THE KOSOVO KID

Elton Gashi is a born fighter. Driven from Kosovo by ethnic cleansing, he came to England in the back of a lorry. Now he wants to be a champion boxer. James Dalrymple saw his courage put to the test
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The Independent Culture
WE HAD gathered outside the famous old boxing gym in a Sheffield backstreet at mid-morning, a handful of newspaper and TV journalists who had been tipped off that a new sporting superstar was about to rise in the north.

We felt rather excited and pleased with ourselves, like prophets summoned to bear witness to the unveiling of a secret. After all, the most famous boxing trainer in Britain, the legendary Brendan Ingle, a man who has discovered and developed a whole string of world champions, assured us that he had found yet another one.

The object of all this excitement - a good-looking, slightly cocky, instantly likeable 17-year-old kid with a broad smile and a strange accent - had been up and ready since before dawn. Out in the street and in the gym, he paced back and forth. He couldn't stand still and at times he practically danced with excitement. He knew only too well that this was the biggest day in his young life, the first step on a ladder that was going to carry him all the way up to the very top of the British and international prize-fighting game, where world titles and millions in earnings were guaranteed.

He certainly looked the part. As he stripped for an early weight-check at Brendan Ingle's St Thomas's Gym in Newman Street, we noted the fine muscle definition packed into a diminutive (nine-stone) frame. We could see he had strong arms and legs and powerful sloping shoulders rising from a broad, solid neck. And, best of all, a pair of clear and intelligent eyes looked out from an unblemished face. This was a young man who seemed to have been custom-designed by nature to be a boxer.

He felt my gaze, grinned back at me, and started to perform some stunningly fast shadow-boxing on the pavement for the benefit of our photographer. Then his trainer called to him and he ducked into the back of the car for the two-hour drive up to Hull and the first great challenge of his career - his very first amateur bout, and what should have been the start of the long, straight and steady road to the very top. We all assumed that victory that afternoon would merely be a formality.

This handsome kid, a refugee from Kosovo called Elton Gashi, had, after all, been through so much to have reached this point. He had shown so much courage and endurance that it was inconceivable that anything could bring a sour taste to something with all the ingredients for a modern fairytale. How wrong we all were.

Six hours later, in the cursing, screaming, bearpit atmosphere that is found even at the lowest levels of boxing (in this case the regional knockouts of National Association of Boy's Clubs Amateur Boxing Championships), Elton discovered that fairytales, especially those with happy endings, have no place in this particular sport.

Within six minutes, after three ferocious rounds, he had been comprehensively thrashed and humiliated by a tough young amateur from Sunderland called Sean Kelly. In the end, the referee had to stop the fight to prevent Elton from taking further punishment.

Our hero was led away - shocked, bewildered, slightly angry at the referee and perilously close to tears. Later, when I went to comfort him and tell him how unlucky he had been to come up against such a tough and experienced fighter in his very first bout, I saw something else in his eyes. Something far worse than the shock of being beaten.

The young boxer looked ashamed. As if his failure in the ring meant that he had let everybody down. Not only his trainer and the media and his friends and supporters - but the whole of Britain. Like all refugees, this young man felt a debt to the country that had given him a safe haven and a chance to build a future. And somehow he felt that success in the boxing ring was a way of repaying a debt. Now he felt demeaned and unworthy. He felt like a loser. It was strange that he could feel that way. Because in the case of Elton Gashi nothing could be further from the truth. No one who has met this lad, and heard even a fraction of his story, has the slightest doubt that they are looking at a born fighter and a natural survivor. A winner if ever there was one.

Eleven months ago, in his home city of Pec in Kosovo, the young ethnic Albanian had just about had enough. Fear, humiliation and the total lack of any future prospects when he left school had left him, at the age of 16, at the lowest point in his life. Although his mother was a doctor and his father an engineer, the family of six barely lived above the poverty line as the cruel and oppressive Serbian government tried to squeeze the economic life out of the majority Albanian population and turn the entire province into a rural prison. As each day passed, the threat of a full-scale invasion by the Serbian army and their much-feared cohorts, the MUP secret police and the murderous militia groups, increased. Just a few miles to the north there had been outbreaks of extreme violence, in which whole villages had been wiped out. Elton said that it felt as though a "great darkness" was just over the northern horizon, and was coming closer.

"I was scared and so was everybody else," said Elton. "I knew what was going to happen. We all knew the Serb army and the militias would come eventually. So I went to mother and told her I was going to try and get out and reach England. She understood this, and she was prepared to let me go. But when I told her what my real ambition was she was speechless. She simply could not believe it when I said that I wanted to be a professional boxer.

"Then she got mad. She screamed at me not to be so stupid. She told me that I should forget such foolish things, that I should get a good education and try to find a proper job, but I just kept saying that I intended to be a boxer, and that England was the place where all the great European boxers and trainers were based. All my life I had dreamed of going there and asking one of those trainers to help me. In the end, after hours of arguing and pleading, my parents gave in. My father gave me what money they had and wished me good luck, and that night I headed out over the mountains and into Albania."

Elton left Kosovo on 11 December, when temperatures in the Balkans were far below freezing, and the towering mountains separating Kosovo from Albania were covered in snow and ice. He spent many days on the dangerous roads, avoiding the murderous bandit groups that preyed on the travellers, before reaching the Adriatic coast, where the bulk of his money was spent on buying passage to Italy on one of the scores of Mafia-operated speedboats.

From Italy, he travelled by bus and train across France and Belgium, managing to avoid police and border guards in each country. By now he was broke and starving, and had joined up with some other refugees waiting for their chance to cross by ferry to England.

"We looked for a suitable truck with right-hand drive," he said, "and we forced our way inside the heavy cover. We found it was full of kitchen equipment, cupboards and that kind of thing, so it was easy to crawl inside one of them and get some sleep. We had no idea where we were going, and after a long sea-crossing, we were on the road for about 12 hours. When the truck stopped we could see it was daylight, so there was no chance of just disappearing in the night.

"I'll never forget the look on the face of the driver when he pulled back the cover, and saw a whole bunch of guys jumped out the back and running like hell. He just stood there with his mouth open, the poor guy. He could not believe that so many people could squeeze into the back of his truck. We must have looked like rats jumping out of a cellar. It was hilarious.

"The city we had arrived at was York. But I never found out its name for a long time. And when I did it meant nothing to me. I had never heard of it. And I had no idea exactly where it was. But it would do. That day I just walked into the nearest police station and gave myself up. They put me in a nice warm cell for the night and gave me my first hot meal in days. They were very kind to me. For some reason they seemed to like me."

They weren't the only ones. I soon discovered that there is something about Elton that appeals to strangers. A female social worker who has become his case-worker while his status as an asylum-seeker is decided, described it like this: "He has the most perfect manners of any young man I have ever met," she said. "He also has the most beautiful smile. I guess people just fall for him, both men and women, and everybody seems to go out of their way to help him. He's a real charmer, all right."

When he arrived in England on Christmas Eve, the war in Kosovo had not yet begun, so Elton, who at that stage spoke scarcely a word of English, was not regarded as a bona fide refugee. He should have been classified as an economic migrant and sent smartly home. But in Yorkshire they admire pluck above all other things. To them, this skinny lad who had travelled through five countries and covered over 1,000 miles, using only his courage and wits to survive, deserved his place in the sun. And many rules were bent by a friendly police force and a group of social workers who took him under their wing.

Months later, when the full horror of the war began to unfold, and tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians started streaming across the borders into Macedonia and Albania, his status was quietly changed to asylum-seeker. And no one doubts that, for as long as he wants to, he will be able to stay in Britain. Today he goes to college and his English is superb. He shares an old terraced house with several other Kosovo refugees.

"People were always wonderful to me," he said. "Policemen, social workers, council officials. Everybody. I cannot tell you how grateful I feel to this country and its people. But when I told them of my plans to be a boxer they just laughed. I guess they thought I was crazy. But one guy did take me seriously and brought me a book about the career of Prince Naseem Hamed. They said he was a Yorkshire lad who had made good. He didn't look Yorkshire to me. But I was fascinated by his style of boxing and his great self-confidence.

"Then I noticed the name of the place where he had been taught to fight as a child, a boys' club in Sheffield. I decided that if it was good enough for Prince Naseem then it was good enough for me. I took a bus to Sheffield and just knocked on the door.

"I expected them to tell me to clear off, but they just opened the door and told me to come in. I looked around and saw all those kids banging away at punchbags, skipping to the music and sparring in the ring. It felt as if I had arrived at the place where I belonged. It felt like coming home."

Brendan Ingle remembers that moment, too. There was never any question of turning him away. Ingle never turns anybody away. For more than 30 years the Dublin-born former professional boxer has been taking in the waifs and strays of Sheffield. He doesn't care if they are potential champions or born losers. He doesn't mind if they are mentally disabled, crippled, orphaned or simply young hooligans sent by the probation services. He believes that he can do something with any kid - and that, as the Jesuits used to put it, if he gets a boy before the age of seven, "He's mine for ever."

He is always searching for his own version of perfection. ("I'm always on the lookout for my own Muhammed Ali, who will make me millions and set me up for life.") But he doesn't really care if his kids are hopeless fighters. "I take them all," he said. "If they come in here and do what they're told, they can stay. If they cross me, lie to me, or try to fool me, they go out the bloody door."

As we watched two little boys, barely five years old, attempt to kill each other in the sagging old ring above us, Ingle ruminated on the sport he both loves and hates: "Boxing at its worst is a dirty, rotten, obscene, violent, vindictive game. You can get your brains damaged, your kidneys ripped, your eyes ruined and your face smashed - and usually end up broke and friendless. Betrayal and bad blood are the norm among everybody who runs the sport. In boxing, if you want loyalty, buy yourself a dog."

Ingle feels he knows all about betrayal. In the last five years, Prince Naseem, the super featherweight champion of the world, has made an estimated pounds 20m from boxing and promotional interests. And Ingle feels that pounds 5m of that money should have been his. Naseem, the tearaway problem son of a Yemeni family who lived up the road from the gym, became one of Brendan's boys at the age of seven. Everything that has made him one of the world's greatest fighters was taught to him by Ingle, who also became his manager and guru. When Naseem was just 12, Ingle announced to the world that he was going to be world champion one day. And possibly at several different weights. Even Naseem's family laughed at that. Nowadays they all work in the Prince Naseem family business.

For years Naseem regarded Ingle as his adoptive father. Every day he was at the gym; every evening he was at the trainer's home. "I couldn't walk up the street without him following me," said Ingle. Then, just as the big money started to roll in, claimed the trainer, the betrayal began.

"I had an option on a new contract, but he refused to pay me my agreed 25 per cent," he said. "My deals with all my fighters are the same. I get 25 per cent. We had just signed a big deal with Frank Warren for 10 fights for pounds 4m. I should have got pounds 1m. He refused to pay. I could have fought it, but I didn't. I settled for pounds 600,000. That's the truth of it. End of story. Nowadays I couldn't give a shit about Prince Naseem. I don't want to see him, I don't want to talk to him, I don't want to know about him.

"It wasn't really about the money. He just got rich and famous and obnoxious. It happens a lot in this game. To hell with him. I've got other things to do with my time."

And he has. Ingle is never without a string of good young prospects. At the moment he has at least three world-class fighters on his books, including the current cruiser-weight champion of the world, Johnny Nelson. Nelson was in the gym that morning, and there was no doubting the closeness and respect between the two men. This brilliant young fighter could go to other, more lavish, training set-ups. He could sign up to any of the big boxing management groups. But he stays with the man who, he considered, not only made him a champion and a rich man, but saved him from a life of street crime.

"The thing I really love about this rotten old game is when you see a kid climb into the ring for the first time and realise that his life is about to change," said Ingle wistfully. "It can give them rewards in terms of fame and money that they have only dreamed about. And all it needs, apart from a good physique and a natural ability, is courage and intelligence and character. And the first time I saw Elton I knew right away that he had absolutely everything it needed. He just rolled up here, barely able to speak English, with no home, no job, no money, no friends, no country - and asked me to give him a chance.

"When I saw him move about the gym I knew right away he was the real thing. It takes only a few seconds to make that judgement. As the weeks went by I realised he was even better than that. I realised that this was a future world champion, a fighter who was going to make millions.

"You think I'm crazy to say that when he hasn't had a single fight. You just wait and see. Today he is going to have his first fight, and the kid he is fighting is really good, an amateur champion with about 30 fights under his belt. I don't know how Elton will do. And I don't really care. He might win handsomely, he might get a beating. It doesn't matter. If he does what I tell him over the next five years, he'll be champion of the world, without a doubt."

The grizzled old trainer grinned at that, looked around the gym where nearly a dozen of his fighters sweated, snorted and suffered for their art, and threw out a challenge: "Anybody here think I'm wrong?" he shouted. "Anybody like to contradict me?" Nobody did. Everybody just got on with the punching and the skipping and the snorting. They all love him dearly. And they all think he's as daft as a brush.

Later that day Ingle looked on calmly as his future champion took his terrible beating. His expression didn't change, even when the fight was stopped, and Elton was led out of the ring and away from the scene of his imagined shame. The trainer had seen a few things he didn't care for. The excited young fighter, perhaps playing up to his own personal media caravan, had indulged in a little nonsense at the beginning of the fight. He had shown his version of the Ali Shuffle, then waved his right fist in the air, like a cowboy swinging a lasso, all done with one eye on the ringside camera. It was a rather silly piece of razzmatazz that he had invented for his debut, and it didn't impress anybody. And after young Sean Kelly had proceeded to rattle his chops for a couple of rounds, it is something he will not do in the future.

"He learnt a valuable lesson in there tonight," said Ingle before taking his fighter home to Sheffield, where the kid would probably cry himself to sleep. "And that is that there is always, always, somebody tougher than you are. That kid who beat him was tough all right, and experienced. Now Elton will know that every time you step into the ring, no matter what level it is, or who your opponent is, you always take it seriously.

"He's a bit shattered now. But it won't do him any harm. And nothing's changed as far as he's concerned. He'll get over this defeat. He's still the real thing. He's still going to be champion of the world. And we're both going to make lots of money."

As I watched the two of them walk out into the mists that swirled around Hull docks and climb into the car for what would undoubtedly be a rather tense journey home, I felt a surge of affection for them both. The old trainer and the young fighter. A sporting archetype and a cliche, beloved of fiction writers and moviemakers. But it contained something noble nevertheless. Even at the moment of bitter defeat, they were enjoying the best of days now: the days of loyalty and joint endeavour and the laying of plans for the future. It was good to see.

I had enjoyed my two days in their company, even if my story had not had the triumphant end I had hoped for. I had had a peek into the heart of a great, if sometimes brutal and cynical, sport. I had had the privilege of meeting a brave young man from a brave land. And I may just have seen the birth of a future champion. Who knows? k

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