Boxing: Jailhouse Rocky: Ex-champion Anderson breaks new ground as first black prison chief
Skills of the ring helped keep a young tearaway out of jail. Now Naseem's old sparring partner puts the lessons he picked up from Ingle to good use in a very different environment
Sunday 31 December 2006
"Welcome to HM Prison, Doncaster," says the road sign as you drive towards the car park. "Welcome? You must be bleedin' jokin'," you can imagine the late Ronnie Barker's incorrigible Fletch muttering as the van draws up. Yet, once inside, there is a remarkably friendly feel about the place.
It is not the only unusual aspect of an institution once condemned in a chief inspector's report as "squalid". Meet the Governor, or as he is known these days, the Director of Prison Services. Apart from the fight game memorabilia that adorns his office walls - including a portrait of Naseem Hamed and the epic shot of Muhammad Ali standing over the stricken Sonny Liston mouthing "Get up you bum and fight", the dented nose reveals his former trade.
Brian Anderson is an ex-pro boxer, and not a bad one at that; British middleweight champion back in the Eighties and afterwards a referee. Now, at 45, he is Britain's first black prison boss. Small wonder he commands respect from old lags and young cons alike as he patrols the corridors.
Moreover, he readily admits if it was not for boxing he might well have been doing a spot of porridge himself alongside the Fletchers of this world. "Yes, I was a bit of a tearaway as a kid, got into a few scrapes - nothing terribly serious, but it landed me in juvenile court. I could have easily been here in a cell rather than this office if it wasn't for finding something that gave me a bit of self-esteem and respect."
He discovered that something in the Croft House youth club in his home town of Sheffield after being taken there at 13 by a social worker appointed by the court to supervise him. "Almost immediately I found boxing was something I could do and was good at."
Within four years he was an England amateur international and it was on a trip to Germany that he met Brendan Ingle, who persuaded him to join his fabled St Thomas's "academy" in the Sheffield suburb of Wincobank. "That was a different world for me. At Croft House I was number one but with Brendan I found I was sparring with people like Herol Graham and later on, Naz and Johnny Nelson, a real education."
Nelson, the now retired former world cruiserweight champion, recalls: "Brian was a straight, no-nonsense John Bull type of fellah who always talked about being a social reformer. He'd always help you. I was a bit of a coward when it came to fighting but Brian taught me how to turn that fear into anger, and that made him the fighter he was. When he punched, it hurt, like a hot poker in your ribs."
Says Anderson: "When I turned pro, I suppose my record wasn't bad [39 fights, 27 wins with 14 KOs, nine defeats and three draws] and I only lost against good fighters. To be honest, I wasn't the sort of fighter you normally see coming out of the Ingle camp, the flash hands-down type, even though I trained with Herol and Naz. But we had a good time and I think we visited the odd nightclub or two."
Little could Anderson have known that some 20 years later old sparmate Hamed would be his "house guest" at Doncaster - albeit briefly. He had only been in his current job for a month when the former world featherweight champion was sent there after being sentenced to 15 months for a serious motoring offence. Anderson quickly moved him on. He is not allowed to discuss individual prisoners and will only say. "It was obvious that because of our past association he could not stay here," he explained.
Anderson retired in September 1987 after losing his British title to Tony Sibson at the Royal Albert Hall. "I was up for it but like a lot of boxers I'd been having weight trouble. I was 6ft 1in, weighed 15st and I had to get down to middleweight at 11 1/2st, a real struggle. But in a way that defeat was the making of me as a person. I'd lost a bit of heart for boxing by then - not for the sport, which I have always loved, but for fighting itself.
"Boxing had made me what I am. It has been my foundation stone. Even to this day, some of the things Brendan taught me I use as core values in my life. I turned to refereeing and I did quite well though I never made A class. I was having to jump through too many hoops as an ex-champion. Not many boxers make the transition to refereeing; it's a bit like football I suppose.
"After I finished boxing I felt I wanted to give something back to the community. So I decided to try and train to be a probation officer and within six months of joining the service I had got a place at university."
Son of Jamaican immigrants - his father was a plasterer and his mother a nurse - he is one of a family of six who have all achieved degrees. His rise to the top in his new career is surely one of the most astonishing accomplishments of any former sports personality.
A trained electrician, he qualified as a probation officer in 1988, worked in youth courts and also at Doncaster, run by Serco as one one of the first private prisons. "The prisoners knew how to run prisons and they were running riot. The company asked me to take on the role of the country's first anti-bullying officer in a prison. The then chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbottom, seemed to like what we were doing. I told him I had always wanted to be some kind of social reformer and it was he who suggested that I should aim to become a prison governor. I found there was a graduate scheme and managed to get on it - the first black candidate to do so, in September 1997."
Then followed spells as an officer at various prisons before the residential governorship of Everthorpe, Hull, and now director at Doncaster, a medium category jail built to accommodate 770 but currently housing over 1,100. "A bit of a squeeze," he admits.
A strong family man, he has two children, aged six and three, from his second marriage, and two in their twenties from his first marriage. Anderson had been taught PE by Howard Wilkinson at school and run in the same cross-country team as Seb Coe. He now uses his sporting contacts as part of the recreational programme. Dennis Wise and the Leeds team were there recently to do some coaching this month and since his arrival last April it has become one of Britain's more amenable nicks.
"Thank you and goodbye. Have a safe journey," is the final message prisoners hear as the gates open when they leave. "We sell this place on a good relationship between prisoners and staff, and this extends to visitors too. Everyone here is courteous and shows respect. I suppose you could say that if you've got to be locked up, this is the place to be.
"When I went to Doncaster as a probation officer, I always remember at one point there were six inmates that I used to knock around with. There were a couple of them whose parents used to say 'don't mix with that Anderson because you'll get yourself into trouble'. It was ironic, there we were, all in prison together, but of course I was the one with the set of keys.
"I just think that in life I made better decisions than the people who are inside. I could quite easily not have done. God knows what I would have done if I hadn't found boxing."
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