What a joy it is to be inside the boxing gyms again, writes Steve Bunce as he goes behind the scenes at the Hoddesdon Boxing Academy
FOUR of the finest boxing nations have their flags draped high above the two rings at the Hodbox gym. The first ring has Cuba and Kazakhstan, powerhouses in the amateur game, and above ring two, the Russian flag and Gypsy nation’s distinctive flag flutter gently in the hot air. And it is very hot inside the Hoddesdon Boxing Academy, also known as the bear cage.
It’s getting close to midnight when Hamzah Sheeraz finishes his session and it is still hot. The amateurs are long gone. The heaters hanging from the roof are also burning; Sheeraz fills a bucket with sweat by wringing out his clothes. It will make a nice online hit and it did. Weight is not an issue, just something that boxers built like Sheeraz deal with. Equally, weight is always an issue, but controlling is the key. Sheeraz looked happy.
Five hours earlier, the gym had been heaving, both rings full, the floor areas packed with shadow-boxers and boys and men waiting to spar. There was also a doctor in the office completing the follow-up checks on the 107 boxers that will have cards this season.
And at one end, the mums and dads filed in and out, waiting for their little Johnny or Henry or Mohammed. Or Susie. “Was it all OK with the doctor?” Henry’s mum asked. It was, he makes his debut on the club’s show at the end of July.
The more experienced boxers arrived a bit later, some familiar faces and all with so much raw ambition and hope. The lifting of Covid restrictions, shows planned and fights schemed has changed the atmosphere, altered the dynamic as they say. Outside the doctor’s makeshift office, the talk was about fights, trips to Portsmouth, weight, plans for the first show since Covid hit. Anticipation, expectation – boxing was back, they would get to fight again.
It’s quite simple now: All the sessions, the clandestine meets, the hopes, the journeys with parents from Kent, the long hours lost on the M25 and all that waiting is nearly over.
“They just keep coming through the door,” explained Sab Leo, who has been at the gym since 1992. He has nine other coaches in rotation now, but there have been times when it was just Sab on his own, times when the glory train slowed. That happens at all amateur clubs; the test for any club is surviving the lean years, the years when another local club has success. Sab has that secret formula tucked away in his pocket, make no mistake.
On the walls are hundreds of framed vests, a testament to the club’s endless conveyor belt of talent: Billy Joe Saunders – USA York Hall 2007; Jordan Reynolds – Lionhearts Kazakhstan 2018; John Hedges – Glasgow 2016. Alfie Price, Ashley Sexton, Francie Doherty, Hamza Mehmood in locations as grand as Beijing and as ordinary as Rotherham. There are dozens of other names. It’s a wall of glory, an impressive montage, a truly inspirational backdrop.
Sexton boxed just a week or so earlier in Spain, his first fight for five years and another win on one of boxing’s circuits. He works with the juniors at Hoddesdon, his son is about to have his first contest. Ash is looking for a British title fight, 11 years after a wafer-thin split draw in his first British title fight. He boxed next to Billy Joe on the road as club boys. Ash is also the man who delivers the knockout in the most watched boxing clip ever – the one where Usman Ahmed dances to the ring and is then flattened. That’s Ash and that was in 2010.
Sheeraz never boxed for Hoddesdon, but he sensibly used the place to improve. “I used to come down here for sparring and I got chased all over the ring by one of those fighters,” Sheeraz tells me as he points up at the far end of the wall. I think he looks at the kid’s vest each time he files in at 8pm to start his late-night session. Sheeraz is a very honest kid. “I was like the invader; he was a good fighter. But I kept coming back.” The kid was a good fighter and then he was 18 and then he vanished. It happens. Sab has stopped thinking about the boxers he has lost.
Sheeraz is an old 22, a veteran of 12 fights, wise and now a survivor of that dreaded Southern Californian tour of fighting gyms. They are the pitiless gyms where nothing is sacred, where everybody is equal under the watchful eye of men like Freddie Roach. The bell sounds and it is war, it really is that simple. The Mexicans and exiled Argentinians impressed Sheeraz. “And no, I don’t know most of their names – they just came to fight,” Sheeraz admits with a smile. There were also some big names, some great sessions in those foreign rings. As I said, he feels like a veteran and a long tour like that can change a fighter forever.
It’s the ancient Kronk philosophy; fight or flight, baby. We all know the stories about “fresh meat” at the Kronk, the savagery of the attempts to break Dennis Andries, Errol Christie and Andy Lee in that great pit of excellence in Detroit. Manny Steward talked about the local workers coming in at lunchtime, grabbing a chair, eating their sandwiches and watching the sparring. It had to be good.
In LA now there are a few other hellish gyms, places where outsiders have to prove they deserve to be insiders. Sheeraz arrived, knowing he had to prove a point. Sheeraz stayed and fought, spending four months of this year in Los Angeles. That’s sacrifice and he now works with Ricky Furnez, another long-time survivor of the old game. A genuine Californian veteran with the scars and the stories and the life to share from his years at the Ten Goose gym. Furnez has been part of a lot of memorable corners, part of some great teams, worked with Roach and with his own long-term mentor, Joe Goossen.
At Hodbox, Sheeraz and Furnez, worked nicely together. Furnez liked the gym, he likes real gyms.
Both Roach and Goossen also like what they have seen of Sheeraz. Furnez speaks to both on a regular basis. It is rare to find experienced trainers so openly talking about sharing things with other experienced trainers. It is not a weakness, it’s an asset. It’s great to be out in gyms again and talking to real fight people. It is just such a delight and privilege.