THINK of grassroots boxing and you think of the tatty, old huts that serve as gyms, where the stench of sweat and years of toil coat the walls like whitewash and rows of could’ve beens, should’ve beens and might-yet-bes are crammed in like battery hens as they pound rhythmically and ferociously at punchbags.
On a winter’s day the steam from their bodies rises like sea haar in the poorly-heated surroundings and the senses are further assaulted by the noise of gloves on pads and coaches barking instructions at determined but raw recruits.
There is something nostalgic, almost romantic about it all and such environs have moulded successful fighters for generations. But the sport in Scotland is changing. The word “amateur” has been dropped from the name of governing body Boxing Scotland and while it remains starved of the kind of steady funding enjoyed by other sports and is predominantly served by volunteers, there is a more professional approach these days.
The aims remain the same at grassroots level and there, for now, the dilapidated huts and converted churches, warehouses and halls will continue to serve communities, but at the top level the game is being overhauled. The best example of that stands at the site of an old theatre in Bridgeton Cross, Glasgow.
When it opened in 1911, the Olympia was described as the city’s equivalent of the London Palladium. In the century since, it has served as a music hall, a cinema, a bingo club and a furniture store.
These days it is again a theatre, a theatre of dreams, and they are as grand as the Grade B listed façade. As the new home of Boxing Scotland’s high performance centre, the stage is the ring and medals and titles are more important than rave reviews or standing ovations. Funded by sportscotland and Clyde Gateway as part of the drive to provide sports facilities to serve as a lasting legacy of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, it was opened at the end of last month and will be the HQ for our boxing elite.
“I said when I first took this job that we needed a home and this is the culmination of three years of hard work on the Boxing Scotland performance programme,” says Richard Thomas, chairman of Boxing Scotland. “But it is well worth the effort. It’s a fantastic facility, something to be proud of. More importantly, it is absolutely inspirational for the boxers. When they saw it they were all desperate to train there.”
The new facility is a metaphor for the sport itself. A once noble institution allowed to fall into disrepair, the Olympia had the guts ripped out of it. The façade remains but behind the scenes little is the same. The same could be said for boxing.
Damaged by posturing and egos in the ring and among the “blazerati”, by a lack of funding, by tales of rigged judging, of political manoeuvring and fears for health and safety, the sport has taken a battering. But, having worked hard to address many of those issues, it is back off the canvas.
Four years ago national coach Mike Keane travelled to Delhi, with one other coach, both volunteers, and guided their charges to podium places at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Callum Johnson grabbed gold, Josh Taylor secured silver and Stevie Simmons left with bronze. It upheld boxing’s proud record of delivering medal success for Scotland at every Commonwealth Games. Four years on and he has a dedicated group of boxers crammed with contenders and their chances will only improve thanks to the new facility.
“The wee huts we have all over the country are great but the fact is they limit the training because most of them have small rings, but when it comes to competitions, you don’t box in wee rings,” says Thomas, who is also a volunteer. “The rings they fight in are 24 feet. So while the new facilities at Bridgeton are bright and shiny and new, the most important thing is that they are actually fit for purpose.
“To punch a punch bag you need a diameter of three metres and this place has space. Gyms around the country do a great job of improvising and innovating but this will be amassive boost for the elite boxers.
“We need to give them the best facilities possible, improve the level of competition and give them exposure to international bouts.”
With between 400-500 square metres of space, the high performance centre can accommodate visiting nations, with the Russian national squad the first to sign up for some sparring. “It’s a great coup for us,” adds Thomas. “We will have six rings, two of them will be Olympic style. It’s a big old gym with all the best equipment and that is important because you need to spar with your opponents and this will allow us to see how other teams box so that helps us understand and prepare tactically. Obviously, Russia won’t compete at the Commonwealth Games but we are doing more with video analysis and we can study opponents and different styles of boxing.”
“Boxing Scotland took things to a new level last year,” says Connor Law, who is one of the elite competitors training at the Olympia and hoping to represent the nation in the 69kg category at Glasgow 2014. “But when you see this facility and look at the work being done to make the Scottish Championships better and get the Scottish boxers ready for the Commonwealth Games, they have raised the level. It’s an exciting time and it makes you want to work harder and harder.
“There are times I’m exhausted just now because I’m working so hard,” adds the 21-year-old, who combines his ship-building job in Fife with sessions in his home Glenrothes gym and the new centre in Glasgow. “I am young and I’ve got time on my side but, for me and a lot of the boys, this is the year. The Commonwealth Games are in Scotland so this is the big one. I don’t want to look back on this year and wish I had done more.”
The current Scottish welterweight champion, he will defend his title in front of 5,000 at the Emirates Arena at the end of March. He faces stiff competition from others in the elite squad, with the winner likely to get the nod for the Commonwealth Games. With the main contenders now regularly training together he admits there is a healthy mix of excitement and nerves in the air.
Further changes in the sport will be evident at the national championships. In line with international rules, the championships will see boxers fight without head guards for the first time, they will be judged on the new scoring system which is based on who wins the round rather than blows landed.
“With the Commonwealth Games places at stake, there are going to be some really hotly contested bouts and the atmosphere is going to be very exciting,” adds Thomas. “This could give us the bounce into the Commonwealth Games and hopefully we get even more medals, bigger home crowds and more funding and sponsors. That will help with the growth of the sport from the grassroots all the way up to the elite boxers at Bridgeton.”