Boxing: Champions of the public purse: Nick Halling reports from Manchester on a government-aided gymnasium which is giving local boxers the chance of glory

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The Independent Online
THE first sight greeting a visitor to the gymnasium above the Co-Op in Moss Side, Manchester, is a poster bearing the exhortation 'Carve Yourself A Brighter Future.'

Nothing unusual so far: boxing gyms the world over are packed with those aspiring to better things. But all is not what it seems: closer examination reveals the poster to be the work of the Government's Employment Training scheme.

To 22 young men, the gym is known as the Champs Camp, a professional boxing stable run by Phil Martin, a one-time contender turned manager and trainer.

To a greater number of youngsters in this bleak, inner-city area acknowledged locally as the British Bronx, Martin represents the Moss Side Physical Training Centre, a government-aided initiative which, over the last two years, has placed close to 40 long-term unemployed people in full-time work.

Martin's achievements have led to visits from four government ministers over the past 13 months. His success in boxing is attracting similar attention because, as with his involvement with the unemployed, it goes against current trends.

Traditionally, a fighter's route to the top meant joining a major London manager or promoter, enjoying the benefits of television exposure while being gently guided along a meticulously-planned career path.

Most provincial gyms serve to provide opposition for the leading prospects of the game's major players. They are not expected to supply upsets. 'But when we started out in 1988,' Martin said, 'we'd go all over the country and nine times out of 10 we'd win when we weren't supposed to.'

The result is that the Champs Camp boasts three British champions in the cruiserweight, Karl Thompson, Maurice Core (light-heavyweight) and Frank Grant (middleweight). With 12 of his boxers currently ranked among the top 10 contenders in their divisions, Martin's operation may be the strongest in the country.

After concluding his own ring career in 1978, Martin studied psychology and sports science at Salford College of Technology, where he learned that there is more to fitness than running and pumping iron.

Born and raised locally, Martin, a family man of 43, is the product of a broken home who understands from personal experience the attitude of the kids who come into his gym. 'They have a ghetto mentality, always looking to rip each other off,' he said.

'A lot of youngsters, especially the black kids, come in with an attitude problem. They'll say 'I'm black, I can't do it,' which is rubbish because there's plenty of black guys out there who are doing it. I tell them that if they want to achieve things they can only do so by working at it.'

'Phil will tell you what's right and wrong, and he keeps on drumming it in to you,' Core, who, with Martin's guidance, has graduated from a raw amateur to British champion, said.

'A lot of the lads jokingly call him Dad behind his back, because he's always giving you advice. Not just about boxing, but about life in general. He's had a lot of experience himself, it's not as if he's drawing on someone else's knowledge.'

It is a philosophy central to the Camp's success. Equally important is Martin's thorough understanding of the complexities of the fight business. Against the odds, triumphs are commonplace, the biggest coming in September when the unknown Frank Grant defeated Herol Graham, a ring craftsman of genuine world class, to win the British middleweight title.

'My job was to see what Graham could do, look at my fighter's strengths and weaknesses, then find a way for Frank to win,' Martin explained. 'In training, Frank was on the floor loads of times, taking a real battering. There were times he wanted to give up, go home to Bradford, but I told him that things have to go wrong before they come right. When he decided to stick with it and not pack his bags, I knew he'd win.'

Grant's intensity and self-belief negated his rival's superior technique and, although forced to absorb plenty of punishment, he ultimately overwhelmed an exhausted Graham in the ninth.

Success has its drawbacks, however. Match-makers looking for safe opponents have learned to avoid Martin's fighters, with the result that he has been forced to promote shows himself simply to keep his boxers active.

Without the support of a television contract, it is proving an expensive, loss-making business. The Champs Camp is at a crossroads, Martin having developed his boxers but lacking the financial muscle to enable them to fulfil their potential.

Enter Mickey Duff. The ubiquitous promoter has offered to put on 10 televised shows a year featuring Martin's boxers. The broadcasters are demanding champions, a commodity in short supply. Champs Camp fighters can help Duff meet his contractual obligations; equally, he can further their careers by exposing them to a wider audience.

Although retaining his managerial role, Martin's position is precarious. Duff, a major international operator, represents an attractive proposition to fighters eager for the wealth and status that accompanies world title contenders. Having taken his fighters so far, Martin is in danger of losing them.

Just as he teaches his fighters that success in the ring is not an end in itself, there is more to Martin than boxing. His main concern is not repelling the advances of rivals, but to place his gym on firmer financial foundations. The operation survives because of grants made through the Government Employment Training scheme, a source of revenue which could disappear at a moment's notice.

'We need security,' he said. 'There are a lot of youngsters round here, not just the boxers, who rely on this gym. It is a focal point in their lives, a place where they can make something of themselves. They might not all become champions, but they'll come out of it as better people.'

(Photograph omitted)

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