Successful Suffolk boxing club helps keep youngsters on straight and narrow
- Credit: RACHEL EDGE
Founded in 1981, Eastgate Amateur Boxing Club has enjoyed much success both in and out of the ring over the years.
Michael Steward met chairman Mick Bryant and head coach Dale Robertson to discuss the sport, keeping youngsters on the straight and narrow, and the club's new anti-bullying campaign. "There are some kids who would have probably remained wayward for much of their lives but they come here and knuckle down, and it gives them something to focus on," says Mick Bryant, co-founder and now chairman of Eastgate Amateur Boxing Club.
The 73-year-old has seen highs, lows and a number of different venues over the club's 38 years but its capacity to positively impact young people's lives has remained constant.
A former boxer himself, Mick has seen first-hand over the years how the sport can teach discipline on top of mental and physical conditioning.
"They often come from tougher backgrounds and for some of them it's a great leveller," the veteran coach said.
"Sometimes the most timid of lads will come in, maybe being bullied or something, and make very good boxers. The quiet guys, they tend to come in and listen and some of them have some natural skills which perhaps they didn't know they had.
"We try to make boxers of them, they don't all make boxers but they are better for it by coming here.
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"They come to me years later and say 'Mick, if I hadn't of done boxing, I wouldn't have this or that later in life'. It gives them a lot of confidence to go on and do other things, even in their work environments.
"We often see them coming back now, there's been a lot of success stories, not only in the ring but out of the ring."
The club was founded in Bury St Edmunds, but is now based in the historic Old Gym in Rougham, just off the A14, which was used by American troops in World War Two.
Pictures of servicemen adorn the walls and the backboard of a basketball hoop used by US soldiers during the war still stands today.
The "ideal" gym, with two practice boxing rings and a fitness area, serves the thriving club's 70-odd male and female members most nights of the week, but there was a time when it wasn't so rosy.
"There have been years when I've done it completely on my own," Mick says. "One time, we were going through a lean time, because you have your peaks and troughs, and I sat on the gym stairs waiting for one boxer to turn up.
"But then you explode again, people see the achievements and there's a knock-on effect."
Those achievements have come thick and fast in recent years. In 2016, the club celebrated its first-ever national champion in the shape of 16-year-old Chloe Hunt, who won the female junior development final of the England Boxing Development Championships.
This was followed by Jack Williams being crowned national champion in his category at the England Boxing Development Championships in October.
Head coach Dale Robertson, who leads a team of seven coaches, believes the club provides an important avenue for youngsters in the area.
"I think it gives kids an outlet," he said. "The problem is that all the kids in the area haven't got anything to do.
"There's no youth clubs or anything, and if there is, they're a thing of the past. They don't want to be playing snooker, they need some sort of physical exercise. That's what I think anyway."
Eastgate ABC recently launched an anti-bullying campaign after Dale saw a social media video of a boy being attacked elsewhere in the country.
He said: "I put something out on Facebook to say anybody who is being bullied in the area can come and train up here for a month for free.
"Just to give them some confidence. I'm doing things with the schools, speaking about going in and training kids who have issues with anxiety and depression, can't really get on with people, things like that."
Speaking of Mick, who collected an MBE in the Queen's New Year's Honours in January, Dale added: "He deserves it, I've been with him 20 years and he's been at the club when there's only been one boxer, so it's credit to him.
"A lot of clubs would have closed down if they had one boxer but he's persevered and we're seeing the rewards of that now really. I've just taken over what he started."
For the ever-modest Mick, the award of the MBE was a proud moment.
"I was able to take my three daughters and son, unfortunately my wife was ill at the time so she couldn't come, but we had a really enjoyable time," he said.
"Princess Anne was able to give me a good length of time and being sporting herself, it was great that she presented it to me.
"I still enjoy it very much, it's helped to make my life really. My family have helped me with lots of things, because I used to have to travel away with the lads and had to give up quite a bit of family time in the early days.
"They were very good to support me and when we put the shows on, the family would always help with various things and they've always backed me 100%. Without that, I wouldn't have been able to do it.
"I hope that we can carry on for many years to come, I want the young coaches coming through to take on some more of the roles in time. There will always be a time when I have to step down but I think there is a great future for the club."