BRADLEY STONE lost his life to boxing in 1994. Today he guards the Peacock Gym where he used to train in Canning Town. The statue of Stone stands tall and is locked in a fighting pose, eternally 23 years old. The words, ‘He died in pursuit of his dreams’, are etched into the plinth beneath his feet. Inside the gym lies a welcome so warm it’s impossible not to smile as you walk through the doors. The juxtaposition of the dead boxer and a gym alive with optimism is no accident. Brothers Martin and Tony Bowers founded the gym in the 1970s and were responsible for the statue after organising a series of fundraisers that are typical of their family. Stone’s death occurred two days after losing to Richie Wenton in 10 rounds and the tragedy is still keenly felt in certain corners of the east end. The family do not blame boxing because they recognise the positive effect it had on Stone’s short life. His nephew, also called Bradley, still trains at the Peacock.
Whether they tumble suddenly or descend slowly, boxers are always in danger of being forgotten. But the Bowers have made sure that Stone never will be.
The brothers are laced with the fighting blood of their forefathers and are often approached by wannabe boxers who visit the gym hoping to take up the sport. The Bowers will take them outside to the statue of Stone and remind them what can happen when the fighting really starts. Some will walk away and realise that boxing is not for them. One who didn’t was Daniel Dubois, now the 22-year-old British heavyweight champion and one of the most exciting prospects in world boxing.
It’s a warm September day and London is stubbornly resisting the onset of autumn. Martin Bowers enters his gym wearing a healthy glow and a grey t-shirt that is flecked with sweat. Surrounding him are numerous boxers who have been out with Bowers on their morning run. But Daniel Dubois, booked in for an interview with Boxing News, is not among them.
“I’m so sorry,” Bowers says and then repeats as his face crumples apologetically. “I thought Dan was seeing you tomorrow, I’ve given him the day off,” he continues.
Within two minutes a cup of tea and a turkey salad sandwich from the onsite café have been handed over by way of further apology. Martin sits next to me with a tea of his own and we talk and talk and talk. We talk about the gym. About Bradley and about how much London has changed since he passed away. About Daniel and his upcoming bout with Ebenezer Tetteh for the vacant Commonwealth title. But most of all we talk about Martin Bowers, one of the country’s finest coaches who – thanks to the success of Dubois and the team around him – is at last getting some of the credit he deserves.
Luckily, I’ve got a good wife who I’ve been with for more than 40 years. I don’t know how they put up with us, I really don’t, but they do. We do long days in the gym. It can be dark when you open the doors and dark when you lock them up at the end of the day. But this is our hobby and it’s our passion. Most of all it’s our community. Like most boxing clubs it’s become part of the infrastructure of where we live.
I always used to be here seven days a week, but I can’t do that now. I’ve got seven grandchildren, I’ve got my own kids. The weekends, if I’m not boxing, I really disappear. I go in my garden, I turn my phone off and I try to put a bit of time back indoors. I used to find that hard, walking away from it all, but now, as I get older, I almost look forward to it. I love my garden and I love pottering and tinkering.
You need that little recharge. Otherwise it becomes hard to come back in with that passion every day. Everyone who does boxing clubs will know the work that goes into them. You’re fully immersed in it and if you’re not fully immersed, you’re not doing it right.
Our community has changed like all communities in London and all the big cities. Everywhere is changing. You always used to know everyone, you’ve known his dad from down the factory or you see them down the pub. But that sort of feeling ain’t around no more. It’s almost like this gym is the last part of the community that used to exist. Years ago we had the local pub. But the local pub ain’t what it was no more. This is like the ‘local’ for a lot of people. Look at us, we’re sat here having a cup of tea – 20 years ago we’d be sat in the pub having a beer.
I look at this gym and everything we’ve created as a team and I think it’s something special and so would my brother. I’m probably a little bit blinkered. But we’re very fortunate to have something that we love. If I raced pigeons, I’d be a pigeon man 24/7. That’s the kind of people we are, it’s all or nothing.
Everyone who is around boxing has a love-hate relationship with it. You might have a couple of weeks where you hate it and then you can’t wait to get back to it. But I’m around some real nice fellas and we’re here every day. We sit and have a cup of tea and talk a bit of old bollocks for half hour. That’s really healthy, that’s what these clubs are about, getting out there and speaking to people and keeping yourself mentally involved in what’s going on in the community.
The statue of Bradley Stone is part of that community. I wasn’t training him when he was fighting, I didn’t have my licence back then, but we would go swimming and spend a lot of time together. Of course, I think back to when he died. That’s a dark moment but there’s so much more to that moment. Bradley had a hard upbringing, but he’d got his life sorted out and that’s what boxing did for him. He had a lovely girlfriend, he got involved in a real nice family. Boxing was going to get him a real nice house and get him on the ladder. Everything was going right for him.
If it wasn’t for boxing, he’d have been dead long before that. When I look back on things like that, it’s f**king heart-breaking. That gives you a bit of compassion in this sport. I just want the kids to have a few quid, to be good rolemodels but you can’t live no one else’s life for them – living your own life is hard enough. On Bradley’s statue it says he died in pursuit of his dreams. That’s sum it all up. So as dark as those moments are, you know you can’t take that chance away from another kid who walks through your doors. I say this, and it sounds brutal, but you dust yourself off and you start again, and it’s really hard, but you have to.
If we lose a fight, it f**king kills me. It really gets to me. But come Monday I have to come in here with a smile on my face and not show the boys any of that. You can’t show there’s a chink in your armour. So, when there’s dark moments, you have to wear a mask on those moments, you have to have those dark moments on your own and not bring them in here. You don’t share them with anyone.
When someone walks in and says they want to box, me and my brother will talk and we’ll ask them a few questions. I’ll ask why they’re boxing. If they want to box just because they want to make a few quid, I don’t take those kids on – that’s not what we’re about. I let them know that, ‘If you’re coming here, we want to make you a champion or get the best out of you.’ If you’re ceiling is a six-round fighter and we get you there, we’ve done our job.
Daniel Dubois wants to be world champion. He’s focused – this is what he wants to do. I don’t know how the journey is going to end with Dan. All I can do is make sure everyone makes the most of the journey. Where it goes from there, I don’t know. Things change, goalposts move, people can whisper things in ears. Boxing is the funniest sport in the world.
But Dan is grounded and that’s important. He gets off the train, walks down the road and comes through the doors. I’ll be having a bit of breakfast with my brother and he’ll just say, ‘Morning’, and walk down to the end and put his bandages on and he’ll start work. His feet are still on the ground. We’ve got to make sure they stay there because the public will warm to him, he’s going to get more and more famous. He’s humble, he doesn’t call people names, he doesn’t need to be going on YouTube saying bad things. If you deliver, people will follow you.
The Nathan Gorman fight really started to change things. More and more people started to take notice. I thought Nathan did a great job, he more than played his part. And this might sound like I’m buttering up my promoters – I’m not – but the way it was promoted by Frank [Warren] and the way it was presented and dressed up on BT Sport was fantastic. It was a well-matched fight. You know if you go to the boxing and you look down the card and you know who’s going to win every fight? That ain’t a night out. This is an old saying and I don’t mean any offence, but if you’ve got two donkeys then you’ve got a race you can enjoy that. But if it’s a thoroughbred against a donkey, then that isn’t enjoyable. I know that happens in boxing, I know there’s reasons for that to happen, but ultimately you need a test. Daniel needed Nathan and Nathan needed Daniel. I believe Nathan will go on to be a champion.
You might look at Daniel’s next opponent, Ebenezer Tetteh, and say he’s not a test. You might look at the names on his record to come to that conclusion. But I look at like this, and I’ve done my homework, Tetteh is working hard and he’s coming to fight. He’s knocked out more people than Daniel has had fights, whatever the level. So he’s got that belief. He’s 19 fights without a loss. He’s a big proud man who’s going to be fighting for his community – like Daniel is going to be fighting for his. And the Commonwealth champion over in Ghana is massive. We’ve lost that here in the UK a little bit because there’s so many diluted titles but the Commonwealth title is a proper title. It’s at the right level for Dan at this moment, we don’t need to rush.
When Dan was little and he came in the gym I never noticed him. When he came back and he was big, I noticed him. We used him for sparring Ovill McKenzie when he was still fighting. So we could see he was a good fighter.
There were chinks because there’s chinks in everyone. But to change those chinks it takes months and months and months. A way of explaining it is this: If you fell over it would be your natural reaction to put your hand out to break your fall, it’s like trying to get someone to change that. You get people watching the boxing on television on a Saturday night and they go, ‘Why’s he doing that?’ You think his trainers don’t see that too? Well you try and change it. It’s hard. Day in, day out, day in, day out, you have to drill and drill and drill it until they’re not putting their hand out to break their fall anymore.
It’s like when people sit there reading the paper and they say, ‘He’s getting a million-pound to fight him, I’d fight him for a million pounds.’ Well, yes, of course they would. So would I, so would you. But would you dedicate your life to get that chance in the first place? Would we put our life on the line to get that million-pound? Would we put in the months and weeks and days of training to get into that position? They don’t see it. They don’t see it. It all rolls back to Bradley. The statue is out there. When kids start, I’ll say to them, ‘That’s what you’re putting on the line.’