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Bunce Diaries: A new year in an old place

Bunce on All Stars
Steve Bunce on the lessons to learn in the storied walls of All Stars gym

IT feels like the eternal smiling spirit of Mr Akay still walks the stairs, ring and the floor at the old church in Harrow Road where the club he had to build from ignorance opened its doors for another year. He is not the only dearly departed boxing soul in the hundreds of pictures on the walls at the All Stars gym.

In one faded and curling colour photograph there is Akay Isola, hand on the shoulder of a fighter that nobody in the gym can remember. Chip and Colin, with me for the wander along the walls, both shake their heads. The kid is beaming, glorious in the All Stars red strip, a 10-inch plastic gold trophy gripped by the red gloves he is still wearing. No fancy shorts, boots or vest – kit straight out of the club’s travel bag, a night straight from the eighties. There are dozens like that, real pictures of boxing at a level that is too easily ignored or lost.

There is even a picture of Akay without his obligatory baseball cap, dressed all in white like a trainer from the fifties, leaving the ring as his middleweight Tyrone Forbes stands up. I know Akay and it looks like Forbes has just had a bollocking, perhaps been told that winning the next round is not enough, perhaps told that he has to stop his opponent. Sure, it’s old, blurred by grime, but it is Akay and the unmistakeable face of Forbes. It could be the divisional championships that year, possibly a hall in Tottenham, the year being 1983 and it being ‘that’ year because Forbes was, from nowhere, Akay’s first ABA champion. It was big news in our tiny amateur boxing universe.

Akay would know what fight it was, but he died last summer and left behind a monument in that old church on that throwback road with the red door in a tiny pocket of London that resists too much change. That’s Akay’s place, make no mistake, the old church, the old ways in a road where buildings have been made magic and now cost millions.    

Mr. Akay is missed and fondly remembered

Forbes won the club’s first title, but in 1987 Akay had two winners in Michael Ayers and Big Bad James Oyebola (James had also won the previous year at super-heavy) on ABA final night. That was a night, a real night. There is a picture of Oyebola and Ayers, getting ready in a Wembley dressing room. It’s black and white, but it might have once been colour.

After glory (Ayers beat Alan Hall, Oyebola beat John Shakespeare) there was a caravan of cars and cabs back to the gym for a celebration. The doors opened and everybody walking by at midnight came in, that was Akay’s way. A fine way and night. “There is a poster somewhere from that year,” remembered Colin, a fighter back then at the club and now part of KO Circuit, which was Britain’s first structured non-contact boxing-for-fitness programme. Akay invented it and launched it in 1990 – he had no rivals. KO Circuit had real edge and a lot of the amateur fighters never liked their gym being turned over to keep-fitters on a Saturday morning. The lines were not so easily crossed back then, but the cash injection helped keep the club from vanishing. The history is on the walls, it’s all on the walls.

Big Bad James rests in peace on the wall in other pictures. The former British heavyweight champion as a professional, a lovely, gentle beast of a man and the victim of utter foolishness and cruelty one night in the summer of 2007 – he was shot dead over a cigarette. There are also pictures of Akay’s son, Teejay, on those fabulous walls. Teejay, big and smiling. A good fighter and British champion as a pro. He died, Akay buried him in 2006. It was the biggest coffin anybody had ever seen. Even Akay laughed that day. There are others on the walls from a list of dead, but most are missing. There are also some frozen reminders left behind from visits, lasting images of giants like Azumah Nelson sparring in the gym (he did a few rounds with a kid called Johnny Harris, star and writer as an adult of the film, Jawbone), of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield inside the gym. Teejay lost to Holyfield at the 1984 Olympics. In 1975, far from Olympic or ABA or British title glory, Everton Holmes became the first boxer to represent All Stars. Nobody knows where Everton is now.

Akay had been forced to start the gym the year before when Teejay, who was 12 at the time, had been told that he was too black to be a member at another boxing club in the area. I’m being kind with my words. Akay responded by opening up his flat on the sixth floor and getting some other local kids involved; they skipped on the landing by the lifts, did the pad work in the living room, press-ups in the hall. The council soon heard. This is not a fairy tale, this happened in a block of flats in west London in the seventies. That is where Akay built the All Stars.

On the first Saturday in January KO Circuit was open and 18 showed. I got there when the sweat was still wet on the floor. Chip and Colin had taken the session. They were each there from just about the start all those years and deaths ago, two men in a gym of hope on a lost little stretch of a neglected London road. All Stars has walls covered in memories that everybody in boxing can learn from.

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