Making the most of life in a theatre of dreams

 

THE SCENE is unique in a boxing gym. Six boxers are in the same ring sparring with an intensity which is frightening. Hitting to the head is not allowed - "even accidentally on purpose", in the words of the coach Brendan Ingle. The orders are being roared from Ingle at ringside.

Every few minutes the order to change partners is given and a bantamweight starts pummelling a heavyweight, a lightweight takes on a middleweight and a featherweight - meets a welterweight.

The pace is frenetic. The reigning WBO featherweight champion, `Prince' Naseem Hamed, who defends his world featherweight title in Dublin next Saturday night flails away at the former WBO heavyweight champion, Herbie Hide. England Test cricketer Devon Malcolm is an interested spectator.

In Brendan Ingle's gym in Sheffield nobody is special, nobody gets preferential treatment. "I've got Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Muslims, Pakis, Micks. I tell them they have only one life to live. Nobody gets a second chance with life, so you have to make the most of it," Ingle says.

The gym is drab, featureless. Apart from a ghetto blaster in the corner, it has only the basics a ring, some punch bags, a shower. The smell of stale sweat permeates the air. This is the old hall of St Thomas's church, which the local vicar has donated for the purpose of getting some of his young parishioners off the streets.

This is a multi racial city and Ingle admits that there are prejudices. Yet he insists: "Colour is personal and private, religion is personal and private, politics is personal and private. But we must face up to these things by recognising them," says Ingle.

He illustrates the point by calling over one of his charges: "What am I," he asks. "You are a stupid Paddy," is the reply.

"And what are you," he asks. "I'm just a stupid Paki," comes the answer. Everyone laughs.

Ingle has taken youngsters as young as six off the streets of the Wincobank area of Sheffield and tried to give them something to aim for in life. "I keep telling them that life is very crowded down on the bottom and that there is lots of room in the middle and at the top. We show them what they can have if they want to discipline themselves.

"For instance, we have an arrangement with the a five star hotel, Swallow Hotel in Rotherham, which has a fully equipped gym sauna, steam room, swimming pool and so on. We are allowed to use those facilities free of charge and we teach the lads to respect that privilege. They respond because they know that if they step out of line they will be the losers.

"We put on shows in pubs and clubs and hotels and get the boys into dress suits and dickie bows for the big occasions. They love it, they show off to their trends, but that is only natural. We have deals with tailors and outfitters in Sheffield and our boys get special prices."

Business people, industrialists, private individuals and local communities have become a part of the Ingle operation. The man himself speaks with a mixture of Ringsend, Luton and Yorkshire accents.

From a fiercely loyal Dublin boxing family, he experienced only modest success as an amateur and made a bid for a place in the Olympic Games squad of 1960, but fell foul of one Terry Collins, an uncle of reigning WBO middleweight champion Steve.

He once boxed for the North East Counties of England against an Irish selection and "was slaughtered" by Danno Power, whereupon he joined the paid ranks in 1965. Between then and 1972 he had 38 fights, winning 20 of them.

Always interested in the coaching side of the sport, he fell foul of the English ABA because of his professional connections. Amateurs could not train with pros as the English establishment sought to impose its now redundant holier than thou attitude. The hassle drove him farther into the arms of professionalism and the appearance on the scene of Herol Graham brought him the first taste of real success.

The in fighting with the English ABA also taught him to look at the politics of the sport. It helped also to drive him into the arms of Alma, his wife.

She shared with him a passion for boxing (she is a qualified judge) and, being associated with the Church of England parish of St Thomas, she guided Brendan towards a gloomy, abandoned parish hall which was eventually to become the gym.

"Here was I, born and reared a Catholic and a Republican, marrying an English Protestant and being given access to a Church of England building surrounded on all sides by Muslims, Hindus, Protestants and Catholics. There were no hassles. I made it clear that colour, religion and politics were of no significance. Everyone who comes to this gym comes on equal terms to everybody else".

As he goes about his business, Ingle keeps asking questions, getting back the answers which he has taught his charges. "What is it nice to be?"

It is nice to be important" comes the reply. And then: "What is it important to be?" The reply: "It is important to be nice," becomes a kind of mantra.

THERE are elements of theatre in Brendan Ingle's sparring sessions also. Naseem's frequently televised acrobatics on entry to the ring on big fight nights are replicated at these sessions. Eight boxers flip into the ring and take up position with their backs to the ropes or in the four corners.

At Ingle's command, each in turn tumbles into the centre of the ring, stands to attention and yells out his name, his weight, his achievements and his ambitions.

When it comes to Herbie Hide's turn comes, he gets no quarter. "How much did you pay for your house?" comes a mocking inquiry. The response: "A million pounds," earns not respect but sarcasm. Further question of a more personal nature bring loud jeers and cat calls. Hide's tenure as world heavyweight champion cuts no ice here.

Ingle believes that the banter helps the boxers. "It gets lads to shake off their natural shyness. It teaches them to talk in public, to communicate. To feel independent. Above all, it puts everybody on to the same level. If they have to face an interview they will be able to handle it. It helps to build character.

He talks with some pride of one Ryan "Rocky" Rhodes. "He was a proper little gnat. He was thrown out of school. He was out of control. I got him here and he couldn't say please or thanks or do anything except stir up trouble.

"He couldn't relate to anyone. We persevered with him. Now he's back at school. He's as good or as bad as the rest. He is fitting in and he's learning all the time. I tell them that it is sad to be ignorant, but what is sadder still is not to realise that you are you don't try to do something Nobody gets special treatment. "I have photographs of Naseem pushing a wheelbarrow when I have taken the boys on community clean up schemes," says Ingle. "Just because boxing has made him a rich young man, it doesn't mean that he has any special privileges. He can have those in his own time. Meanwhile, he shares the same gym and the same rules as anybody else," Ingle says.

HE IS convinced that his sparring sessions are more beneficial than the orthodox, one to one sessions. "There are times when the old style sessions turn out to be minor wars, and that is not good for either boxer.

"Some people say that my system means that my boxers will not be familiar with taking shots to the head, but there is an argument that any shot to the head may be causing damage. Some crazy things happened in sparring sessions back in the 20s and 30s. My system of body sparring means that in a short space oftime every one of my boxers will face five or six or even seven different opponents at different weights.

That way a boxer has to be able to think quickly, adapt quickly. If people want to cast doubts on my methods they should consider that I have the only British world champion (Naseem) in my gym, I have a former world champion (Herbie Hide) and potential world champions (Pele Reid and Daniel Teesdale, to name but two)."

The mantras come spasmodically.

"Am I responsible here?"

"No!"

"Who is responsible here?"

"I am!"

Ingle puts his world champion through a punishing session on the pads. It is an exercise in which the coach wears heavy leather pads on his hands and invites the boxer to hit the quickly moving hands with combinations of punches. Ingle stands tip to this and it is Naseem who is sweating. The velocity of the punches and the loud crack when fast moving leather hits fast moving leather is almost frightening.

Boxing gyms are normally drab, serious minded places, where brooding pugilists go about their violent work with glum faces. The business being transacted in Brendan Ingle's gym is serious, too, of that there can be no doubt, but the frequent laughter and there is an underlying camaraderie and, above all, the respect and affection of their peers.