Club Focus: Eastside

24 November 2008 – by Steve Wellings

Situated in the heart of east Belfast, Eastside ABC is no ordinary gym, providing a safe environment for local kids to keep fit and learn to box while fighting its own battle for much needed home improvements.

“We first came here backin 1998 and look at the state of the place; it’s the worst gym in Ireland!” Jokes head trainer and respected local figure Alan Wilton, known by most as ‘Alio’.

“They say we need places for the kids to go and I know they are on the streets fighting each other. We have got 70 or 80 kids in here on any given night and they aren’t the ones out there fighting, they’re in here training.”

Wilton trains professional fighters’ such as Willie Thompson, Scott Belshaw (since joined up with Brian Lawrence), James Gorman and son Luke, a promising bantamweight, as well as guiding along a series of successful amateur fighters.

The club is old style to say the least, holding a small ring sandwiched in the middle of a former church hall where aspiring boxers of all age, gender and circumstance scuffle for space on the pads and bags.

“This place was lying derelict with kids trying to burn it down and we wanted to find out who owned it, but nobody knew,” continues Wilton. “So we moved in and two or three years passed before someone asked us what we were doing in their hall. It turned out some of it belonged to a firm building new houses and some to the housing executive. We struck a deal and now we hope to get 250,000 funding off the lottery.”

“Our long and short term plan is just the keep the place running and even though it gets you down, you need to cut through the paper work and do it for these wee lads. We were recently turned down for a grant so it’s in the hands of our politicians.”

The strong smell of sweat that accompanies every boxing club lingers in the air but the general mood is upbeat, with newcomers squeezing through the small entrance door each week. “We run in the evenings from 6 o’clock to around 8.30-9pm, about three hours in all. The boxers’ come from local areas or even further afield to train here and we have professional and amateur shows scheduled throughout the year.”

The cramped conditions have produced a bagful of winners, including Ulster & Irish women’s champion Alanna Audley who claimed a European silver medal plus another member of the Wilton clan, Matthew, who holds a string of titles.

“A couple of the girls in here are Irish champions and we have youngsters just turning amateur. Lads from Poland, Latvia and even South Africa mean we get a good mix.”

Administrator Gareth Thompson has been involved with Eastside for three years, since he made the switch from nearby Ledley Hall.

“I moved to Eastside to train and was quickly welcomed to the gym by Alan and found myself doing more and more with them. Helping out with Amateur shows, collecting and erecting rings, writing letters and sponsorship etc. About a year ago we decided to try starting the website and using it to promote the club and the boxers.”

The website grows every week and the Eastside Objective is clear: Our main goal here at Eastside Boxing is to train and mentor anyone that is interested in boxing, be it for fitness or for competition. We currently have some of the best amateur boxers in Ireland training from our gym and many more boxers training hard to become the champions of the future.

As with many gyms around Ireland and beyond, the walls are filled with clippings and fight posters from past and present, a bundle of well used equipment spills out of a locker. Young hopefuls buzz around one another, taking turns to “glove up” or working the pads together. “I hope to turn professional,” one tells me with a smile, “Just like Floyd Mayweather, he’s the best.”

“We keep up with all the necessary regulations and this type of training helps channel their aggression into something positive,” says Wilton, watching on as two rookies engage in a heated sparring session. ‘Remember what I told you, keep those hands up,’ he shouts as one gets backed up into a corner.

With a dedicated group of volunteers who keep the club running smoothly, including former Ledley Hall veteran Herbie Young, Eastside marches on against the odds. “I recently completed my child protection course through the club and hope to go on to work more with the amateur boxers, but at the minute the website and paperwork keeps me fairly busy,” adds Gareth Thompson.

“Eastside is not just a gym, it’s a big family.”

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