ONE suspects that what fuels Joe Gallagher to carry on these days has less to do with his life-long obsession with boxing and more to do with an ever-increasing awareness of both time and his own mortality.
For as bleak as that may sound, Gallagher will be the first to admit he often finds himself thinking about the number 44, the age at which his mentor, Phil Martin, passed away, and thinking, too, how that number has been recontextualised with the passing of time. Once just the final age of a man he revered so much, it has now, since surpassing that age himself, become a reminder for Gallagher of both of how fortunate he is to still be doing what he loves and how young Phil Martin was when, in 1994, his life was tragically cut short.
It’s the sort of realisation one can only have when they reach a certain age. An age of introspection. An age of perspective. An age of – dare I say it – contentment. Not only that, what tends to happen in cases such as this, when a pupil graduates and has their own success, is that the pupil only truly comes to understand the impact of their mentor when they exceed them; not in achievement, necessarily, but in age and in overall life experience. The moment this then happens, everything changes. The drive and ambition of youth, which had been essential for them in terms of carving a path of their own, is now replaced, almost immediately, by the wisdom of a more mature, contemplative man.
“It was only when I got to the age of 44 that I realised how young I was and how young Phil was when he passed away,” said Gallagher, now 54. “Back then, Carl Thompson had just won the European (cruiserweight) title with Phil and Phil had just done a contract with Frank Warren for some of his fighters. The touchpaper was about to be lit. And then it was cruelly taken away.
“There have been many times when I have said, ‘Once this (fight) is done, I’m done (retired),’ but it’s hard really. I love the sport too much. As my mum would say, ‘Your health’s your wealth,’ and so long as I’ve got my health, I want to carry on doing it. I want to inspire the next generation. I want to carry on the success story of Phil Martin and Champs Camp.”
To this end, Gallagher, some 36 years after boxing out of Moss Side ABC, or Champs Camp, as an amateur, and some 30 years after training his first amateur boxer to a national schoolboys title, has decided to go back. Back to his roots. Back to where it all began. Back to the start.
Typically, of course, the idea of going back in a relationship sense is never advised and rarely ends well, yet here the feeling and expectation is quite different. Here, with Gallagher relocating his entire stable of fighters from their old Bolton gym to Phil Martin’s gym in Moss Side, Manchester, there is not a feeling of him grabbing in the dark for something once lost but instead a belief that the best way for him to move forward is to once again be reminded of why and how he got started.
“This next chapter, or cycle, has re-energised me and stopped me getting stale,” Gallagher admitted. “I don’t want to say I was falling out of love with boxing but I feel re-energised now and more motivated. I have my mojo back. I have a point to prove with a fresh stable of fighters and new surroundings.
“The main motivation for me, though, is to continue the legacy of Champs Camp and Phil Martin. Because the state of boxing in Manchester wouldn’t be what it is now if it wasn’t for Phil Martin. The seeds were being sown back in the late eighties and early nineties and when you have trainers like Oliver Harrison, Haroon Headley, Maurice Core, Billy Graham and myself going on to have the success we have had as coaches, you are seeing the extent of his influence. Then you have the offspring of those trainers going on to become trainers, like Ricky Hatton, Jamie Moore, and so on. It all came from that tree planted by Phil Martin. People need reminding of that, I feel.”
After Martin’s passing in ’94, due to cancer, Gallagher stuck around at Champs Camp for another couple of years before exploring pastures new. In the intervening years he went on to train the Smith brothers – Paul, Stephen, Liam, and Callum – as well as Anthony Crolla and Scott Quigg, and countless others. Champs Camp, meanwhile, after being renamed the Phil Martin Centre, continued producing champions of their own, including Stephen Foster Jnr, whose dad boxed out of the same gym, and Sam Hyde, but in the end became a gym more synonymous with amateur boxers and locals wanting to keep fit than any kind of sustained professional success. This, more than anything, has been a sore point for Gallagher of late, one that became even more painful when he not long ago took part in a BT Sport documentary about boxing in Moss Side (M14: A Moss Side Story).
“When we did that documentary, we realised there were no pros in the gym, even though the gym was once known for being one of the best professional boxing stables in Britain,” Gallagher said. “People were coming up to Maurice (Core, trainer) and saying, ‘Wow, I never knew that (the gym) was there,’ or, ‘I never knew the history of it.’
“Years ago, we used to have canopies on the front of it saying ‘Champs Camp’, or a big picture of (Marvin) Hagler and (Roberto) Duran, and then on the side Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston. But the kids of this generation weren’t really aware of the gym. It’s quite sad really. The gym is always hammered at night time – always full of amateurs and students – but the lack of more general awareness, and the lack of pros there, half touched me.
“From then on, my mind was set really. I wanted to go back there. It was then about picking the right time and right moment. We had some big fights coming up with Natasha (Jonas) and Paul (Butler) but, once I felt there was a lull, we made the move. It just felt right to go back.”
Surrounded now by ghosts of men both still alive and sadly departed, Gallagher has been back in the gym two months and in that time already added to its history with some of his own. On the wall, for instance, he has supplemented images of Carl Thompson, Frank Grant, Paul Burke, Ensley Bingham and Stephen Foster with images of men and women with whom he has also found success. Like the returning girlfriend, or one new and eager to make a good impression, he has wasted no time marking his territory, though never in a way deemed either threatening or controlling. Rather, knowing his place, both in the gym and within its history, everything Gallagher has added to Champs Camp in 2023 has been in the name of tribute and appreciation.
“I’ve seen the champions he had on the wall in the gym and I’ve added to that my champions because that’s all it is: a continuation of Phil’s work,” Gallagher said. “I was asked the other day about Gallagher’s Gym and what is happening to it now. But the thing is, I am Gallagher’s Gym. At the moment Gallagher’s Gym is based at Champs Camp, Moss Side. That’s where Gallagher’s Gym comes from and that’s where it currently is.
“I’ve never been one to forget where I came from and I’ve never been one to forget who gave me the opportunity to start coaching. My success is only ever what Phil Martin allowed my success to be. If he didn’t give me the chance, I wouldn’t have had the success I have enjoyed.”
With their methods and outlook essentially the same, it didn’t require much of an adjustment on Gallagher’s part when he decided he would finally make the return home. As if having just popped to the shops for some milk and bread, by the time he got back, albeit 30 years after setting off, he found everything still in its right place.
“It’s just a case of fitting back in really – it’s like I’ve never been away,” he said. “Already we’ve had Macaulay McGowan, Hosea Burton and Callum Thompson wearing the gold shorts of the gym on fight night. Paul Butler, also, just loves it. He thinks it’s a proper old gym with plenty of history on the walls.”
Gallagher added: “It’s quite funny this has happened at the same time the Kronk (gym) in America is enjoying a reboot. They’ve got their stable up and running again and had a fighter boxing out of that stable at the weekend. Going back to the nineties, of course, there were a lot of comparisons between Champs Camp, Moss Side, and the work Phil Martin was doing, and the work they were doing at the Kronk in Detroit. Champs Camp was the Kronk of the UK at the time. Years later their founders, Emanuel Steward and Phil Martin, both passed away, but their legacy continues and is carried on by many of the people who trained under them.”
It is not mandatory for boxers fighting out of Champs Camp to wear the gold trunks made famous by the disciples of Phil Martin, but many of them are now doing it of their own volition. They perhaps like the colour. They perhaps feel the history. They perhaps like the feeling of being part of something bigger and greater than themselves.
Whatever it is, expect to see more gold trunks being worn by boxers cornered by Joe Gallagher in the coming months and years. Expect, too, more tributes from Gallagher to Phil Martin, whose spectre grows larger and larger with each passing year, both in Gallagher’s life and, he hopes, in the lives of others now at last alerted to the work Martin did in the Moss Side community.
“When I talk about Phil, I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” said Gallagher. “I know I’m not short of a word or two, but I also know there is a purpose and a cause here and I would love to have a statue built in Moss Side in the next couple of years to honour Phil’s legacy. That’s one of the projects we’re working on at Champs Camp.
“At the time he (Martin) was alive, we had Michael Howard, who was the Home Secretary of the Tory party, come to the gym. Then, after Carl (Thompson) won the European (title), we had Colin Moynihan, who was the Minister for Sport, come down.
“That gym has been going for over 40 years and it has never had anyone from the Labour party visit it. But yesterday, because there’s a great buzz in the community again, we finally had three in.
“At night-time it’s absolutely packed with all the kids from the estate and years ago Champs Camp was the only place for local kids to go. There was gun warfare going on in the area and there was nothing for kids to do except go to the gym. It was like a shining beacon or a lighthouse for that area. Everyone came to it and trained there.
“It’s very similar to the Brendan Ingle story. Phil Martin was the same in terms of what he did for his local community. Seventy per cent of the people who came into the gym never boxed, but they used the work ethic they developed there to go on and become painters and decorators and whatever else.”
In truth, although Gallagher has not seen or heard from Phil Martin in almost 30 years, and although he has not trained a boxer in Phil Martin’s gym for that same amount time, to say they have been apart or disconnected would be to undermine how inextricably linked the two men became during the time Martin was alive. Connected, as always, by something far greater than communication, Gallagher has felt Martin’s presence, and indeed pursued it, for many of the long days they have been separated in a physical sense.
“I’ve always gone to his grave before big nights at the (Manchester) Arena,” he revealed. “I would just ask him to look over us and make sure I said the right things in the corner. I just wanted a steer and to feel his presence. I also went to see him last Saturday (May 27), when it was the 29th anniversary of his death. Next year it will be 30. How fast those 30 years have flown.”
And yet, any return home for Gallagher in 2023 is not some desperate attempt to make up for lost time. It is instead motivated by a newfound appreciation for the passing of time and how the passing of time, rather than further separating two individuals, has, in this instance, bound them with a connection even stronger than before.