The Local

By Mohummad Humza Elahi on August 29, 2013
The Local
This is the reality of the modern-day sanctuary that you call your local boxing gym.

“It ain’t right, it ain’t right,” Johnny Eames told himself. That is, until he saw the final product. And he hasn’t looked back since…

“They walk in that door and sign for us, they become our sons.”—Johnny Eames

Sanctuaries are places of refuge. In the warrior archetype, a person who wishes to become the perfected ideal of his ability endures hardship at the hands of the world and in the hope of redemption; he searches for sanctuary, often in a place of harsh climate and desolation. Here, safely within its walls, the warrior is taught again from the beginning, his ego humbled, his technique refined and his strength focused. Once his training is complete, the warrior re-emerges from the sanctuary more knowledgeable and skillful than ever, ready to vanquish opponents with unmatched ferocity.

Such sanctuaries are rare nowadays, but they do still exist. And in a pocket of East London, next to factories, junkyards and scrap metal piled many meters high, sandwiched between the fading glow of the Olympic Park in Stratford and the shadow of the financial towers in Canary Wharf, lays a refuge for the warrior. A reformed print factory that still reeks of chemicals, it houses champions at all levels. They all work with the same equipment, share the same rings, ropes and weights and I sense a deep buzz and rhythm to the gym. Amongst it all is Johnny Eames, talking, laughing and demonstrating the odd slip or feint.

I sit in TKO’s office, which is part storage room and part workspace with a desk, chairs, a computer and a couple of old leather sofas. The view out the grilled window is of waste skips and machinery, a constant reminder that this is a tough place to work and creature comforts come at a premium.

Johnny Eames

Johnny sits over to my left on one of the sofas and we begin our conversation, my Dictaphone the only thing that separates us as he adjusts his eyes to the streaming intrusion of the August sun. An amateur for six years from his late teens to early twenties, Johnny Eames readily admits he was unfortunate to be fighting in a time with other great talents, “the Caylors and Christies” as he puts it. After starting and running Lansbury ABC (Amateur Boxing Club) for a few years, tragedy struck when good friend Bradley Stone passed away after a bout for the vacant British super bantamweight title. At this point, Eames decided to quit boxing and understandably so, his voice changed subtly when recalling him.

Several months passed before the late, great Jimmy Murphy asked Eames to come train the youngsters at the famous West Ham ABC. Why famous? In his time there, along with the other coaches, the club produced over 100 national champions. Opportunities sometimes come as blessings in disguise as Eames found out when promoter Frank Maloney’s brother Eugene was interested in starting a gym; Eames suggested they could team up but after a few years in this proto version of TKO.

Fate let Eugene Maloney disappear due to owing large debts. 

Fate, however, gave Eames another chance. After renting different gyms and leaving West Ham, Eames struck a friendship with Tony Brinton, boss of local company Ultrachem via Ross Minter, son of former World Middleweight champion, Alan Minter. “Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am now, in all honesty,” Eames recalls. “He used to take me and all the fighters out [at] Christmas time for a meal…he always had this thing of asking you what your wish list was for the following year.” Eames told Brinton of his frustrations at renting gyms and Brinton pledged that Eames would get his wish, “I ain’t gonna say when, but I’ll get you your own gym.”

A mere few weeks later, Eames and Brinton were out looking at locations, but nothing materialized. Then Brinton showed Eames an old print factory, a stone’s throw from his company offices. “This ain’t the place,” Eames told him after looking at the long, foreboding walk to the nearest train station and barren nature of the immediate vicinity. But Brinton called Eames a few days later to tell him the deal was done, “I’m a business man, you’re a boxing man, leave it to me,” he said.

As Brinton spent in transforming the old building, Eames still was unconvinced. “It ain’t right, it ain’t right,” he told himself. That is, until he saw the final product. And he hasn’t looked back since.

The credit crunch in 2008 conspired to ruin many things and Ultrachem’s continued sponsorship was one of them as Brinton was unable to justify the continued sponsorship of TKO. TRAD Scaffolding came on board as a replacement for some of the funding but the team has to fund the rest themselves. 

“We’re in a situation now where we could be closed down very soon.”

And this is the reality of the struggle of the modern-day sanctuary that is your local boxing gym. Even with understanding landlords, people owe other people who owe other people and it’s a constant battle to keep the wolves from the door. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. “We’ve applied for our charity status cos of the amateur club…we’ve got a project up here we’re we have kids who don’t go to school, who have their classes and do their boxing training…” but time is slipping away quickly.

“I’d like to think this interview could few a spark a few local businessmen into the hope of sponsorship.”

We then turned our focus onto the current crop of fighters who were working out outside the office and there was one name that was head and shoulders above the others. “Obviously the kingpin of the gym at the moment is Billy Joe Saunders, a great role model” currently promoted by Frank Warren along with rising prospect Frank Buglioni and TKO’s own Ian Bailey. 

Eames’ pragmatism is clear when discussing his fighters and is acutely aware of what he needs to do as a coach to get the best of his charges “It ain’t about the level they achieve, it’s about making sure they can achieve the level they can get to…if you get a fighter to as far as they can possibly go, you’ve done your job. If they go somewhere else and get further, then you’ve failed as a trainer.

“I can see this gym producing many world champions, British world champions…promoters need to get back to promoting fighters and not just the shows (speaking about Lithuanian heavyweight Paulius Kasiulevicius)…the day that happens, the day this country gets to the forefront in boxing.”

Now, I’ve only met a handful of champions personally and at this juncture current British and WBO International Middleweight Champion Billy Joe Saunders has entered the office. Since the only set of scales is in this room, he has no qualms in exchanging a few jokes before dropping his towel and hopping on the scales stark naked. “Don’t cough!” I quipped.

Billy Joe Saunders

Now fully clothed, Saunders and I sit in a separate room and I try to get a deeper understanding of how he sees his current prospects, his future and his relationship with this gym. He’s forthright and direct, clearly getting more and more experienced with giving interviews and he answers my questions with calm clarity, as we first discuss his current camp for his bout against fellow unbeaten middleweight, John Ryder. “Camp is going good,” he said. “Sparred today…all going to plan and thankfully injury free and looking forward to the 21st (September).”

After dispatching a dangerous Gary O’Sullivan by UD, I ask him how he’s seeing the fight with Ryder play out. “I can make it as easy as I want to make it…If I want to have a slugfest for 12 rounds it’s up to me. If I want to use my boxing skill and brain, make it a comfortable night’s work, I can do it.” And he’s serious.

Saunders was an accomplished amateur who turned pro at 19 and with a current record of 18-0 with 10 KOs at a mere 23 years old and holding two titles, he’s a fighter who has the world stage to look forward to. So as a fighter on the up, what is about the TKO that makes him want to set up camp here? “It’s just an old, fighters’ gym…I’m happy to sit in traffic, hours of traffic, to get to this gym…it’s home to me.

“I hate going into a gym that’s nice and new, frightened to get it dirty…in this gym, it’s our own and we can let loose…it’s the best gym I’ve been in by far, and I’ve boxed all over the world.” And that’s the feeling I get walking into this place, having used to train here myself on Sunday mornings, there’s not a place I’d rather be at that moment.

So with the TKO as his base, I ask where Saunders thinks he’ll be in a year’s time. “I want to win my British title outright and with the WBO, it’ll give me a world-rating and with Cleverly being beat…Frank’s only world champion, I’m sure he’ll be looking for his next world champion, hopefully that’ll be me.” And after praising Barker’s “true grit” performance against Geale and bringing a title back to the UK middleweight division, Saunders sees himself ready to compete in that mix. “I’m 23…ranked number four…give me a year to 18 months and I promise the world I’ll be number one in Britain.”

Eames’ Closing Word

“Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to walk into this gym, because anybody that comes in here is treated the same. Whether they’re overweight keep-fitters or ripped boxers, everybody’s treated the same and not one boxer here will disrespect a kid in there training if they can’t fight. In fact, what you’ll find it most of the champions throughout their training will finish what they’re doing, and go over and give the person a bit of advice. If you want to come to a gym, don’t be afraid to walk through that door. You don’t have to have boxed to come in here but when you leave, you will be able to box.”

                                                                * * *

I leave the gym and start the walk back up to Canning Town station, thinking about how I’m going to write this all up, kicking the odd piece of rubbish out of my way, wondering how many other locals are in the same predicament as TRAD TKO. By the time I’m on the train home, I’m pretty sure how it’ll all end up. 

That gym will keep teaching as long as boxing is still breathing.

If you would like to contact TRAD TKO, the details are:

TRAD TKO BOXING GYM LTD, Gillian House, Stephenson Street, Canning Town, London E16 4SA
Tel: 020 7474 3199, Tel:/Fax: 020 7511 9705,
Johnny Eames, Cell: 07557 641596,
Gianluca (Rio) Di Caro, Cell: 07557 641597,

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  1. kid vegas 01:57pm, 09/02/2013

    Really enjoyable

  2. Walter Wojtowicz 10:31am, 08/30/2013

    Don’t matter who added it Mohummad.  Great piece.  Ok, will look for you on Twitter.

  3. dollarbond 04:55am, 08/30/2013

    Loved this one.

  4. Ted 04:49am, 08/30/2013

    Yes, excellent piece Mohummad. These kinds of places are true sanctuaries. I even have my 76.

  5. Mohummad Humza Elahi 12:27am, 08/30/2013

    No problem!  Although I didn’t add it, feel free to connect on Twitter @mhelahi

  6. Walter Wojtowicz 09:24pm, 08/29/2013

    Great article Mohummad.  Great to hear.  I wish all you guys and TKO the best.  Good work.

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