Words: David Matthews
Images: Laurence Ellis
It’s a drizzling Saturday morning, summer 2012, and I’m shuffling about outside a nondescript railway arch in south London, the beating heart of an area that’s by turns genteel and common, where seven-figure Georgian houses rub shoulders with dog-eared council estates, and the haves mingle uneasily with the have-fuck-alls.
- To the north, just over Lambeth Bridge, is the Palace of Westminster – the Mother of All Parliaments. But under these arches, through a foreboding heavy wooden door is the Mother of All Gyms: Fitzroy Lodge Amateur Boxing Club.
“Come on, this ain’t a bloody holiday camp,” says Grant inside, urging on the 20-odd sweating bodies navigating their way around an obstacle course of punch bags. Part sergeant-major, part likely lad, Grant has an impish charm. Like many a former amateur, boxing is the family, it’s a tradition.
“Me old man boxed, my uncle Alf boxed,” says Grant, a 50-year-old alumnus of the club. “I boxed as a kid, had a break, and came back to the Lodge when I was 25.
“In the old days, you found out about the Lodge from relations,” says Grant in between sessions. “Generations of the same family lived in the same street. You go round the manor now though… The area has altered. Now people on the local estate wouldn’t know where the Lodge is, whereas years ago, everyone knew it.”
At its height in the 60s, there were over 100,000 registered amateur boxers in England. Today, that figure is closer to 10,000. At its lowest ebb, the numbers have gone four-figure.
The Lodge’s founding father, Doctor Lionel Baly, a surgeon from nearby St Thomas’s Hospital, had started the club in 1908 to “encourage and provide facilities for athletic sports and physical recreation, among persons of the poorer classes…”
- The Lodge’s first site, in nearby Walcot Square, was destroyed by a German bomb in 1939, so for the next seven years it didn’t have a permanent home. During these wilderness years it merged with south London rival (and Britain’s oldest amateur boxing club), the Lynn ABC, until in 1946 the Lodge found its current arches bolthole, which was a snooker club that had been used as an air raid shelter.
“My first fight back for the Lodge was at the Wembley Conference Centre, 1987,” Grant told me. “I’m walking up to the ring and I see the kid I’m gonna box. He’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I’m thinking shit, look at the size of him. Then Mick puts his arm round my shoulder. I was expecting the usual pre-fight talk, you know, “get behind the jab” and all that – but Mick takes one look at my opponent and says, “I bet you wish you’d taken up table tennis.”
He’s talking about Mick Carney. Legend.
Mick Carney, the former Lodge boxer who ran the gym since the mid-60s (give or take the odd segue), up until his death in November 2011 from stomach cancer aged 76.
His funeral was a traffic-stopping affair attended by hundreds of ex-palookas, contenders, yeomanry and assorted “faces” straight out of Central Casting. In one heartrending eulogy, one of Mick’s former boxers, Nigel Travers, concluded by saying he owed Mick “everything”. This was not hyperbole. Under Mick’s tutelage, many an otherwise wasted life has managed to make something of himself.
I’d known Mick, from a respectful distance, over the course of a decade. Mick was old school with a wit drier than sandpaper. Like many in the uber-conservative world of boxing he had little patience for dilettantes, wannabes and weekend warriors.
- Being concerned about the state of amateur boxing, and the rise and rise of the boxercise classes, Mick was no proselytiser. If you were useless, he didn’t want to know. His attitude was that a boxing gym is a boxing gym, not a youth club or a Virgin Active waiting to happen.
“Mick was an incredible character both down the Lodge and in British boxing,” says Chris Terrill, 60, an award-winning filmmaker, anthropologist and Saturday Mob stalwart. “He was inspired by grumpiness! But Mick was the Lodge, the Lodge was Mick. Now that he’s gone, we all miss him. But he’s still there. His shadow will always be there. His philosophy of boxing as something for the social good lives on in the gym.”
Every weekend (and the occasional cheeky Thursday) a motley crew of cabbies, filmmakers, graphic designers, builders, lawyers, actors, public schoolboys, and assorted hardworking men (and occasionally women) gather at the Lodge with a single aim: to bash seven bells of shit out of each other.
“Mick loved the camaraderie of boxing, he loved the lads,” says Glenn. “But he thought what we did on a Saturday was a load of bollocks.” (“Whatever you do, don’t write about this lot,” Mick once warned me, half-jokingly, shaking his head while watching some overweight specimen entangle himself in a jump rope. “I don’t fucking want any more of ‘em down ‘ere. I’ve got enough as it is.”)
The Saturday Mob was the brainchild of Glenn Charles, a 6ft 4in, 54-year-old ex-cabbie turned probation officer who discovered the Lodge nearly 20 years ago while trawling the mean streets of London in his taxi, no doubt “waiting for a real rain to come”.
“I’ve probably done more sparring than most boxers over the years,” says Glenn. “But there was no place for me. I was 34, 35 and I wanted to box. I as fit as most boxers but because you can’t box after 35 (the age limit for amateurs) there was no place to go. Boxing’s a sport that discriminates against older men.” Glenn’s loquacity however got him into the Lodge, where he soon became a sparring partner to the teenage David Haye, who would later go on to become world heavyweight champion.
The Lodge is part of the local community and still maintains something of a Dickensian mission to turn waifs and strays into upstanding young people. Indeed, as boxing gyms go, the Lodge is as real as it gets. “The Lodge is a working gym, it’s not the Chelsea Harbour,” says Grant, the man training me and several others past their sell-by-date on the heavy bags. “It doesn’t have rats running around it, but it’s authentic.”
And it’s that realness that has attracted a select band of people from outside the closely knit world of amateur boxing onto its hallowed two ring turf. It has a reputation for turning out season after season of regional and national ABA champions, and schooling world title pros such as Cornelius Boza-Edwards and David Haye (who just so happens to have his own private gym a few hundred metres away under the same set of arches as the Lodge). “I find boxing a lot more honest,” says Paul Quinn. “In karate, you follow someone else’s discipline. People think you get to black belt and you’re a good fighter. The hell you are! In boxing, you need to find your own style.”
At some point, somehow, I find myself in shorts and a t-shirt, rat-a-tat-tatting with a skipping rope during an intense warm up routine being led by Grant.
- When it’s at capacity, the Lodge is a show in itself, an assault on the senses: trains rumble overhead in and out of Waterloo station; fists pound leather and flesh; ropes slap the hard wooden floor; music booms out of box; voices groan, conspire, yell, F and blind…
“Oi Dave, get over here and get in the ring.” Glenn is calling me over. I’ve dreaded this moment, but somehow, made myself complicit in it by showing up with kit, hand wraps, gloves. “Come on, let’s have a move around, you fucking pussy,” says Glenn, his wild-eyed, reddened face peering through a head guard.
I’ve known Glenn as long as I’ve known the Lodge, which is too long by any sane person’s account. Outside of the ring “gentle giant” was tailored to describe him. But once in that gym…
For a time, back in the day, I was obsessed with boxing, possessed by boxing. I ate, slept, dreamed, and lived for it. The noble art took my ignoble self by the scruff of the neck and made a man of me. I transformed myself from a 30-year-old, 15-and-a-half stone lard-arse into a 12-and-a-half stone fighting machine. I turned pro, made my debut. But somewhere along the line, the dream died. I awoke from a haze relative glory. I quit boxing.
“Fucking pussy.” There goes the gauntlet.
We exchange playful words about each other’s manhoods as Glenn points out Mark Drummond in the ring, stocky, black clad and wearing a full face protective helmet, straight outta Gotham. “He’s our hammer,” whispers Glenn. “He can fucking bang. You’ll have to have a move around with him.”
- What a capital idea.
I glove up. Damn. No gumshield. But no worries. Of the two rings in the gym, the Saturday Mob always sets one aside for body sparring only, avoiding shots to the head. This arrangement also suits anyone that doesn’t fancy showing up to work on Monday morning looking like they’d been on the cobbles over the weekend.
Standing around talking, bullshitting, being… I feel myself cooling down rapidly. Truth is, I don’t want to spar. Why would I? I’m out of shape, unfit, over boxing. Fuck that. But when someone calls you a “pussy,” even jokingly… What’s a man to do? Once you’ve boxed, it’s in your system. All it takes is a catalyst, a trigger. “Fucking pussy.”
I get into the ring. The bell, buzzer, whatever, sounds. I touch gloves with Glenn. Respect is always due. I get onto my feet and bob and weave… Suddenly, irrevocably, I feel my age… I throw shots and they evaporate into thin air. I land a clumsy combination. Forgetting (ahem!), we’re body sparring, I clock Glenn in the face twice. He delivers a low blow, no doubt accidentally.
- Smack, smack, smack. He tags me on the jaw. I feel that one. I’ll feel it for a day or two more. My lateral movement is suspect. My aching back keeps forcing me to lean forward making me easier to hit. “Keep your head up Dave,” says Glenn as the nut goes in. I have on no head guard. Jesus, Mick would’ve had kittens. I’m moving around like a drunk trying to settle an old score in a pub car park. We plough into the ropes, grappling, holding, trying to twist and turn each other and line each other up so we can tee off with crisp, clean punches. I’m no amateur. Rules, what rules? Pros fight dirty. Ex-pros even dirtier. Slow, old, ex-pros dirtier still.
For a split second I notice what seems like the entire gym looking at Glenn and I dance. I take another body shot for that. You don’t need to be Bruce Lee to know that you never take your eyes of your opponent.
The next round of sparring with “The Hammer” is more of the same, but with added sadomasochism. I throw shot after shot. They bounce off his body like tennis balls against a brick wall. The Hammer is content to soak it up and counter. He tags me with a volley of clean body shots that sting my core. I nod. You got me. He takes whatever I throw at him, happy to act as human punch bag, knowing a sucker punch is right round the corner… POW! Borderline rabbit punch. Whatever happened to that jab I had? Where’s my reach? Why can’t I just box this Rottweiler of a man off? Why do I feel like I want to be somewhere else?
- Ever the sucker for punishment, I spar one more round with Glenn. “Don’t lean forward, sit back,” someone shouts from outside of the ring. I reposition. I land shots – left, right, left combos – but they’re devoid of power or meaning. My mind is in the past, thinking of how it used to be, while the body is in the present telling me, unflinchingly, how it is, now.
I get out of the ring sheepishly. My jaw, lower back, hips, arms, head, all ache. It was one of the worst sparring sessions I’d ever had. My grandma could’ve done better. And she’s been dead 16 years. And yet, rather than walk away and save myself from further embarrassment, already I’m thinking about how to get my act together, about how to lose the 14lbs that’s the difference between me blowing bubbles and throwing a badass left hook.
Fight Club it ain’t. ‘The game’s altered,” I was told by one of the old-timers. “Around 1949 or 1950, the old man was boxing on a show. He was getting warmed up in the dressing room when a French kid that had just boxed walked in and falls to the floor. Some fella says to the old man, “Right, you’re next.” I would’ve climbed out the toilet window at that point! After the fight the old man asked after the French kid. “He’s dead,” someone tells him. But the show went on.
I get where the Saturday Mob is coming from. “I’ll never be a great boxer,” says Chris, A filmmaker, summing up the ethos of the Saturday Mob. “But that doesn’t matter. I’ve been in the ring with British champions. That’s the nature of the Lodge. The people that I get in the ring with know that I have the right to be there.”
I dig the sentiment. It’s about testing limits, pushing boundaries, facing demons that lurk within. Which is why three days later, I’m back at the Lodge, working the heavy bag, thinking about how to get even with Glenn, The Hammer, and more importantly, myself.
As Joyce Carol Oates once wrote: “One plays football. One doesn’t play boxing.”
Subscribe to Port Magazine annually and receive each issue to your door.Get PORT in print