How I Fell In Love With Boxing
Model, photographer and writer Laura Bailey discusses her passion for boxing, and how the sport can empower women, strengthen communities and change lives
By Laura Bailey
I first learnt to box 20 years ago – in a converted garage behind a favourite local pub. I was kind of dared by a couple of guys to join their gang, and got hooked. This was my kind of gym, the opposite of ballet and yet still a dance. Raw, real, scruffy, dirty, and I’d never felt so strong. We trained hard. Some cried. Some never came back. But I’d leave the world behind the minute I walked through the doors, totally immersed in the moment, walking taller, adrenaline charged. (There’s also undeniably something very appealing about crashing a traditional boys’ club).
And yes, I’d grown up watching Sylvester Stallone as Rocky and I liked the kit, the rituals, the soundtrack, the cinematic chiaroscuro, the chase and the punch. It all fed into my survivor story, the idea that I still needed to be the toughest girl on the block, despite and beyond the English-rose fantasy construct of my model life. I must have just moved back from New York to London – it was a time of travel and change and decisions and disconnection. I needed a home and that tiny, dingy corner of west London became a solace and a safe place. Some go to therapy. I go boxing. I worked stuff out in there.
Whilst so much of my work was consumed by role play and fancy dress, boxing kept it all real. I relished the layers and edges being stripped away, to pure bone and muscle and sweat. And laughter, too – exhausted, out-of-control giggling. The camaraderie of the banter, the hard knocks, the no excuses, the never giving up. Then there’s the style: the wraps, the gloves, the baggy boyish layers – nothing new or shiny or too show-offy (well, mostly…). And the feeling of being enveloped in the softest hug of hoodie and sweats afterwards, heart pumping, running home. And then I stopped, suddenly blissfully pregnant with my son, Luc, now 16. I dabbled in yoga and Pilates and tried to do as I was told for a while. Life had changed forever, but I still needed to run. I missed the team spirit, the high and the release.
Sport has always been a huge part of my life. As a kid I was an athlete, track and cross-country, and speed still stands me in good stead on the tennis court. It’s in my core and I have always been in training for something, or planning another adventure. A mountain to climb, a river to swim. I like challenges, I’m tough on myself, and I’m competitive, although my daughter is more so, mostly via poker… I thrive on adrenaline, even if I’m belatedly learning the concepts of rest and balance too, but that’s another story. Six or seven years ago, when I was still walking my kids up and down Ladbroke Grove every day to and from school, I’d pass a boxing gym every day, and just got curious and curiouser. There were signs and whispers, but it was disguised in an abandoned car park, industrial grunge. I kind of knew that I’d show up there when I was ready.
Feeling like the shy new girl all over again, I knew straight away I’d found my place. Group classes, which morphed into cherished doubles shared with my friend Alice (a week downloaded in a breathless hour…), mixed and matched with one-to-ones with Pete Liggins, Box Clever boss. I even persuaded the guys to invest in an old battered set of lockers so that I could leave my kit behind and travel light. (I love a locker, only just resisting the desire to decorate and customise it – too many American Brat-Pack movies once upon a time, I guess…). One day we’d push a trainer’s car around the car park (an alternative kind of press-up…) before being broken by sprints. Another, hardcore circuits and working the bags. I understood weights and machines for the first time, only ever having walked on a treadmill in NYC because my best friend did and it gave me a chance to read magazines in motion next to her. The crescendo of four or five rounds in the ring, against the pads, too scared and vain to spar.
But still, I like the drama of the raised stage, the ropes and the bounce. I’d train around work, or sometimes on the way to the school pick-up, arriving sweaty and ragged. I’d miss it when I travelled, and more so when the world shut and slowed down last year. The gym has moved house now and it’s different, on the map with more light and even a coffee machine. The Box Clever car park became iconic and beloved and will be missed, but the heart of the gym are the people – Pete Liggins and his brilliant team, their loyal friends and clients. It’s a community, a family of sorts. Excellent merch, too, by the way. I’ll always be the girl who wants the stickers, the tour tee, and the souvenir. Old habits die hard. My daughter and I still argue about who our favourite Box Clever hoodies actually belong to (what’s mine is hers…).
Local hero and future Olympian, my friend Ramla Ali, for whom Box Clever is a London base camp, understands the power of boxing to change lives and walked the walk further with her Sisters Club, building a safe and private space and time at the gym for girls-only sessions, specifically targeted to give Muslim – and all – women a chance to box, for free – a response to her own experience of having to hide and defend her passion. It’s “self-defence. not boxercise,” says Ramla, who grew her passion project via Zoom over lockdown, a time when vulnerability to domestic abuse intensified, and her girl gang relied upon her more than ever.
Box Clever has inspired a devoted following, and is really just beginning in its new incarnation, but it’s a booming business on the side for Pete Liggins. A community leader and mentor, he has coached at sister gym Dale Youth for eight years, focusing on junior boxing whilst also helping to run the show. Dale Youth has played a pivotal role within the Notting Dale community for over 60 years, having produced 100-plus national champions whilst also providing services for thousands of young people and adults within the area. Pete says: “I volunteer at the club three evenings a week, working at the real grassroots level of the sport, from absolute beginners to competitive boxers.”
Post the unimaginable tragedy of Grenfell, this sense of service and responsibility heightened. Immediately on the morning after, as my friends and I sleepwalked in shock, rallying friends, Box Clever had already become a resting place for firefighters, inundated with supplies and support.
When the nightmarish aftermath meant Dale Youth had to temporarily close, Pete found ways to keep everything going, to rebuild. The gym was needed more than ever – a community hub as well as a centre of excellence. “My mission is to break down any social and/or economic barriers and provide access to young people from all ethnic groups. I honestly can’t think of anything more rewarding than helping a young person grow in confidence, develop their boxing and social skills, and eventually compete,” he says.
I’ve seen more and more kids boxing at the gym over the last few years. Partly due to the golden reputation of Box Clever, but also perhaps a sign of the emotionally unstable times, the vulnerability of teens, the search for meaningful strength and identity. I know children for whom boxing has helped rebuild their sense of self, but also given a sense of belonging, something worth fighting (living) for. Something that’s theirs.
I understand the emotional pull, but Pete has hard facts and expert experience. “It’s widely acknowledged that boxing can play a pivotal part in a child’s development, improving hand, eye and foot coordination whilst improving fitness and full-body strength. Participation also teaches social skills, boosting confidence and self-esteem, whilst also instilling discipline. With childhood obesity levels rising, boxing also improves the young person’s overall health and nutritional knowledge, inspiring healthier choices.”
A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge concluded that those children who do more physical activity are likely to possess stronger “self-regulation” – to be able to control their behaviour and emotions – at an earlier age, particularly important for children from families who find it harder to access sports clubs or other forms of physical activity outside school.
I do not underestimate the impact of a thriving boxing club in a local community. It’s about more than training, or the next fight. It’s about connection, and potential, and sometimes simply showing up. Maybe making a friend. Maybe finding a mentor. Maybe just getting out of the house and off the streets or the phone. And then the magic happens.