Senior Boxing Journalist @JamesDielhenn
Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury: How will boxing's next UK superstar be produced amid crisis for amateur gyms?
"Gyms are struggling to survive, some are making enough money to only avoid going bankrupt. Kids need investing in"
Last Updated: 19/10/20 12:11pm
There is a "grave danger" of future generations failing to produce the next Tyson Fury or Anthony Joshua because amateur boxing is fighting for survival.
Fury and Joshua benefitted from an amateur system which is now in crisis due to Covid-19 restrictions meaning superstars of tomorrow may have their potential halted at a crucial point of their development.
The outlook is starker, still. The logistical, economic and mental-health impact of gyms being forced to close (some temporarily, some forever) may do long-lasting damage to people who rely on their local boxing gym being a pillar of the community, a place of discipline and distraction from temptation.
The impact may be felt in years to come, long after Fury and Joshua have settled the undisputed heavyweight title, and when fresh faces should be stealing the limelight.
The amateur system being in crisis will eventually damage the elite level, insists St Pancras Boxing Club's trainer CJ Hussein, who told Sky Sports: "One-hundred per cent. We are losing a lot of boxers.
"The older kids won't hang around - some were on the verge of turning pro. One kid I have wanted to turn pro this year but that isn't happening now so his career is basically over.
"By the time he applies for his licence again, the British Boxing Board of Control will have a backlog. Only the top end of boxers are getting any work. The small shows are finished, at the moment, because all of their money is made through ticket sales which can't happen."
So what happened to the lad who wanted to turn pro?
"He's got a job. He's nearly in his 30s. Kids up and down the country were on the verge of doing things in boxing but that won't happen now."
Nigel Travis from Moss Side Fire Station Boxing Club in Manchester told Sky Sports about a potential lack of future talent: "There is a grave danger. Without a doubt.
"It could write off the next five years because some kids will walk away from the sport. Anthony Joshua still goes regularly to his amateur club, Finchley Boxing Club. But without investment into gyms, you won't get the next Joshua."
The issue that really burdens amateur trainers in this difficult year is not creating the next Fury or Joshua.
Their true passion is using boxing as a mechanism to help young people whose lives otherwise would not go in a positive direction.
Now robbed of their only tool, how do they help?
"Our kids are high-risk - they could be involved in other activities that they shouldn't be doing," said Moss Side's Travis.
"We kept them involved via Zoom at the start so they knew they were appreciated. That's our team ethic, to make them feel a part of something bigger.
"Then we did a few sessions outdoors.
"Our kids are reliant on the routine of getting up in the morning, going to the gym, going for a run. If you unset that balance, it can become precarious. They can drift back into naughtiness because it's ever-present, it's everywhere.
"I am invested in these kids to make sure they don't relapse. It was worrying.
"I have a moral obligation to these kids because of what I've become to them. I'm more than their boxing coach."
Mickey Cunningham runs MBox under the Forest Gate railway arches in east London and he tells a similar tale: "Some kids, when they finish school, have nothing good to do except to go robbing or get up to no good. We give those kids somewhere to go, three times per week for a couple of hours.
"Some of these kids? You don't know what happens behind closed doors. Without us they will be troubled."
St Pancras' Hussein said: "We are more concerned by the younger kids, not the oldest ones, because of the mental-health aspect. They will get bored.
"One kid, before lockdown, was only allowed to play PlayStation on a Saturday. During lockdown he would play every day until 2am, there was no law and order. But now he's so fed up of his PlayStation."
Boxing gyms have long been a solace for youths trying to straighten out their lives before irreparable damage is done.
When Dale Youth, a gym that has experienced more than most after it was burned down during the fire at Grenfell Tower, eventually reopened the London Mayor Sadiq Khan, whose brother is an amateur boxing trainer, spoke powerfully at its relaunch.
"I want to give more young people constructive things to do," he said. "Not everybody's going to be an Anthony Joshua or James DeGale or George Groves.
"I'd rather people joined this gang, a lawful gang, a gang that gives you life skills rather than a gang that's a criminal gang,"
If passion and heart could keep the gym doors open, then amateur boxing trainers all over the UK would have nothing to worry about.
The cold truth is that the economic impact is another blow which has gyms on the ropes.
"Financially there are clubs that will never return from this. It is deadening to them," said Travis.
His Moss Side gym is a registered charity supported by Manchester Fire and Rescue, so is not blighted in quite the same way as facilities that are run as businesses.
"Gyms are struggling to survive, some are making enough money to only avoid going bankrupt," Travis said.
"Kids need investing in. They have a home at my gym, whenever they want it. But this time will be fatal to a lot of gyms.
"While I've got air in my lungs I'll go to my gym. But not everyone is as pig-headed as me - I've already seen some people walk away."
It is "expensive" even to keep the gym shut for Cunningham at MBox in east London, who adds: "The rent goes up but the amount of people coming through the doors has gone down. So I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel."
He is working with Newham Council to put on 30 weeks of free boxing sessions for young people between 13 and 20 at a local park then, when it gets cold, a nearby facility.
"I'm chasing our local MP," said Cunningham. "I told him what I need to keep the gym open, and what we provide for the community. What I'd really like is for the Government to pay for three classes per week for the youths.
"My paid classes bring in two or three kids who pay £5 each. The free class brings in 18 kids. It gives them something to work towards - fitness and friendships."
Hussein's St Pancras was the first amateur club to cancel a show back in March. It just happened to be the most important show of the club's calendar.
"Our fundraising show pays for everything for the whole year, but it was cancelled," he said.
"The money that the kids pay only pays for our toilet roll! The after-dinner fundraiser we hold every year pays for everything.
"I know two gyms that have shut. They couldn't pay their rent.
"We are OK now but something has to be done. If it carries on into next year, we will be in big trouble."
Sparring and pad-work is restricted under government guidelines and trainers are now accustomed to social distancing and taking the temperature of everybody who steps foot in their gym.
"It's more than just closing a gym, more than just kids not being engaged," said Moss Side's Travis. "It's hard for me to encourage kids because there is no end result, at the moment.
"Their end result is competing or sparring or performing at the highest level that they can achieve - whether that is a world champion or someone with complex mental issues whose goal is just to get in the ring.
"Some of my greatest successes? Along with Conner Tudsbury, who is going onto bigger and better things, I've got a kid whose life has turned around tenfold because of boxing. He now has the confidence to go to school, he has a job, he is no longer a drain on society, he has the discipline to say no to gangs. That is as valuable as being the next Anthony Joshua.
"There are kids who will never compete but, because of boxing, now have confidence."
St Pancras' Hussein adds: "Kids think: 'So what is the point in coming?'.
"Some kids are going over into white-collar boxing because they don't have to follow the same rules.
"This will affect every amateur gym in a big way."
There are rays of light.
The difficulties of 2020 have brought some boxing gyms closer to the communities that they serve.
George Turner of the Carney Community, which works with disadvantaged young people and offenders and is named after the late renowned trainer Mick Carney from Fitzroy Lodge, said: "Normally we have 50 kids in our boxing sessions then we feed them, for free, afterwards.
"We provide key work and mentoring support - we might meet them in custody, help them set up businesses. We have had a number of successes.
"In a normal year we work with 800-900 young people.
"We can't do the programme where we feed everyone so instead we've delivered over 3,000 food packages.
"Stormzy came down to help pack food and deliver it. Heavyweight prospect David Adeleye came down to help as well.
"The aim is to get back to where we were before the pandemic hit, and to maintain our numbers."
MBox's Cunningham retains optimism: "I'm hoping for more members. I also have a professional, Adrian Zgavarogea, who I'm excited for. That will be good promotion and publicity for the gym."
Nobody knows when amateur boxing, the breeding ground for the next Fury or Joshua, can resume but these trainers anticipate (or hope?) it being midway through 2021. Until then, boxing has a major fight on its hands.