The building work hits you first. Follow a narrow passage down the railway arches and you reach a gutted room, all dust and concrete, in the process of refurbishment. Miguel’s Boxing Gym is expanding, practically doubling in size. If you want a hard luck story you’ve come to the wrong place.
Each boxing gym is unique – yet they share enough characteristics for a portrait of one to reasonably be hoped to offer a partial glimpse into all. Take location. Miguel’s is housed in railway arches, a minute’s walk from South London’s Loughborough Junction station. Its neighbours include a mechanic, a small carpark, a pizza delivery service and, somewhat surreally, a tiny arthouse cinema that claims to be “one of South London’s best kept secrets.” As with the homes of many boxing gyms, this is not an area to make a passing tourist scrabble for their camera. Not that many tourists pass through Loughborough Junction.
Take a few steps further and a mural of Muhammad Ali announces your destination. Three components are present in every boxing gym, as surely as an altar in a church: There will be punch bags. There will be a boxing ring. And, on the walls, there will be at least one photo of Ali. The ubiquity of a boxer who last fought in 1981 proves Ali’s singularity (“boxing’s Alpha and Omega” to quote Hugh McIlvanney) but also raises some uncomfortable truths. Just as the gaze of English football cannot tear itself away from 1966, so boxing’s clock is stopped at 9 p.m. Miami Beach, 10 a.m. Manilla and, above all, 4 a.m. Kinshasa, Zaire. The eternally youthful Alis staring out of gym walls across the world commemorate sport’s Greatest while offering an inadvertent reminder of What Once Was: an era of glory and relevance, almost certainly never retainable, when the heavyweight champion was the most famous face on the planet rather than one holder of a divided belt.
Miguel’s is relatively Ali-free: a row of photographs downstairs by the changing rooms and that’s your lot. Ali is joined on the walls by a few posters – bright, crowded – advertising upcoming or recently passed fight cards featuring Miguel’s boxers. (You can chart certain boxers’ progress from their placement on these posters: Dillian Whyte, for example, is given secondary billing on one yet grins front-and-centre to promote another, more recent event.) And thus the décor. No photographs of snarling boxing legends, no inspirational quotes above the mirrors, no mosaic of yellowed fight cards from the 1950s. Crisp white walls are adorned by black and red banners bearing the Miguel’s logo. The aesthetic is sharp and simple: more school gymnasium than mausoleum to fighters past.
Steve Miguel, co-founder with his brother Alan, says the sparseness is deliberate: “We didn’t want to make it too spit and sawdust.” Steve is a genial, relaxed man whose youthful looks and sharp mind hint at an adulthood spent outside the ropes. As a teenager he fought over 70 amateur bouts – “I was good” – but rejected the shot at a professional career in favour of a seemingly steady job at BP. Yet the level head that prompted Steve’s departure from the ring now came to his aid. Helped by Steve’s severance package, the Miguel brothers opened a boxing gym in 1999. The current expansion, nearly two decades on, bears testament to the brothers’ success.
Look around. There isn’t much downstairs – some weights, the two changing rooms. Other than a glass case filled with gym merchandise – gloves, hand wraps – little here screams “boxing!” We must go upstairs for the real action. Here we find two rooms, one only opened in the past month. The new room is by far the sparser. Here we might sweat through a mid-morning personal training session with John, a former IT tutor who swapped computers for boxing pads. He started out in boxing; but four defeats in 16 amateur fights triggered a move into IT. Hearing about Miguel’s through an old friend triggered a move back, this time outside of the ropes: “I’m still teaching… but I enjoy teaching boxing more than I enjoy teaching about computers.”
The older room holds 14 punch bags, just like the newer, only far more diverse in size and shape. They range from compact brown spheres to two gigantic black-and-white monstrosities that only the most powerful puncher can move, and of course a boxing ring.
The ring is raised, allowing for a poetic ascension between the four ropes and a more prosaic availability of storage space beneath. (Under Miguel’s ring the assortment of flotsam includes gloves without a partner and a stool you wouldn’t trust to support the lightest of flyweights.) The artistically minded can glimpse something irresistible mythic in the ring: Think of the opening credits of Raging Bull, the robed De Niro floating in monochrome slow-motion to the Intermezzo of “Cavalleria Rusticana.”
Oddly, you might just hear some Mascagni at the right time of day. The speakers blare out an eclectic playlist: Wiz Khalifa one hour, Little Mix the next. This isn’t arbitrary: Most classes have their own playlist. “They love our music,” says Steve, smiling. “The pros want the hard beat hip-hop because that’s their nature… The over-60s are more mellow… the girls like the upbeat stuff.” And the right soundtrack doesn’t just benefit the ears: “If we play good music, they’ll still in the gym longer because they feel comfortable.”
Watch Miguel’s ring for a while and you will see a near-continual flow of activity. You will see a single boxer working through the angles of his punches. You will see the overspill of a White Collar class sweatily forcing out 10 push-ups. You will see two small children gamely attacking the mitted hands of a stooped and smiling coach. You will see a vast man, bobbing head and bulging arms, hissing like a cobra as he beats a furious tattoo onto his trainer’s pads – each punch a rifle crack, a continual firing squad. You will see sparring of wildly varying skill and intensity, the difference as profound as that between warring tigers and nervous, clumsy kittens. And, on occasion, you will see the ring empty, impassively awaiting its next occupant, one of thousands of empty boxing rings in thousands of gyms across the world. Just a space, waiting to be filled.
One of the boxers who often fills Miguel’s ring is Angel Mackenzie, a wiry Russian who moved to England at the turn of the century. Angel has crammed a lot into her 42 years. She’s fought live on ITV, flashily outpointing Lana Cooper over four rounds in 2009. Earlier that summer she appeared on the tenth series of Big Brother (evicted fourth). In the 90s she performed, as Elena Chebotareva, in a successful Russian rock band named Atas, and still releases music today. She’s been training at Miguel’s for over a decade. What, to her, makes a good boxing gym?
The reply is one word: “Clean.” She expands: “I’ve been all around the world, I’ve seen so many gyms, and I think clean is important. A boxing gym, it’s sweat, it’s dirt, it’s blood. Here’s not just clean physically but clean mentally – you know, the aura? It’s very clean. There’s no radiation… I’m joking.”
While you’d hope an absence of radiation would be a given, Angel’s tribute to cleanliness chime with Miguel’s deliberate rejection of the “spit and sawdust.” It’s part of a careful strategy to reach beyond the boxing fraternity and appeal to the casual gym-goer, the type of person who loves a good workout but would prefer to avoid a left hook to the jaw. Steve identified the root of this appeal: “Eight out of 10 people call saying they’re fed up of the mainstream gyms and they want something different.” In this globalised young century with its identical Starbucks-and-Subway packed high streets, its abundance of supermarkets, its cinemas showing the fourth superhero film of the year, its charts afflicted with chronic David Guetta, the appeal of “something different” should not be underestimated. And the boxing gym has taken full advantage.
Witness the ever-increasing popularity of White Collar classes where bankers, lawyers, estate agents et al sweat out the sins of the Saturday night. Wednesday tends to be the busiest for the class, presumably as the weekend looms in either direction on the two alternatives. Around 40 attendees, of varying fitness, endure two hours of vigorous exercise, with varying degrees of stoicism. Sample session: a two-and-a bit mile jog round Camberwell, circuits, shadowboxing, then intense bag work or, for the handful who wish, sparring.
As another volunteer attests: “We give them a proper boxer’s workout without actually having to get hit in the face. They want all of the experience just without that pain.” For people who fancy the pain, White Collar Fight Nights are held in halls, nightclubs, even gyms big enough to contain the busy, noisy crowds (such as The Ring in Southwark). But for most the workout is more than enough – they shall never set foot in the ring, nor be encouraged to. In the words of Steve: “We keep it real – but not too real.”
As for Angel, she next fights in Belgium on June 4 against “some girl, I don’t know.” She can make a living from boxing (along with her impressive array of side projects). The pay isn’t astronomical but much better than it was: “I used to fight for £20, now it’s thousands. But it’s not like men.”
It certainly isn’t. While Miguel’s young male champions may reasonably dream of fame and fortune, or at least renown and a solid income, the profile of female boxing remains low. Nicola Adams defends her Olympic title in Rio and will be among Team GB’s most recognisable faces. After that? The world’s most famous female boxer is actually a former female boxer: UFC fighter Holly Holm, whose pugilistic skill helped her defeat the seemingly unbeatable Ronda Rousey. (Although the knockout came via a kick.) Indeed, after tennis, UFC arguably boasts the most high-profile roster of female stars: Rousey (as famous as any male boxer), Holm and current bantamweight champion Miesha Tate.
Yet the female boxing scene in Miguel’s thrives. Fifteen years ago the gym was a typically masculine environment. “We trained guys,” says Steve, “but out of my one-to-one clients we noticed the ladies loved the workout. They would come day-in, day-out: the guys would just do a month. We put a class together and they just wanted more and more of it. They adapted well, they learnt quickly, they learnt the game, they were keen, they were willing to spar. So we started to introduce girls’ classes, advertised as ‘Women Friendly’ on our website…Now we have more women members than men.”
Sure enough the Tuesday women’s class at 7 p.m. is packed, filling both upstairs rooms of the gym. If anything Steve’s estimate of 60 looks a little short. A handful of men take part but women make up the vast majority of the class. Few look like natural fighters, any more than their White Collar counterparts; yet they jab, dip and sweat vigorously for the allotted hour. By 8 p.m. the queue for the next class runs down into the weights room.
Practically every boxing gym now offers women’s classes; Many, such as Double Jab in New Cross, are run by female coaches. Professional female boxing may lag far behind its UFC cousin but the lack of a global superstar has proved no impediment to getting women on the bags – or indeed into the ring. In previous eras boxing posed as the most masculine of sports but now the gender balance has shifted – even if these shift has not yet translated from the gym to the arena. But then, few revolutions happen from above.
What of the gym in daylight hours? As well as personal training sessions, Miguel’s host several community-focused initiatives. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons the unemployed can take an hour class for £1. Alan, the soft-spoken supervisor (and gym co-founder), was expelled from three schools as a teenager but recently attained a Personal Trainer diploma (Level 3) aged 39. “I don’t know what I’d do if weren’t for boxing,” he admits, crediting the patience and discipline instilled by the sport to his success. (“At times [taking the diploma], I just wanted to quit.”)
One afternoon former intercontinental cruiserweight champion Mark Prince addresses a group of quiet adolescents as part of the London Fire Brigade’s Local Intervention Fire Education) programme. Miguel’s provides free afternoon sessions for enrolees. Now the youths – aged from late teens to mid-twenties – sit on mats as Prince delivers a moving, passionate account of his journey from stoned miscreant to champion boxer (record 23-1). Hugs and words of thanks follow.
The “gym as sanctuary” angle is hardly new; as Steve notes “that story’s been done to death.” True, but it should never be taken for granted. Chris Eubank, Jr.’s brutal defeat of former British middleweight champion Nick Blackwell, and Blackwell’s subsequent coma, triggered a familiar dance. Neurosurgeons and MPs called for abolition. Boxing journalists weighed the ethical dilemma of combat sports before most reluctantly, if inevitably, coming down in favour of the defence (or rather the attack). TV networks ran sombre interviews. Promoters and fellow fighters paid tribute. Within a fortnight everybody was breathlessly predicting that the Anthony Joshua-Charles Martin heavyweight title fight would undoubtedly end in knockout. (“Their combined KO percentage is 92! Tune in early folks!”)
This isn’t to suggest insincerity: it is perfectly possible to pray for Blackwell’s recovery while eagerly anticipating a title bout between two exciting fighters. Indeed for boxing lovers it is necessary. The list of boxers killed or traumatised in the ring is not short. However the communal activity of the gyms, the continuous voluntary work of fighters who achieve success, and the opportunity of an environment where dedication matters far more than background all provide evidence that boxing gives more often than it takes away. It needn’t be a championship belt or lucrative career; just a few words of encouragement on a quiet afternoon in the gym.
The afternoon lull is broken by the arrival of the professionals. If keen amateurs are the gym’s lifeblood, the professionals remain its beating heart. The fraternity usually trains together. They are loud, brash, confident – just like any group of young men familiar with each other’s company. Steve fondly refers to them as “the zoo”: the shouts and laughter, the force of their thereness, vibrate from the changing room. These are the minority for whom boxing is not an exercise but a vocation, perhaps even a path to stardom. The gym is their workplace.
Once upstairs the mood duly becomes more business-like. Many of these young men already hold titles of some nature. Take light-welterweight Rakeem Noble. In March Rakeem, whose slender frame and neatly trimmed goatee bring to mind a young Thomas Hearns, claimed the Southern Area title via knockout. After defending in July he hopes to fight for the English title, then the British title: “we’ll see what doors open up.” A world title is the ultimate goal, fingers crossed. “Not fingers crossed,” Rakeem corrects me gently but firmly. “Just train hard.”
Not just afternoon, but morning and night. On most evenings the amateur classes share the gym with a few professionals come for a late workout. It is quite possible to see a scarlet-faced accountant, say, on one punch bag with the gigantic figure of Whyte as his immediate neighbour. Whyte catapulted to national attention last December, thanks to a vicious seven-round brawl with undefeated IBC champion Anthony Joshua. He remains the only fighter to take Joshua past the 3rd. Rumours of a rematch, and title shot for Whyte, continue to circulate. In Miguel’s he is just another fighter on the punch bags, albeit a bigger one than most.
For Rakeem the appeal of Miguel’s is simple: “It’s authentic boxing, it’s got old-school coaches, old-school methods of teaching.” His words carry several truths. The first, and most obvious, is that for the professional the honing of the craft matters more than the reduction of the waistline: hence the emphasis on coaches and teaching method. The second is boxing’s continual value of tradition: “old school” is always preferable to “new-fangled.” The third is the “authentic boxing” on offer. That crucial word – authenticity – holds the secret to the modern boxing gym.
Unlike the sanitised high-street gym, with its rows of running machines, branded towels and garishly uniformed staff, the boxing gym retains the authenticity celebrated by Rakeem. The boxing gym’s cousins aren’t the multi-coloured halls of Fitness First and LA Fitness but rather the cluttered barber’s shop, the tiny local pizzeria, the non-league football team. A gym is a gym. A boxing gym is a name: Peacock’s, Repton, Miguel’s. It is an identity – not just in itself but also as an extension of those who use it.
Angel McKenzie has a good analogy: “Each gym, like a person, has a soul and a body. I really like the soul of this gym.” The “body,” or infrastructure, of the boxing gym is much the same the world over, and has remained so for generation. Even in expansion the core components – bags, ring – must endure. However its “soul” – that is, the people who use the gym – continues to evolve. This stereotypically most masculine of sports now teems with women; the most dedicated of professions now welcomes the part-timer, the casual amateur, and the most Spartan of environments will happily stick on your favourite Sinatra playlist to help you enjoy the workout.
The boxing gym’s genius lies in not allowing the ever-growing diversity of its patrons to distract from its ultimate purpose: training boxers. Visit on any given day and you will encounter men and women for whom boxing is their livelihood; some may reach the highest echelons of the sport. You can work the bags just as they do. Broadening the base while retaining a sense of self is an invaluable trick for any business: keeping it not too real but still real. The boxing gym has perfected this art. Long may it prosper.