Boxing for boys is back in business

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The Independent Online

There was a time when 50,000 schoolboys entered their own boxing championships every year and dreamt of winning a title at Blackpool, Wembley or the Royal Albert Hall in front of a prince or a duke.

The list of British schoolboy champions includes Olympic gold medal winners and world champions and, more importantly, thousands of anonymous boxers who came, won or lost and vanished back to normal life with their memories full of a great day when they represented their school in the national finals.

That was something to brag about, and it still is if you find the right place to hear the echoes of long-gone men and boys. The Peacock gym in London's East End is the right place to hear proper boxing talk, but there are few chances left for that in a business that has succumbed to the ignorant, the arrogant and the powerful.

At the Peacock retreat, in the shadow of a flyover and surrounded by breaker's yards in Canning Town, an 11-year-old's left hook is as likely to be a discussion topic as the final right from Lennox Lewis that sent Michael Grant to dreamland at Madison Square Garden.

Above the gym, an unlikely centre of excellence for schoolboy boxing is being built. It will cost £30,000, which the gym will pay, and tomorrow Kate Hoey, the Minister for Sport, and the retired champion Frank Bruno will be at a training session for England's schoolboy squad to launch the initiative.

The building will have beds for 28 boxers, with cooking and washing facilities. Part two of the Peacock initiative is to take the sport back to schools in the area. The building is the easy part. "We have to get more boxers involved at their schools," said George Bowers, the most successful coach in schoolboy boxing history. "This centre will give the boxers the place they will want to be part of. A real gym with modern facilities."

Mr Bowers has trained more than 150 national junior champions, boys aged 11 to 17, and he had more than 500 winners in national finals during the last 30 years of involvement with clubs in the east end of London. He retired from the Repton club in Bethnal Green 18 months ago and will be in charge of coaching at the centre.

The gym is in a part of London where boxing clubs still play an active role in the community, and teachers still have a line of communication via the police to the club to refer boys. It is old-fashioned and traditional but, oddly, a similar thing happens with Brendan Ingle in Sheffield, and the great, forgotten and neglected man of British boxing, Brian Hughes in Manchester.

At Mr Ingle's gym in Wincobank, mothers still drag wayward boys in by the ear and tell the gentle man from Dublin to sort out their sons. At the grassroots level, boxing is like that.

Mr Bowers boxed in the 1948 championships, losing in the semi-final, his ninth bout, and he remembers the intense competition. "I had to box three times to win the West Ham title at Holbrook School," he said. "There were three rings going at the same time with just one rope. It was all that mattered for boxers then."

In 1972, when Mr Bowers was the trainer at Poplar, he lived in Varley Road, Canning Town, and there were eight national champions in the road. "It was on BBC, they called it the Street of Champions."

In the Seventies, the championships found a perfect home at Butlin's in Blackpool, a venue Bowers refers to as "schoolboy boxing's Mecca". The Blackpool finals were legendary.

The passion remains in the area. At the West Ham gym in Plaistow, up to 60 bright-eyed boys under 17 train four nights a week. The schoolboy pursuit of boxing glory is so far removed from the awful realities of the professional business, and so seldom covered by the media, that many boxing people have no idea what is happening at the 600 clubs up and down the country.

In 1999, fewer than 600 boxers entered the championship and this year barely 1,000, but fewer than 300 people watched the finals in Barnsley. Jim Smart, a member of the English ABA and headmaster at Churchmead School near Slough, Berkshire, believes schoolboy academies in different parts of the country are the best way forward.

Next month the English schools will box in Russia and that will cost £10,000. So far, the only sponsorship for the event is a pledge from the First Group Bus Company to provide coaches for the boxers from the Peacock to Heathrow.

"Next January there will be money from the World Class Performance fund," said Mr Smart. "There will be payments for potential future champions and the number of boxers under the scheme will increase from eight to 40." A schoolboy boxer could receive as much as £2,000 per year and have the benefits of the new centre.

"We know Russian schoolboy boxers train with the national senior side before competitions," said Barry Bowers, George's youngest son, who will work closely with the Schools' ABA at the Peacock. "Now our own boxers will have the opportunity to prepare as a squad before each match."

His father added: "We need to get the teachers on our side and if that means getting them to come and watch what we have to offer then we will do it. I have contacted local schools and I'm expecting teachers at the launch."

In Liverpool and Bristol, qualified amateur boxing coaches are working in 21 schools, training teachers and children. At the Peacock there will coaching courses for teachers.

"I think back to what it was like 30 years ago and I know the boxers are still there," said Mr Bowers. "Those nights in Blackpool with 10 in a room, kids up all night running round like crazy. It was great for them. It was all they wanted to do - box in the schoolboy finals."

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