Boxing: Cook takes heat off streets

Former stablemate of Calzaghe is busy tackling gang culture on 'Murder Mile'
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The Independent Online

It began when James Cook was walking along an east London street and came across a teenage boy aggressively harassing a young woman. "I went over and had a quiet word," he recalls. "It was sorted." Hardly surprising, as Cook is 6ft 2in and built like the super-middleweight boxing champion he once was.

The incident got him thinking. "So many kids of this age seem to have nothing to do but roam the streets in gangs and cause trouble. They have no respect, no manners. I felt it would help if a bit of discipline could be brought into their lives.

"As it happened, I'd hadsome experience working with younger kids in south London, and someone suggested I might help out with older kids to get them interested in something other than street crime. Boxing is ideal. It first taught me discipline and respect, and not to take liberties with people."

Three years on, the Jamaican-born Cook, 49, operates from a once-dilapidated youth club in the 2012 Olympic heartland of Hackney known as "Murder Mile", where feral tearaways armed with guns and knives roam streets in which police admit they have been struggling to curb the youth-gang culture. Only last weekend, in nearby Stoke Newington, a 16-year-old was stabbed to death during a series of running fights between two rival gangs, the 26th teenage murder victim of similar street violence in London this year.

Yet local police say that but for Cook's inspirational endeavours at the Pedro Youth Centre, things would be much worse. Last month the ex-boxer's one-man crusade against street crime was recognised with an MBE.

When Cook, a father of four who now lives in Hackney, began his fight at the Pedro Centre, it had unpaid bills and the telephone had been cut off. Now, after begging funds from friends in the boxing fraternity, among them the promoters Frank Maloney and Derek Williams (himself an ex-fighter) and Bernard Hart of Lonsdale Sports, plus a loan from the local council, there is a gymnasium with a boxing ring and organised football, basketball and table tennis. There are also arts and drama classes and a com-puter room, all used by up to 100 boys and girls every day.

"To be honest, we are struggling again for funding right now, but somehow we have to keep going," says Cook. "These kids need it desperately. One of the things we do at local boxing shows is get them to go around with buckets for donations." There have been offers from other organisations. "But having seen what we have achieved here, they want to get in on the act and take the whole thing over."

Cook runs the club with four other volunteer helpers, one of them specialising in rehabilitation of young offenders. He says there are some hard cases who, when they first joined, "didn't seem to care if they lived to see the next week. But discipline is paramount. There's really nothing much else around here for them to do but hang around the streets.

"We started by persuading parents on the estates to get their kids to come along, but now the word has spread that they can come in, get involved in something positive, get fit and even have a bit of a laugh. But I insist on certain behaviour. They know if they muck around they will be in trouble. I was brought up by strict, law-abiding parents. If I said something untoward in front of them, I would get a clip around the ear, but for the majority of kids that come through these doors, anti-social behaviour is the norm.

"Discipline and good manners are something they have never heard of, yet alone experienced. They have never learned to say hello or goodbye, please or thank you. I talk to them in the language they understand, but withoutthe swearing. I won't have no swearing. Anyone using bad language has to get in the ring with me." There are few takers.

This is more than just a heart-warming seasonal tale of goodwill to young people. Chief Superintendent Stephen Dann of Hackney Police says: "James is doing a fantastic job with youngsters who are hardest to reach. He is helping us to cut down crime and making our streets safer. He even organised a football match recently between some of our lads and his youngsters. I would like to have played myself, but to be honest, I was too frightened!"

Says Cook: "The police have been pretty good. They have given us everything we've asked for and try to help in every way. Some local bobbies even dipped into their own pockets to help pay for football kit. Some kids aren't too happy at having the cops around but I tell them, 'Look, they are human beings like you with a job to do'. The more we can get them together, the more they will understand each other."

Cook had a dignified 36-bout career as a stylish, stand-up boxer, winning British and European titles in the same weight division as his one-time stablemate named Joe Calzaghe. They never fought. "And I'm bloody glad we didn't." He proffers the view that Calzaghe and Floyd Mayweather are the finest fighters of the age. And, as Hackney's young hoodies have discovered, James Cook MBE is not a man to argue with.