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Bunce Diaries: Behind the scenes at the England Boxing National Amateur championships

Bunce on Elites
Attending the national amateur championships reminds me what a wonderful sport this is, writes Steve Bunce

THE man in the blazer was once handed 1,000 dollars at a tournament in Cuba by a big Russian, the guy with the ponytail is a national hero for stopping a suicide, the girl in the baggy vest was a drug-addict runaway.

Welcome to a long, long day at the latest England Boxing National Amateur championships.

Ellis Trowbridge converted a garage during lockdown. It was not much of a gym, but it was not really about the equipment. No, it was about a small picture hanging above the door. The picture was taken at the Youth championships in 2019. Trowbridge is in it and so is Mykyle Ahmed, and Ahmed is smiling; Ahmed had just beaten Trowbridge. “I looked at that picture every day, that was my motivation.” At the Chase Leisure Centre in Cannock last Sunday, in bout 16, in ring A, Trowbridge beat Ahmed. It was just a little picture, but it meant so much.

Steve Palmer first walked through the doors at the All Stars club in the Seventies. He is still there, no longer a light-middle. His super-heavyweight, Brian Muwenge, beat Andrew Rowbotham. When I asked Big Brian how close he lived to the gym, he gave me the most London answer possible: “One stop on the 18.” Class. Palmer just laughed; the All Stars has always been a club at the very heart of a community since Mr Akay started it in the middle of the Seventies on the landing in his block of flats. That’s another remarkable tale. Palmer holds the stories, too many stories.

Meanwhile, Rowbotham is now in the final days of his amateur boxing career. He is 39 and has been inactive. “That was my first fight in seven years,” he told me. It looks like it was an entertaining seven-year break. I get the feeling that he could sell some tickets. And tell some stories.

Mick Budden is, without doubt, one of the finest gentlemen associated with the ancient amateur game. He is 81 now. He is still smiling. In Havana in 1996 at the same World Youth championships where Ricky Hatton was jobbed, Budden was given an envelope by a Russian boxing official. Mick was just sitting down to judge a bout. He handed the envelope in at the final bell; it contained 1,000 dollars. Budden found himself at the centre of a mystery, an investigation. A month or so later, a high-profile Russian amateur boxing official was tortured and shot in his bath in Moscow. There is a suggestion the incidents were connected. They were, by the way.

“I’m still here,” he told me in Cannock. And that is good news.

Amanda Coulson was there. She is always missed out when people put together the list of female pioneers and that is wrong. She was solo for a long time, the woman driving everybody crazy with emails and phone calls. Now, she is an icon and I mean that. I stood and talked to her and Hannah Robinson, who had just qualified for the lightweight final.

Robinson has now fought 31 times, the woman in the bout before her in the featherweight final, Sameenah Toussaint, has fought over 40 times. Coulson was smiling. When she was first on the scene, the five or six other women with medical cards had not had 20 fights between them. Coulson was the revolution and now she has a role as a leader.

Sab Leo, Steve Egan, Brian Smith, Paul Counihan, Steve Newland, Nigel Travis, Mick Maguire, Billy Couzens and a dozen other coaches and officials came over. Each had a tale about a kid that lost, but won; each had a tip for me to watch. “Watch Spider,” I kept being told. Spider was Eastside’s Ibraheem Sulimaan and he had a good win over Joe Tyers, the number one seed. Ben Whittaker, a fan in the seats, liked that one. He also liked Aaron Bowen, a winner at light-heavyweight and possibly the most fan-friendly fighter over the weekend. Other tips lost; I tried to watch as many of the 61 semi-finals that took place in the three rings, which is hard. I only saw one that I thought could have gone the other way and I was not watching every second. Budden told me a funny tale about a London trainer complaining on the Saturday during the quarter-finals and then being shown the five scores, plus the adjudicator’s score: All six went against his boy 30-27. “OK, I will swallow that complaint,” the trainer said with a shrug. That’s blind passion and I love that.

There was bloody confusion in a super-heavyweight semi-final when Hillcrest’s Harvey Dykes beat Courtney Bennett on a cut. Dykes is not one of those six-pack heavies, but he knows his way around the ring. “He lost to Delicious; he can fight, don’t be fooled,” Maguire told me before the fight. Delicious Orie, currently the GB number one at the weight, is at Maguire’s club, Jewellery Quarter. Dykes is trained by Bill Davies, the brother of Ronnie, by the way. A few minutes before the fight, Tracy, Bill’s wife, came over and gave me her phone to talk to the person on the other end.

“Stevie, it’s Ronnie. Keep an eye out for Harvey.” I did. That is how the day went, hundreds of stories and conversations against a backdrop of 122 boxers chasing glory, possibly the Commonwealth Games next year and even the Olympics in Paris.

And then, there was Fergo. He lost on Sunday, edged out by Ike Ogbo at super-heavyweight in a classic amateur semi-final. The pair had warmed up near each other, touched gloves 10 minutes before their fight, nodded in respect. They were the two last big boys chasing that dream. Ste Ferguson is from the Marybone club in Liverpool, the Derry Mathews’ place. The place that does good. It’s not my job to tell Fergo’s story; I don’t have proper permission. It is, however, truly incredible. A wonderful story of redemption and a boxing ring.

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