The church converted into gym of champions

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 The Kronk in Detroit. Wildcard in Los Angeles. Stillman’s and Gleason’s in New York. Top Rank in Las Vegas. 

All world renowned boxing gyms across the Atlantic that have produced or nurtured so many of boxing’s current and historical greats.

The St Thomas Boys & Girls Club in Wincobank, Sheffield deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. The humble, converted church building based on Newman Road has certainly earned its place in boxing folklore.

Brendan Ingle and cohorts (including his son Dominic) have been training boxers there since the charismatic Irishman first moved to Sheffield from the Emerald Isle looking for work in the late 1950s.

Over the past few decades the gym has seen three world champions and numerous – over twenty – British and European titleholders fight out of its doors. Such talents as Prince Naseem Hamed, Johnny Nelson, Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham, Ryan Rhodes and Junior Witter have all graced the sport after emerging out of the ‘Ingle gym’ – as it is most commonly known – so synonymous has it become with its chief protagonist.

Life changing

Though there is an inevitable focus on the superstars like Hamed, Rhodes and Witter and the apparently endless conveyer belt of title-winning boxers the gym has spurted out (including current prospect Kell Brook), the success of the Wincobank gym runs much deeper than the glossy belts and money-spinning bouts for its fighters in the UK and across the Atlantic.

Of course, the law of averages dictates that a great number who have passed through its creaking doors did not go on to become huge success stories like Hamed (whose thrilling fight with Kevin Kelley in 1997 at New York’s Madison Square Garden ranks among this author’s all time favourite bouts).

But many have credited Ingle with helping them with things of arguably more significance: teaching them values, building their character, and in some cases, straightening out their path in life. The gym has taken in numerous tearaways and stray youngsters and given them direction and discipline in their lives, something which it continues to do today.  Former cruiserweight world champion turned pundit Johnny Nelson has talked about his debt to Ingle in giving him hope and direction from a young age.

Wise words

A sign inside the gym reads: BOXING CAN SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH BUT TEACHES SELF-DISCIPLINE AND GETS YOU FIT. SMOKING, DRINKING AND DRUGS JUST DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH. In an alley next to the converted church a small shrine to Ingle has been erected, with the wise words of the man himself inscribed on the ground: IF YOU DON’T GET AN EDUCATION SOMEONE ELSE WILL ALWAYS CONTROL YOUR LIFE.

Therein lies the central tenet of the St Thomas Boys and Girls Club: to help provide both an opportunity and a basic education in decent humanity to those who come through its doors.

After all, the whole project began when the local Reverend asked Ingle – a former boxer, along with all 10 of his brothers – to help him put local youths on the straight and narrow by opening a boxing gym. As a committed Christian, Ingle obliged, taking many of the young tearaways that concerned the vicar under his wing. Even if he didn’t turn them all into great boxers, he taught them important lessons about life – sometimes, he did both.

But despite the gym’s Christian beginnings, the overriding factor which makes it so special is that it was never exclusive; no one was turned anyone away, whatever race, colour or religion, or however far off the rails they had fallen. It was community spirit and multiculturalism in action long before the latter became a political buzzword.

Perhaps symbolic of this open-arms policy is the fact that the padlock on the door is almost always unlocked. Early every morning until late in the evening the gym’s doors are open to the public, as they apparently always have been. You can literally just walk right in.

Humble surroundings

To say it is nothing fancy inside the gym is a massive understatement. The walls are grimy, dirty even. The smell of sweat permeates the air. The floor looks like it could do with more than a good sweep.

But this is the way Ingle wants it, and arguably the way it should be. The humble surroundings help to keep the boxers hungry and sufficiently grounded (well, most of them) and appreciative of the small things in life.

The day that Ingle decides to call it a day and retire completely will be a sad day for British boxing. But his legacy is already in safe hands, and the torch will be carried by his son Dominic and through others in the future.

No doubt the St Thomas Boys & Girls Club will keep its doors open and continue to produce many boxing talents of the future.

Sheffield is rightfully proud of this great sporting and social institution that puts the ‘steel’ into the Steel city.

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