The fantastic four of Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard were my era and I loved them. I’ve met Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler and went to see Tommy Hearns box as he was my favourite. He was a great boxer, very skilful.
His fight with Marvin Hagler in 1985 is the most exciting three rounds of boxing. If Hearns boxed he would of won, but they both went at it hammer and tong and Hagler knocked him out in the third round remembers Preston.
Then every now and then you get a freak of nature like a Mike Tyson, he was powerful, had agility, and skill yes, but he was a fighter knocking people out. Boxing matches bring a clash of styles.
Today in the ring you have Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury, Billy Joe Saunders who just fought for a world title, there’s still good boxers out there. They came from amateur boxing but it’s not as popular as it used to be as there are more distractions now, kids can be in their bedrooms on their computers where parents can keep an eye on them.
I was born and brought up in Hendon in the east end of Sunderland and my Dad, John, was a boxer. In the ‘60s a boxing club was opened and my Dad ended up coaching. Through boxing he helped a lot of kids and hopefully I can do the same. Boxing can learn you discipline and respect – it can do a lot of good.
When I was young I was out in the street, bird nesting, playing on railway lines. But I drifted over to the boxing club with the other lads and my Dad was in there. I wasn’t forced into it. I’d sit ring side and took an interest in it.
What I’m doing now is a continuation of what my Dad did. Some kids when they first come in to the gym are not sure about it, but about 90% of them end up respecting the place, have determination and dedication to turn up training each week, and learn discipline. You’ve got to put the time in. It’s a tough game you can get hurt.
IN THE RING
When I became a member of Sunderland Amateur Boxing Club I started boxing competitively through the ‘70s and ‘80s. I slowly progressed from boxing to coaching and become official through the A.B.A. (Amateur Boxing Association).
Sunderland lad Tony Jeffries was one of the gym’s proteges, he represented GB in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and won a Bronze medal. At the gym with Tony was a kid called Stuart Kennedy, I thought he was a very good boxer, but just like in life, you’ve got to have a bit of luck. Stuart glided around the ring with his footwork but didn’t get the lucky breaks.
A kid called Anthony Wilkinson boxed with me, he won three British titles two years in a row and at 17 turned professional. I thought he was a bit young for it but he was making money. I think he could have been the best boxer we produced.
ALL FIRED UP
I got a job in the fire brigade, 22 year I’ve been in now, and there was a couple of firefighters who were boxers, they knew I had coaching badges so asked me to help out with some training.
We got on for a couple of year arranged a few charity matches with the police and then got invited to go over to Boston and Denver plus a small club in Ireland where we go annually.
The firefighters loved the boxing training and after using other gyms, with the total backing and support of Chief Fire Officer Chris Lowther, I set up our own in an old storage building in the Sunderland fire station grounds.
We got help with funds for equipment from the local council who said ok as long as you open it up to the community. We kitted the gym out with the best because the council were totally onboard with the whole idea and we had a big opening night in April 2019.
When we first opened the doors to the kids we were only getting a handful but that quickly grew to 35 a night so we extended to two hourly sessions. We got loads of kids off the streets.
The youngest is 9 year old when they train, you can’t box until you’re 11. From 11 to 15 you’re a schoolboy, 15 to 17 classed as a junior, at 17 you can box men. My first senior fight was at 17 the other lad was 34. I got beat but we’re still good friends (laughs).
I was classed as a boxer not a fighter, I had boxing skills with my feet, hand speed and technical ability. I boxed him in the first round, dancing round him you know. Second round he thought it was time to slow me down and hit me with a body shot and knocked me down I had a standing count of eight to compose myself. That’s the difference between a boy and a man.
Kids start off at three rounds of a minute and a half, as you get older you go to two minute rounds and seniors box three minute rounds. Our gym aims to channel the energy of young kids, it gets them interacting with people, better than them playing on their phones.
We’d love to produce Olympians or World Champions but if they come out just feeling better about themselves we’ve won. In the gym we’ve had police officers mixing with criminals, different people who wouldn’t normally get on but who’ve got a love of the sport. The atmosphere is fantastic everybody loves it and you can forget about what is happening outside – like being in a bubble.
There’s no better feeling in the world when the referee holds up your hands to say ‘and the winner is’. In the same breath if you get beat by the better man you think ‘I’ll do better next time’. The fire lads and the kids have a thing where they say ‘I didn’t win that fight but we learnt from it’. And that’s important because it’s all about competing. The gym’s motto is creating champions in the ring, creating champions in life.
Anyone that can step in the ring has my total respect. You’re stepping into the unknown, the man across from you might be better. So have you done enough training ? Have you worked with the coach enough ? You will be put in the ring against someone with similar experience.
Although our club has fought against a team that’s put in ringers – fighters with a lot of fights – matched against someone with only two or three. That’s not on really, it’s about giving the lads a proper fight, they’ve got to be matched up correctly.
Head guards were brought in a few years ago and the kids and females need to wear them but the bigger lads can agree to wear them or not. I’m a big believer in them when you are training but they are uncomfortable to wear when competing.
I will insist on everyone wearing one when sparring and training. The women may not be big and powerful as the lads but they are very skillful and I appreciate that, it’s an art.
Britain has produced some good boxers over the years who have come through amateur gym’s but in the past year covid has restricted that so it’s a problem, we’ve got to work something out to go forward and make progress.
For more information contact Preston on: 07740 285 966
Sunderland Central Fire station, Tyne & Wear Fire & Rescue Service,
Phoenix building, Railway Row, Sunderland SR1 3HE
Gym address: Unit One, Westbourne Road, Sunderland SR 1 3SQ
Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2021