Former British and European super middleweight champion James Cook has been working at the Pedro youth club in Hackney since 1980. The Father of two refuses to hang up his gloves with his ongoing mission of giving the youth of Hackney a fighting chance.
As I get off the bus and step foot into Lower Clapton, I realise why the street is nicknamed ‘Murder Mile.’ Its 4:00 pm on a drizzly November afternoon and the street, the buildings and the sky are all the same shade of grey. The natural geography of the environment is calling out for gang members to not only divide, but also thrive.
Stumpy looking buildings huddle around small courtyards which are littered with dead trees and broken plant pots. All the while groups of grey hoodies cluster together under the shelter of the rain. I can’t really tell if they’re smoking or its just the condensation of their cold breath, it’s two degrees Celsius. Meandering up the street for around ten minutes I watch the same blocks of residential buildings pass by me. Finally, I come across a small convenience store.
Through the smashed window I can make out the prices of the items which are written on cardboard. The woman behind the counter gives me a friendly smile and a wave, although I wouldn’t have thought it at first, this was one of few areas in London where I would receive kindness and warm welcomes from strangers.
I reach the two storey Pedro club which is built below the pavement as if in a trench. As I walk up the metal staircase and through the doors I’m greeted by the rhythms of reggae. The tunnel leading to the gym is covered in posters and framed newspaper articles. A big six-foot two Jamaican man is half punching half dancing to the sound of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds.
About 15 sweaty ten-year-old boys gaze up at him as he instructs the next training circuit to them. One of the boy’s whispers something to his mate and giggles. As James hears this he turns around and the young boy quickly realises his mistake, he tries to cover up his mouth and turn away. ‘What do you think this is, is this a circus thing to you!?’ The boy shakes his head. ‘Ten press ups, now.’ The boy reaches eight press ups before collapsing to the floor, it’s coming to the end of the training session. After a gruelling circuit the boys touch gloves with the 59-year-old former European champion and are called away to eat some sandwiches made by one of the volunteers.
He walks over to me and greets me with a firm handshake and chuckles, ‘Ah! The Nigel Benn fan’. He remembers our phone call. He wraps his arm around me and begins the tour of the gym, pointing out the meaning behind every poster on every wall. ‘He didn’t want to fight me you know, this is me calling him a chicken.’ James is clearly reminiscent of his boxing career.
In his prime he had all the ingredients to be a world champion and peaked at the age of 27 when he beat a young Michael Watson in 1986. Unfortunately, James enjoyed the lavish lifestyle of being European champion and a short spell of inconsistent form lead to him being TKO’d by Herol Graham. He lost his European belt at the age of 29 meaning he would struggle to ever get his shot at a big world title fight.
Nowadays James is totally committed to improving his local area where he has been living for decades. He points out a framed newspaper article from the Telegraph which shows former prime minister David Cameron and his wife at the gym. ‘
When the Olympics were going on they came here promising jobs and legacy and all that.’ He raises his enormous hand and points right at the picture of David Cameron’s smiling face, I notice him scrunch his nose and wrinkle his eyebrows in a mixture of frustration and disgust. ‘They don’t do nothing…they don’t change nothing.’
I watch his expression change to sadness and his eyes are drawn to a young volunteer struggling to carry a mop and bucket up the stairs. He jogs over, grabs the bucket and begins to mop up the spillage at the top of the staircase. As I stare down the dimly lit hallway of framed memories and posters, I can’t help but feel the same frustration and anger. Watching the hunched over 59-year-old former champion therapeutically mopping up his gym floor I decide to ask him some more about the subject of politics.
As he leans against a countertop doing paperwork, I confront him about his thoughts on the growth in London gang culture and rising rates of knife crime. In the year ending March 2018, there were 21,044 disposals given for possession of a knife or offensive weapon. Juveniles between the ages of 10 and 17 were the offenders in 21% of cases. Why aren’t the government addressing this problem? James suddenly becomes very animated. “They’ve got to send people out there that can talk to them. They are walking around these areas with guns now, you know that? But they’re not real shooters, they’re not Clint Eastwood or something like that. They’re just boys, playing around and taking each other’s lives.”
The older group of boxers begin making their way to the gym. A young stocky teenager is the first to come in for the 7:00 pm session, James embraces him and gives him a friendly slap on the back of the head. He carries on, ‘I just tell them you know, you want to learn how to fight? No problem, come learn how to fight. I like to get them in here and have a bit of a sparring session with them, slap them around a bit.’ James was rewarded for his youth work with an MBE in 2007.
We talk more about the importance of discipline and laying foundations for young people. The conversation moves again to the government. ‘These politicians don’t know what it’s like in these streets. They sit in their nice cosy chair in their big fancy office with their nice warm coffee. Then they sit there all day and discuss people. None of them have really come into a bad area.’ James is gesticulating with enforced passion but steadies himself for his last statement. ‘There’s no use coming into this world with all this education and reading all these books, there’s just no use, if you can’t learn the basic foundations of respect and kindness.’ As we are talking a stream of young boxers have been greeting James and making their way down the hallway. The sound of skipping ropes whipping the floor and punching bags getting pummelled slowly builds like a distant orchestra.
We bring the conversation to a close with James stating, ‘To be honest with you, I’m frightened now. I’m frightened for young people. We’ve got to bring back youth clubs, hardened youth clubs. I hate to see people take liberty and I hate to see bullying. I don’t like it. I’m going to be out here maintaining discipline till my final breath.’ He gives me a big smile, ‘And hopefully I’ll still be sharp enough to slip a punch if I have to.’
He gives me another firm handshake and shows his gratefulness for anyone bringing attention to the struggles of his beloved area. He gives me a big hug and then grabs me by the arms, ‘Who’s your favourite boxer now? Is it still Nigel?’ Trying not to wince at his grasp I say, ‘James Cook.’ He bellows a laugh that echoes throughout the whole gym and he walks me to the door with his arm around my shoulder. I say my goodbyes, pull my hood up and give a friendly final wave to the woman in the convenience store.