There has always been much more than mere boxing blarney about Brendan Ingle MBE. For over 40 years his legendary gym in an old church hall in Sheffield's Wincobank, where champions like Naseem Hamed, Herol Graham and Johnny Nelson learned their craft, has been a haven for the wayward from the streets, who find rehabilitation amidst the creaking punchbags, dog-eared posters and upbeat tempo of thudding fists, responding eagerly to the exhortations of the little Irish guru to "dance and move, dance and move".
But even by the bizarre histories of Ingle inmates, the story of his latest redeemed soul is astonishing.
It began 18 years ago when Ingle spotted a large black teenager working out in the gym. He had a remarkable physique, said his name was Richard Towers, and lived locally. "But after a few days I never saw him again. He disappeared off the face of the earth. Then five years ago this same guy turned up and told me he wanted to be a professional boxer. Where have you been all this time? I asked him. 'Prison,' he said. 'I got 13 years.'
"Thirteen years! How many people did you kill?
"'No, it was for kidnapping."'
As the tale unravelled, Ingle learned that the 6ft 8in giant looming before him had also faced two raps of attempted murder and had learned to fight in secret bare-knuckle scraps in prison yards, organised by the inmates themselves.
"I didn't know what to make of him but we taught him a few things, put him in some amateur bouts where he looked good. We got him a professional licence."
Now, at 34, Towers, cleansed of his past, has emerged as the latest British heavyweight hope, unbeaten in 13 contests, knocking out 10 of his opponents. He is poised to fight for the European Union title on 16 June, on Ricky Hatton's Sky-televised promotion at the Manchester Velodrome. He will meet the Frenchman Grégory Tony.
Moreover, the massive ex-con who is now billed as "The Inferno" has turned his life around totally, becoming mentor to groups of schoolkids kids who visit the gym, showing them how to box and warning them against the pitfalls that engulfed him. "I tell them that when you are good, good comes to you. What I needed was someone to tell me, 'Don't do this, do that.' Instead of, 'Don't do that – whack!'"
He pulls no punches about his time running with gangland drugs dealers which led to his lengthy incarceration."I actually went to Brendan's gym as a 16-year-old out of curiosity but I saw all my friends flashing money and driving nice cars and kids don't see much further than that, so slowly but surely I ended up on the wrong path.
"We had this known drug baron kidnapped and tortured. He was taken somewhere and done with steam irons and other things. We demanded a ransom for him but we let him go after three days." It is on record that Towers never took part in any torturing but he was convicted of participating in the conspiracy and given a 13-year stretch, serving six and a half, often in solitary.
"It wasn't my first time in prison. Apart from the kidnapping there were two charges of attempted murder. One after I went to the flat of someone buying cannabis off me and when I left there were about 40 people waiting for me downstairs, some with Samurai swords. They all rushed me and were trying to stab me in the face and whacking me around the legs with bats. I got a knife off one of the kids and started cutting and slashing. I think I stabbed five people. I was on remand for 12 months but was found not guilty on the basis of self-defence.
"Then I got into a fight a few years after that and got locked up under Section 18, grievous bodily harm. I can't glorify or justify anything. I was an animal, involved in drugs and guns, as deep into crime as you can get. So to me standing in front of these kids... well, if I can help them do the right thing, then that's what I want. I am happy now."
He reveals: "The turning point for me was when my mum came on a visit and told me my little brother was struggling and that he needed me out. He had nobody – there was never an influential figure there as a dad. I just felt so helpless and I thought to myself, 'What am I doing, what am I doing?' It was killing me. My mindset changed. I told myself. 'It's got to start here.' It did. I eventually got parole for good behaviour.
"I walked into Brendan's gym the day after I was released, wrongly thinking I could fight because I'd had a dozen bare-knuckle fights in prison, strictly illegal, of course, but well organised. We'd usually do it in the recess area where the toilets were. The screws seemed to turn a blind eye. Once I got £1,700 and put one guy in hospital with a busted eardrum. How it worked was that you'd fight and whoever won, there was a gentleman's agreement that the other guy would have a visit, give your details to his visitor and the money would be sent round to your home address. Once or twice I was told to eff off, but usually I got paid."
Now, Ingle has Towers picking up litter from surrounding streets two or three times a week. "Sure, it's a bit like doing community service but I do what I'm told because I respect him," says Towers. "All I do now is clean up the roads, train and see my three- year-old son. Then I am at home sleeping. Boxing has taught me how to pick myself up from failure.
"What is happening to me now is down to the people who have taught me, who keep supporting me. Thank God for Brendan and his sons Dominic and John and now Ricky Hatton who also believes in me. Their kindness is unbelievable."
Of the misfits, miscreants and aspiring champions that have passed through 71-year-old Ingle's spit-and sawdust academy, Towers is his first significant heavyweight. He is also, he says, the most unusual.
"He really believes he can be world champion, and why not? He can hit, move and take a whack. He's built like a tank but people don't realise how clever he is. This is the age of giant heavyweights and these days 34 is not too old. And, it seems odd to say this after what he's done, but you couldn't meet a nicer fella."Reuse content