Boxing: Storey gives peace fighting chance

Belfast celebrates the man who uses boxing to bridge religious divide

These are troubled times for boxing. Naseem Hamed, one of the nation's greatest-ever fighters, is banged up in a Yorkshire jail, presumably resting his head for the next 15 months on the softer bed he demanded. Scott Harrison, his successor as a British world featherweight champion, has followed Frank Bruno on to the psychiatrist's couch in a Priory clinic and himself awaits a court case in September which could also see him sent to prison.

Harrison should have been defending his title in Belfast last night. Had he been there he might well have learned how boxing can give a lesson in life.

Belfast has had its share of troubles of course. The Troubles, they still call them here. Throughout the strife-filled years divided by religion and politics the Holy Family gymnasium in North Belfast has stood as a lone haven from the bombs and the bullets.

On Friday the achievements of the man who has spent a lifetime doing what the politicians couldn't, uniting kids on different sides of Ulster's pernicious religious divide, ironically through fighting, was celebrated by a unique event.

Youngsters from the back- streets of Belfast, members of the club run by Gerry Storey, joined up with a Brazilian team recruited from the shanty towns of Rio, to take on an England squad under the banner "Fight for Peace". Supported by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, the scene was a venue no bigger than a church hall, in front of a banner which portrayed Ulster's most famous fighter, Barry McGuigan, who was there with three-times world champion Duke McKenzie, and young Amir Khan. The couple of hundred present at the North Queen Street Community Centre exuded as much fervour as the sell-out crowd 24 hours later at the King's Hall where Khan had his seventh pro engagement.

The gym above, which featured in the Daniel Day-Lewis film The Boxer, is in a Catholic area but has been spared sectarian violence. It is here that Storey has coached young boxers regardless of their creed or background without the customary intimidation. Somehow they had an unofficial diplomatic immunity. "They'd never touch me or any member of my gym," he said. "The kids had no way of getting to know each other until we brought them to the gym. They trained together, then went off on their bikes as friends."

It was a pugilistic prelude to this weekend's Laureus Awards in Barcelona and it was at this event in Lisbon last year that the "Fight for Peace" night was conceived when Storey, the recipient of their Sport for Good award, met 33-year-old Luke Dowdney, the former British amateur boxer who five years ago set up the boxing academy just outside Rio to help save kids from the favelas, or shanty towns, from a life of crime, violence and poverty through teaching them, as Storey has, to use their fists in the ring rather than firearms out of it.

The result seemed irrelevant, the combined "ghetto" team winning by five bouts to two. It was the spirit that mattered, even when 17-year-old Alexandra Francisa da Silva, one girl among the boys from Brazil, jumped for joy after being declared the winner over Ireland's Carley McNaul in a special women's bout only to learn the result had been wrongly announced. She happily punched the air again.

McGuigan has known the 70-year-old Storey for almost 30 years. "What Gerry has done in this troubled, treacherous place is remarkable, almost beyond belief," he said. "People forget how bad those times were, when you couldn't go down a certain part of the city if you had the wrong religion or the wrong name. This club was in a very rough Republican area. But you could walk into this place because Gerry Storey had created a little sanctuary where no one ever troubled the boxers coming in and out. Protestants and Catholics trained together and fought together. There was no religion, no swearing. Gerry insisted on zero tolerance for any abuse of the rules.

"He was a world-class coach who helped me from the age of 14 right through to the Commonwealth and Olympic Games. That work is continuing. It is the most successful boxing club in the country, producing champions time after time.

"What Gerry gives is an education in life. You leave this place having learned respect and tolerance. He has saved so many lives in this country. Kids came here who could have been potential terrorists but Gerry was able to channel their aggression in a very positive way. It is a scandal that he's never been honoured. He should have been knighted for what he's done."

All this was apposite in a week when a 15-year-old boy died in Belfast after being attacked by a sectarian gang. It indicated that the fight for peace in Belfast goes on, as it does in Rio.