Club punching above its weight
WHEN Matt Mason flies out to Sydney to take part in the boxing section of the World Firefighter Games next month he will be accompanied by Neil Parsons.
Matt, part of Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue service's special operations team, says taking the founder of Lympstone Boxing Club to Australia is a deserved reward for all the effort Neil has put into running the club he founded in 1968.
"I'll probably end up regretting it," says Matt, who will be defending the gold medal he earned in South Korea two years ago. "He's going to be a nightmare on the plane."
"You won't see me on the plane," Neil replies. "I'm a VIP – I'll get the first class treatment."
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Despite our slightly strange surroundings – the club is currently in temporary accommodation in an industrial unit which is spacious but, it would be fair to say, could do with a lick of paint – there is a warm atmosphere in which the camaraderie of those present is plain.
"It's always felt like we're one big family," says Matt, who has been part of the club for 20 years and now helps coach the junior section as well as serving as the welfare officer. "Once you've joined this club, you never want to go anywhere else because of the way we look out for one another."
The club originally held its training sessions in Lympstone Village Hall, with Neil aiming to provide a safe place for children and adults to hone their boxing skills.
Since then it has had several homes, including the former Exmouth Comprehensive, before settling at Harding Hall in Exmouth, named in honour of a young boxer who tragically lost his life in a motorcycle accident.
It was after the base suffered severe water damage following a fire that the seeds of a major refurbishment were sown.
"When we were putting things back in order after the fire I started to have some weird and wonderful ideas about what we could do," said Neil.
"Once we found out that there was some funding and grants available, things really got moving."
The success of amateur boxing in the UK, which culminated in medal success at the London Olympics, is proving to be greatly beneficial at a grassroots level. The club was able to secure £48,000 in Lottery funding as well as £9,000 from Sported, as well as £8,000 from the sale of Exeter Airport.
"We've been very lucky but we also had to work hard to get it," said Neil. "You don't get noticed unless you put in the effort.
"With the money we have received we are adding an upper floor to our training facilities so we can have more training bags and fitness equipment, and hopefully build our membership."
And with the success of amateur boxers at the Olympics, it is certainly the right time to make the most of a peak in interest.
"We've just had a number of new juniors join," said Neil, who acts as the club's secretary. "There's also a number of girls joining the club to work with our girls' coach which is great to see."
To many outsiders, boxing is a brutal sport and it is potentially difficult to argue when professional success can often come from knocking an opponent unconscious.
But the level of protection which all of the club's members receive is truly surprising.
Matt said: "We won't let anyone into the ring to spar with an opponent until we feel they are ready, and that will always be after a minimum of three months.
"To start with, we will work on the basic techniques like footwork as well as fitness. A lot of people come along and think they can get straight in the ring, but that's not how we do things. We'll let you know when you are ready, not the other way around."
The club is registered with the Amateur Boxing Association, and both go to great lengths to protect members.
This includes ensuring members always have all the right protection when they do compete, from mouthguards to headgear. Pre and post-bout medicals are required for all amateur boxers each and every time they compete, and prospective boxers must pass a stringent medical assessment before they are able to register with the ABA.
"When you do compete, we'll do what we can to make sure your opponent is well-matched in terms of age, weight and ability," said Matt. "But it's not just about boxing skills. It's about building friendships and confidence, fair play, fitness and motivation, controlling anger and teaching dedication."
In my brief introduction to amateur boxing, I skip (badly – my feet and my brain don't appear to be well-acquainted), then get introduced to the basics of the left jab and a one-two combination.
"We'll always come back to the jab and the one-two time and time again," said Matt. "Some boxers want to come in throwing uppercuts and hooks, but the jab and the one-two could be all you need to win a bout. People can get frustrated when we keep revisiting the same thing but what we are teaching you is the fundamentals and control.
"The more you practice and get conditioned, the better prepared you will be when you do get hit. It's going to happen and, when you are ready to fight, the training we provide will help you learn how to take a heavy punch.
"In competition, the referee will always step in and give you a standing eight-count to make sure you are OK to continue."
Boxing also appears to be one of the cheapest sports to get involved in.
The club will help all newcomers out with kit and for only a small fee, members have access to array of fitness equipment, coaches often providing one-on-one tuition, and a ring.
"And when it comes to buying your own gear, that won't cost too much either," said Matt. "I've been using the same gloves for 20 years." The opening of the club's revamped home next month will be another major step for the "little club from Lympstone" which has had the late, great Henry Cooper as its president in the past with Frank Maloney currently occupying that position. "I'm very proud of what we do and proud of everyone here," said Neil.
"I wanted to share my love of boxing with the community and that's what we are continuing to do."
Anyone who wants to find out more about the club can contact Neil on 07882 826566 or visit lympstoneboxing.webs.com The club will accept juniors from the age of eight, although you must be 11 to compete. Seniors training takes place on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6.30pm and juniors train on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the same time. The club's temporary home can be found at Unit 4 Swift Units, Pound Lane Industrial Estate, Exmouth. Anyone who wants to sponsor the club or is willing to donate items from sound equipment to bottles of wine for raffles, which form part of the club's extensive fundraising programme, can also contact Neil. Next week, the focus will turn to diving. If you are part of a club that would like to feature in the Echo, get in touch on 01392 442241 or email firstname.lastname@example.org