May 19, 2021

‘We all just want to get the boxing gym doors open again and start helping again’

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‘A lot of people need this boxing gym. I had to stay in touch with some; I knew that they were in danger of going on the warpath.’ James Cook speaks to Steve Bunce

THEY locked the doors on a thousand gyms a year ago and boxing’s waiting game started. It’s been a long round. In a part of Hackney in east London, where any gym is a refuge, James Cook has been holding the key to the lock for too long. Nobody will ever know how much harm and damage was done when the shutters came down, the padlocks went on and the lights went out in all the boxing gyms across the country.

“I’m back in the club now cleaning and getting it ready,” Cook told me last week. “We all just want to get the doors open again and start helping again.” The Pedro club wants to open in April and it is more than just a boxing gym.]

“There are lot of mental health issues out there and a lot of killing and stabbing on the streets,” Cook said. “People have had nowhere to go and that is a danger. This is a safe place for them. In my opinion the streets have been worse since the Lockdown.” Cook got his MBE because of his work with young people in a part of London once dubbed “murder mile.”

The Pedro club is not unique, far from it, but Cook’s boxing history and his absolute refusal to chase fame and fortune make it a special place. Cook’s boxing credentials are also impeccable.

He turned professional after boxing for East Lane, now a long, lost club from South London. He was the opponent, the travelling fighter, the short-notice man, fighting avoided boxers; Cook was also hard. He spent some time at the Colvestone gym, a close to mythical outpost, packed with elite, neglected, delusional and real fighting men. It was run by Harry Griver, a taxi driver. Cook put in the hard and anonymous rounds with Dennis Andries and other Griver fighters and those are rounds that make a boxer something that his record fails to show.

On a Tuesday night at Wembley in 1986, Cook entered the ring to fight unbeaten Michael Watson; Cook had lost his last three, stopped twice on the road and his record was nine wins and five defeats. Cook beat Watson on points and it never helped his career.

In 1988, Cook lost a British middleweight title fight to Herol Graham – a lot of people lost to Herol, he was close to untouchable at the time. In 1990 Cook won the British super-middleweight title and in 1991 added the European version when he beat the Frenchman Pierre-Frank Winterstein in Paris, a stoppage in the 12th round; Winterstein had lost just once in 52 fights. Cook was not meant to win.

After five more British or European title fights, Cook walked away from boxing in 1994. He never got near Nigel Benn or Chris Eubank. He went to conferences to challenge the pair, tried pushing for a fight, but was just ignored. The risk v reward with Cook never made sense, that’s the truth.
“It happens, it’s the way boxing works,” Cook said. “I guess my managers never had the power; I had four, I call them the good, the bad, the ugly and the terrible.”

Cook fought on the road and was ripped off, not paid what he was promised, not paid what he deserved by men that knew better. It’s a tiny boxing miracle that he even got anywhere near a British title. There are a few miracles in Cook’s life and times.

The Pedro club had nearly closed down a few times before Lockdown last year. Cook is part of the long-term survival of the place, a guardian of the streets, which is the name of his book. Never be fooled by James Cook’s politeness, manners and calm. He works in an unholy place day after day and that makes him very tough. And he can fight.

“It was hard to close the doors a year ago,” Cook said. “A lot of people needed this place – it was safe for them and they were safe here. I have stayed in touch with some, I had to; I knew that they were in danger of going on the warpath. I spoke to them, met with them and talked. That helps, that’s something.”

I have heard the same story from others at amateur and professional gyms from all over – they know the most vulnerable, the most dangerous and the fighter most likely to never return.

It is hard to find a category for the work that boxing trainers and other people at gyms have done over the last year. What do you call a man who waits in the dark and the rain, near a bad corner somewhere, because he knows he will see one of his fighters; he knows he will grab five minutes, five minutes that might save a soul. What do you call that man?

“There are no safe places for them to go. They have nowhere. It’s the corner, it’s the street and it’s dangerous. What can I do? They needed this place open,” Cook said. “I speak to people and I realise just how much people need us to be open – all ages, not just the young. When we opened up again for a short time last year, one of the first in was a 73-year-old woman – the fitness helps her. She needs it.”

If a toilet floods at the Pedro and Cook needs a grand to fix it, and the funds are low, he reaches out and somebody in the boxing world finds that money. That is not even old-school, that belongs to a boxing land that time forgot. A fight-trade handout to keep the gym open, an inch of tenners in an envelope. His MBE is just one part of his recognition, the rest is hard-earned from the ring and the streets: Cook has universal respect and might just be the most-liked fighter I know.

James Cook is a relic, sure, a fighting relic in a hidden away and ignored outpost, doing his best every day to make sure that less blood is left on the streets. The boxing story is just a small part of his story. He will get those doors open again.

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