“It was empty so we just picked the biggest room. The only things here when we moved in were glue sniffers and pigeons. We got rid of them and now it’s like a community within itself.”
Sheffield Boxing Centre, located to the north of the city in Hillsborough, is run by former pro, Glyn Rhodes. There’s no hint of pretention about the place and you sense anyone with a suspect attitude will get found out there very quickly. Two full-size rings greet you as soon as you enter, followed by the sight of thirty-two punch bags dangling from scaffolding poles that span the width of the room. A selection of weights and kettle bells are stacked in the corner along with a pile of exercise mats that rest against the wall marked exclusively for the use of female members.
It was set up eighteen years ago in an old school hall that had been shut down. An earthy smell you might remember from sitting on the floor during assemblies remains, but there are now twenty professionals training there, along with a bunch of kids and amateurs. There’s also a local football team that has progressed from doing circuits to increase their fitness to sparring with each other. The walls are covered in photos of famous visitors and the gloves of ex-champion boxers, the majority addressed to either Glyn or ‘the lads at Sheffield Boxing Centre’.
“We’ve had Prince Charles, Jake La Motta, Roberto Duran, Vinnie Jones in this gym, I could go on forever,” he explains. “It’s got character. I keep saying I’m going to paint it but then I think the spit and sawdust is part of the attraction so why change?”
Rhodes is trainer, manager and promoter to the men and women who go to Sheffield Boxing Centre. He grins as he talks about what ‘a little b*stard’ he was as a teenager before coming across legendary trainer Brendan Ingle’s gym just after he’d left school. This eventually led to thirty-three victories from sixty-five professional fights at lightweight in a career that lasted from 1979 to 1993.
“I boxed some good kids and lost to some real mugs as well. There was never any consistency with me, I might go three, four, five fights unbeaten and then lose to a right lump. The problem was I never trained. I once walked into the gym, saw Brendan wasn’t there and went straight home again. I make my kids work hard because the thing that let me down was that I didn’t train. It’s not clever, I was just an idiot.
“I loved the competition and adrenaline of a fight, and I’d have boxed every night of the week but not training harder is a big regret. I’m not proud of that and sometimes I think to myself I was a right plank.”
There is a now a big sign above the punch bags with the gym’s motto on it, just in case anyone is tempted to make the same mistake: ‘If you want to do something, you will find a way to do it. If you don’t, you will find an excuse.’ Dave Fidler has been coming to the gym on and off for ten years and is unbeaten in four fights since making his pro debut as a thirty-three-year-old in September 2011. He runs in the morning before heading off to work as a factory supervisor, and then trains at the gym in the afternoon. He even has his two daughters with him on this particular day. He’s finding a way and to reinforce the point, rolls up his right sleeve and shows off the gym’s slogan tattooed across his forearm.
“When I think about copping out, when I find it difficult, think I’m getting old or getting injured, I always think to myself, ‘that’s an excuse’,” he says. “I’m always talking myself back into it. You’ve got a devil and an angel on each shoulder. One of them is asking you what the f*ck you think you’re doing with two kids and a job, and the other’s saying age is just a number.
“There are people out there with titles who I think I could beat, so why not? You’ve got to be tough in Glyn’s gym and you learn through hard work.”
Two of the other professionals are sparring while under the watchful eye of Les. He is one of a number of people who don’t have to be there but have paid to put themselves through a course that allows them to coach fighters. According to Glyn, securing grants for a gym that trains professionals is close to impossible so fund raising and sponsorship are essential for keeping things going. The old school, where the gym is based, is now a community organisation known as Burton Street Foundation which means they have a space they probably wouldn’t find anywhere else for the same price. It’s also good advertising when you ask people to donate for your latest fund-raiser. You might say Rhodes got lucky in finding such a place, but that’s not to say that running it isn’t a constant battle. New equipment doesn’t pay for itself, and in a period when it’s more common to ask the public to put their hands in their pocket, the gym might not be there without the interest and goodwill of those giving up their time to supervise training sessions, bandage hands and sweep the floor.
“I don’t know how people get these grants,” says Rhodes. “We’re doing as good a job as anybody and we’re self-sufficient. I just reckon the people giving out the grants think you’re going to run off with the money. Obviously we’re not, but how do you get them?”
With everybody encouraged to come along and an initiative called ‘Boxing Unites, Racism Divides’, word has got round about the good things happening at the gym. Evening classes are so popular there are sometimes two people to a bag but for Glyn and Mick, his only paid employee, it’s just another problem to solve.
“People have been ringing me since the Olympics to advertise in magazines,” he continues. “If you advertise, you’re going to get busier so you need more people in here to steer them in the right direction. We’re busy enough so we don’t need anymore, but what do you say when people turn up? Sorry, you can’t come in because it’s too full. You don’t want so many in here that people come and it’s not enjoyable.
“It’s got to be hard work though, and part of the agreement with us is once you walk through that door I’ll say things you might not like. That’s the way it is. It’s a proper boxing gym and we get all kinds of people coming in. When I was boxing you didn’t see women in the gym but it’s become more acceptable and that’s a good thing. A lot of them want to start in the women only classes but they soon find they want to pick it up a bit and end up in the normal ones.
“We don’t want to discuss your religion or your politics. When you come here, you’re a boxer. I’m not a saint and I don’t want to be a social worker, but the racism thing is just stupid. It’s nearly 2013 and people are still going on about it. It’s daft.”
He didn’t want to be a trainer either when he started out, or think he would have the patience to do it. Rhodes is still going though and also got his promoters license recently. Six shows over the next 12 months at ‘Ice Sheffield’ represent the potential of a lot of coverage for the lads and the chance to give their careers a jolt. It also means not having to sit around waiting for the phone to ring with the offer of a match up from another promoter. The flip side is the extra work on top of training drumming up interest and selling tickets for the show.
“You’re only going to box in your home town if you can get bums on seats,” said Rhodes. “If you can’t do that, you’ll have to get on the road. You put the ticket sellers on, whether the kid fighting is yours or not.”
Currently, there are three Central Area title holders at Sheffield Boxing Centre who have all built up a following. For Dave Fidler, that’s his goal and selling himself to people that might want to come along and watch him achieve that is something else to fit in alongside his job and twice daily training sessions.
“I’m a decent ticket seller so the six nights are good for me. What I didn’t realise before I started was the strain you put on yourself. You have to sell yourself to people, which is hard for me because I’m quite a shy kid, but I’ve called it ‘Fidler Fever’. Justin Bieber named it after me. I try and make that a selling point and make the night a bit of an event.
“With the six fights and the climate we’re in, it’s going to be hard to fight every two months and keep everyone interested. I can’t blame people for that. If I were following a fighter, it would be enough for me.”
The competition in South Yorkshire is fierce, and there are plenty of other gyms around if fighters aren’t happy. This is something Fidler tried, but found he missed the camaraderie with the other lads and felt as if he was doing the dirty on Glyn. The boss, for his part, takes a pragmatic view of the future.
“The gym’s got a lot of history,” said Rhodes. “We’ve had a lot of kids come through and gone on to do better things. There are things I’d like to do with it. I’d like it to be open all day but I’ve got other things on and I just can’t.
“I never won anything and I was probably one of the least successful boxers to come out of the Ingle gym but I’m still in the game. A lot of boxers are just put out to graze when they retire but I’m still training and I’ve started promoting. So that’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
He should be pleased too. Clearly the driving force behind the gym, Rhodes is making sure his fighters don’t make the same mistakes he did. It’s that mentality that should mean despite a lack of space, competition from other gyms and problems securing funding, Sheffield Boxing Centre will be around for a few years yet.
Click here for more Football & Sport
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook