How boxing can help break the cycle of crime
The potential of boxing to prevent crime and violence and turn lives around is being under-exploited within the criminal justice sector.
That’s the view of many within the sport who have seen countless complex and challenging individuals access positive peer groups and role models through boxing, as well as finding structure, discipline, physical fitness, resilience and support at their community gym.
Pro fighter Joseph Maphosa, Ambassador for the Alliance of Sport and the Levelling the Playing Field project, has experienced boxing’s transformative power first-hand.
He and his two brothers arrived in Middlesbrough from Zimbabwe in 2002 and grew up on the town’s under-privileged Park End estate. Joe’s elder brother got involved in gangs and crime and has been in and out of prison regularly. Joe discovered Middlesbrough Amateur Boxing Club and its talismanic coach Tony Whitby. As a result, his life has taken a far more positive path.
“Going to the boxing gym after school every day, it was a great place to be,” said the super-flyweight. “You form friendships and relationships with people you probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. Seeing each other train hard is really motivating. You earn respect. Boxing gyms give people a home. They are places you can feel part of something. It’s an individual sport but you train and learn as part of a team.
“Boxing gives people something positive to focus on. If they’re in the gym, learning a new craft, obeying the rules, showing coaches respect, then they’re learning how to live their lives the correct way. Boxing is a really good tool to put people down the right path in life.”
That’s a view echoed by Marcellus Baz, founder of the Switch Up project in Nottingham which uses boxing as an engagement tool to give young people access to mentoring, counselling, personal development, employability training, volunteering and employment opportunities through a range of partners.
Marcellus’ programme model has been replicated in Denmark, Brazil and Norway. In 2016, he was awarded a British Empire medal by the Queen and named Unsung Hero at BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
“Boxing doesn’t discriminate,” he told a recent meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sport and Physical Activity in the Criminal Justice System. “It is a very effective tool at engaging ‘hard-to-reach’ youth and it builds discipline, self-belief, resilience and commitment. It also gives young people a sense of family – something many have not experienced and could otherwise seek within gang culture.”
Paddy Benson, manager of the Pat Benson Boxing Academy in Digbeth, Birmingham, also feels boxing is an effective and attractive alternative to the temptations of gang culture for young people.
“I genuinely believe the boxing environment gives young people a sense of identity and belonging,” he says. “That’s something a high percentage of young people who join gangs have lacked in their lives; maybe they grew up in care, didn’t have any real purpose or strong parental figures who showed them how to do well in school or in a career.
“Gang culture provides them with that purpose and identity in a negative way, but boxing can be the positive alternative. They feel part of something and can walk down the high street with their boxing club tracksuit on, full of pride.”
Paddy feels that boxing’s discipline and sense of community are attractive for young people whose lives have been dysfunctional, disordered or traumatic.
“You want what you’ve never had,” asserts Paddy. “Young people from really tough backgrounds have far higher level of mental health and psychological problems because of the environment they’ve grown up in. Subconsciously, they crave nurturing, routine, rules, purpose and identity and they find all those things in a boxing gym. It’s a cement that binds young people together.”
Paddy also highlights the sense of inclusion and equality within the environment, with high ethnic diversity and no racism or bigotry. “Egos and personalities are left at the door,” he says. “I’ve never seen another sport like it for bringing in people from so many different backgrounds.”
Once the ‘hook’ of boxing has worked its magic as a highly effective engagement tool, Pat Benson Academy has systems in place for young people to progress to apprenticeships, education or employment and be referred on to mental health and other support services.
Whilst there are many more examples of boxing’s power as a diversionary and preventative activity in the community, its effectiveness as a tool for rehabilitation is currently limited as the sport is banned within the secure estate.
Bevis Allen, London Club Support Officer at England Boxing, is trying to change that through the organisation’s Clink to Club programme.
“Boxing is one of the few sports where nobody asks questions,” says Bevis. “If you’ve just come out from a five-year stretch, no-one really bats an eyelid about what you have done before. If you announced that at a tennis club, you might not get the same response!
“People coming out of prison are desperate for a sense of belonging and community with new friends to support them. Boxing clubs offer them that. Coaches take up that parental role and really support their transition into the outside world, giving them a sense of purpose. These factors are all massive in ensuring the best possible conditions for preventing them reverting to crime and ending up back inside.”
Alliance of Sport CEO James Mapstone says those custody-community links are absolutely vital to break the cycle of re-offending. He commented: “I have seen with my own eyes what a potent force for rehabilitation boxing can be. Being able to ignite a love of boxing in custody, which is followed by healthier more positive habits after release within the supportive environment of a boxing club, would be an ideal combination. The sport builds the resilience, confidence and purpose which underpin a crime-free life.”