The Sweet Science

“Boxing is the sport to which all other sports aspire.” – George Foreman

I could not agree more with the statement, not that I have the testicular fortitude to do anything but agree with heavyweight Hall of Famer ‘Big George.’ The sweet science transcends its nature as a sport moreso than any other; legendary triumph and grave tragedy are produced in equal measure – that’s boxing.

When Gallery set the theme of ‘rivals’ for the August issue, I could think of no better subject than my adoptive sport; when I thought of boxing (which I have done for an inordinate amount of time each day of the last two years), I could think of no better person to talk to for this piece than local boxing legend Gerry Walsh.

The punter pays to catch but a climatic glimpse of a boxer’s story. While the themes of persistence and courage ring just as true outside the squared circle as inside of it, the hostility and barbarism the punter pays for isn’t what the boxing community is all about.

“You meet some characters through boxing,” says Gerry Walsh, 80 years old, after driving me to exhaustion at Guernsey’s amateur boxing club. An octogenarian boxing the ears off a man a quarter of his age on a Sunday morning, it just doesn’t happen anywhere but a boxing gym. Gerry’s story, like so many others pugilism has produced, is an inspiring one that started from humble beginnings.

Gerry at twenty and eighty years of age

In the throes of a second world war at an army barracks on the outskirts of Dublin, to which children were often drawn solely on account of the hot chocolate promised them after training, Gerry’s boxing career started at 9 years old; the age at which he had his first bout. He moved to Bristol with his family while still young and trained up until he was called upon for National Service, the delightful British term for conscription, in the early fifties where he furthered his boxing training.

Gerry represented both Ireland and the British army as a light-welterweight boxer, racking up many more wins than losses and turning heads along the way. After serving his time in the forces, Gerry opened his own boxing club in Bristol where he resettled to train competing amateur boxers whilst boxing competitively himself; but one of the heads turned by the dedication and intensity with which he approached his training was a senior army officer offering a role in the forces.

Muhammad Ali once said “he who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” An accomplished competitive boxer running a successful boxing gym needn’t take risk, but Gerry took one anyway. This is the attitude that makes champions in life as well as the ring: grafting the same job and drumming the same punch bag all your life may get you somewhere eventually, but it’s not until you take a risk that life starts to get really interesting.

What I’ve taken from Gerry, and boxing as a whole, is that working your ass off, being humble in learning, confident in action and taking the odd risk is a formula for success. That’s boxing.

Thus one Corporal Gerry Walsh was posted to Northern Ireland, Kenya and Germany as a physical exercise instructor: waking up at 6am for the first of three 8-mile runs of the day with a squad of combat troops, training alongside pugilistic contemporaries such as Sir Henry Cooper and representing Ireland and the British army on the national stage.

(You can find rare proof of Ali’s fallibility by YouTubing ‘Henry Cooper vs Cassius Clay;’ ‘Enry’s ‘Ammer knocks ‘The Greatest’ for six!)

Gerry missed out on representing Great Britain at the Olympics, losing a hard fought decision against Scot Dick McTaggart, who had a then-rare advantage of being leftie, or ‘southpaw’ in boxing parlance. “You just didn’t get southpaws in those days,” Gerry tells me, chuckling. “You were made to box orthodox.” Though Gerry pressed him every second of the fight, pulling back to front punches from unfamiliar angles proved too big an adjustment to make and he lost a narrow decision. McTaggart went on to win gold at the 1956 Olympic Games. (Gerry’s involvement with the Olympic amateur squad didn’t end there – he contributed to the team’s training on an ongoing basis.)

Gerry’s tenacity continued to turn heads wherever he fought and saw him topping bills at shows as far afield as West Germany. “My commanding officer had words with me,” Gerry tells me, “he said ‘you’ve fought 9 times in 11 days Gerry!’” He must have thought him mad. A serving contemporary, CSM Bell, writing in a British paper circa 1955 wrote of his ‘tremendous courage, fighting spirit and 100% fitness… it didn’t matter how good or experienced his opponents were, they were kept busy all the time’ ‘and the spectators got good value for their money.’ Value for money is right – the deutschmarks paid to Gerry for the successful rearrangement of his and his opponent’s faces didn’t just go in to his back pocket; they went to the underprivileged children of the war-ravaged nation. Maintaining good relations with an occupied populace is one thing; it’s another to earn a loyal local following and present the Mayor of Berlin with a boxing glove filled with the money you’ve earned whooping his compatriots’ backsides. That’s boxing.

Corporal Walsh’s return to civilian life was coupled with his retirement from competitive boxing aged 28, with no fewer than 200 (!) amateur fights to his name. Now you’re familiar with the man, you might’ve guessed ‘retirement’ is an ill-suited term; he only hung up his gloves so as to lace up those of future boxers back in his adoptive hometown of Bristol, where he opened Newman’s Amateur Boxing Club, which found quick success on the amateur circuit.

Gerry (left) sparring at his gym in Bristol in view of some mesmerised youngsters

Gerry then moved on to Guernsey in 1969, cofounding and presiding over La Corbinerie Gateway Club, a charitable organisation giving mentally disabled sportspeople equal opportunities in competitive sport, and assuming the role of head coach at the Amalgamated Boys Club.

Predictably, his presence was overwhelmingly beneficial to the boxers competing under his tutelage, dramatically so, as the moral of this article will tell (column constraints prevent my further detailing Gerry’s contributions and accomplishments, certainly not due to a lack of them).

Jersey’s boxing squad, historically trouncing Guernsey’s prior to Gerry’s taking the reins, were in for a shock one night at their home turf: the Guernsey squad had tallied seven unanswered wins against their arch-rivals, won in such emphatic and brutal a manner that Gerry was compelled to refuse sending out the remainder of his squad to fight under the watch of a referee allowing such savage punishment to be absorbed by amateur sportsmen.

And it is in this action, symbolic of honourable rivalry trumping barbarity, taken by a man who personifies what the grassroots boxing community is all about, that our rivalry moral lies: for all the violence of the sport at club, national and international level, what boxing is truly about is breeding respect, discipline, camaraderie and honourable rivalry among those who choose to box, often for lacking these qualities in their upbringings. It’s not the base instinct of dog-eat-dog that prevails in boxing; you wouldn’t survive long in a boxing gym if you thought it did.

The characters you meet, the feats you witness; the friends and rivals you make – that’s boxing.

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You can contact me on liamapollodoherty@gmail.com

@ApolloDoherty