MANY years ago, a team of New York City narcotics policemen regularly boxed a London select. It was an odd match, the undercover kings against the finest constables in the capital.
Every single member of the New York team was called something like ‘Joe Cortez of the Bronx’. The flyweight and all the way through to the heavyweight: Joe Cortez of the Bronx times 10. It always made me chuckle.
This simple ruse was introduced to make sure that there was never a picture of a named undercover officer in circulation. They had a deathless job back in New York.
On Friday night at the All Stars gym in Harrow Road, there is a very special boxing event; an all-female amateur show in aid of the Woman’s Trust and supporting This Girl Can Box and the Fight Forward Foundation. There will not be 10 ‘Sue Smiths of Catford’, but there so easily could be a few. Perhaps there should be a few anonymous boxers on the bill. I have picked one, my personal Sue Smith of Catford, but first, here’s the history.
“I have been amazed at how many women have called up and told me stories about the domestic violence they have suffered,” said Terri Kelly, who started out as the matchmaker at All Stars in 1990 and is now an IBA level one judge. That’s a lifetime in boxing, often known as devotion.
Kelly is behind the idea, the night, the theme across Friday’s show. Kelly is a quiet pioneer in the amateur world. She has friends in all places. Nicola Adams was in a gym with her last week and recorded a message. Adams has talked openly about the domestic violence she witnessed. She is not bothered about being open.
“I really get the sense, from the women that I talk to, that they are not prepared to be silent any longer,” Kelly told me.
We go back a long, long way; back to before 1990, back to when she was married to my old friend, Akay Isola. That’s, Mr. Akay, to you. That man was a boxing legend in his own lifetime. He is the man who opened a gym in his council flat when his son, TeeJay, was refused entry to a local amateur boxing club. He was a bit too black for the men in reception. The kids sparred in the living room, hit a bag in the hall and skipped on the cold landing at the flats high above Harrow Road in north west London. The old ladies in the other flats on the landing loved it and brought out juice and biscuits. It led to All Stars and All Stars is still standing, still producing champions.
It’s the ideal gym for a night of defiance. And, Terri Kelly is all about defiance.
“I keep having conversations with women who have needed rehousing, needed support, needed help,” Kelly continued. “They were in boxing and still trying to hold things together; I knew I had to put on a show to highlight the situation.” The domestic violence numbers went up during the Covid pandemic. And so did the deaths. Women in domestic violence situations have to flee when they get a chance, grabbing their kids and what they can pack in a plastic shopping bag – it is often a desperate race to get to a Woman’s Aid or Woman’s Trust facility. The show on Friday will hopefully raise some money. Trust me, it’s never enough.
During her time as a matchmaker, Kelly did something that all good hacks and matchmakers had to do before websites made boxing records readily available.
“I had to work hard to be accepted,” Kelly remembered with a laugh. “I used to write down all the amateur boxing results from Boxing News each week; I created my own handwritten system with names, weights and notes on a boxer. Soon, men at other clubs were calling me up for help matching one of their men: “Tel, I need a novice, under 69…” I had them in my files. It was a great compliment.” I did the same thing, kept the same notepads with winners and losers and notes. When Ricky Hatton was 15, he was a “vicious little ” in my notes. Crazy habit.
On Friday night, one of the women will be boxing again after about 12 years away from the ring. She had three children in that time and was a repeat victim. Beaten, abused, surrounded by violence. The guilty man was eventually sent to prison. This is real, it’s not a fable.
“She just wants to show what she can do,” said Kelly. “She has been through a lot and she asked about the chance of boxing again and I said, ‘yes’. She is not 40 yet, close, but not quite 40.” The woman has talked about her life, the savage and brutal details of the life she had with the man.
Also, the role boxing is playing now. It’s a tale of total salvation; the ring is playing a part, a critical part.
She has no name on these pages on this occasion and that is because the man has just been released from prison. He doesn’t know where she lives and that’s why her name has not been used. The husbands and boyfriends often search online for the women they have abused. This fighter is winning long before the first bell at the All Stars gym on Friday night. I hope that continues.