Wednesday 22 November 2017

Boxing: Keeping it in the family

Gerry Storey and his 'wee club' in Belfast have created a lasting legacy in Irish boxing, writes John O'Brien

P atrick Barnes keeps a photo on his mobile phone. Every now and again he changes it, but the theme remains constant. It used to show his son, Paddy, during his hour of glory at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Now it depicts him standing on the podium at this year's European Championships in Moscow. From bronze to gold, it has been upgraded. It will do, he says, until something better comes along.

His laugh rises above the din in a crowded room on the second floor of a modest building on the New Lodge Estate in north Belfast. The Reccy has housed the Holy Family Boxing Club since the early 1970s. Six days a week they file up the stairs and cram into the gym, the tiny space an incongruous setting for the magnitude of their achievements and the breadth of their ambition.

On evenings like this, Barnes will sit in the corner and wonder how many disparate elements you can fit into such a small space: Catholic, Protestant, amateur, professional, girls, boys, kids, hardened fighters. He sees Carl Frampton, Barry McGuigan's protégé, limber up in front of him, donning what looks to be an old-fashioned pair of long johns. Barnes cracks up. "Could the boy McGuigan not buy you something better than that?" he laughs.

Over the years Frampton and Paddy Barnes became close. They sparred for hours in the ring and fought for Antrim and Ulster titles that had the boxing community in Belfast buzzing. Frampton, a stockier fighter, usually held the edge but Barnes' fighting spirit always made it a tight call. Frampton, the young pro from the Loyalist Tigers Bay area of north Belfast. Barnes, the amateur champion from across the road in Catholic Cliftonville. Once they entered the gym, such distinctions never mattered.

Where else would you see it, Barnes Snr wonders. The history and tradition is splashed on every available square inch of wall around them. Ulster titles, national titles, European and world medals, Commonwealth titles, Olympians, Olympic medals. "Northern Ireland has won 23 Commonwealth medals and Holy Family has 11 of those," he says proudly. "Irish boxers have won 12 Olympic medals. We've got two of those. We've over 105 national titles. This wee club."

And they are ever pushing on. For all their years of endurance in tough times, Holy Family never had a year like this year. A European gold in Moscow. Gold at the Youth Olympics in Singapore. Patrick Barnes remembers all those evenings his son would spar with Ryan Burnett, seeing what the rest of the country wasn't seeing, knowing that they hadn't just one star on their hands, but two.

Four months ago, Burnett claimed a silver medal at the World Youth Championships in Azerbaijan and felt he had been robbed in the final against Salman Alizada who was fighting in front of his home crowd. Yet when he returned home the papers were full of the bother created when Billy Walsh had been overlooked for the position of high-performance director. They found that strange and disconcerting.

They have no issues with the high-performance set-up here. Barnes spends three days a week in Dublin and knows that without the top-class sparring and facilities they offer he wouldn't be European champion or Olympic bronze medallist. Yet Dublin will never be home. You watch him in the ring now, holding the pads while Aidan Walsh, a 13-year-old with the hunger and ability to be a future champion, goes through his paces in the ring, his face breaking into a broad grin as the kid bears down upon him with menacing intent.

He is happier here than any place in the world. In the small, proud gym that shaped him. Among the people who made him.

One man in particular.

* * * * *

GERRY STOREY keeps a picture on his mobile phone. It is of his late wife, Belle, whom he lost to cancer five years ago, frozen in time, still present in his life, still an inspiration. Belle was a proud club woman too. She washed kits, looked after boxers and offered her opinion if she felt it was needed. "At the start she used to say when I went out she'd look at her watch," Storey smiles. "Then she says I go out and she looks at the calendar."

It was just as well, he thinks, that Belle loved her boxing. Because boxing was his life. In the Barnes household they have always had a standing joke.

They would be busy trying to make some family arrangements when, from Paddy, would come the immortal refrain: "But Gerry says . . ." The line always cracked them up. "Ah, don't mind me," Patrick would laugh. "You go on down and see your real da."

Patrick is sure there have been times when Storey was wrong about something. But he can't remember them. He has never known a more caring or decent man or one with an uncannier ability to get things done. It was Hugh Russell, "Little Red", who told him the story of the day Gerry's car had broken down en route to a show in Lisburn and how he'd stopped a passing ambulance and convinced the driver to take them to the venue.

The fire is older now but still blazing. Storey feels blessed that, at 74, he is healthy enough to be in the ring with his fighters, as hungry for success as he has ever been. He'll be there next Saturday when Frampton fights Yuri Voronin at the King's Hall, his first contest as a professional at the storied venue. For weeks their mornings have begun with punishing dawn slogs along the Antrim Road and up Cave Hill. Feeling vibrant. Alive.

Storey likes the sense of symmetry Frampton offers to his life. It reminds him of the days when Pat McGuigan would arrive on a Friday and drop his son, Barry, off for the weekend. Gerry and Belle would look after him until Pat returned to collect him on Monday morning. Now McGuigan was setting sail as a boxing manager and had entrusted his first fighter to his old beloved trainer. It felt right and poignant.

McGuigan was a Catholic boy from Clones who didn't want his career to be defined by such easy labels. In Storey, he encountered a like mind. When Belfast was becoming a virtual ghost town in the early 1970s -- "tumbling tumbleweed," Storey called it after the classic westerns he liked to watch -- it was the shows he organised on the Shankill Road and in the Ardoyne that helped boxing maintain a pulse.

"There was nothing there," he says. "Sport was dead. You couldn't get a team to come up from the south. I managed to get a team coming over from Alberta, Canada. Then I got a call to meet the Loyalist Army Council. They asked me to run shows on the Shankill. I ran shows there on Tuesdays and then on Thursdays in the Crumlin Star. We had teams coming in from Poland, France, Germany, Italy. They were always packed. They filled a need, you see. Don't forget it was on the Shankill where McGuigan's fan club started."

It was the only way Storey knew. He'd first set foot in the Holy Family gym in 1949, "dragged by the ear" by Jim McStravick, one of the club's founding fathers, away from what he suspects would have been a life on the wrong side of the tracks. His mother, a formidable woman, had raised four kids on her own between Belfast and Toomebridge, surviving the ravages of the blitz and inculcating a belief that you treated people the way you wanted to be treated yourself.

He yearned to be a professional fighter like McStravick but a bad eye cut short his career before it could get going. The club elders had seen how good he was with kids and cajoled him down that road instead. He was 29 when he coached his first Irish senior team against England at the Albert Hall, 31 when he took a squad to the European Championships in Rome, 36 when he led a team to the Munich Olympics, the first of four Games he attended.

Hugh Russell brought him the glory of a bronze medal in Moscow in 1980. Storey hates to single out individual fighters, but Russell evokes the warmest of memories. He remembers the day they first saw him arriving through the door, maybe three stone seven of impish ferocity, professing to be 10 years old. When proof of age was required, "Little Red" would strangely disappear. A few weeks later, he would be back again. "For three or four years," Storey laughs. "Hugh was always going on 11."

When he finally reached the magic age they brought him to Dublin for the national junior championships and watched him steal the show. No more than four stone in weight, yet so fearless and indomitable in the ring. Storey's abiding memory is of the journey back to Belfast and Gerry Hamill, another Holy Family champion, hoisting Russell on his shoulders after they had disembarked from the train.

Ah, yes. The gods have been kind. He thinks of Barnes and Burnett and Carl Frampton and wonders at the champions still yet to pass through his door. He likes to say as a little joke that, although he is 74, he is "only starting" and knows he is being mischievous because it is sure to irritate those who have always envied his success. He says this with no sense of arrogance or false pride. It is what he simply believes to be true.

At the height of the Troubles when he had the blessing of paramilitaries on both sides to carry out his work unharmed, Storey

still had to survive four bomb attempts on his life at the dock yard where he worked. The last one had come close to killing his son and had hit hard.

Years later, he heard that official suspicion was that the threats had come from within boxing itself. It shocked him to his core. "That stuck with us for a long time," he says.

Even now the feeling that their achievements haven't received due recognition is keenly and stubbornly felt. Storey is full of praise for the recent success of the high performance unit, yet a part of him is uneasy at the god-like status it has accrued. The boxers, after all, had been taught and moulded by their clubs. He thinks that fact has been a little slow to be acknowledged. A sense of balance that needs to be restored.

Still, he knows the biggest struggle lies closer to home. It has been his dream for many years now to secure the Holy Family's future in a new, more suitable premises. A few years ago, he received a business proposition from Mike Futter, owner of the 2003 Grand National winner, Monty's Pass.

Futter had a bingo hall in the Yorkgate complex and an entire floor above it lying idle. It was the Holy Family's if they wanted it. More space than Storey would have known what to do with. And rent-free for 20 years.

It would cost £300,000 to convert it into a world-class gym. They applied to the Northern Ireland Sports Council for funding and were promised half of the sum. Storey had a good feeling. Two decades before, he had done the Council a favour by agreeing to train the lifers in Long Kesh prison. He couldn't help thinking that good deed would finally get some reward now.

To complete the funding they looked to the Belfast Regeneration Trust. The Trust sought an economic appraisal. It took a year to put the appraisal team in place, another year for the process to be concluded. The verdict offered a ringing endorsement. "One of the lines said that if this had been a government project, it would be their flagship," Storey remembers. "I thought we'd be okay then."

Time had moved on, though, and the goalposts had moved. An issue emerged over the terms of the lease and the Sports Council, he says, stood firm and intransigent. Futter tried his best to help, but his efforts came to nothing.

Maybe, he thinks, it is just another Irish story. "See people here take us for granted. The politicians, the councillors. If this had been any other country, I'd have a new gym. No question about it. A bigger gym. I never wanted a palace. We turn kids away here and that hurts. No room to let them in. Where are we going to put them?"

* * * * *

Perhaps it isn't such a strange thing that the ultimate recognition came from without. The knighthood he was proud to receive in 2007. The Laureus Sport for Good award he received from McGuigan and Marvin Hagler two years earlier.

They sent a scouting party to Belfast when he was nominated for the latter award. They had been regaled with stories about this Belfast coach who had successfully bridged the sectarian divide and, on one occasion, even stopped a raging gun battle in the street. They had to check for themselves, though. See if this character could be for real.

At Belfast International, they hailed a cab and asked the driver if he knew the Holy Family Boxing Club. "Gerry Storey's place?" he replied. "Everybody knows it." At the gym where Jim Sheridan had filmed an award-winning movie they looked at the walls and saw the fabulous richness of a boxing life. Storey here with Ali. Storey there with Joe Frazier. Storey everywhere with the great and good of the boxing world.

People often asked him why, despite lucrative offers to coach in America and other far-flung places, he chose never to leave Belfast. It was never in him to leave, he thinks. He tells of the terrible day in 1978 when the IRA blew up the La Mon Hotel, east of Belfast, killing 12 people in the process. At the time, Storey was waiting on a team from Germany. He remembers Felix Jones, then IABA president, speculating that the Germans would have to pull out. "On the contrary," Storey replied. "I'd be badly disappointed if they didn't come."

Jones was nervous and uncertain. How, he wondered, could their safety be guaranteed under the prevailing circumstances? Storey told him not to worry. He would personally guarantee their safety for the duration of their stay. The German team duly arrived, fought and left without a scent of mischief. Jones was happy but perplexed that Storey himself could personally offer such a guarantee. That night, though, a British Army man settled his confusion.

"Mr Jones," the man said. "The army have a saying here. We wish that Gerry Storey was bringing a team in every night."

Sunday Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport