David Haye has no doubt how problematic it would have been if, as a boy in the early 1990s, a global pandemic had suddenly stopped him from being able to train at his local boxing club.
“It would have well and truly devastated me,” the former cruiserweight and heavyweight world champion tells Yahoo News UK.
“Those days I went to the gym after school, it was imperative. I had so much pent-up energy. I wouldn’t have had that outlet and if you don’t have that outlet in a controlled environment like a boxing gym... these are the years where bad things can happen if young people get in the wrong circles.”
Closed gyms, of course, are exactly what young boxers have been forced to deal with over the past year, due to coronavirus restrictions.
The good news is that clubs across England are set to fully reopen for group training in the next planned easing of the lockdown on 17 May. They opened for individual sessions on Monday last week.
The bad news is that many of those clubs have been financially stricken by the pandemic.
Reggie Hagland, manager of Islington Boxing Club in north London, tells this website how the club was constantly losing money due to the three national lockdowns, and also lost out on its annual New Year's resolution "pick-up" month of January. "It’s been extremely, extremely tough," he said.
Islington benefits from having a big gym, meaning it has been able to hold more socially distanced solo sessions since last Monday. But Hagland thinks other clubs will "definitely" be struggling for survival after more than a year of closures.
It’s why Haye is critical of the government for excluding boxing from its £300m Sport Winter Survival Package in November last year. Among the 11 sports to benefit were rugby union (£135m), horse racing (£40m) and motorsport (£6m).
“It hasn’t been well thought through,” Haye says.
“Boxing is a very working class sport. Very rarely do you have a kid who goes to a private school becoming a successful boxer, it doesn’t work that way. A lot of the kids who would have been in a gym could be the same kids who are doing a lot of the violent crimes."
An estimated 40% of the UK’s boxing clubs are in the top 20% of its most deprived areas. Most have been forced to rely on small public donations, or apply for grants through sporting bodies.
Haye adds: “Surely you should look at that demographic and think: ‘These kids are having issues on estates in all the inter cities, let’s focus the finances on these kids getting... into a controlled sporting arena.’ That should, theoretically, lower the crimes.
“Rich kids from rich areas aren’t causing any of the crimes. So let’s focus on who could potentially be the negative statistics and give these kids the focus on something correct – like sport.”
Haye, 40, who began boxing as a 10-year-old at the Fitzroy Lodge Amateur Boxing Club in south London, says he would been a “big problem” growing up if he didn’t have a “hard, disciplined sport where you sweat”.
Watch: How England is leaving lockdown
“Boxing gyms are very strict. You’re not allowed to swear, you’re not allowed to bully people, make fun of people. It’s a very strict environment and it’s what I believe young people today really need to tackle knife crime in the cities, which is through the roof.
“The last thing you want to do after you’ve had a two-and-a-half hour training session is pick a knife up.”
Discipline, of course, is only one of the numerous benefits associated with boxing.
Just as important, Haye says, is the “very close” association between boxing training and good mental health. Haye, despite retiring from professional boxing three years ago, still trains to this day for that reason.
“Whenever I have been out of hard training, where I don’t have the outlet… you find yourself getting pent-up, you find yourself getting frustrated. Things are irritating you significantly more than they ordinarily would.
“I really feel for these young kids now, who haven’t had any outlet. We have to open the doors and let these kids get back out into the playgrounds, fields, gyms and youth clubs.”
Haye also says he is baffled at the government’s decision to ignore boxing clubs considering the UK’s huge success at professional level: it currently has five men’s and four women’s world champions.
Among those nine champions are heavyweights Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, two household names who are set to fight later this year in one of the biggest matches in the history of the sport.
Both boxers started as novices at amateur clubs: Joshua at Finchley Amateur Boxing Club in north London and Fury at Jimmy Egan's Boxing Academy in Wythenshawe, Manchester.
Incidentally, Boris Johnson visited Jimmy Egan's during the 2019 general election campaign and posed with "get Brexit done" gloves. That same club was recently forced to appeal for public donations in order to avoid closure.
Coming out of the pandemic, Haye – whose Black Mask Company recently launched a “rainbow” face mask with 25% of profits going to the NHS – says “it’s going to be very difficult” for such clubs.
“A lot of these gyms are very under-funded. I feel the government really needs to look to assist this sport. It’s an amazing sport where Britain is one of the leading countries if you look at the professional game.
“Look at Anthony Joshua: comes from humble beginnings. Look at Tyson Fury: same thing, comes from a Travelling family. Both these guys are now superstars, both have gone through the amateur game and now they’re pin-ups for kids to look up to, to one day emulate.
“It should trigger the government to think: ‘How can we get more of our youth into this sport that we’re having such success with?’
“It’s a no-brainer.”
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