Community: The Boxer
The Apprentice winner, Marnie Swindells is in the biggest fight of her life so far. As she builds her new empire, we caught up with the headstrong championship boxer and businesswoman to understand how community has the power to create real change beyond the sport itself
By Tilly Pearman
When Marnie Swindells won this year’s hit BBC TV series, The Apprentice, it came as no surprise. Her strategic business plan – a middle-market boxing gym intent on prioritising stories over six-packs – offered not only an alternate narrative to an industry dominated by physicality, but it also highlighted an opportunity for boxing to create real change by going beyond the sport itself.
“Sport is a really good way of bringing people together, but it’s almost not about the sport itself”, says the headstrong 28-year-old. “It’s more the idea of everybody connecting for a common love of it. That’s the community. Whether you can throw a jab or a back hand doesn’t actually matter to me. The point is you’re here, and meeting people you wouldn’t otherwise meet.”
Here to sell us feelings, not fitness, Marnie wants to empower minds as much as she does bodies, and it all starts here, at Bronx – her newly opened boxing space, located on a leafy residential street in South-East London, and where we’re meeting for the first time. Serving as a hub for amateurs and professional alike, Bronx is marketed as an inclusive space for people from all walks of life to come together and experience the “magic” of an authentic boxing club. For Marnie this means engaging people just as much outside of the ring, as it does inside it. “I don’t care if someone comes here for two years and doesn’t lose a kilo or improve at boxing. The point is they’re coming, and they’re getting from it whatever they need”, she says, adding, “…that’s one of the beautiful things about boxing; the end goal doesn’t necessarily have to be that you become this world champion fighter. It can take you on so many different routes.”
This couldn’t have been truer than for Marnie herself. She counts numerous encounters born from the boxing community, and credits each to shaping her trajectory from gold-medal winning boxer and award-nominated coach, to professional barrister and now, successful businesswoman. In her opinion, boxing has provided opportunities to a life she never dreamed possible, especially when she considers her childhood.
Marnie grew up on a caravan site, just outside of Manchester, and at just eight years old she lost her father to a tragic accident. Fighting the heavy weight of grief, pain, and anger, this kickstarted a solitary period in her life that she tells me she only now remembers in black and white. “When I think of when my dad was alive and we were on the caravan site, even though we didn’t have a lot of money, my memories are vivid, and they’re in colour. After my dad died, and we moved to a different area, I didn’t ever have a sense of community, or even family really. It was just me and my mum.”
That turning point – when colour would return and she would once again find a sense of ‘belonging’ – came aged seventeen, when Marnie picked up a promotional flyer for Lancaster Boys Youth Club and discovered boxing. “I paid no attention to the gender issue at all, I just erased it”, she says. “For them it was an issue, but I didn’t let it stop me.” Putting on the gloves and pounding those bags for the first time allowed a pent-up, angsty Marnie to experience a much-needed sense of freedom and release. From then on, boxing became the cornerstone to her life. It opened the doors to a brief career in law, helped her to hone skills in leadership, and even led her to meeting her fiancé.
But despite boxing facilitating the opportunities and experiences that can arise from a close-knit community, it’s clear that her unwavering determination and fighting spirit came much earlier. “My upbringing definitely planted the seed for an ambitious future. It showed me everything I didn’t want my future to be like, and so every step I took was an active, intentional step away from that.” As such, the Marnie we see today is barely recognisable from the child we might imagine. And that includes her appearance. Known for her love of glamour it comes as a slight surprise to see that today she’s opted for a more understated, chunky-soled boot to pair with her figure-hugging, cream dress. Still, as expected, her nails are perfectly manicured and her signature blonde hair is cascading perfectly in Hollywood-like waves. Visually, she’s about as far away from stereotype of a female boxer as you can get, but that’s the point. Relishing every opportunity to challenge the perceptions and misconceptions of this sport and industry, Marnie never has, and I imagine never will, change for anyone in order to conform. What she will do however, is knock down barriers, just as she always has.
Currently, she is working on removing the stigma around violence and boxing, especially when it comes to young people. “I can’t tell you enough how I’ve never once, in all my years of boxing, seen a kid come in as a calm kid, and leave angry”, she says. “There’s such a barrier to breakdown between the outside world and boxing but if we can break it down, if people could value boxing, then I think it could be more like football in the UK.”
Her stance for change begins with advocacy; in her eyes boxing belongs to everyone, which is why embracing and delivering a friendly, inclusive atmosphere that encourages people of all ages and abilities has become a fundamental focus for Bronx. You instantly see this from the space itself. Deliberately underdressed, the exposed brick work, raw concrete floors and industrial lighting of this large underground space draws parallels to the more soulful ambience of an original spit-and-sawdust club. Look closer though and you’ll note the warmth of framed family-like portraits featuring Marnie with her ‘crew’, plus a few modern amenities – backlit mirrors, waterfall showers and leather sofas for those all-important locker room chats – ensuring your comfort never goes amiss.
Affordability is also important at Bronx. At £10 a session (£6 if you’re aged 11-17), Marnie wants to lessen any financial barriers. “We’re not going to be able to connect people who are going through a bad state in their life with better opportunities unless we bring in the better opportunities”, she says, adding “…we’re not going to give middle class or professional people a chance to appreciate the power of boxing unless we show the transition that those people go through. It’s so important that all of these people are in the stratosphere of boxing.”
This includes women. Having long been a male-dominated sport, female boxers, like Marnie, have in recent years been breaking down barriers and making their mark in the ring. But just as Marnie ignored the issue of gender back when she found boxing in a boys’ youth club, today she continues to believe that this is the attitude needed in order to take women further. “I’m not trying to take on the boxing world as a woman, I’m trying to take it on as Marnie. I think if we adopted that stance a bit more as not ‘women’ in sport, but just ‘people’ in sport, I think we would progress quicker”, she says. “I’m having some really good conversations with high up people in boxing and the issue of whether I’m a woman isn’t coming up. I think it’s because I’m not even putting that on the table.” That’s not to say she hasn’t encountered challenges in the past. “There have been moments where people have been like, oh, you can’t really train here unless you can train up with the guys. I’ve also had a lot of ‘you must be a lesbian, if you’re into boxing’. But I’ve never allowed an opportunity to not happen because of being a woman. I’ve never let that present such a barrier that it stopped me. I think because I know I’d just kick it down and say f**k you I’m doing it anyway.”
This feisty, indefatigable spirit is, in essence, what underpins Marnie’s perpetual success and what Lord Sugar admired in her when he chose to make her his latest business partner. She is undeniably a natural-born performer, but don’t let this showmanship fool you because Marnie genuinely does care. “This isn’t just some corporate approach to boxing in some city central gym”, she says. “I want to differentiate myself from that because I care about real boxing, I care about community, and I care about the impact of boxing.”
With a heartfelt vision, Marnie is currently focused on plotting out the future of Bronx. She walks me to a backroom space that will soon become a café, and hints to new locations for prospective sites, as well as several community projects (she’s currently working on a scheme to coach Metropolitan Police to deliver boxing at London schools). Is she entering the biggest fight of her life so far? Probably. But beneath the unwavering determination, hard work ethic, and mental fortitude, Marnie is deeply driven because as she routinely says: “I owe my life to boxing”. I would argue that as she continues to knock down barriers of what is considered possible – not just in sport, but in life outside of it – then it’s clear that boxing owes a lot to her too. Be that through the narrative she re-writing, the shared experiences she creating, or the role model she’s becoming, Marnie’s success in and out of the ring serves as a striking example of how sporting communities have the power to create life-changing stories that endure long after the final bell has rung. And surely that’s better than a six-pack.