THE challenges are profound. The coronavirus lockdown has pushed clubs to the limits of their reserves. After the public health emergency a likely economic crash is looming and boxing, omitted from a government package for spectator sports, appears to be a forgotten sector. The sport’s social role can all too often be overlooked or discounted. But Empire Fighting Chance is a prime example of the positive effects of using the sport in communities. It can serve as a lesson, perhaps, for other clubs too. The club has grown into a large boxing charity.

The co-founders of the charity, Jamie Sanigar and Martin Bisp, had a decision to make as the first lockdown came in. “Do we close and not offer anything at all to young people?” Jamie Sanigar said. “Straightaway, not an option for us.”

But their organisation had sustained a major loss of income. Their work in schools couldn’t take place and, as with so many charities, the vast majority of their fundraising activity had to be suspended during the pandemic. “I think because we stuck to our mission, a number of funders have supported us. So we did access some Covid funding,” Bisp said. “For us one of the good things is that we did what we thought was the moral thing and actually maybe unusually in boxing we were rewarded for doing the moral thing by the fact that people started supporting us… Because we didn’t stop, because we kept delivering, because we have a good reputation because our work is of a high standard.”

Like everyone in amateur boxing, they haven’t been able to do normal training with padwork [inset] and sparring. But they have been able to maintain some of their key development programmes with non-contact boxing. “We do one we call Training with Champions. It’s a 20 week programme with psychology embedded throughout it. Each week’s named after a champion and what that programme does really is trying to give young people the ability to understand their situation and to build resilience and to basically go back into education or employment,” Bisp explained.

They run a programme for younger children to pre-empt negative behaviours. “They might come from generational joblessness or generational criminality,” Martin said. “We try to get them to think about their careers at that point, so before it becomes too late and they become too entrenched in behaviours or feeling they have to go a certain route. We try to encourage them to look at all options, find out what they enjoy doing and then get them to think about what careers are available in what they enjoy.”

As well as other educational services, they have also pioneered a form of ‘boxing therapy’. “We noticed a while ago, we’d get young people come to us, they wouldn’t access or engage any other service but a number of those people needed more acute psychological support,” he said. “They do the boxing training, during the lulls in activity they start having therapy, then we’ve got a little room in the gym where if they want to sit down afterwards and discuss more they can.”

Other boxing clubs perform similar services and could consider increasing the scale of their programmes, for their own sustainability as well providing that essential support. “Boxing clubs are going to struggle to stay open and I think that’s where lessons from what we’ve done over the years can be learned and is a big part of why we developed our scale,” Jamie Sanigar said.

They are based in Bristol but expanded their operations to Wales and rural areas too. “Seeing how things were in south Wales and the heritage of the sport in south Wales and the deprivation across many of the cities and smaller towns, we felt our programme was right for scale into those areas,” he said. “By developing a scaled programme where we’ve been able to train organisations, youth organisations and potentially boxing clubs across the country we could scale out our programme and that would really be our way of spreading the message of how we’ve become sustainable, how we’ve done it.

“It can be done and then really it’s how far do you want to take it. Martin and I have now created one of the largest boxing charities in the country and we never really envisaged that. We just started with a small after schools class.”

These services are indeed vital. Thousands of young people go through their programmes yet referrals and demand for their services are higher than ever. “The young people Jamie and I are seeing have got much more complex needs than they had before. Lockdown, it appears has exacerbated the have and have nots. It’s harder to access services, unless you pay. Poverty and deprivation have increased and post-furlough I assume will increase again,” Bisp said. “It’s much easier for some of these gangs to recruit young people into doing stuff. So a couple of times actually we worked with the council, we went out to engage young people who were on street corners to try and get them to think about what they were doing, young people who were getting involved in criminal behaviour, knife crime, gangs, drugs, to get them back into school or get them work.”

Their charity can be a kind of model. “Boxing clubs, they’ve got a facility that’s empty a lot of the time in the day, probably just looking within their members there will be skill sets there,” Jamie adds. “Martin and I had to learn this hard way with lots of rejections along the way and lots of learning. It was only through just gritting our teeth and getting on with it, we passed through the rejections to turn them into accepting grant letters.

“We’ve now got that proven model in those areas. [We want] to showcase how we do that and have an offering ready to go. To say look we can do this, we can support growing the sport at a social level.

“You’re always focused on what can improved, what can be done to make change and you just keep driving on.”

“We can make a difference,” Martin said. “We’re actually making a difference and we can make a difference and, even more, we can train other people to make a difference.”