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Miguel’s Gym – the sanctuary

Miguel's Gym
Declan Taylor visits Miguel’s Gym – the thriving Brixton haven

IT is just after 7.30pm on a midsummer Tuesday and 10 feet below the train line that links St Albans in Hertfordshide to Sutton in south London, a man in his 20s preaches to an assembled crowd all drenched in sweat.

“You might not know why you’re doing the things you’re doing,” he says, panning across the crowd. “But it’s preparing you. Trust me, all this is preparing you.”

It might seem that a railway arch in the depths of east Brixton might not be anybody’s idea of sanctuary, but get off the train at Loughborough Junction, take a right up Herne Hill, walk past the three overflowing skips and abandoned aeroplane chairs and you will find exactly that.

This year brings up two decades since the small, vibrant Miguel’s Gym opened its doors, but there is now something of a changing tide at the club, which continues to hold its own among the more established powerhouses of amateur boxing across the capital.

At the 2018 Haringey Box Cup, Miguel’s claimed four golds, putting them second out of the 83 boxing clubs from across Europe who attended. Only the mighty Repton left Alexandra Palace that weekend with more hardware.

Then, this season, they produced two London champions, one of whom became Miguel’s first-ever England Boxing national amateur champion, or ABA champion in old money. Which brings us back to the preacher.

Kheron Gilpin beat Ben Jarvis of Redcar in the 86kgs final to secure what was a huge moment in the club’s burgeoning history. As a result, he was invited on an England camp in Catterick and he is back in the gym for the first time since his return from the weekend.

To his audience, the club captain explains in detail what was expected of him on national duty. “At times they had me sparring front hand only,” he tells them. “But we do that so much in here I was hitting him with all types of shots. You’ve got to trust what we’re doing in here because it pays off.”

Kheron Gilpin is one of Miguel’s success stories

Among the crowd is the other London champion from the season, the towering heavyweight Ben “The Butcher” Vickers, who claimed national bronze after defeat in the semi-final. He, along with cruiserweight Gilpin, helped to maintain a Miguel’s tradition of producing good big men.

Long before either had set foot in the gym, Brixton heavyweight Ian Lewison was learning his craft beneath the same railway arch but was beaten in both of his ABA finals. The top prize also eluded another of the club’s most feted names – Amin Isa.

The super-heavyweight was famously selected for the 2010 Commonwealth Games ahead of a certain Anthony Joshua but was then beaten by the kid from Finchley in the GB championship final later that year. Amin had turned up during a difficult spell for Miguel’s and you could argue that the club have never looked back since.

Coach Mike Burton has been here from the beginning. A former professional himself, the Norwood light-heavyweight racked up an 8-4 record in the early ‘80s before retiring. “I had a couple of years gap between fighting and coaching,” he says. “I did a few marathons and some triathlons but once you start boxing it’s hard to get it out of your system.

“But there were some tough times in the early days here. You’re paying your subs to the ABA but you’ve only got two or three boxers. They were the wilderness years.

“It seemed like it went on forever and I thought about throwing in the towel. I don’t mean throwing in the towel and coaching at another club, I mean leaving it altogether… But then Amin came along.

“He came from scratch and any coach will tell you you take most pride in the guys you’ve brought up. You get boys who come and just need finishing, but when you’ve got a guy you’ve brought up from scratch, that’s the reward.

“Amin came and he knew nothing, mate. He was in his teens when he walked in here and then went to the Commonwealth Games in 2010. So with him and Ian we’ve come close in the ABAs a couple of times but never had a winner. This year was different.

“I think what Kheron and Ben achieved is just the start for us. I believe success breeds success.”

It’s notable that whenever a boxer from Miguel’s competes, regardless of the level, there will be a group of clubmates, dressed in the club’s black and yellow, sitting ringside in support.

“It’s nice now as coaches after all these years plugging away that other clubs and other coaches are saying, ‘Well done, Miguel’s.’ We are getting recognised – at last,” Burton adds. “A lot of the time people didn’t know who we were, but now they do.”

Burton estimates the club currently have 25 competitive, carded boxers operating within the gym, while they also provide over-60s, ladies only and kids boxing sessions. They also have a bustling white-collar division, who are put through their paces at one of the two upstairs gyms.

The second room was built to cater for the surge in people walking through the door. Before that, it had been just a small weights room downstairs, with heavy bags and a ring in the solitary room upstairs.

That was the original gym built by brothers John and Steve Sims, both club boys at the Lynn, back in 1999. They named the gym Miguel’s after their father, who had got his sons into boxing so that they could look after themselves growing up on the Railton Road, Brixton in the 1960s.

Once one of the most dangerous and deprived areas of the country, Brixton has changed since then and indeed in the two decades since Miguel’s opened its doors.

“They say good boxers come from poor backgrounds, but Brixton is gentrified now,” says Granville Williams, another of the club’s long-serving coaches. “It’s not like it was 20 years ago.

“A lot of the people who come here don’t even live in Brixton. They’re from Thornton Heath, they’re from other areas. But they come here because it’s like a family.

“I’ve always said, with this postcode and gang warfare, see these guys in here. If they were outside they’d walk past looking at each other saying, ‘Who are you? What you looking at?’

“But in here, the guy you could be beefing with is part of your family. There’s no ‘them and us’. Everybody is family. It’s fantastic how you see them get on. They all come from different areas but they come in here and are as one.”

One of the most successful boxers to have found sanctuary down here is Dillian Whyte. Born in Jamaica, he was only a kid when he touched down in Brixton for the first time and had to make the area his home.

“I first went to Miguel’s years and years ago,” Whyte tells Boxing News. “That was before I was even boxing. I wasn’t even remotely interested in boxing at the time but I used to go and lift weights downstairs. It’s only round the corner from me.

“It means a lot to the community. It’s difficult in the whole of the UK to be a young man nowadays. In the UK, there’s not a lot of things to do. All the youth programmes have closed down so it’s easy to get dragged into negativity.

“But Miguel’s is a good gym. It has been pushing out fighters for years now. A lot of the guys there look up to me because I’m one of them. We constantly speak. I was speaking to Kheron this morning. I try to keep him on the straight and narrow because it’s difficult to do that.”

Indeed, Gilpin first walked through the doors when he was a teenager but, like countless amateur boxers across the world, went missing. Not many ever find their way back but he did. He has now emerged as one of the country’s best under-30-bout amateurs. He works as a motivational speaker at schools and colleges, and that skill is evident when he addresses his clubmates and discusses his success.

“I grew up with an absent father, so these lot are father figures to me,” he says gesturing towards Burton and Williams. “They’ve been in my life more than my own dad. Seeing them all these hours for all these years.

“There have been times when the boxers don’t pull their weight and that’s hard for the coaches, but they put up with a lot and are so generous with their time. I feel honoured and I’m grateful.

‘Everyone here has a dream, everyone believes in something. I don’t know what it is but we’ve got the magic formula’

Kheron Gilpin

“This is the reason why I’ve been able to thrive in boxing. I was doing a motivational talk in Lambeth College. I was telling them how important it is to be in fertile soil. You can have everything you need, the skillset, the will and everything else – but if you’re not in an environment where people push you, nurture you and support you, you’re not going anywhere.

“Since I walked in here it is the fastest progress I’ve made in any area of my life. That’s down to the coaches who are dedicated to us, the sense of community that we’ve created here, it’s a fruitful environment for growth.

“We’re a family who works together and trains together and cries together. It all happens here. We empower each other. What does this place mean to the area? That cannot be measured. It’s infinite. It’s a precious place, it’s sacred to the community.”

Gilpin, too, has benefited greatly from the influence of Whyte, an occasional sparring partner and generous mentor, although it might not always seem thus.

“When I was a junior, Dillian would be around and I would get in the ring with him and I had complete confidence that he wasn’t going to knock me out of the window,” Gilpin says. “But there was one day in particular, I was trying to move and I was on my toes and out of fear I was letting my hands go and moving, moving. He was very impressed with my performance and he said, ‘Kheron, have you had a fight yet?’ I said, ‘No’.

“This is his way of showing love. He said, ‘I should spit in your face, bruv.’ That’s his tough love. He said, ‘You’re wasting your talent.’ He was disgusted that I wasn’t using what I had.

“Having Dillian around is very inspirational. He’s here but he’s also on the world stage. He reminds you that everything is possible. I don’t know where my journey goes but I believe in achieving great things because it’s possible for us.

“Just look around this gym. Everyone here has a dream, everyone believes in something. I don’t know what it is but we’ve got the magic formula.”

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