EYEBROWS were raised in 1982 when former light-heavyweight Phil Martin took over a derelict building and turned it into a rough-and-ready boxing gym. Martin named it Champs Camp and it rose like a phoenix from the streets of riot-hit Moss Side. Two days of strife in July 1981 had set the area on a path of nationwide notoriety that it would struggle to shake off decades later.
For Martin, though, the area was his manor and the gym was his home. By 1993 it housed four British Champions in Carl Thompson (cruiserweight), Frank Grant (middleweight), Maurice Core (light-heavyweight), and Paul Burke (lightweight).
Despite Martin’s death from cancer in May 1994, the community leader’s legacy has continued through the work of former protégés such as Billy Graham, Joe Gallagher, Oliver Harrison, and current Champs Camp custodian Maurice Core, as well as many others.
The latest to strike out on his own is Haroon Headley, who operates the Heavy Hitters Gym here in Manchester. His show at the Hilton on Saturday night was part of a two-part tournament as well as doubling up as a tribute to his former mentor.
“We made it a bit like a little version of the World Boxing Super Series,” he told Boxing News. “We scaled it down, created a trophy in the memory of Phil and put it on. We’ve now got two cracking finals on December 21 with Diego Costa-Boris Crighton and John Telford-Kyle Lomotey.”
If you do any research for an article on Champs Camp then the majority of the early pieces that pop up are bylined by Steve Bunce, who was one of the first to take notice of Martin and led the tributes to him on the night.
“I was around Phil from the mid-to-late eighties,” Bunce told BN. “I was writing about amateur boxing for Boxing News so would be around him when he had fighters going through the ABAs. Then he started with the pros in the early 90s so I spent more and more time over here. Let’s not talk rubbish, he started up the gym from the rubble of an old Co-op — that is the truth, not folklore — and then he went on to get all those champions in big fights before being struck down.
“He was only 44 when he died, which is staggering and something that I sometimes forget. Imagine what his life would be like if he was still around now? He’d have jetlag all this week like me because he’d have been in Las Vegas with Tyson Fury. And that would have been Tyson defending his title for the 10th time if that was the case.”
“Phil would be 69 now, a whippersnapper with a lot more to give,” he added. “Phil created something special with that camp. You know Manchester, you know that you couldn’t get a cab into that area late at night. In the dead of winter the only way you’d be getting to that place without a car is on local buses. I still remember when Chris Eubank visited the area for his so-called ‘Peace Tour’ in 1993, the time when he came into the gym and was told to ‘f**k off!’ by Phil — I was there when it happened.
“He sent people out on missions to bash people up: Nicky Piper losing to Carl Thompson at the York Hall, Humphrey Harrison beating Derek Grainger at the Albert Hall, and of course the famous one when Paul Burke went to Wembley’s Grand Hall and beat Billy Schwer. Word was slow to spread. Let’s be honest, even when he died he wasn’t as widely known as he should be and went on to be.”
Joe Gallagher agrees with Bunce’s assessment, he believes that his former trainer’s heritage is still felt in Manchester’s boxing circles “He’s the Anthony Wilson of boxing for Manchester because of how his legacy has continued through us all,” he declared. “The gym became a shining beacon for the community, something they could all be proud of.
“I do feel that he is up there smiling down and happy with the way things have gone in Manchester. I feel like I’m living out the rest of his career, doing all those things that didn’t get to happen. Phil gave people chances to improve themselves. That he hasn’t been awarded something posthumously is a real shame.”
“We had faith in Phil,” Phil’s ‘blue-eyed boy’ Maurice Core revealed after Bunce had led the tributes. “We knew that if we trained hard then he’d take care of everything else. He gave us so much and showed us so much.”
The final word went to Headley once the dust had settled on his show. “His success story went beyond his death with Billy and Ricky, Joe, Oliver, and all what those and others did after coming out of that gym,” he said. “Phil produced a lot of successful offshoots and his work is still showing. We needed to give it the homage it deserves and show that family tree of success. ‘Buncey’ spoke it best when giving a sense of the terrain back then when he spoke about what a hostile area it was. The boxing fraternity here appreciated the words that were spoken for Phil out there tonight.”