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What a joy it is to be back in the boxing gyms, writes Steve Bunce as he goes behind the scenes at the Hoddesdon Boxing Academy.
FOUR of the best boxing nations have their flags draped high above the two rings at the Hodbox gym. The first ring features Cuba and Kazakhstan, powerhouses in the amateur game, and above ring two, the Russian flag and the signature flag of the gypsy nation flutter gently in the hot air. And it’s very hot in the Hoddesdon Boxing Academy, also known as the bear cage.
It is approaching midnight when Hamzah Sheeraz finishes his session and it is still warm. The amateurs are long gone. The stoves hanging from the roof are also burning; Sheeraz fills a bucket with sweat by wringing out his clothes. It will be a nice online hit and it did. Weight isn’t an issue, it’s just something boxers like Sheeraz deal with. Likewise, weight is always an issue, but control is key. Sheeraz looked happy.
Five hours earlier, the gym had been heaving, both rings full, the floor surfaces full of shadow boxers and boys and men waiting to spar. There was also a doctor in the office who completed follow-up checks on the 107 boxers who will have tickets this season.
And on one side the mothers and fathers walked in and out, waiting for their little Johnny or Henry or Mohammed. Or Susie. “Is the doctor all right?” Henry’s mother asked. It was, he will make his debut on the club’s show at the end of July.
The more experienced boxers arrived a little later, some familiar faces and all with such raw ambition and hope. The lifting of Covid restrictions, scheduled shows and scheduled fights has changed the atmosphere, changed the dynamics as they say. Outside the doctor’s makeshift office, it was about fights, trips to Portsmouth, weight, plans for the first show since Covid struck. Anticipation, anticipation – boxing was back, they were going to fight again.
It’s pretty simple now: all the sessions, the clandestine encounters, the hopes, the trips with parents from Kent, the long hours lost on the M25 and all that waiting is almost over.
“They just keep coming through the door,” explains Sab Leo, who has been at the gym since 1992. He now has nine other coaches in rotation, but there have been times when it was just Sab alone, times when the glory train slowed down. That happens at all amateur clubs; the test for any club is to survive the lean years, when another local club is successful. Sab has that secret formula hidden in his pocket, make no mistake.
Hundreds of framed vests hang on the walls, 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 inspiring backdrop.
Sexton boxed in Spain about a week earlier, his first fight in five years and another win at one of the boxing circuits. He works with the juniors in Hoddesdon, his son is about to have his first competition. Ash is looking for a British title fight, 11 years after a razor-thin draw in his first British title fight. He boxed alongside Billy Joe on the road as club boys. Ash is also the knockout man in the most-watched boxing clip ever – the one in which Usman Ahmed dances to the ring and is then knocked down. That’s Ash and that was in 2010.
Sheeraz never boxed for Hoddesdon, but he used the place wisely to improve. “I used to come here to spar and was chased all over the ring by one of those fighters,” Sheeraz says, pointing to the far end of the wall. I think he looks at the kid’s vest every time he reports at 8pm to start his nighttime session. Sheeraz is a very honest kid. “I was like the intruder; he was a good fighter. But I kept coming back.” The boy was a good fighter and then he was 18 and then he disappeared. 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 California tour of martial arts schools. It’s the unforgiving gyms where nothing is sacred, where everyone is equal under the watchful eye of men like Freddie Roach. The bell rings and it’s war, it’s that simple. The Mexicans and exiled Argentines 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. Like I said, he feels like a veteran and such a long tour can change a fighter forever.
It’s the old Kronk philosophy; fight or flight, baby. We all know the stories of “fresh meat” in the Kronk, the brutality of trying to break Dennis Andries, Errol Christie and Andy Lee into that great Detroit pit of excellence. Manny Steward talked about the local workers who came in at lunchtime, grabbed a chair, ate their sandwiches and watched the sparring. It had to be good.
In LA there are now a few other hellish gyms, places where outsiders have to prove they deserve to be an insider. Sheeraz arrived, knowing he had a point to prove. Sheeraz stayed and fought and spent four months of this year in Los Angeles. That’s a sacrifice and he’s now teaming up with Ricky Furnez, another long-time survivor of the old game. A true California veteran with the scars and the stories and life to share from his years at the Ten Goose gym. Furnez was part of many memorable turns, was part of some great teams, worked with Roach and with his own longtime mentor, Joe Goossen.
At Hodbox, Sheeraz and Furnez worked well together. Furnez loved the gym, he loves real gyms.
Both Roach and Goossen also like what they’ve seen from Sheeraz. Furnez speaks to both regularly. It’s rare to find experienced trainers who talk so openly about sharing things with other experienced trainers. It’s not a weakness, it’s an asset. It’s great to be back in gyms and talking to real fighters. It’s just such a pleasure and privilege.
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