On the ropes in Merlins Bridge!

11:38am Monday 14th April 2014

By Fraser Watson

IT was Muhammad Ali who famously said that his boxing fights were not won or lost in the ring – but “behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights."

For all Ali’s extravagance, his implication were clear – that the sport was about considerably more than punching the lights out of your opponent on fight night.

It was this concept that filled me with both intrigue and trepidation when I turned up at Merlins Bridge Amateur Boxing Club last Monday for the fourth of my 17 Commonwealth Games challenges.

Since 1990, the club has been run by Graham Brockway, who has been involved in the sport on an almost daily basis for 43 years, and who will often train his boxers up to six days a week.

To put it mildly Graham, a former European and World kick boxing champion, is from the school of hard knocks.

“We currently have 17 carded boxers in the club,” he said.

“But we have a lot of members who train for a mixture of reasons.

“Some are here because they want to make it to the next level – but we have plenty of members who start training with us just to improve fitness and have no interest in fighting.

“Often that changes, but it’s important not to push people into it. I’ll leave it to the individual to come to me and say they when they are confident enough to start sparring.”

But regardless of training goals, Graham hinted there was little point in people joining the club unless they were prepared to push through the pain barrier.

“I like all my members to work hard and be fit,” he said.

“Especially those who want to become fighters. There is nothing worse than trying to spar when you’re unfit because you will suffer.”

Furthermore, Graham said that in no uncertain terms, fighters who want to reach the top level and yet lack self discipline are not  tolerated: “If I found out one of my boxers was drunk three weeks before a big fight, they would be out the door,” he said.

“There is no point putting the hard hours in with coaches only to throw it away.”

Such a hard line approach has produced endless success stories.

Indeed  one club member, 22-year-old Charlene Jones, was crowned Welsh Elite Lightweight champion in Cardiff last month, and will go to Glasgow this summer to compete for Wales at the Commonwealth games.

Also,  in attendance last Monday was Dale Evans, who shot to fame in January 2013 when he finished second in the Prizefighter tournament that was televised live on Sky Sports.

Dale is currently awaiting an opponent to be confirmed for his next welterweight fight at the CIA in Cardiff on May 17.

He gave me an insight into the level of dedication needed to excel at the top level.

“I’ve recently had to give up work to concentrate on boxing,” he explained.

“It was a tough decision because I’ve always enjoyed work. But it got to the point where I was getting up at 4am to go on runs and then going straight back to training after work.

“And maintaining a strict diet in the build up to fights, while working and training full time, is very difficult.”

Speaking of ‘difficult’, the warm up last Monday, which lasted around 10 minutes, seemed like an eternity.

It started with jogging on the spot which soon evolved into a series of short sprints – only interrupted to perform quick sets of press ups (10 reps), sit ups (10), squat jumps (10), half sits (10), rolling press ups (10), abdominal crunches, squat thrusts (10), wide arm press ups (10), burpees (10) and star jumps (10). The same sequence was repeated later in the warm up.

From there, it was onto glove work and footwork. Pounding a punch bag next to me was 15-year-old Mickey McDonagh, a Welsh champion in his age and weight category last year. The speed and aggression with which he moved and threw punches was astonishing.

What struck me during the one minute intervals on the bag was how quickly fatigue set in. Keeping your hands up, and throwing combinations, takes far more out of you than many can appreciate.

But what was also noticeable was the discipline and dedication with which members trained. When one drill finished, there was no time wasted on explaining the next one. Following the bag work, without so much of a word from Graham, boxers got their gumshields and protective helmets and began sparring and pad work in the temporary ring.

Graham himself tested me to the limit, as I tried to get the hang of combinations while battling increasing pain in my arms. Inevitably, the longer the session went on, the tougher it became to maintain my concentration.

Worth noting as well, that as I pounded Graham’s hand pads with all the aggression I had – he barely blinked.

But with my arms all but dead, and my t-shirt drenched in sweat, I survived the session. And despite the exhaustion and subsequent  struggle to type on a keyboard for 48 hours afterwards – I felt a sense of satisfaction and, dare I say it, a temptation to return for more.

And while I harbour no ambitions myself of making a bid for Rio 2016, I was interested to know at what point did Graham think a fighter progressed from being a novice to one ready to fight.

“Once a boxer is confident enough we will start working on pad work and technical sparring,” he replied.

“But it’s a common mistake for people to step into the ring without tasting the leather, so to speak.

“I always say you need at least one war beforehand, albeit in the gym. You need to experience getting hit to know if you like it and want to do it.

“Once people do that, and are prepared to come back for more, they can then start thinking about competing.”

He added that many fighters face difficult choices as they look to move up the ranks.

“As you get older and the training gets more intense, it’s hard to combine boxing with  other sports,” he said.

“When youngsters reach 18 or 19 they can start making a lot of money, even from amateur tournaments, and when you reach that stage boxing can be a case of all or nothing.”

There is no point me suggesting the sessions at Merlins Bridge ABC are easy and suitable for everyone. They are not. They require certain levels of commitment, dedication and raw fitness, irrespective of your eventual goals.

And of course, to reach a higher level of boxing, you need an abundance of technical ability and tactical know how.

But the beauty of the club is that so much of the success is not down to extravagant facilities or equipment, or extortionate levels of funding. It is down to embracing old fashioned values like hard work, determination, and a willingness to make personal sacrifices and succeed.

Boxing is not for everyone. But those who do partake, now have my utmost respect and admiration.

Bill Carne's verdict:

Fraser was clearly in his element when we visited Merlins Bridge Amateur Boxing Club because no-one I know loves the solid grind of tough training more than our young Mr Watson!

After a brief chat with head coach Graham Brockway he was soon involved in the warm-up session, all to music and carefully planned to gain maximum effort without wasting time.

Then the room was suddenly transformed from an open space into an area full of heavy punch bags and a speed ball or two, plus a boxing ring – now that’s what I call careful engineering  and real organisation!

Fraser threw heavy left and right jabs and then hooks at the bag as his young training partner held on tight to it. A minute in action and the same time as bag holder was just about right – and it was a good job Fraser is so fit, otherwise he would have melted in the self-generated heat!

He looked a little nervous when he first entered the ring to work on the pads with assistant coach ‘Jinksy’, who barked out instructions for the sequences of punches he wanted. He also gave our intrepid reporter a couple of friendly taps on the top of the head to remind him to keep his gloves high!

We had kidded Fraser into believing that he might have a few rounds sparring with Dale Evans, the young professional who trains at the club, but common sense prevailed because no-one wanted to see a bloodied  Watson nose. Instead he had the treat of extra work on the pads with Graham Brockway, a daunting enough challenge in its own right.

Fraser had already boxed once before in St Davids, a charity bout against a rugby colleague, and although he said afterwards he had no plans to swap his rugby boots for boxing gloves he managed a narrow win.

He even received words of praise from coach Brockway, something he should be proud of, and both  Fraser and myself were very impressed by the club’s organisation and the commitment of all the members!

Tune into the Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sports Show to hear Bill Carne speak to Fraser about his boxing experience, as well as interviews with Graham himself and promising young boxers Mickey McDonagh, Dylan Davies, and Sion Lewis.

For more on boxing in Pembrokeshire, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page.

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