05 May 2008 – by Cormac Campbell
When most people think about punching politicians, the image of burly Labour MP John Prescott schooling an egg throwing protester undoubtedly springs to mind.
Prescott had boxed in his youth, something which was ably illustrated as his piston-like double-jab crashed into his dumbstruck assailants chops with accuracy and speed. However, there is a prominent politician much closer to home whose ability in the boxing ring could have seen him campaign in the professional ring, rather than political arena.
That former Belfast Lord Mayor Alec Maskey spent much of his youth in Gerry Storeys Holy Family boxing club shouldnt come as much of a surprise. His bloodline, both on his mother and fathers sides, is steeped in boxing participation and fanaticism.
Born in 1950s Belfast, Maskey, now a Sinn Fein MLA for the south quadrant of the boxing crazed city, grew up witnessing the worst that The Troubles had to offer. In the 1970s he enjoyed two stints at Her Majestys Pleasure as a result of the British Governments internment policy.
However, perhaps what defined Maskeys youth was his achievements in the boxing ring. Whilst amassing a more than credible 71-4 record, the young Maskey built a solid reputation in a career, which yielded Ulster as well as Down and Connor titles.
I boxed up and down the country so there are a lot of good memories, he told irish-boxing.com over the phone. I won a number of Ulster and Down and Connor Championships and got boxer of the year on one particular occasion.
Asides from glory within the ring, the boxing gyms of Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole enabled hundreds if not thousands of young men, both Catholic and Protestant, an opportunity to stay off the streets, shielded from some of the riots, shootings and bombings that were tearing apart their communities. This is something Maskey appears thankful for.
Sectarianism was always pooh-poohed in boxing. It was just something that you just didnt do. I boxed out of Holy Family. It was a great club with a great record of champions. I dont look back with rose tinted glasses, but it was just an understated thing and during the conflict people like Gerry Storey did a lot of work and so did others and I think boxing does to this day.
That boxing can effectively save young men is not in question and although circumstances in the ghettos of East LA are somewhat different to the working class estates of West Belfast, Maskey believes what boxing offers, is universal.
I felt, as a youngster, the sport instilled values in you. When I was growing up you were taught to defend yourself, to stand up for yourself and to look after yourself. You were taught to respect your opponents. You touch gloves at the start and the end, so you are taught a lot of respect.
This prepares you for the world outside. It teaches you to walk away, not to fight on the street as you have been trained and not to become a bully. You had to work hard to achieve anything. It is about sacrifice, you have to give up a lot and work hard.
It gets you off the street and gives you a healthy outlook on life. I dont think you could overstate those values.
However, the horrendous injuries suffered by Michael Watson and Gerald McClellan in the 1990s highlighted that although boxing can improve lives, it can also do much to destroy them. Undoubtedly much has been done in the meantime to rebuild the sports reputation, but since boxing remains politically incorrect in many eyes, this is a fight that Maskey believes will take time to win.
Over the years parents have been concerned about safety for their children. It is a contact sport, and of course it can be dangerous at times. But the youngsters are wearing more protective gear and there are stricter regulations for youngsters as regards safety so there are a lot more things that make boxing a good sport for them to become involved with. I think that corner is being turned.
In recent months there has been a growing campaign, backed by the likes of Joe Calzaghe, to get boxing back in to schools. Although keen on the idea, the former St Malachys College student insists that such a move is easier said than done.
I would do anything I could for boxing. Obviously, a lot of schools focus on particular sports. And certainly boxing should be given its fair crack of the whip – the same as the other sports.
It doesnt have to be serious but it isnt a bad thing to add to any schools curriculum. Such lobbying has undoubtedly been helped by the success of Irish boxers both amateur and professional in recent times.
I think it has been great the last couple of years, so it is great to see such a renaissance with the likes of Bernard Dunne, Duddy, Andy Lee and McCloskey. There are a lot of names putting boxing back on the map and the amateurs are doing well too with five of them going to the Olympics – I suppose everything goes through peaks and troughs.