s become very apparent.” Shaheen agrees.

The boys told me that during the run up to their last competitive fight, the club organised for them to train at one of the most affluent gyms in the country. ‘Chelsea Harbour’- a gym where joining fees are just under £3000, equipment is changed every 12 months, and the likes of Janet Jackson amble in the foyer. A gym fit for kings. The trip surely had a positive mental impact on the group. I wondered if that was the intent of the visit. “It’s taking the boys out of the horrendous bubble that we’re in. How many times have they left this area? You’d be surprised to know how many of them have passports.” Fadi confirms my suspicions.

“It was me taking them out and going ‘look at that car park, everyone’s driving Porsches, if you truly want it, I am literally giving you an avenue out of this bubble that you’re in.’ Because it is a horrendous bubble.”

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