Anthony Joshua gave cash to clubs after reading our report

Anthony Joshua dipped into his own pocket to help cash-strapped boxing clubs during the pandemic after reading our report… and the heavyweight champion is taking Finchley kids under his wing too

  • Joshua has helped out cash-strapped boxing clubs during the pandemic 
  • Few of Britain’s 1,300-odd amateur gyms were flush with cash before Covid hit 
  • Heavyweight champ made a donation to the sport’s amateur governing bodies  
  • He had also taken one of Finchley’s young welterweights, 16, under his wing

Boxing’s underbelly lies stagnant and yet dust still struggles to settle on the blue-and-white bags of Finchley Boxing Club.

Outside, the mist shows little sign of lifting. Inside, Anthony Joshua is hunkering down for another round of house-sitting.

This corner of north London is where the heavyweight champion first laced gloves and where, for much of the past year, he has trained alone.

Anthony Joshua has helped out cash-strapped boxing clubs during the pandemic

With the club’s current crop locked out by coronavirus, it’s up to AJ to keep the lights on.

Last month, after reading Sportsmail’s report from the Repton boxing club in East London, Joshua backed our campaign to save grassroots sport.

He made a donation to the sport’s amateur governing bodies in England, Wales and Scotland; Finchley was given its own slice of the pie, too. Just last week he was one of several fighters to support a Government petition for extra funds for grassroots boxing.

Back in north London, Sean Murphy is doing his bit, too. He coached AJ in those early days and through the fog of Covid, one thing has become clear: a trainer’s most vital corner work happens after the bell has stopped ringing.

Heavyweight champion made a donation to the sport’s amateur governing bodies in England

‘I’ve got a few boys that are really struggling with their mental health,’ says Murphy. ‘They’re just lost without the boxing.’

One has missed its thudding rhythm more than most. ‘He was saying he felt like committing suicide because he couldn’t get to the gym,’ Murphy continues. ‘He’s seeing a doctor and, thankfully, it’s all right but a lot of these kids, they have nothing in their lives — boxing is all they have.’

And these are perilous times for the sport’s beating heart.

Few of Britain’s 1,300-odd amateur gyms were flush with cash even before coronavirus struck; those lucky enough to survive this second wave of misery will count the cost only once the doors creak back open. ‘Some of the kids are going to go somewhere else or do something else,’ Murphy fears.

‘Your teenage years — from 13 to 16, 17 — that’s when you’ve got to try and stay on the straight and narrow.’

He needs no reminding of the reward for keeping them there.

Sean Murphy, who coached Joshua in the early days, is a trainer at Finchley Boxing Club

After all, among those to taste life on both sides of the track is this gym’s most famous son. Twice Joshua’s journey to heavyweight supremacy was nearly derailed. Twice Murphy dragged him back on course.

The teenager had been boxing for only a few weeks when he first disappeared. Murphy talked him round after a chance meeting on a St Albans estate. Second time round the coach was less diplomatic.

‘His mum rang me one day and said, “Sean, can you give Josh a ring because he’s mixing with some people and it’s not going to be good for him”,’ Murphy remembers. ‘I rang him and gave him an earful.’

Now Joshua stands on the cusp of a £200million mega-fight with Tyson Fury. Murphy believes prison was the likely end point of that parallel path.

That’s why he is so concerned. And why AJ, backed by National Lottery funding before winning Olympic gold in 2012, has dipped into his own pocket to help. In less troubled times, he bought Finchley a new minibus and those club-coloured bags. Now he will help refurbish the weights room and possibly fund a new ring. A loan from the council has helped to sustain them, too. It all means that, unlike many clubs, Finchley are not counting their pennies. Instead the damage will be measured in squandered potential and fractured lives. ‘It’s hard because a lot of kids are saying to me, “When do you think we’re going to be boxing?” and I’ve got no idea,’ Murphy says. ‘I don’t even know if we’ll have a season this year.’

It’s an alarming thought. After all, how would he have stopped AJ’s head from turning all those years ago without the lure of boxing? ‘Exactly,’ Murphy says. ‘It could have been different.’

Joshua now stands on the cusp of a £200million mega-fight with British rival Tyson Fury

Last year 77 kids represented Finchley and every week brought more new faces. ‘We turn people away because we just haven’t got the room,’ Murphy says. On those normal weeks, up to 110 aspiring boxers would pass through and Finchley also ran nursery and fitness classes — AJ was among the punters at Murphy’s Keep-Fit sessions as he rebuilt from that June 2019 defeat by Andy Ruiz Jnr. Then in March, the final bell sounded. Around 10 kids took home spare bags — kept under the Finchley ring following AJ’s redesign. Many more could only twiddle thumbs. ‘A lot of the boys phone me on WhatsApp,’ says Murphy. ‘They video call and there are two or three on the line and we just have a catch-up.’

Eventually regulations loosened, allowing for sessions in the local park. But social distancing limited them to running, shadow boxing, skipping and circuits.

‘They were mad to do pad work and sparring,’ Murphy recalls. Two seniors snuck off and succumbed to temptation. ‘They hadn’t sparred for so long they were knocking lumps out of each other!’ Murphy recalls.

What the boxers would do now for the brief spells when they could train indoors — three sessions a night, six days a week, all in Covid-secure bubbles. They were a flicker of normality that made this latest shutdown a particularly painful body blow.

For AJ, too, it means more solitude. He had recently taken one of Finchley’s young welterweights, 16, under his wing.

During the first lockdown, when Murphy spent two weeks helping problem kids in nearby Borehamwood, Joshua spoke to the group over Zoom. And in the minutes after beating Kubrat Pulev last month, he spotted Murphy in the Wembley Arena crowd. ‘I’ll be popping in next week,’ he said.

‘He came in on the Monday and had a little chat with the boxers which was really nice,’ Murphy says. Joshua had flattened Pulev in nine brutal rounds. ‘What did you think?’ he asked them.

So Murphy and his young pretenders offered their two cents.

‘I said a couple of things and he said: “Don’t say that, I’m going to have to work on that now!”’

With this latest lockdown he will do so behind locked doors once more. The ominous question is how many will return to join him?

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