MK Victors - Amateur Boxing In Milton Keynes
Martin Theobald

Saturdays may famously have been declared as the favoured night of fighting by Elton John, but it turns out Friday nights make a more than suitable substitute. It is a Friday night at the swanky Jury's Inn hotel in Milton Keynes and I find myself on a table ringside in a banqueting suite to appreciate the hardwork put in over endless hours by the coaches at Victors Amateur Boxing Club of Milton Keynes as they celebrate their 10 year anniversary. You can tell the time of year by the table adornments, vases filled with gold and silver festive baubles sit amongst plates of emptied food, each guest getting their nourishment in before a night of fantastic inter club amateur boxing. Later into the night the sparsely populated food plates make way for emptied wine bottles and pint glasses as the crowd make the most of the start of the weekend.

The in ring action starts with two 13 year old boys, each lacing up the gloves competitively for the first time. There is bravery on display by both young lads, not only making their debuts in front of well over 200 people but both showing good chins and heart as the three rounds pass. Both end up with their hands being raised by the referee at the final bell to the agreement of those in attendance. These young boxers will hopefully have got the buzz tonight for competitive fighting and be able to nurture their skills and passion within their respective amateur clubs over the years.

The age increases as the females come out. An awkward southpaw drops her opponent first round, no raucous cheering from the crowd but a respectful quietness as the fighter retakes her feet. It is clear that amateur events bring in a more knowledgeable crowd than mainstream events, tactical guidance coming from the back of the hall is yelled towards the ring. "Get your left foot on the outside". Sound advice against the southpaw fighter but it couldn't be implemented, as the orthodox fighter is given a standing eight count by the referee to regain her composure and by now, dipping legs. She sees it through to the end though to graciously accept the inevitable points defeat.

Much has been made in recent years about the changes to amateur boxing, the elite level World Series of Boxing participants and those we see in the Olympics no longer having the head guards on display. They are still in use here however for those aged under 18, and it is good to see the standing eight count in force after it disappeared from the professional sport a number of years back. The referees during the night use the ability to temporarily halt a fight at their discretion throughout the night, but always with the intention of protecting the fighters safety and ensuring they return home with all faculties intact, a boxer can be their own worst enemy, refusing to accept they may be troubled or in need of assistance, the referees do a brilliant job of making their mind up for them.

The hall starts to get rowdier as the action continues, mid ring exchanges now being met by a more traditional reception of encouragement and loud, inaudible shouting. Members of the crowd raise to their feet to bellow advice, decked in to their MK Victors shirts it's clear who their words are intended for. There are 14 bouts scheduled tonight, of which 7 involve fighters from the home club. There is clear home support for each of them within the venue, friends and family making themselves known mid rounds.

Local knowledge is useful here. "Watch this guy box, he's ninja" Matt from MK Victors exclaims. The referee is forced to restart the bout after the opening bell as the young local looks to rush from his corner. Ninja skills may need refining but he displays far better during the bout and makes his opponent take a standing eight count early on. In the meantime the Milton Keynes fighter laps up the local crowd support, turning to those he is familiar with in the crowd and exchanging words. The referee delays the second round, not this time for encroachment but to blow his nose to the delight of the cheering crowd. The fight doesn't last much longer as the local boxer takes out his weary opponent with less ninja, more assassin skill. Impressive hand speed and heart as he bows to all four corners post fight, taking in the admiration for the skills he has displayed.

There is a special guest here tonight who I am lucky enough to share a table with; English, Commonwealth and European bantamweight champion Ross 'The Boss' Burkinshaw. The first man to carry a professional boxing licence whilst still a member of the armed forces, it is a military link that brings him down from Sheffield as he tell me about his old army coach being involved in the nights proceedings. It is a nice touch to have someone who has achieved so much in the professional sport make an appearance supporting grass roots boxing. Decked out in full black tie and dinner suit, Ross is the consummate professional through the evening, happily having his photo taken with fans and boxers alike. He has brought with him his three belts, which I replace on a seat as they are shuffled to the floor. There is a humility to Ross, no ego displayed and happy to allow his prized possessions to rest on the carpet of the hall. The belts get admiring glances from passers by and even the odd comment from a ringside judge, taking a brief moment to examine and admire the quality of the titles on display.

I ask him if the event harks back to memories of his old amateur and army boxing days, and he recalls stories of when as an eleven year old he was too light to be able to take part in events and resorted to strapping weights into his socks just to be allowed to participate. It was a trick, he tells me, that was picked up from fellow Sheffield fighter Prince Nasseem, who also struggled at a young age to build himself to the requisite weight.

Winners and losers from previous bouts start to make their way back into the crowd now, some recalling the shots that got their hands raised and others happy with their performances and already looking forward to another shot at getting the win. One Previous victor stands in the crowd, offering his advice. "Double jab, right hook". It worked for him earlier and now he's happy to pass on his words of wisdom.

The MC for the night interrupts the minute break between rounds to pass on thanks to the impressive list of sponsors as he walks around the tables, giving credit to those supporting the event. He has a busy job for the night; ring introductions, sponsor appreciation and an auction with some outstanding prizes on offer. A Harry Kane signed photo proves eminently more popular than West Ham defender James Tomkins, raising over the £200 mark. The amount is bettered by a signed glove from heavyweight prospect Anthony Joshua which sails over £300. Pleasingly as a Spurs supporter, the Alexis Sanchez photo fails to reach the landmark set by Harry Kane. The main item of the evening though is a Lonsdale belt. It is displayed in the ring in all of its hand crafted beauty, each belt a unique item created for the holder. The auction reaches £1,000 which will help go some way to the upkeep of the boxing club everyone is here to support. It's a lot to pay to display such a trinket on the shelves at home, but in the grand scheme it's also the far easier way to get your hands on the belt.

In the interval those who have fought, as well as young and old in attendance pose with Ross and his belts. Inspiring a younger generation, the fighters carry their own dreams of taking the belts to the ring one day. Ross is amicable and spends time talking to those who wish to gain his knowledge and experience as the fighters vicariously soak up the success of the man who has travelled down the M1 to be here tonight.

I take the opportunity during the pause in action to speak to one of the fighter for MK Victors tonight, a young man who has already had his raised in victory tonight after an impressive stoppage win. Faraz Abid. Abid is a confident young man, the same boxer who took his bow to all corners when finishing his bout tonight. Aged on sixteen he carried himself well, engaging and happy to talk through his background and how he got into boxing via another route from an early age. "I started kickboxing aged six" he tells me. "It was me, my sister and my cousin and by the age of ten I was a black belt with honours. We had a link to Amir Khan, and he inspired me and my cousin to start boxing after a good talk."

The former world champion from Bolton gave both Faraz and his cousin the inspiration but it was an ambition and a goal that was lacking. "I'm so thankful our coach Tony Davis took us on. We had no background in boxing and he gave us so much time. A year later me and my cousin both got medicalled, but I didn't have a goal. I did it as recreation. My cousin had his first fight and people started to recognise him, so I wanted it too. I stopped there, as I didn't have another goal. I had a few fights here and there and entered the ABAs and got knocked out. That made me think I wanted to do it properly, not play games. I started a proper schedule, running swimming the whole lot. I saw improvement in my skills, I started winning. I loved it. My goal then was to get more wins. I've reached the finals of the Home Counties ABA tournament now and a few years back it clicked, I want to be world champion."

It is a lofty ambition for the young man who fights at 57KG. His cousin has been a national finalist in the ABA competition and himself also fought tonight. He displayed some lightning footwork, moving in and out of range swiftly through the fight and claiming a points victory. Before Faraz starts his assault on a world title though there is an outstanding ambition to complete in the amateur sport before contemplating turning over to professional. "I've recently started to dream big I'm 16 now, the Olympics in 2020 is my next goal" he says with the ambition of a fighter who believes big things await him. When we speak Faraz is no longer in boxing attire, but decked out in track suit and baseball cap. The logo on the front gives me a hint of who he may see as an idol, adorned with the image '#TBE'. Although a giveaway, I still have to ask who he looks up to in boxing. 

"Floyd!" He states, referring to the recently retired Mayweather, who modestly referees to himself as The Best Ever (TBE). A questionable statement, although undoubtedly a class fighter, but when watching Faraz his style reminded me more of the Floyd of old, attacking and risk taking who would look for the stoppage. The Floyd that was around when Faraz would have been in Primary School, not GCSE age. "I rep him, his towels, his caps. But Amir as well, he took time out to open his gym up to us." So does he model his style on Mayweather or more Khan? "I had to be the aggressor tonight. He was aggressive, so I had to apply the pressure. Fight fast, stay fast. With Mayweather, you can't copy him. I fought more like Khan."

Abid tells me he has been with MK Victors for six years now and plans to see out his amateur career at the club. He acknowledges the support of those running the club, Tony and Lyn, who are fundamental in nights such as tonight. "To put on shows like these, they want the fighters to have the best experience" says Abid, clearly appreciative and understanding of all the hard work that goes into amateur boxing. I leave him to enjoy the rest of the night and his club mates fights; I hear him throughout applauding, encouraging and offering up advice to others who he hopes can follow in his evenings footsteps.

Once the interval has ended the big boys come out to play. Gone are the head guards, as the over 18s get a taste of what a professional boxing match feels like. "Jab to the body, left hand over the top" shouts an earlier fighter, applauding himself when his advice is put into practice and his gym mate rocks the head of his opponent. Aside from the head guards coming off there is the first visible tattoo on show, another hint that the adults are taking centre stage now. A referee raises an eyebrow when handed a scorecard, clearly seeing a different outcome to one of the three scoring judges. I make my way backstage where fighters prepare physically and mentally. Shadow boxing in the hallway, the opponent is visualised as wrapped hands punch air while coaches oversee and fine tune their charges. The smell of food emanates through the back of the venue where the fighters are nourished, following their appetite building fights. They take the opportunity to rest, rehydrate and consider where they found success during their bouts or areas to build on in training.

The volume level has gone up in the room now, getting louder as a local lad takes some heavy first rounds shots. Ladies in dinner frocks rise from their seats, jumping with support, cheering each glove that lands. Heavy exchanges take place as real class is shown in the ring, both well schooled fighters and a testament to the hard work these amateur clubs put into their fighters. There's talk of wagers to be offered between the table, spice up the few remaining bouts of the night. I don't see money change hands, perhaps more jovial conversation than amateur bookmaking. Barmaids continue to shuffle between tables, showing at times the type of poise and balance that could earn them a place on a future show. Fighters pace the ring as the referee is handed his score cards, still showing the nervous energy that hasn't been used in the fight.

The night ends with more senior bouts, each of them showing a high level of ability. Stiff jabs are landed, but just as many are parried or rolled under. How many of these fighters go on to turn over to professional boxing will be down to their experiences on nights like tonight. Even for those that do, they may be lucky enough to fight in front of bigger crowds but it is unlikely they would be able to take part at a classier event or in front of more knowledgeable fans. Amateur boxing attracts those that know the sport inside out as well as the close friends and family; tonight MK Victors have out on a show worthy of the attendance of an English, Commonwealth and European champion. Ross Burkinshaw and his belts may be the inspiration to the younger ones that Amir khan was to a young Faraz Abid. Only the very elite fighters will ever reach those levels, but for the majority of others they take part for their love of the sport. Nights like tonight are what cultivates that love, long may it continue at clubs like MK Victors.

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