A BOXING ring squeezed into the corner of a former corner shop is not the most likely of breeding ground for champions.
But then again Millennium Boxing Club have always been punching above their weight.
James Hilton started the Stranraer group when he moved to the town in 2002 in the store room of a former supermarket, now the Millennium Centre.
“It was dark and horrible but we had some good times,” explained James. “We were in there for about 10 years, it was long winters.
“At the time it was used as a store room. I used to have to move everything out after my work, tables and all that. I had to put all the bags up, clip them all down again after and wash the floor. We didn’t have anything but over the years we have picked up equipment.”
The club was at an industrial estate for a few years, but is now back in the town on Belmont Road.
From their new base the group has started to attract the new generation.
Connor McCurdy lives near the club and, less than a year after walking through the door, is travelling to bouts across the country. The 16-year-old jokes it is probably keeping him out of trouble.
He said: “I like exercising and taking care of my body, this was just another way to do that. It’s more disciplined here though. I started off as a boy and just fell in love with it. It keeps my body fit and my mind mentally focused.”
There is not much room in Millennium’s makeshift boxing gym. Less than two metres separates the ring from the wall and weights sit in a sideroom.
Flags hang from the walls and there are photographs, gloves and medals from the club’s protégés, including former professional Paul Allison.
Charlie McMillan sparred with the Stranraer boxer and after three years is now Novice Scottish Champion.
“Paul’s why I got into it,” Charlie said. “It was just something to do to start with. I had never tried it before and I liked it straight away. It gives you a sense of achievement and goals to get. The next target is the Scottish Intermediate Championships. That’s what I’m going for now.”
Darren Clark has been going, on and off, since the club was formed.
The 23-year-old was “pumped”, by his own admission, in a bout last year but insists the knocks are just part of the sport.
“It gives you drive,” Darren said. “I like the idea of it. It keeps you fit and ready for anything. I think of it like an addiction. Once you have started, you start to miss it and it keeps you coming back.”
During sessions the boxers keep their eyes focused on the punch bags as they hit them again and again.
They take turns sparring in the ring with the coaches to build up their agility.
There is a picture of James’ former coach on the wall but he started the club with no experience of training others.
He said: “I had never coached before. I just showed people what I know. I have been a coach for 15 years now and I am still producing champions and competitive boxers. That’s what it’s all about.
“First of all we give them discipline. The coaches are the boss. When they come in they know there is no back chat. For me it’s all about discipline, confidence and self respect. It’s maybe only contact sports that can give you that.
“When you play football the rewards are divided by 11, in boxing it is multiplied 11 because it all comes down to the individual.”
Down in Whithorn, the Bravehearts have also been doing their fair share of producing individual champions – British, Scottish and
District champions and they appear to have developed a recipe for success.
The amateur boxing club has become a household name on the national circuit, with local fighters competing at competitions across the country throughout the year.
The success of their young members at such events has undoubtedly put the Bravehearts – and their hometown – on the map.
National recognition is satisfying for the club’s founders, Tom Jolly and Wullie Martin, but their initial goal still remains their greatest motivation. The duo, who both boxed locally during their own amateur careers, set about forming the club as they were desperate to give something back to their community.
Tom said: “There was very little for the youngsters in this area to do, especially during the week. We set up the Bravehearts to provide new opportunities, to allow people of all ages to get out the house and into the gym.”
There was certainly a demand for it, with more than 100 people turning up to the first open night. Numbers soon settled down to a more manageable level once the coaches laid out what was required to achieve success.
“A few were scared off by the thought of getting out of bed early every morning to go for a run,” said Connal McDonald, the 18-year-old boxing starlet from Kirkinner, who has been an ever-present at the club since that first evening.
A fan of boxing at the time, the then nine-year-old went along to the open event with his best friend and fell in love with the sport.
His in-ring potential became clear very early and within two years he was deemed ready to take on his first bout.
“I was sick with nerves,” said Connal, recalling the build-up to his first fight. “But as soon as I stepped into the ring the nerves disappeared and a sense of calm came over. I was focussed entirely on my opponent and what I had to do to beat him.”
Victory was secured in his debut bout, giving Connal the belief that he could go further. Since then he was gone on to win Scottish and British heavyweight titles at youth level, on top of representing his country at various events, including the Youth World Championships.
The teenager made the step-up to the senior ranks look easy earlier this year by claiming silver at the Scottish Boxing Championships, his first adult competition.
His honours list is even more impressive when one considers the modest conditions in which the Bravehearts train. They have access to some facilities at Whithorn Town Hall but no form of equipment can replace good old fashioned hard work.
Connal said: “We might not have the facilities that are available in the city but we do have plenty of big hills to run up and down. There is a great work ethic and team spirit at the club and that is the most important thing.”
Tyler Jolly is another rising star that has developed extraordinary skills from humble beginnings. The 15-year-old has represented his country at various international events and even captained them in a competition against England.
A native to Whithorn, Tyler is proud of his hometown and his hometown is certainly proud of him. He receives huge support from the community before every bout and was even nominated by local residents to be a baton bearer during the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games last year in recognition of his in-ring achievements.
Tyler said: “I want to put Whithorn on the map. Everybody has been really supportive of me and I want to pay them back. Growing up I was always a big boxing fan so to have the chance to train locally from a young age has been great.”
Both Tyler and Connal credited Tom and Wullie as their mentors, helping them turn their potential into results.
The Whithorn boxing club provides youngsters with social benefits as well as the physical ones that are clear to see.
“It has made me a better person,” Connal said. “I was never too cheeky as a child but training and dedicating yourself to the sport teaches you discipline and respect.”
One of the biggest bonuses for boxers has been the chance to see different parts of the world through their sport. Bravehearts fighters have competed in countries across Europe, something that Tom is very proud of.
He said: “Through the Bravehearts, local youngsters have been able to see parts of the world they would never have been able to.”
Despite their globe-trotting, however, it is at home where they have made the biggest impact. The club has been a shining light for the town and surrounding area during a time when the world seems to be conspiring against them during a process of centralisation. Fittingly, it is the boxers that are fighting back, reminding people across the country that Whithorn is alive and well.
And in return the local community has offered their full support, especially during the annual homecoming show when they turn up in huge numbers to support their club.
Connal said: “Everyone looks forward to Whithorn Show, it is known across the country for the atmosphere generated inside the hall during fight night. Everywhere you go people know about Whithorn Show. I have never experienced support like it in my life. You feel like welling up it is that intense.”
Tyler added: “There is no better feeling than walking out to your song with a home crowd chanting your name. It’s the dream come true.”
For the Bravehearts founders, their wildest dreams have already been surpassed.
First published spring 2015 (Issue 3)