Alex Arthur-Paul Appleby Gym Wars

By John Wight: Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh is not a place likely to figure on the radar of many when it comes to the sport of boxing. Despite producing one of the greatest lightweights to ever grace the sport, Ken Buchanan, the name Edinburgh just doesn’t resonate as that of a boxing town. Think boxing and you naturally think of places like Philadelphia, Detroit, New York, Mexico City, and Manila . In Britain it’s London’s East End, Liverpool, Glasgow, and Cardiff – the kind of places synonymous with mean streets and hard lives.

Edinburgh on the contrary seems more like a town whose residents have been long been lulled into a deadening torpor by an overdose of history, culture and affluence.. During the summer months its streets are packed with tourists from every corner of the globe, unable to hide their excitement at being surrounded by so much history and beauty. Arts festivals, galleries, museums, beautifully kept parks, private schools and grand homes are what spring to mind when you think of Edinburgh, certainly not boxing.

In such an environment the adjectives of combat are as much out of place as beer in a tearoom. It’s as if those primitive requirements of survival – courage, tenacity, ferocity, brute strength – have been diluted to the point of dissipation during centuries in which enlightenment values of philosophy, science, literature and commerce have reigned supreme.

Yet scratch the surface of its genteel façade and you enter another Edinburgh, one that contains its fair share of working class housing estates where those twins of poverty, violence and crime, walk the streets looking for fresh victims, parts of the world where weakness is mercilessly exploited and sympathy scorned.

It’s in such places that boxing gyms thrive, offering one of the few legitimate escapes from truncated lives for children of the poor, and as such temples of hope providing the spiritual, physical and mental sustenance necessary to cope with the shit that exists on the other side of the door.

In Edinburgh one such housing estate is Wester Hailes. Stuck out on the western fringes of the city, it rises up and fans across a prodigious chunk of space like a giant monument to concrete and breeze block. It’s the kind of place long forgotten by politicians, where the police travel in pairs and always in vehicles, and where life is lived in expectation of violence from cradle to often times early grave.

In the midst of all this concrete, inside the rather ramshackle Clovenstone Community Centre, is the Clovenstone Amateur Boxing Club. Here more than the church located just down the road is where youngsters are saved, both from the demons that lurk within and the dangers lurking without. Run by Rab McEwan, this is where his son, Scotland’s Craig McEwan, spent his formative years learning a craft which has taken him to Los Angeles and Freddie Roach’s Wildcard stable. Promoted by Golden Boy, and now well on the way to making waves as a genuine middleweight contender, McEwan is living proof that boxing still constitutes one of the few meritocracies worthy of the name.

Two of the most famous gyms in the United Kingdom also happen to be located in Edinburgh, both of them way across the other side of the city in Leith. One, Leith Victoria, holds the proud distinction of being the oldest amateur boxing club in Scotland, having been founded in 1919 by a group of local shipyard workers. Sparta AAC, meanwhile, is where a pre-pubescent Ken Buchanan began his journey to the legendary status he was destined to achieve in the sport, thereby attaining its own distinctive place in the pantheon of venerable boxing establishments.

However, in the present day, it is over on the east side of Edinburgh, at the Lochend Boxing Club, where boxing in the capital finds its most vibrant home. Here the likes of Alex Arthur and Paul Appleby can currently be found conducting thrice weekly gym wars in which no quarter is asked and none given.

Bearing witness to a sparring session involving the former WBO super featherweight world champion and former British featherweight champion is a privilege accorded only the most fortunate. The skill, durability and ferocity in evidence during up to eleven rounds of hard sparring between both men confirms boxing’s rightful place as the hardest yet most sublime sport there is. And the fact that each is at a point in their respective careers where they have something to prove adds still more impetus to the work on display.

In the case of Arthur the task ahead is to rediscover the progress responsible for him winning a world title and being talked about as a future member of the sport’s elite. Over the past year or so he’s appeared a shadow of his former self, at times unable to shake off a sense that his was a career in permanent decline and headed for retirement. Injury and illness, married to a lack of activity, had unsurprisingly seen him lose much of the enthusiasm so indispensable in a sport that demands so much.

But now he’s back, training and sparring with the verve and intensity of a man determined to prove the doubters wrong. Watching him in sparring, the way he varies his attack with a dazzling array of jabs, body shots, and right hands, every punch and combination thrown at speed and with bad intentions as he stalks young Appleby around the ring, is truly an impressive thing to behold, evidence that ending his long and fruitful association with Frank Warren to join Ricky Hatton’s stable has re-energised him as only a fresh challenge can.

No less impressive is the way that Paul Appleby comes back at Arthur with his own stock of vicious left hooks, penetrating jabs and body shots thrown with such ferocity they echo like gunshots throughout the gym. In fact, watching the former British featherweight champion go to the body is like watching footage of a young Roberto Duran in his pomp. And just like the Panamanian, in the ring the 22 year old is relentless as he moves forward like a predator stalking its prey.

Since losing his title just over a year ago to Belfast’s Martin Lindsay, Appleby has had much time to reflect and consider what the title meant to him, while processing a defeat that still cuts deep. Perhaps if anything success came too quick first time round, the speed of his ascent in the sport leaving him dizzy and unable to cope with the added expectation and buzz of excitement he’d begun to generate as he rolled over his opponents with the kind of artillery capable of pulverising not just the body but also the spirit of those brave enough to stand in his path.

But now, having just signed with Frank Warren, he’s thrown himself back into training with the rage and ferocity of a young lion that hasn’t eaten in days, determined to resurrect his career and regain a title that he feels is rightly his.

Add to those two the considerable talents of 6’2” welterweight, John Thain, another recent addition to the Warren stable who just came through his first professional outing in Liverpool with a victory; Josh Taylor, a hot tip for a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games later this year who this writer saw spar with rising Cuban star Guillermo Rigondeaux in Roach’s Wildcard gym in Los Angeles back in October and match him for speed; Gary McMillan, a welterweight who punches harder than most super middleweights; and you currently have under one roof at Lochend Boxing Club in Edinburgh a group of fighters whose sparring sessions are a throwback to the gym wars which old timers still describe with the veneration associated with a religious experience.

Presiding over matters at Lochend is head trainer Terry McCormack. At one time a decent amateur himself, McCormack, like many in the game, has found his true calling as a trainer. In this he has the endorsement of none other than Freddie Roach, who more than once has offered him the opportunity to decamp to Hollywood for life as one of his assistants. But McCormack, who’s made the trip to Wildcard with his prospects to give them a taste of what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the sport on more than one occasion now, remains intent on developing and nurturing his own stable.

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to state that the bond he shares with his fighters is redolent of the bond a father shares with his sons; their trust in him absolute as they willingly submit to a training regimen that is medieval in its brutality but considered in its planning. For McCormack a combination of advanced plyometrics and old fashioned boxing basics is utilised in conditioning routines designed to toughen both body and mind for the rigours of the ring. In this he’s ably assisted by a group of trainers who each know their role without having to be told, contributing to an environment that puts the case for socialism better than Karl Marx ever could.

It is for this reason that purists of the noble art can take comfort in the knowledge that so long as gyms like Edinburgh’s Lochend Boxing Club exist the sport’s future remains assured.

Article posted on 28.03.2010

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