The boxing club

Simon Horsford visits a boxing club that is providing an important outlet for kids and young men and women from all around the city and speaks to club manager Darren Sullivan at their new premises at Bath City FC.

The recently deposed heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua has often highlighted the debt he owes to the boxing club in Finchley, London, where he began to learn his craft. Speaking on a boxing podcast on BBC Sounds, he said: “That’s why I give a lot back to that amateur club. When you’re on a journey and focused on a goal, sometimes it’s easy to forget where we came from and the people we leave behind. Good people will help you spread your wings.”

We are all aware of how such clubs can help steer young minds away from trouble. Britain’s boxing clubs also played their part in the UK’s remarkable success at the Tokyo Olympics with six medals, including two gold – the best haul since 1920.

It’s for reasons such as these that I’m talking to Darren Sullivan, who runs the Roman Boxing Gym in Bath – the only boxing club in the city – to discover how the club is providing an important outlet for kids and young men and women in Bath. Now based at Bath City Football Club in Twerton, the gym is located in one of the most disadvantaged areas in the UK.

“We want to reach out to those types of kids,” says Sullivan. “It provides a safe environment for young boxers and gives them something to focus on. It’s good for their mental health and [being in the gym] can give them a sense of achievement. I like taking the first little 11-year-old in the ring and seeing the smile on their face afterwards.”

Sullivan adds that some of these kids do have very difficult lives. “You don’t ask too much, or what’s going on behind the scenes, but you do try and help and guide them. If you can keep a lad of 14 or 15 in the gym before he goes off the rails, then you’ve got them for quite a long time.”

The resident boxing club has become the very hub of the community…

I wonder why boxing is such an attractive and rewarding routine for these kids? “It’s not just a discipline thing,” says Sullivan. “It’s about respect for each other’s ability, especially when you put a pair of gloves on them and put them in a ring. It’s also about building their self-esteem and raising their level.”
Boxing clubs can be a great leveller too where it’s all about being part of a group and everyone is on the same playing field. This is apparent at the gym on a Wednesday evening where around 20 young lads plus one 15-year-old girl are being put through their paces in a full-on training session at the club, amid punchbags, speed balls and a 12-foot training ring. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and from all around the city with some travelling from Radstock and Midsomer Norton.

All are focused on their gym work as Sullivan and fellow trainer Craig Ryder get them doing footwork drills that help with balance and agility in the ring. Burpees, press-ups and running on the spot are added before they do pad work with a partner. Luke Bamsey, who is being trained to join the coaching staff, says “It’s the only sport I’ve ever really liked and it’s good for channeling aggression,” he adds with a smile. Luke is full of admiration for the passion that Sullivan brings to the club, a view evident from the others by the respect in which he is held.

Sullivan mentions Cain Rogers, 17, as one he has high hopes for – and seeing him hitting the pads I can see why. Similarly Liam Greenfield, who is studying sports performance at Bath University and has been with the club for two and a half years – he’s had two amateur contests and stopped both opponents.

Last year England Boxing, the governing body of amateur boxing clubs, and Sheffield Hallam University produced a report that identified how and why member clubs have been so successful in engaging with people in deprived areas. Ron Tulley, England Boxing’s Head of Development explains how, “the resident boxing club has become the very hub of the community. Even those outside the sport frequently reflect that boxing is good for young people because ‘it keeps them off the streets’, and it’s what clubs do with the young people when they are off the streets that really matters.”

Sullivan and his small team say that their new premises at Bath City FC has given them a significant boost. The gym itself has been going since 2018, initially in a room at Bath Sports Centre two nights a week and then when the pandemic hit, they trained outdoors at the Odd Down Sports Ground. “I couldn’t wait to get up there (during lockdown),” says Sullivan. “I’ve got a couple of lads with ADHD and they were buzzing when they got there and that’s what I feel community boxing can do and can really benefit the city.”

The gym is a completely separate operation from the club, with Sullivan securing space in a room there back in August. A carpenter by trade during the day, he certainly puts in a proper shift throughout the week to run the place, which operates three nights as a boxing gym, with junior (eight-14-year-olds) and senior sessions (15–36), and two nights as a fitness club; there’s also an open training session on Saturday mornings.
It’s hard work, but Sullivan’s dedication is slowly paying off – “we have a good solid base and it’s been a big jump (moving to Twerton Park)” – but he admits funding is always an issue. Although the gym gets some sponsorship from two local businesses, S&J Roofing and the Trinity Inn, and has had grants from the sports charity Sported and England Boxing, “The biggest stumbling block is affordability,” says Sullivan” – both to keep the club going and to ensure that members can afford the fees, which are impressively low: £2.50 for kids for an hour’s session and a fiver for the older boxers for an hour and a half.

Proof that funding can work at the highest level is in the fact that since being funded by UK Sport at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the medal haul in the sport has improved. But it’s at grassroots level that the need for funding is greatest. The boxing promoter Eddie Hearn last year lamented the fact that boxing was excluded from a £300-million government rescue package for spectator sports. “At an elite level we have had to overcome great difficulties during the pandemic but we will ride it out – the local community clubs simply cannot.”

Sullivan has been in the game a long time and clearly loves the sport. He started boxing aged eight and more so when he became increasingly independent around 16. He finished boxing as a lightweight when he was 29 – he’s now 54 – and in 2004 began coaching at the Frome Amateur Boxing Club before moving to Paddy John’s Gym in Bristol seven years later where he spent a further seven as an amateur and professional boxing coach; he received his pro license eight years ago.

I ask which coaches he has looked up to over the years and he cites Cus D’Amto (who trained Mike Tyson) and Emanuel Steward (trainer of Thomas Hearns and Lennox Lewis) as among the best. As for the boxers at the club, Sullivan is clearly someone they admire, a mentor, known for being firm but fair, “I think most of them when they walk into a boxing gym will behave and I won’t have no messing,” he adds.

The Roman Boxing Gym makes a good fit at Twerton Park, a relationship which Sullivan hopes will continue whenever the redevelopment of the ground is given the green light. More than that, though, the club performs an important and much-needed role in the city. Who knows, one day it might produce a future Olympic medalist, or even a world champion?