BRUTAL, bloody and bruising, the sport of boxing often courts bad press.
Whether the negative publicity for the noble art is justified or not, the truth of the matter is that, yes, boxing is a dangerous sport.
However, many of the sport’s critics are far too hasty to gloss over the huge role boxing plays within the local community.
While the Floyd Mayweathers of this world are living the dream and fighting for world titles in the bright lights of Las Vegas, the reality for the majority at amateur clubs across the world is vastly different.
Only a handful of budding boxers in amateur gyms will actually turn professional, let alone lift any sort of title, but, for many, climbing through the ropes and into the ring could still prove to be the most important decision they will ever make.
Learning to throw a right hook or land an uppercut is all well and good but amateur boxing clubs are about much more than that. So often they serve to keep people off the streets and out of trouble, as well as completely turning lives around and at times even saving lives.
In Swindon, Fitzpatrick’s Boxing Gym in Rodbourne Road is a living, breathing example of the priceless role an amateur boxing club can play in the community.
“We have two rules,” explains the club’s straight-talking and experienced owner Paddy Fitzpatrick. “No swearing and everyone talks to each other and with a bit of luck and three Hail Marys we’ve haven’t had a bit of grief.
“Our youth eventually become adults and then they will be ruling the world. If we don’t continue to try and grow together as communities we will just keep growing further apart.
“Isn’t the proof out there in the world what that is doing to us? Neighbours don’t even know each other anymore whereas before a neighbour could just walk in and get your lawnmower, but now they don’t even know each other.
“It is even worse that we don’t even want to get to know each other now, it’s just kind of easier to just say ‘hi’ and then walk away.
“So the whole idea of the gym was to have a little mixing pot where I could do what I love, doing the boxing, and where everyone could come in regardless of who they are, what side of the fence they are from, whether they are doing good in life or struggling, and just have somewhere safe where they can all get along.
“If they realise they can do that in a building with four walls where they are confined to get along with each other and they can get along, then why can’t they get along in their own community when there are no walls around them?
“This gym has proved it. Lots of places proved it, not just this gym, but we are talking about this gym. Plenty of the people who used to come in my gym wouldn’t talk to the older people if they saw them on the street and plenty of the older people, or the wives, or the off duty policemen wouldn’t talk to the youth if they were walking down the street.
“I hear people say all the time they are shocked when they come up here and all the youth shake their hands and say ‘hello’ whereas anyone that comes to my gym for a while isn’t shocked. It’s normal because we are training them in the same way you train to learn the technique to be a fighter not to judge people by the way they look.
“It becomes a reaction to be cool around people and to be all right with them. Same way that it becomes a reaction to be natural in the sport you want to be involved in. That is what it is all about.”
Fitzpatrick’s own pedigree is impressive having worked with some of the best trainers in the business such as Freddie Roach and Buddy McGirt during his time in America. He’s also worked with numerous top professionals and is the current trainer for British super-middleweight star George Groves. But after 10 years in America, Fitzpatrick decided to set up home in Swindon using Roach’s Wild Card Gym as his inspiration to keep today’s youth on the straight and narrow.
“I moved back here when DJ (his son) was born because I didn’t want to raise a kid over in America,” added Fitzpatrick. “We’d lived there for 10 years and we enjoyed living there but I was working with a lot of kids who were into gun crime and it is heartbreaking to see what these kids perceive to be normal life.
“I just didn’t want it. Swindon has always been a second home to me because I have a lot of people that I am close to here.
“I remember when I got to Freddie’s (Freddie Roach) gym in LA I was shocked because all of a sudden I’d gone from my level of fighting to world level coaching so it was kind of like jumping in a real ice cold bath of water, a bit of a shock.
“Then the bigger shock was to realise that over there Fred was working with a world champion on the mitts and then over there was a housewife on the bag, a lawyer over there, screenwriter for the Simpsons over there, everyone is in the same gym working.
“I just remember thinking this is great. They just loved Freddie’s gym.
“I think we have the same thing Freddie had going on there, just look, come in here and get along with each other, I don’t care who you are.
“That’s what we have here. We literally have so many personalities from kids and adults that are in grief all the time to some people who are just really shy and just wanted to come to a gym to people with illnesses, emotional problems and mental problems. The personalities are varied right throughout, we have every spectrum in there with just the one thing in common, just being cool with each other.”
While the gym is helping to bring the local community closer together, the gym plays a huge role in Fitzpatrick’s life too with the trainer admitting he doesn’t know where he would be without it.
“Primarily it is not for everyone else, it is for me,” said Fitzpatrick. “If I didn’t have continued direction then I’d lose my way too, I have to live my life to see if I can make improvements to myself as a dude too.
“Every day when I come in and my gym says ‘be cool with people, say hello to everyone, shake their hand’, I can’t walk in and then not be cool with people or not carry myself correct.
“I opened it for those reasons and then it has an effect on anyone else that wants to join in.
“I see a huge difference. I see a monster difference. I see a change in people’s lives because if they are spending more time in here then they are spending more time around the ethos that we have here. I’ve seen it change a lot of people’s lives in the six years I’ve been here.
“I hear all the time that boxing teaches you discipline but I disagree with that. It’s the coaches who teach discipline. I know lots of boxers who are indisciplined and they aren’t very nice. It’s the coach and the environment that will teach you that.”
Coach Leo Dart is just one member of Fitzpatrick’s gym whose life has been turned around thanks to boxing. Dart’s drug habit saw him serve time in jail but he says boxing gave him a purpose in life and he is now one of the main coaches at the club.
“Coming to the gym gave me a purpose, I wish I had done it 10 years before,” explained Dart. “I had to go to jail because of the drugs.
“I’ve been clean for over three years now. I came to the gym through DHI (Developing Health and Independence charity) and it is the best thing I ever did. I met Paddy and he was an excellent role model. He welcomed me with open arms, that is what he does. That is what I like about Paddy, he is just big on helping people who are down on their luck.
“It gave me purpose and kept me on the straight and narrow. I don’t know where I would be now without the gym.
“I just want to help people not to make the same mistakes I did. I can see how it has changed a lot of people’s lives and given them structure in their life.
“It’s an important part of the community, especially for people who have been getting into trouble or don’t know what to do with their time. Everyone helps each other out here. Some people have a lot of things going on in their life and they come to the gym and leave the gym smiling.”
Fitzpatrick hailed Dart for turning his life around, adding: “He had his own set of problems he had to deal with.
“Leo when I met him had hit the end of the road and he wanted to go backup it. You have to finally hit somewhere where you think there’s no more, I can’t go that way anymore, there’s no road that way. You either sit at the end of the road stewing or you try and make your way back up the road. Leo was at that point when I met him.
“Now it’s a total transformation. He came here with his own head of demons and just done everything. People say a leopard can’t change his spots well Leo did and there are loads in there doing it.”
Garvey Kelly has trained at Fitzpatrick’s for five years and admits the gym taught him respect and gave him huge confidence in life.
“I never respected anyone as a kid and I was always in and out of trouble but I met Paddy and I learned respect by coming here,” said Kelly. “You respect everybody who steps between the ropes and after that you can respect anybody in life. It’s hard to say where I would be now without boxing because I didn’t have any ambition as a kid.
“I left school at 15, just before my exams and had no ambition, no idea of what to do as a job, I was just stuck in a rut.
“The boxing training really boosted me. It keeps me motivated and keeps me going.
“There are lots of different people in the gym. Guys come down to box, to keep fit or just for the social side. We have women, different cultures just every different kind of people. There are no egos here, people just come in and work and grind hard.”
Fitzpatrick’s is also a training base for British super-middleweight star George Groves, who fights for the world title in May.
Groves is trained by Paddy Fitzpatrick and says gyms like Fitzpatrick’s play a huge role in the local community.
“Like a lot of gyms in this country, everyone is welcome,” Groves said of Fitzpatrick’s.
“If you are having trouble elsewhere in your life or whether you are flying high and just want to punch someone in the face, you learn a lot of life skills as well as a fantastic sport. Down here you are definitely taught to be courteous and respectful to each other, that’s important in life.
“The discipline you are taught helps get you in shape and get healthy, not just your body but your mind too.
“Boxing gives you the confidence to work hard at something and stick to it.
“It doesn’t matter what ability you are in this gym, whether you are a first-bouter or like me, a professional, you can come down engage and make friends. It is great for grassroots especially.
“This is not just a brutal sport for thugs it is a sport for everyone.
“Sometimes it is hard to see your way to getting on in life but a little bit of boxing can be a way out for lots of people”