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Boxing Clever: Teaching the Un-Teachable In a Boxing Gym

A new book, Boxing Clever, describes how the London Boxing Academy Community Project (LBACP), in partnership with Westminster social policy think-tank Civitas, combined boxing, close personal relationships, respect for rules and high aspirations to re-engage teenagers in education.

The aim of the LBACP was to make use of the strong relationships that boxing coaches have traditionally held with wayward young men. It was an alternative education project in Tottenham, North London, where the summer riots of 2011 began.

Author Tom Ogg spent three years in Tottenham as a maths teacher and co-ordinator of the LBACP. Boxing Clever is his record of the trials and triumphs of those years, his ‘baptism of fire, fresh from university, teaching the un-teachable’.

Teaching young people to take control of their lives

The LBACP specialised in working with 14-16 year old boys with aggression problems, many of whom were already known to the criminal justice system. The project encouraged the students ‘to take control of and better their own lives using education’.

“The LBACP could not rid the streets of London of violence. But we could, and did, foster dreams in the boys It was this spirit of cultivating positive, realistic dreams; this spirit of self-improvement, and belief in self-determination, that was most important about what we had tried to do in the school… The point of it all, [the point of education,] should be to show the students a way to live, an ideal of what it means to be a grown-up, so that when the students are ready, they can live out that ideal for themselves.” (p.200-01)

Working outside of the restrictions imposed by the national curriculum, Civitas, with a track-record of teaching English and maths to students in need of additional support through its network of supplementary schools, Civitas Schools, was responsible for delivering the academic content of the course.

Boxing morality

Tom Ogg argues that boxing was uniquely suited to foster maturity in students who were often all too familiar with the use of violence. Although boxing is violent, it operates under a strict set of rules. It taught the LBACP students respect, and to control their aggression.

The boxers who worked with the students were often from tough backgrounds, served as positive male role models, and were able to connect with the students where others had failed.

Boxers regarded the gym as a hub of moral improvement. Boxing was an honourable way to make use of aggression and to resolve differences where all other methods had failed. Running the school from a boxing gym also served as a way of protecting the students from malign influences outside of the gym (see the extracts below).

‘Rules without relationships ain’t worth toffee’

The principal of the LBACP, and inspirational hero of the book is Chris Hall, a boxing coach of 30 years standing and ex-amateur boxing champion.

Chris Hall’s mantra was ‘rules without relationships ain’t worth toffee’. Hall’s relationship with the students was integral to the school’s operation, and those relationships relied upon his affection for all students, even the most challenging.

As Lord Glasman states in the foreword: ‘the overwhelming lesson of Tom Ogg’s experience and Chris Hall’s practice is that relationships are transformative and that, without loving and caring one-to-one relationships, life goes very badly wrong’.

Tom and Chris visited the students’ families in their homes, went to court to support students when they were charged with criminal offences, and tried to broaden their horizons by taking them on trips to Oxford University and the ballet.

Pod leaders and ‘family values’

Students were grouped in pods of six, each of which was assigned a boxer or boxing coach who worked as a ‘pod leader’, a role that combined those of a teaching assistant, mentor and minder. Pod leaders played a vital part in the operation of the LBACP:

“Chris sought pod leaders who were charismatic, whom he knew well, and whom he could trust. He told me that in his experience, the students would show up primarily to see their pod leader But as well as being charismatic, they had to be moral role models as well. Chris told me he didn’t employ just any boxer in the gym, he wanted ‘family men’ who set an example to the students and transmitted values of commitment to and respect for women. They were by no means just bodyguards for students and teachers, they were integral to the project and the development of the students. (p.90)

Whilst making allowances for the students’ problematic backgrounds, the LBACP functioned on principles of strict discipline, engagement with academic subjects and an appreciation of high culture.

Bad behaviour led to removal from the classroom, and a points-based behaviour management system, which recorded all poor work and disruption, encouraged good behaviour in the boys. The responsibility on the part of the students to adhere to strict standards of conduct set LBACP apart from attitudes in mainstream schools:

“It is an approach that is in marked contrast to the practice in some mainstream schools, where colleagues of mine have been asked: ‘What was so wrong with your teaching that the students misbehaved so? Why didn’t it interest the students?’ We had the opposite attitude at the LBACP: it was for the student to conform with what was required in the classroom, not for the classroom to conform to the wishes of the students.” (p.79)

The broader aims of a liberal education

Although the educational approach was traditional, it was also aspirational. The LBACP focused not only upon the students achieving GCSEs and other qualifications, but on the broader aims of a liberal education:

“The primary way we encouraged the students to re-engage with education was by linking it with the world of work. But quietly, we would also suggest to the students that learning is worth it just for its own sake. We wanted the students to enjoy learning. We also wanted them to appreciate culture that they might not regard as relevant to them, such as classical music. Chris played the radio station Classic FM in the gym every morning when the students came in, and I frequently played my favourite piano concertos from my laptop whilst the students were working. After a while, the students even put in requests. Robert was a big fan of Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of Nessun dorma and would wiggle his head in time to the music.” (p.134)

Boxing Clever captures the brutal reality of life on the streets for young black boys in poor areas of London such as Tottenham, dealing with gangs, ‘postcode wars’, drugs and family dysfunction. Many also struggled with illiteracy and an inability to sit quietly for more than a few moments.

The book describes how Chris Hall and Tom Ogg, from very different backgrounds, worked together to provide these students with an education, despite the problems.

See the first extract below to read an account of the way in which boxer and pod-leader Ervis Jegeni prevented what could have been a very serious incident of gang-warfare by simply intimidating the ringleaders by his physical presence.

See the second extract below for an account of the way in which a face-off between two ‘alpha-male’ young men was resolved in the boxing ring, with the full agreement of their parents, instead of dishonourably resolved on the street through gangs or weapons.

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NOTES FOR EDITORS:

Boxing Clever by Tom Ogg, with a foreword by Lord Glasman, is published by Civitas: The Institute for the Study of Civil Society, 55 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3QL, Tel 020 7799 6677, books@civitas.org.uk, price £9.50.

Civitas: The Institute For The Study Of Civil Society, is a leading independent Westminster think tank. Their latest research includes a study of UK Electronics manufacturing entitled ‘Selling Circuits Short: Improving the prospects of the British Electronics Industry’.

Extract 1 – The pugilist garrison

The new student is intimidated by what he sees. Even the strictest of the teachers in his old school, the only ones for whom he had any respect at all, seem just at this moment to be wimpy stuffed-shirts. The student looks at his companion for reassurance, and studiously avoids looking any of the boxers in the eye. He cuts out all his normal strutting and bravado. He is sheepish and withdrawn.

The fact that a new student found his first experience of the boxing gym to be intimidating was important. It meant that the student at least started his or her time at the LBACP behaving at somewhere near their best. And starting off on the right foot made it much easier to maintain a high standard of behaviour for the rest of their time at the school.

Equally important was that, as the student experienced the gym for the first time, they met Chris, the head boxing coach, who was kind to the student. Being welcoming was just as important as appearing tough. We wanted the students to take us seriously, but we also wanted them to know that we cared, and that we were offering them a chance to reform themselves for the better.

Running the school in a boxing gym had a further benefit. The physical superiority the boxers enjoyed over the students meant that the students felt safe. Almost all the young people we worked with had used violence in the past and many would have done so again with little hesitation. But students knew that if they were near a boxer, they were fairly secure from attacks from other students and even from malign influences outside the gym.

This was true, for example, for Lennox. Lennox was both very vulnerable and very aggressive, and this unfortunate combination caused him to suffer a great deal. He always wore a white Nike woolly hat, black gloves and one of the impractically small Nike backpacks that were fashionable at the time, which measured about 20cm by 20cm. His manner was quiet and almost stuttering. He would often make a noise at the back of his throat, followed by a pause and a tilt of his head, before he began any sentence.

Lennox’s problem was that he talked like a tough guy, but never matched his words with deeds: so he was often in fights that he had caused and which he always lost. Worse, he did not learn by his mistakes, repeatedly going out of his way to create confrontations by threatening other boys with violence, sometimes for no apparent reason. I once witnessed a bizarre confrontation between Lennox and Mehmet. Mehmet was a new student, and so I suppose that Lennox, who was generally bottom of the pecking order, wanted to see whether he could dominate the new boy. Lennox was sitting at a desk in front of me whilst this verbal confrontation occurred, and during the argument Lennox snapped one of my pencils in what was for him a typical faux-dramatic display of rage. Lennox and Mehmet’s anger boiled over into a shouting match, with each threatening that they would ‘do’ the other after school.

When home time arrived, Mehmet was hanging around outside with some of the other boys who were eager to see a fight. The pod leaders and I had told Chris what occurred in the classroom, so he was ready to keep the peace. Chris told Lennox to stay behind for an extra English lesson, and then told the other boys to go home. Outside, in the group of hopeful voyeurs, Tyrone was withering in his assessment of Lennox: ‘he’s always makin’ threats wen he’s standin’ behind a teacher blud. Then on da road, he’s nothin’… Wasteman.’

What was significant was the fact that the boys did, in fact, go home. They did not try to invade the classroom, because they knew that it was no good trying to get in. They knew that if there was a boxer between them and the person they wanted to beat up then the game was up. This pattern of events-confrontation, followed by protection by the boxing staff-occurred repeatedly during my time at the LBACP. Given the cohort we had, confrontation was inevitable. But one of the reasons the boys kept coming back, day after day, was because they could be sure of protection when they needed it.

This protection also extended to threats from the outside world. Marcel had quickly established himself in our minds as one of the wildest boys we ever worked with. More than any other student I met, he seemed completely out of control. A few days after my conversation with him about skunk, Marcel punched Emre in the face in the sports hall for some trivial reason. Emre, naturally for him, went completely bonkers, but since there were lots of pod leaders in the hall at the time, there was not a lot he could personally do to settle the score. ‘Alright then,’ he said as a threat to Marcel, after being restrained by the pod leaders. Emre got on his mobile to his Turkish mates on Tottenham High Road, and summoned them to the academy with the intention of getting revenge on Marcel. Shortly after that a car zoomed up our drive with three Turkish guys inside who were a lot older than Emre and who meant business. I was in my classroom at the time and I remember the cries of the students: ‘shut the door, shut the door!’ Our heavyweight boxer, Ervis, was luckily on the scene and faced down the intruders as they tried to enter.

‘Whass going on?’ he demanded, looking as intimidating as that 250 pound, 6’2″ bulge of muscle could, with Peter, Richard and Michael backing him up. The gang of Turkish lads suddenly turned very polite at the sight of Ervis and the boxers, saying essentially that they couldn’t have their Emre being hit like that in school, and that they were just there to make sure Emre was OK.

Ervis said to the gang: ‘Listen. I can’t deal with this right now. I’m at work.’ Ervis turned to Emre, in a serious, and strangely professional tone: ‘Emre, tell your friends to fuck off. I’ll fight them after school if I have to. This ain’t the time or place.’

Emre had always responded well to Ervis’s muscular brashness, and grinned at this latest command. Satisfied, perhaps, that he had made his point to Marcel, Emre did as he was asked.

If it were not for Ervis and the rest of the boxers, who knows what might have occurred that day? Marcel might have been seriously hurt (perhaps sparking a long-running feud in Tottenham), I expect we would have had to call the police, and the incident might even have made the local papers. But thanks to the pod leaders, there was no trouble.

Extract 2 – Settled in the ring

Darren had been saying to me for some weeks, regarding Russell: ‘I’m gonna hit this nigger’. Darren was the alpha-male in the school, his pre-eminence undoubted except by Russell, the stubborn boy who refused to yield to Darren’s attempts to dominate him. The problem was that Darren came with a group of other students who were supporting him: Desmond, Darius and, at the time, William. Russell was much more of a loner. Despite Chris’s attempts to placate Darren, his patience with Russell was rapidly wearing thin.

One afternoon, I spotted Darren menacingly approaching Russell outside the five-a-side football pitch. Desmond, Darius and Mohammed were standing behind Darren, urging him on. Darren’s fist was clenched behind his back, in the same way it had been when Darren threatened me in Devon. I rang Chris and told him what was going on, whilst walking over to them. When I reached them I told Darren that he couldn’t attack Russell. He would be suspended, I said, and that was the last thing he needed with his exams looming.

‘Yeah but this prick owes me money!’ said Darren, making reference to a watch that had been broken, for which Darren blamed Russell.

‘No, weren’t my fault!’ shouted Russell back.

‘Don’t chat shit man’ said Darren, angrily. Darren was about to move towards Russell when Chris arrived.

I knew that this was not the first time that Chris had been forced to separate Darren and Russell. ‘Two big boys like that,’ he once told me, ‘neither of them backing down, there’s always going to be a scrap at some point’. But for the moment, he was trying his upmost to placate Darren, who remained angry. Russell did not help matters by muttering: ‘I’m gonna bang him up bruv, I’m gonna bang him up.’

After strenuous efforts on Chris’s and my part to keep the boys separated and to calm both the boys down, Chris turned to Russell and said: ‘Russell, do you want a one-on-one in the boxing gym with Darren?’

‘Yes bruv! Let’s do this!’ said Russell forthrightly.

Chris turned to Darren: ‘Do you want a one-on-one, Darren?’

‘Yes man, let’s do this’ said Darren, business-like. Chris walked Darren and his henchmen to the boxing gym, whilst I escorted Russell. Chris asked the pod leaders to keep an eye on the other students whilst he dealt with Darren and Russell. Both were found boxing gloves, head guards, and mouth guards. Chris had previously told the boys that if they continued their belligerency that he would have them spar each other. He had spoken to both the boy’s parents, and they were very clear that if boys continued the spat then Chris should see to it that the matter was settled. The sparring consent forms signed at the start of the year lay in the office.

Chris stood in the middle of the ring and reminded the students that this was a boxing match, and that they had to follow the rules. If one of them decided they no longer wanted to participate, that was the end of it, the other student had won, and the issue had to be over. Darren nodded, whilst his eyeballs continued to bore into Russell. Russell agreed, bashing his fists together, which, with the boxing gloves on, made a snapping sound.

The students edged to their corners and Chris called them in for the first of three rounds. Chris brought his hands together and said: ‘Box’. Darren stepped forward and swung wildly for Russell, who blocked the blows with his guard, holding his left glove high up by his left cheek. Darren pursued Russell around the ring with fervent anger, attacking with all of his strength. Russell continued to defend and Darren was only able to land body-blows. Russell edged around the ring taking the blows.

The bell for the end of the first round rang and Darren’s henchmen cheered for what they saw as a victory. He grunted in acknowledgement as he took on a little water. One of the pod leaders advised Russell to open up more on the inside, but he wasn’t really listening. He was too focused upon looking at Darren and steeling himself for the round ahead. Sweat pored off Darren’s forehead and he grunted through his mouth guard before spitting into the spit bucket in the corner of the ring.

The bell for the second round rang a minute later. Darren surged out of his corner again but this time was visibly more tired. His legs moved sluggishly, and he no longer held his arms up to defend his face. Darren swung with his left but Russell ducked out the way, before opening up on Darren’s inside with two powerful upper-cuts. Clearly surprised, Darren backed away and began to protect himself with his boxing gloves. Russell was a different fighter in this round and used his tightly packed strength to push Darren around the ring. Darren’s initial flourish had faded and Russell took advantage.

Russell’s brawn was rapidly triumphing over Darren’s height and aggression. Matters came to a head when Russell charged at Darren but was rebuffed by Darren’s guard. Russell lost his balance, and began to fall backwards, and Darren lowered his guard slightly. But as Russell fell backwards, he swung a wide looping punch with his right hand that caught Darren on the chin, snapping his head sideways. Chris intervened: ‘Stop!’

Russell backed away. Darren was defeated, and leant unsteadily on the ropes, and he held up a boxing glove to signal his submission. Chris would not have him continue in any case. Without the normal bravado or celebration, Russell exited the ring, placed his gloves, head guard and mouth guard on to the benches and walked with a pod leader to the bus stop.

Darren looked at me: ‘I lost, didn’t I Tom?’ I told him that he didn’t have the better of it. Chris made him agree that the problem between him and Russell was over and dealt with, which he reluctantly acknowledged.

This incident made a strong impression upon the way I thought about boxing and the street. Soft-liberal critics would doubtless say we were ‘brutalising’ Darren and Russell by allowing them to settle their differences in the ring. But this is a rather blinkered view of the situation. Russell and Darren had already been brutalised by their treatment by gangs and the other adults in their lives. There was a rawness in them that caused them to want to fight in the first place. From a pragmatic perspective, if the issue had not been settled in the ring, then Darren and his side-kicks would have beaten up Russell on the street. The beating could have been a serious one. Then there would doubtless be reprisals from Russell’s friends upon Darren, and then Russell would stop coming to school for fear of being caught by Darren. The cycle might have continued until one of the students was stabbed or worse.

What Darren and Russell had agreed to was an honourable method of resolving their differences. Most young people today resolve their differences by recourse to weapons or gangs. Through these brutalising means, boys who feel powerless are able to exert power and humiliate their victims. This was, it seemed, exactly what Darren had in mind before Chris and I intervened. There was no honour there. For Russell and Darren to have put their pride on the line, in a one-on-one, was a practice that harked back to a more civilised time.

It was also something I had seen at camp in the United States of America during the summer mentioned in chapter three. Two boys, very similar to Russell and Darren, had irresolvable differences that some of the lower-level staff decided had to be sorted out in a one-on-one fight. It was not quite so civilised as Russell and Darren’s boxing match, as the fight took place without boxing gloves or head guards, behind one of the sleeping billets. The only rule was that they broke when told to. Fighting is, I hope I have illustrated in this book, something different to boxing. But nonetheless, as with Darren and Russell, the issue was resolved after the bout and the boys felt they had satisfaction.

It would of course be a more pleasant world if the boys had felt able to resolve their differences in a less violent way. But young men being as they are, I don’t think there will ever be a situation where contact sports like boxing are no longer needed as outlets for aggression and other feelings. But it was the boys’ experiences during their young lives, in the world that as adults we had shaped for them, that had led Russell and Darren to feel a need to fight so keenly.

As adults, it is our responsibility to change our world so that boys feel more secure and happy, and so require recourse to fighting as infrequently as possible. But it also seems to me that it is right to provide appropriate and honourable ways for boys to settle their differences without recourse to the cowardly methods of weapons or gangs. Boxing did just that for Russell and Darren.

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