IT’S fair to say I made a serious error believing that as a not entirely unfit 48 year old who’s done a bit in the distant past I could comfortably navigate a one-to-one session with pro trainer James Lee, but boy, did I get that wrong. As Lee called out ever-increasingly complex combinations on the pads and images of cardiac units and defibrillators rioted through my oxygen-starved mind (which was having a debate with itself about whom I wanted to die more at that moment, him or me), I was aware that working those pads was a man who knew exactly how to get the best from his boxers.
The affable Lee regularly spends up to seventy hours a week coaching and imparting the knowledge he gained from a nine fight pro career, and along with fellow coach Gavin Jones, Lee is a valuable asset to the Portsmouth gym of manager and trainer Michael Ballingall who deserves much credit for providing the facilities for emerging talent in the city. While the gym is the home of two-time Southern Area champion Floyd Moore, Ballingall’s stable also includes prospects Mikey McKinson at welter, featherweights Lucas Ballingall and Dave Birmingham, light-heavy Chris Hobbs, and recent debutant at light-welter Ross Jameson. Not only has Lee spent endless hours with all of them, he also regularly hosts Portsmouth FC’s team who come to the gym to gain that extra edge in fitness. The man they call ‘The Padologist’ is building a good reputation, and it’s clear that he’s content with the path he is forging for himself. Yet, meeting him today it’s astonishing to believe that for some years Lee suffered from profound depression that led him to the point of contemplating suicide, and like others in boxing such as Ricky Hatton who have wrestled with the sickness, it was a period he almost didn’t emerge from.
Lee’s own stint as a pro saw him accrue a 5-4 record and status as a solid performer, and managed by Bristol’s Chris Sanigar, he hooked up with Brighton’s Ronnie Davies as trainer in the later stages of his career: “Perhaps as a result of not being based in Bristol permanently I didn’t get looked after as I could have been and I was on a lot of away shows. To my mind I got robbed three times and really only lost one fight, against Robert Weston. I’d started training with Gwyn Evans in Waterlooville but Tony Oakey set me up with Ronnie Davies. Tony would pick me up and drive me down to Brighton, or I’d spend seven hours there and back on the bus! By far Ronnie was the best coach I ever had and he looked after me for my last three or four fights. I was a box- fighter, and Ronnie gave me what I needed to improve. I was a little square-on when I fought and his style of training suited me. I could fight but step back as well. My amateur coaches Colin Hooker and Tony Knowles had taught me that way too, and they’d got me to the semi-finals of the ABA’s (Lee was beaten by Matthew Thirlwall). A lot of what Ronnie Davies taught me I use in coaching now. He was famous for having this big punch-bag and we would do what Ronnie called ‘Marciano’ – squaring off with the bag and throwing hooks for the entire three minutes and we’d do six rounds of it! We do that all the time in here now and the technique really pays off because it develops power. Training with Ronnie was always hard, but I’d always get six or eight rounds of sparring in which was good. There was Tony Oakey there, Neil Linford and Chill John. It was really good.”
But Lee’s ambitions in the ring were about to come to pieces in his hands, and the catastrophe would have far-reaching consequences for the young man’s life: “I beat Matt Scriven in September 2002 and I had another three fights lined up. I had my annual brain-scan and found out I had to have another one, and it turned out I had a benign tumour, an acoustic neuroma. It was a massive blow that sent me into a very bad depression. I carried on working for about a year afterwards and the next year I didn’t work at all, I was in a really bad way. The girl I’d been with for four years left me about two weeks after I’d got the news about the tumour and of course that made things even worse. I started to have a lot of anger problems and I was put on Prozac but that made me worse. I was drinking a lot at the time too, getting pissed morning, noon and night and that went on for about two years. I’d buried my head in the sand because I couldn’t bear to think about the future, I just couldn’t find the strength to face it. I had a lot of suicidal thoughts and during that time it seemed an answer to everything I was going through.”
When it must have seemed to Lee that his situation couldn’t get any worse, it promptly did: “I got involved in a road-rage incident, and although the other driver attacked me first he came off worse and I went to jail for it. I was looking at a year and a half, kept my head down and came out in three months, but it was absolutely horrible. To be honest there were other incidents too, one of which ended with me on a charge of attempted murder although it was later dropped.”
Ultimately it was the effect of his problems on the ones he loved most that triggered the beginning of the end to his ordeal, but it was a long road back: “I tend to bottle things up and that’s where things go wrong. I’d become a virtual recluse, and my mum Pauline and dad James were the ones that helped in the end. I hadn’t seen them for months because I didn’t want them to see what was going on, I was ashamed. My flat was a shithole to be quite truthful. When they did come round and saw the mess I was in – not washing, not cleaning – it really affected my mum and that’s what made me start to sort myself out. I came back to Michael Ballingall’s gym, and although I had spent some time there before, the depression came back and I drifted away again. My first period of depression lasted about two years, and I became very isolated. I had friends but I kept myself away from them. The second period of depression wasn’t as bad as the first, and I was no longer suffering with the anger after I came off the Prozac. I was just really, really down.
“Danny O’Reilly, a coach for some of the white-collar lads who used the gym asked me to help, but because I felt I’d let people down by drifting away before, I said I’d only do one day a week. But it’s grown and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve had a license from the Board for a couple of years as Michael encouraged me to do it and become a trainer, and once I started working the corners I got a lot of love back for the sport. Getting back into the gym was a form of recovery, and things have settled down. Depression is a sickness and for me boxing was the cure, it gave me direction and a goal to aim for. If I didn’t have it I’d be right back where I was, no doubt about it.
“I want to be known for something in boxing and that’s why I really worked on getting proficient with the pads. Again, Michael got me into it and he’s very good himself, but it took quite a long time to pick it up properly. In my view the best padman doesn’t worry about how they look but concentrate on the boxer. I’ve seen people work the pads and the session is designed to make themselves look good, even though the boxer still looks rubbish. You’ve got to be able to adjust to the different styles of the boxers you’re training and not try and impose a style on them, they’ve all got different attributes you have to work with. Now, I can do just one round with any person and work out the things they need and what they don’t need and that comes from experience. I like a compact style with a good guard but I’ve worked with some very contrasting styles. Floyd Moore for example would always lean in with a hook to the body but I taught him to step in before letting the shot go because he was getting caught with counter left-hooks himself. Floyd always had good power so he got away with a lot! Strategy is also crucial, and seeing a gameplan you’ve worked on come to fruition is very satisfying. Seeing a fighter I’ve trained succeed and even win a title is all I’ve ever wanted from the time I got a second’s license, there’s very little money in it and that’s for sure, but if you can help make him a champion then you’ve done your job, haven’t you? It’s an achievement.”
As always with the best trainers, Lee discusses his boxers with a fatherly pride and concern: “Of all the fighters I’ve worked with I’d say the one with the most natural ability is Lucas Ballingall, he impresses me every time he spars or fights. He’s got excellent technical skills, and while he’s still got a lot to work on he’s only had five fights so there’s some way to go yet. He lands shots, rolls out and makes them miss. He had a good amateur career and it’s his father Michael who’s taught him that technical ability, and Michael still does the majority of Lucas’ training and padwork although I do bits and pieces with him. He’s a great prospect and could go all the way. In terms of work-ethic, Garry Neale (now retired) always trained very hard but today I would say Dave Birmingham is the hardest working boxer in the gym. I have to get him to slow down, but he’s got it in him to win a title. When he started he’d go full-pelt but we’ve taught him to pace himself and now he’s ready for his first six-rounder.”
Manager and gym-owner Michael Ballingall can’t speak highly enough of Lee: “I wasn’t bad on the pads, but James has loads of different stuff he puts together and that’s why he’s doing so well. He’s way ahead of me now! The same obsession he put into training as a pro fighter he now puts into the padwork. James has made a massive contribution to my gym and our fighters. Without him we wouldn’t be having the success that we are, and he’s a very valuable member of the team. To see him recover from the bad problems he’s had is a great thing.”
If the sudden loss of his career inside the ropes proved to be something of a nemesis for Lee, his role as a trainer has provided a form of salvation: “Can I see myself back in a period of depression like before? No, I’m not going back to that and I’m going to stay in the gym. Twice boxing has pulled me out of it and I don’t want there to have to be a third time. I’ve few regrets about what I’ve gone through as it’s made me who I am, but I do wish I’d asked for help sooner. If I had, things could have been very different but I let the isolation take over. A big mistake, but it’s easier said than done when you’re going through it, believe me. To those who are going through it, there is an answer. The best piece of advice I’ve ever received is ‘those that can’t hear must feel’, in other words if you don’t listen to advice you suffer the consequences and I’d urge anyone who is suffering from depression to get help.”
So, could Lee see a future for me inside the ropes having witnessed my obvious skill, fitness and sheer mastery of the pads? His eyes narrowed as a look of abject pity descended on his kind, lived-in features: “Don’t give up the day-job”, he said quietly. What a cheek, I should have punched him (I’m joking of course, he’d kill me).
James Lee can be contacted via Facebook or at Bally’s Gym, Rodney Road, Portsmouth.
Andrew Fairley is the author of Pompey’s Boxing Past.