Contributed by Paul Zanon
Paul Zanon speaks to Darren Barker, former IBF middleweight champion and Repton boy.
“There’s not many people you could talk to, when it comes to Repton who would have the same sort of passion as I do about the club. My blood is green and gold (The Repton colours). This club has done so much for me and is such a big part of my life. Coming from a working class family, it was either boxing or football for sport. If you weren’t kicking a ball, you were punching someone in the face. To a degree I did both.” Those are the words of Darren Barker recalling one of his earliest memories of the springboard that landed him in Repton boxing club.
Considered to be England’s oldest boxing club Repton was a gem in the East End’s rough, back at the time of its founding in 1884. Set up by Repton College in Derbyshire, the intention was to establish the club as a mission for underprivileged boys in and around the Bethnal Green area, providing a number of activities including acting and boxing in an area that was notoriously tough and where money was very scarce. After Repton College withdrew their support in 1971, the club operated purely as a boxing club and since that time, thousands have proudly donned the gloves in the Repton colours, leaving behind a very respected fistic alumni, including the likes of John H Stracey and Audley Harrison to mention a few.
‘Dazzling’ Darren Barker explained his route into Repton. “Most of my mates went down the football path, but my dad Terry had boxed at Repton before and won the junior and senior ABA’s at Repton, so maybe it was on the cards that I’d box for Repton as well. Although I started training at Repton at the age of 15, the first club I went to was my local (Finchley ABC). I wanted to give it a go and see how it went and from the first time I loved it. However, what happened was, I lost three fights on the spin and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to make a move here.’ I remember my dad saying to me, ‘Look Darren. You’ve done me proud. You don’t have to box anymore.’ Off my own back, I went to Repton. I didn’t actually know where the club was. All I knew was that it was in Bethnal Green, so when I got off the train I ask a black cabbie, ‘Do you know where Repton is?’ and he pointed me in the right direction.”
A sign hangs inside Repton in big bold letters which says, ‘No Guts, No Glory.’ Barker reflected on his first visit and encounter with one of Britain’s most respected amateur trainers of all time. “I remember walking through those doors and being starstruck because I was a big fan of the amateur game and in there was the likes of Audley Harrison, Courtney Fry, Danny Happé, Danny Hunt, the list went on and on. So many really good fighters who were national and international champions.
“The ring in Repton is central, so it’s a real spectacle. Whenever anyone would spar, everyone would stop and look. You couldn’t help it. The spars I’d witnessed over the years in that gym were epic. No disrespect to Finchley, but it was like moving from primary school to university. The noise, the smell, the sounds. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. That first visit, I was greeted by the legend that was Tony Burns. Tony, who is Mr Repton, changed my life forever. He instilled confidence in me, in such an unorthodox way that really helped me as a youngster.”
Burns has trained over 200 champions and has had boxers from Repton competing under his guidance in every Olympics from 1986 onwards. Using old school methods in an old school environment, he created a stable of some of the most successful fighters on the circuit. Barker fondly recalled. “It was like a working man’s club back then. Everyone used to be smoking in there. Tony Burns and some of the other dad’s and staff would be there ringside smoking! I was lucky because I was brought up really well and had a very good family, but a lot of kids that get into boxing do need that father figure and Tony was that person to a lot of them. They’d hang off his every word.
“One room which still gives me butterflies thinking about it now was the office. As you walked in on the left, you walked into the office and it was so exciting, because when you got to my stage where you represented your country, Tony would always find out first before I did if I’d made the cut. When he called you into the office and he’d say, ‘You’ve been selected to fight for England against Hungary,’ or the Commonwealth Games, or whatever it was, that was a massive buzz. After the first time he called me in I used to get on the train from Barnet to Bethnal Green and think, ‘What’s Tony going to say? Is there going to be any news?’ and most of the time there was. I’d get butterflies walking through the door. However, if you weren’t serious about the sport, he’d soon let you know what he thought about you.”
As a professional, Barker won the entire compliment of middleweight silverware working his way up the Southern Area title, through to Commonwealth, British, European and then IBF world honours. Very few can boast that. However – long before his professional days, Barker achieved parallel spoils in the amateur leagues. The north London favourite recalled his crowning moment from 2002. “The final of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. I was the wildcard in the England team and here I was now in the final and guaranteed a silver. I remember Tony pulling me aside with a load of the Repton Personnel and he said, ‘Darren. I’ve just got off the phone to Harry Lawson.’ Harry had got to the finals of the Commonwealth Games and lost and he’d told Tony that he regretted not winning the gold so much and to tell me not to throw this opportunity away. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to do this now.’
“I’m not sure if that was a true story that Harry had called him, but Tony had a way of being able to get the best out of you without putting the weight of the world on your shoulders. He’d add just that little something extra you needed to give you the belief in yourself. Luckily, I went on to win the gold and that was one of my proudest moments as an amateur and maybe a boxer. That was incredible.”
Staying within keeping of its neighbouring boxing mecca York Hall, Repton is also on the site of a former swimming baths, however, as opposed to Britain’s most famous small hall, Repton only occupies a fraction of the space. The lime coloured brickwork on the inside is preserved, reflecting the shell of the former baths, but outside the balance of the plot is swanky apartments, not representative of the landscape from only a few decades ago. Also, the surrounding neighbourhoods such as Shoreditch are now saturated with boutique style bars and restaurants. Nonetheless, the heartbeat of Repton still beats loud. Barker explained. “The area has changed, but when you walk through those doors, it’s exactly the same and that’s what I love about Repton. You feel like you are in a time trap. You could be in any decade. What it teaches and preaches is all very much the same. It has still got the same character, the same dust, a lot of the same personnel are still there from when I trained. I was down there the other day and the chairman walks in, Dave Robinson, who’s such a character. You could listen to his stories for hours and hours. The same goes for a lot of the other coaches down there. What a place.”
If you have any doubts as to why you should start training at Repton Boxing Club, Barker offered these sage words. “You should go just to belong to the most famous club, in my opinion, in the world. You not only become a part of the gym and you become part of the history. When you walk through the doors and you look up, you’ll see pictures of those who have represented the country. My dad is on there, I managed to get on there and my brother Gary also. We are alongside the likes of Maurice Hope, Tony Cesay and many others. You now have the chance to join them and be a part of history. Putting on that tracksuit and belonging to that club means everything to me until the day I die.”
Paul Zanon speaks to iconic Scottish actor James Cosmo
“Boxing teaches you more of life than just a sport. It’s a whole ethos of how to be a man and how to behave. It does nothing but good for young men to box, win or lose. In fact, you learn an awful lot more losing than winning.” James Cosmo’s thoughts on the merits of entering the square circle.
In addition to the boxing alumni who have graduated from Repton, a number of on screen encounters made their mark at the East End venue, including Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. For some, they’ve worn both hats. Take Ray Winstone for example. Joining Repton at the age of 12, he became a three time London Schoolboy Champion, fought twice for England and won a very impressive 80 of his 88 contests. How would he have progressed as a professional? Who knows. One thing is for sure. Whatever he puts his mind to, he laces with success and if he hadn’t have chosen acting, he may well have progressed down the boxing professional route with honours.
Acclaimed actor, James Cosmo, MBE started acting in the 1960’s and boasts an incredible resume in television and film, including Braveheart, Game of Thrones, Highlander, Trainspotting and more recently, Shadow Boxer, featuring former pro heavyweight, Chris Evangelou. However, it was a small production by the name of The Pyramid Texts which introduced Cosmo to the green and gold of Repton. Before discussing the movie in question British Vintage Boxing got to know the man behind the lens and where his passion for boxing stemmed from. “I’ve been a boxing fan since I was a kid. My father would talk about Benny Lynch and all those great stories from back in the day and my mum was a big fan of Dick McTaggart who won the Olympic gold medal (at the 1956 Olympics. Also won bronze at the 1960 games). McTaggart never turned pro, but he was the most beautiful amateur boxer. He was not a big hitter, but just so incredibly skilled, turning his opponents and tapping them away. He was fabulous. I also remember listening on the radio when Ken Buchanan won the world title and Walter McGowan also. They were all iconic names.”
Reflecting on his own brushing with boxing. “I only boxed at school.” Quizzed on whether donning the gloves should be part of the school curriculum and Cosmo enthusiastically responded. “Oh my goodness, yes. Incredibly so. I remember when I was a young man, Frankie Vaughan, the singer, was a great supporter of the young men’s boxing clubs. There were hundreds of them, everywhere. East of London, everywhere. It gave all those kids an outlet for energy, it taught them so much.
“Boxing is humanity’s search for the ideal of grace under pressure, of having those fears and facing them and being the better for it, because you did. Nowadays, I think it’s so easy to be distracted from the fears in your life and that’s not the way to be. You’ve got to face the fears. That was what boxing does. That feeling of, ‘Oh my God, I’m so frightened.’ Mike Tyson crying before the world junior boxing championships, crying with fear, yet doing it and being greater because of it. Every boxer does it. Every little boy that goes into an amateur ring, experiences exactly the same as a world championship fighter when he’s fighting to take the title from the champion. That little boy goes through the same process of facing his fear and that can only make him a man.”
Cosmo proudly added. “My oldest son is a very gifted amateur. He’s a cruiserweight and he’s considering whether to turn pro. In terms of where his passion comes from - Quite often, personalities jump a generation. People will say, ‘I wasn’t a painter, but my father was a painter and now my son’s a painter.’ Well, my father, God rest his soul was a two fisted kind of man. He was an actor and a poet but he didn’t back down from much. I think Ethan has a little bit of his personality.
“It’s funny because we were blessed enough to have the money to send him to a really good school and enjoyed playing rugby, but then one day when he was about 13 he said, ‘I want to try boxing.’ Eventually he persuaded me to take him along to Woking Boxing Club. He went in and I waited outside. Once he was done, he jumped in the car and he was very quiet. I thought that maybe someone had given him a clump and he didn’t like it. I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he said, ‘There’s nothing wrong.’ I said, ‘No please, tell me.’ He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Dad. I love it so much.’ He was completely enamoured with it.
“I went in to see him later and I remember seeing him standing in the ring, not really knowing a great deal at that point, but the way he stood, confidently, he looked like he knew where he was. Boxing has been incalculably good for him.”
The Pyramid Texts is a deeply emotional film about an aged former fighter, who deliberates with himself about his life, his boxing career and a dark twist in the tail involving his son. Cosmo plays the leading role as boxing trainer Ray, with real life son Ethan, playing the supporting role as on screen son, Bomber. Cosmo explained how the opportunity arose to be involved in the production. “I had met with Geoff Thompson and the Shammasian brothers (Ludwig & Paul) about another project that they were trying to Crowdfund. We talked about things, then Geoff and I talked through the afternoon about life and so many wide-ranging things, from personal to philosophy, religion and politics. All sorts of things. Then I didn’t see him for ages and ages.
“A while later, I was filming in Tenerife on another movie and the Shammasians sent me through a script and said, ‘Would you take a look? It’s something which Geoff has written specifically for you. I remember reading the first third and I had to stop, because it was draining me emotionally. It took me three nights to finish the script and I had a difficult take on it because I really didn’t want to go as deep as that, but on the other hand, I knew I had to.
“I put a voice recording as an old American trainer, thinking, ‘That might work,’ and they really enjoyed that, but then we decided to make it closer to home and I used my own voice. There wasn’t a great deal of money to finance the movie and we shot it over five days at Repton, during the day, before the club activated itself at tea time, for the kids to come in.”
Cosmo recalled his initial visit. “Well, I’d never been to Repton, but obviously, its reputation proceeded it. For an actor, it’s always wonderful to be in a place that supports what you are doing, emotionally. The history, the atmosphere seeps through its walls, it’s in the floorboards, in the plaster, in the old photographs. It was all there. No set designer could have created all that. All of that, was like the third person in the room, if you like. An important element of the film was the location.”
With a son contemplating a move into the pro ranks, Cosmo explained his rationale as to why future generations of kids should walk through the doors of Repton. “That’s a big ask for any young man to say, ‘I’m going to go to Repton,’ or any boxing club, because it’s scary. There’s men in there who practice violence upon you. That’s what it’s all about. You’re not going to go to a boxing club and come out feeling fresh and exhilarated. You’re going to go through an experience with someone that’s going to hurt you. There’s no doubt that. However, that creates character on an exponential path and boys suddenly realise that potential they may have within themselves. To be greater than they ever thought they could be and that’s the most tremendous thing. Those trainers at Repton and everywhere else are just taking the boys through the pads, or doing the circuits and they’re looking at the sparring, but what they are actually doing is making the next generation of men. That’s a tremendous responsibility and thank God those people are still doing it.”
PaulZanon, has written eight books, with almost all of them reaching the No1 Bestselling spot in their respective categories on Amazon. He has co-hosted boxing shows on Talk Sport, been a pundit on London Live, Boxnation and is a regular contributor to Boxing Monthly magazine amongst other publications.