For fourteen months, Sam Bridle had to hit pause on a career he’d only just begun.
As a talented up-and-coming boxer, the 22-year-old should have spent this time building his reputation on the circuit in the sport’s spiritual home of Sheffield.
Instead Sam has been forced to tread choppy waters enduring a year lost to the pandemic.
‘It’s been difficult,’ he admits. ‘There have been times when you just think what’s actually the point at the moment.
‘The first lockdown was the hardest, as I had to go from Sheffield where I train back to my home in Leicester, where I literally only had a standing bag to work with.
‘That wasn’t much use so I had to just stick to things like running and staying as fit as I could.
‘It’s the equivalent of being a footballer, training through the week but come Saturday or Sunday you haven’t got a game,’ Sam adds. ‘That’s what it’s been like for the last year.’
With 40% of grassroots boxing clubs operating in the highest 20% of marginalised areas in England, financial support is key in keeping the sport going.
However, gyms in Britain have taken a hit of over £3billion since the onset of the pandemic, with many being closed for months on end, while matches have been cancelled due to Covid lockdown restrictions.
In fact, due to the close-contact nature of the sport, full training has only been accessible to professional and GB ranks.
This is why, despite Team GB’s Olympic success at Tokyo 2020 – which saw them secure six medals including two golds – there are now fears that the pandemic could have a negative knock-on effect for our boxing stars of the future.
What many people within the industry find most frustrating is that in November 2020, the government issued a £300 million emergency relief fund for eleven UK sports that are heavily dependent on income from spectators – which didn’t include boxing.
Put together by an independent board and called the Winter Sports Survival Package, it covered among other sports, rugby union, basketball and horse racing.
In response to the decision, former Olympic gold medallist Luke Campbell said the sport has to ‘come together to fight this’ and ‘get the funding it needs to survive at all levels.’
He added: ‘We would welcome the opportunity to have a grown-up conversation with someone involved in the decision making of this to see how we can get financial help for boxing and hopefully move the sport up the pecking order.’
Meanwhile, Eddie Hearn, who counts Anthony Joshua among his clients, said he was ‘disgusted’ that grassroots boxing had not received support and argued that the government were ‘so far removed’ from the communities who depend on boxing clubs as an outlet. AJ himself pledged financial backing to British boxing clubs in the wake of the pandemic’s impact.
Tyson Fury’s promoter Frank Warren also stated that he felt the decision to exclude boxing from the relief fund was ‘outrageous’, while BBC Radio 5 Live boxing analyst Steve Bunce suggested the sport receive £2m-4m of funding otherwise it meant ‘thousands of boxers denied, hundreds of gyms left struggling’.
Since then, there has been a further Sport Survival Package offered earlier this year, but once again didn’t include boxing.
However, grassroots boxing hasn’t totally been ignored. After the first lockdown was announced, Sport England – an ‘arms-length body of government’ – put together their own support package to help partners, clubs and community organisations cope with both the short and long-term impact of the coronavirus crisis.
“Since the outset of the pandemic we have moved quickly to financially support grassroots clubs and organisations who serve local communities across England,’ explains a Sports England spokesperson.
“As part of our COVID-19 support packages, we are proud of the support we have been able to offer to grassroots boxing clubs. This support includes 30% of boxing clubs in England receiving an award from our Community Emergency Fund, and 197 awards totaling £1.2m being made to boxing clubs from our Return to Play Small Grants Fund.
‘For clubs seeking financial support, we would encourage them to look at our Return to Play Funds which remain open.’
According to Sam, as well as money worries, there are many reasons young boxers fears they may get left behind.
Talking about the impact the Covid crisis has had on his career, he says, “We’ve had absolutely no support, no way of earning money because we’ve had no sparring.
‘I really feel we’ve been thrown under the bus, massively, and to be honest it seems to me that we’ve just been forgotten about.’
While some amateur boxers are fortunate enough to receive help from sponsors or lottery funding – like former Olympian Nicola Adams and Team GB’s current champ Lauren Price – many don’t have such financial aid in place.
Instead, they have had to suspend their pursuit of a career in boxing and take up other jobs to make ends meet.
Defending WBO female middleweight Savannah Marshall ended up applying for jobs at Lidl last year after her fight for the world title was cancelled.
At the time, she told the Independent: ‘Because I was only two weeks before my fight, I had spent between £5-10k on my training camp already. That’s thousands of pounds on sparring partners, the best food, the best physios. Which I would hope to get back when my fight paid. But obviously the fight didn’t happen. And so that’s money I am never going to get back.’
Sam, who is currently relying on his parents to help him make ends meet, says, ‘In a way I am fortunate that I’m still young. I don’t have a family to feed but a lot of fighters around 26, 27 do. They’re the ones who are worst hit.
‘For us though, we weren’t able to claim furlough. We could have done with something, just to allow ourselves to keep focused on getting fit and not having to worry about money.’
Despite lockdown restrictions easing, and Sam returning to Sheffield to train, he cannot just press play on his paused career at the point where he should have been, had the pandemic not taken hold.
‘You want to be able to go, and just get all that [turning pro] sorted because it’s quite a long process.
‘It was so frustrating because with every glimmer of hope of a return to normal there was another lockdown in the way.
‘It was constantly a feeling of one step forward, two steps back. Turning pro, which was already hard, has been made a thousand times more complicated.’
Across the city, professional boxer Callum Beardow has also endured a year filled with false starts.
Sheffield born and bred, Callum has established himself as one of the city’s finest up and coming boxers, but his progress has been almost entirely curtailed by Covid.
He trains out of the highly-respected Sheffield City Boxing Club and returning to the gym after each lockdown proved to be tougher than he anticipated.
‘It was hard coming back after the lockdowns, I put weight on and I lost that sharpness I had before the pandemic,’ he admits.
It has also been a mentally demanding year for Callum as rather than consistent sessions, it was a case of an intense period of training followed by the brakes being slammed on by another lockdown.
‘It’s almost like I’ve had three or four mini fight-camps,’ says the boxer.
‘Basically, I’d come back, get into shape but then another lockdown would come and I’d lose momentum, it was really difficult to keep on repeating that same process.’
Fortunately, as a professional, Callum’s sponsors have continued to support him financially and their backing has reduced the strain of the last year.
‘They’ve been brilliant,’ he says. ‘Without them, I would’ve been in trouble, they’ve helped keep me going.’
When the government announced their lack of emergency funding for the sport, amateur governing body England Boxing also decided to step in.
The organisation helped coordinate a campaign called #KOCOVID19 which was an appeal for support in order to help keep boxing clubs going during lockdown. It raised more than £130,000 in just a few weeks.
Sunderland’s North Star Community Boxing Club was one of them. In January 2020 the club had exciting plans after taking on the whole of a building they’d previously part-occupied, with the aim of renovating it to accommodate their growing numbers of members and be more community inclusive.
‘I had so many ideas for the place and just couldn’t wait to get started,’ remembers Danny Hopper, who is a coach at the club. ‘We’d been in such a small room since June 2016 and had over 70 members. I didn’t want us to move further away as some of the kids’ parents didn’t have cars, so when the opportunity came to do up the place, I took it.
‘I was aware the overheads were going to be a lot more,’ he admits. ‘But I also knew by the interest people were showing, it was worth the risk.’
When lockdown hit, Danny said he expected it would only be for a month maxium, so was confident it wouldn’t derail his plans too much.
‘But then it just went downhill,’ he recalls.
Danny explains how the club was left with walls knocked down and, without rent coming in, any money the club did have in the bank soon dwindled.
‘I started using my own personal cash. I had to because the club and members meant too much to me to walk away from,’ he remembers. ‘I know some of these kids won’t ever make a boxer but we are changing their lives, making them better people for when they get older.
‘As lockdown continued, there was very much a sense of how were we going to survive this? Especially as there were clubs closing down that had been around forever, as well as brand new ones.’
When Boxing England brought out their fundraising campaign, Danny admits he wasn’t keen at first. ‘I was thinking, how can we ask for donations when everyone is in the same boat?’ he says. ’But then we decided to give it a go so we could at least cover the month’s rent of £409.’
Thanks to the generosity of those around them, the club’s expectations were more than exceeded as they raised £1500 in just two weeks. In response, the gym changed its name from North Star Amateur Boxing Club to North Star Community Boxing Club.
‘The community really came together and helped us out massively,’ says Danny. ‘We’ll be forever grateful to everyone who donated, as we’re now back bigger and better.’
Danny says that it’s at grassroots level where boxing clubs need the support most.
‘It’s clubs like ours who keep the kids off the streets and teach them not only life lessons but the value of life and how to deal with certain problems,’ he explains.
‘Without the help we had over last 18 months we would probably have had to close. Thankfully, now we’re back and we have plenty of boxers who will be busy this season, ready to get back to their winning ways.’
As well as financial aid, England Boxing has also provided mental health support along with advice on how members could stay active during lockdowns.
‘A significant challenge has been to ensure that clubs have remained financially stable at a time when they have had limited income,’ an England Boxing spokesperson explains.
‘[The organisation] has attempted to contact every member club to offer help in securing financial assistance through relevant grants where needed.
‘This work has helped a number of clubs survive when they might otherwise have struggled.’
In addition to aiding club’s monetarily, England Boxing have also been instrumental in helping to give members a chance to stay active during periods where gyms were close, offering drills for members to practice and running a free online mental health awareness course.
‘Another big challenge during the pandemic has been keeping boxing club members actively participating at a time when they have not even been allowed to go to the gym because of lockdowns, or, when they have been, only allowed to do non-contact training, such as bag work, shadow boxing, skipping, fitness work,’ he says.
However, virtual exercises can only go so far in reducing the impact of closures, even if just temporary.
According to research conducted by Sheffield Hallam University, the majority of the UK’s most popular sports tend to be located in the more affluent areas – although boxing is one sport that bucks this trend as three quarters of clubs are situated within the country’s most deprived communities.
David Barrett, of the Sports Industry Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam led this research and explains that these clubs are cornerstones of such communities and offer a safe environment for young people.
‘Coaches will say that whatever happens outside of the gym, stays outside of the gym. Once someone is inside, they’re part of the club and all other issues get put to one side, he says.
‘It offers a safe space to people who might otherwise be dealing drugs or involved in knife crime.’
In fact, many boxing clubs across the country run initiatives that aim to tackle social problems prevalent in the communities they serve, such as the Anfield ABC’s ‘Real Men Don’t Carry Knives’ education project.
Lockdown has resulted in these safe spaces being closed to the young people that need them and clubs have been unable to perform the same role.
Based in the Hillsborough area of the city, the Sheffield Boxing Centre is at the heart of its community and offers boxing and fitness classes to all abilities and age groups, but also has a number of pros training out of the club.
The gym has been run for almost three decades by former lightweight boxer Glyn Rhodes MBE, who has helped to bring through some of the country’s finest boxing talent.
However, despite the success enjoyed by the SBC over the years, Glyn admits the club has not been immune to the challenges posed by the pandemic as prolonged closure has led to income loss.
“It’s taken a big knock, our place,’ he says. ‘We’ve still got to pay the rent, but if we’re not getting members in through the door, how can we?
‘While we’ve had help from sponsors, who have been brilliant, it’s not the same. It seems to be a battle, a constant battle.’
For Glyn, his primary concern is not financial support but the impact closures are having on the youngsters up and down the country who see their local boxing gym as a sanctuary, as well as a place where they can pursue their hobby.
‘Through all this, kids have not been able to come to the gym or play sports, so I worry there might be some damage done mentally,’ he explains. ‘I know one lad, his mother rang me and she said she couldn’t get him out of bed, because there was nothing to get up for.’
Glyn adds, ‘It’s really worrying that in the last year all these facilities have had to close down. I understand why this has had to happen but it’s still heartbreaking.’
However, David argues that it’s down to the ingenuity of coaches like Glyn and Danny Hopper that should give the sport hope, saying that clubs will find ways of adapting to the challenges posed by the pandemic.
‘Boxing clubs and coaches will find a way of making the best of the situation,’ he insists.
‘Coaches are adaptive, inventive and creative. The impact of the last year will have been severe, but they will find a way of getting people back involved and the sport back on its feet.’
Source: Read Full Article