Winning ways of the fight game

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Former amateur boxer Byron Francis with one of the youngsters at Huggy’s Gym Former amateur boxer Byron Francis with one of the youngsters at Huggy’s Gym

He was the only Yorkshireman to fight Muhammad Ali and he has a sports centre in Bradford, his home city, named in his honour.

Long after Richard Dunn retired from the sport which brought him success, a group of volunteers are giving today’s youngsters the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the city’s great fighters, the likes of Dunn and present day heroes such as Junior Witter.

Huggy’s Gym is named after a Bradford businessman who invested his time and money into providing an affordable facility for local youngsters.

Set up in 2006, the Manchester Road gym is run by volunteers, predominantly ex-professional boxers who have come back into the sport to give something back to the community.

Former amateur boxer Byron Francis knows how important volunteers are to such an organisation, having benefited from a boxing club when he was a young boy.

He was 12 when he walked into Springfield Youth Club at Thorpe Edge. “They had a boxing gym upstairs, and John Quinlan and Bhulla Singh were the coaches,” he says. “The whole buzz of the place was incredible, and seeing the skill and what the guys were doing.”

Byron fondly recalls being funded to compete in competitions, with the money invariably coming out of coaches’ pockets. The fact that the club had nurtured seven Yorkshire champions at that time was reward enough.

For Byron and his fellow boxers, it gave them the belief they could achieve, and gain skills that can be used in other areas in the future – something he is now passing on as a volunteer coach at Huggy’s.

Byron has acknowledged the time given to him and his friends all those years ago, and is expressing his appreciation by offering his time one night a week to pass on boxing skills to the next generation.

Hundreds of youngsters, even parents, are experiencing the benefits of boxing. It may not be in the same league as rugby or football – Byron believes the switch from screening fights on regular TV to pay-to-view programmes led to dwindling popularity – but the sport still has an enthusiastic following.

The sight of opponents throwing punches at each other doesn’t appeal to everyone but, according to Byron, boxing isn’t about violence. He says it’s a very disciplined sport designed to empower youngsters and teach them respect. Contrary to promoting violence, he says boxing teaches youngsters how to walk away from confrontation without losing face.

“It’s not all about the ring because not everybody wants to compete, but in terms of fitness, focus, discipline, self-esteem and hand-eye co-ordination, they are all transferable skills,” says Byron.

Some, like the club’s rising stars Francis Mpofu, from West Bowling, who recently won his first fight, and Nikio Bob-Manuel, do go on to compete on the boxing circuit. Not all will become successful boxers but they will acquire skills for life – girls included.

Jenny Rowe, a youth worker from Bradford, and her nine-year-old daughter Jamika are among the few female regulars at the gym. They were in pursuit of a pastime they could do together, and joined three months ago.

“We wanted to do something which was challenging for us and something we would stick at. I think the discipline, the respect, all that comes into it and they can use those as life skills as well,” says Jenny.

She is enjoying it so much she hints that she may join the women who have taken up the sport competitively. “At the moment I am loving it so much that I would love to do a bit of boxing,” she says. “At the end of the day it can be a dangerous sport, but if it’s done right I don’t see why not.

“And the volunteers are absolutely brilliant. They are energetic and they are positive role models.”

The fact that Huggy’s boxing club is being showcased in photographer Tony O’Connell’s Acts of Kindness exhibition is testimony to the valuable work these volunteers do in their community.

Tony was inspired by his visit to the club. “There were about 30 youngsters all training together and the atmosphere was just fantastic – and not just young people but parents getting involved,” he says. “There were mums with boxing gloves on!”

But what inspired Tony the most were the pals behind this operation who put their hands in their pockets to fund and run the club.

Adds Byron: “Thirty years ago there was somebody else doing this for me. I don’t doubt in every country or city there is someone doing something similar, true volunteers who selflessly take time out for others.”

For more information contact the club on (01274) 491919.

Acts of kindness

As part of a project called Acts Of Kindness, Bradford photographer Tony O’Connell (pictured) is busy taking pictures of individuals and organisations across the district involved with helping others. The T&A is highlighting some of the stories behind Tony’s photographs, which will go on display in an exhibition this summer. For more about Tony’s Acts of Kindness project, visit tony@tocpics.co.uk

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