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Come to fight, stay to grow
'Once you’ve been in one gym you’ve been in them all but Eric’s was different'
By Jack Walton
In 2005, Charlie Henson was living destitute in Oldham. Sofa-surfing when he was lucky, on the streets when he was not so lucky. He took several deliberate overdoses, but by freak chance survived them. One day his daughter — who he only saw on the rare occasions he was clean — returned home from school crying. “Daddy, why are all the other kids saying my Dad’s a junkie?” she asked.
Sixteen years later, as we chat, he’s pottering around his house sorting out Christmas decorations and looking forward to a few beers with the City game later on. He’s also got his eye on next year, when he will be getting married, aged 53. Aside from his own willpower to get clean, kicking the heroin addiction that decimated his life from late adolescence to mid-thirties, he attributes one other factor as a catalyst in his change. One man he’d grown up with on the Langley estate before their lives forked and took different paths. One man, and his boxing gym.
Charlie’s life reconverged with that of Eric Noi after he’d returned to Oldham following a 12-month rehab programme in Sheffield. The timing was perfect. Eric, an ex-boxer turned research chemist then youth justice board worker, had been hired on a consultancy basis to look into drug and alcohol misuse in Oldham. Heroin was commonplace. The project was branched out by Eric, who eventually set up Oldham Boxing and Personal Development Centre as somewhere ex-addicts could come and use the boxing facilities as a way to keep fit and mentally focused.
Charlie was one of the first through the door. He remembered Eric from the estate; they'd had mutual friends growing up despite being a couple of years apart in age. He started volunteering alongside boxing and Eric eventually became “a personal mentor” of sorts. “It was my aftercare. It’s like learning to walk after addiction,” he says. Charlie went on to help several other people with a similar plight through the gym. In 2010, he won the Pride of Oldham award — beating out fierce competition from Eric himself.
To the untrained eye, Oldham Boxing and Personal Development Club looks exactly how you might expect it to. Housed in a vast red-brick former snooker hall, it’s faintly ramshackle in the manner of most amateur boxing clubs. The air inside is humid – sweat spiced with Lynx and punch bag leather. The reverberations of the bags being struck can be felt through the floor and grunts of exertion echo off the walls. The equipment is impressive, if tiring slightly.
Beneath the spit and sawdust, however, there’s a lot more going on here. “Personal development,” Eric stresses to me, “it’s not just boxing. Personal. Development.” He stresses every syllable of the phrase, Per-son-al-de-vel-op-ment, then says it a third time for good measure. When I ask him what this means, he talks for a while but it takes longer for me to grasp it: Eric’s conception of personal development is a bit hard to pin down. Eventually it clicks: Eric is just as invested in training a person as an individual as he is in training them as a fighter.
Adjacent to the main gym area, there’s a classroom. Several rows of desks are lined up in a room with educational posters and mind maps pinned to the walls. “When you are angry, how do you calm yourself down?” or “discrimination is prejudices put into action.” Courses are offered too – from IT skills to DJing to counselling to reflexology. Eric does some teaching, but others come in as well.
As time went by, the club expanded out from its substance abuse focus and slowly became a hub for anyone in the community. “Personal development applies to everybody,” says Eric, “not just people who have fallen on rough times.” The group have had policemen, barristers and people from all walks of life. They’re all embedded into the ethos, all pulled aside for Eric’s famous pep talks.
Stephen Ferguson is just one of several success stories listed on their website. In 2009, he became a single dad and full-time parent to two children following a separation. With his newfound family situation it was hard to keep up his gardening business and he was generally “feeling quite down on [him]self.” He lived on the Derker estate where the club was originally based and decided to go in on a whim whilst driving past one day.
Stephen soon became a paid volunteer and was taken under Eric’s wing. Within a few years he’d gone from GCSE-less and lost to university-qualified with a BSC in Health and Community studies and then obtaining a PGCE (teaching qualification). He now works at a special educational needs school in Bournemouth. “From nothing, Eric did everything for me, my references, my DBS, helping with qualifications,” he says.
Stephen’s approximation of Eric, not unlike Charlie’s, makes him out to be some kind of local boxing sage, able to see in people what others can’t. “Once you’ve been in one gym, you’ve been in them all but Eric’s was different,” he says. “The focus isn’t just on breeding boxers, it was about helping people to achieve in themselves.” Stephen is now planning to set up a similar project in Bournemouth, with Eric potentially sending down equipment and advice.
‘The twain never actually meet’
Eric’s office occupies roughly the same square footage a cleaning cupboard might, with all the contents of a hoarder’s stash. Scattered papers, memorabilia and cards expressing well wishes are strewn across the desk and walls. When he shows me something on his laptop I notice a casual 18,000 unread emails. “I like to collect things,” he says.
An image of Che Guevara is pinned to a board on the wall and his book collection spans Dickens to Coelho, with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged hiding somewhere in between. He picks it up between thumb and finger as if handling a rotten banana peel and says, with intensity, “know the enemy.”
Eric sees boxing as “the last game of the poor man” in a commodified sporting landscape. Entry to a session is only £2, and you get the sense even that’s probably negotiable. “Most young men from these estates can’t afford to go to the football anymore, like we would when I was younger. It’s become exclusive,” he tells me. “So they come here instead.”
A little later, someone comes bowling into the foyer and starts shadow boxing a vending machine. “Oi, What do you know about Cuba?” Eric enquires. “Best boxers in the world, Eric,” the reply comes back. Eric laughs, perhaps having preferred an answer about the Bay of Pigs or Castro’s medical internationalism, which he proceeds to remind the young boxer of. Lessons like this, delivered ad hoc in and around the sessions, on history, culture, race and “institutions, institutions, institutions” are woven into the teaching methodology.
Eric was one of nine children growing up and his father died when he was two. They moved from Moss Side to the Langley estate when he was young. While his siblings were sucked into the whirlpool of violence and crime that circulated these estates at that time, Eric navigated a different path through boxing. “I knew where I was going,” he says. Boxing gave his life a structure, training three times a week and provided mentors in the form of coaches.
Langley was an overspill estate, populated by those forced out of inner-city homes by slum clearance programmes. Like all estates of its kind, crime was rife and hardship epidemic. I ask if not having boxing in his life would have sent Eric down a very different path. “Without a shadow of a doubt,” he says. “I was an angry kid, lots of energy.” Angry at what? “Injustice, the institutional racism that you confronted. Teachers calling you the N word, that kind of stuff.”
His delivery is blasé, as it is when he tells me about his siblings and their flirtations with violent crime. Not an indifferent kind of blasé, more that what he is telling me isn’t really news. The story of his upbringing was the same as many other upbringings and he cares more to talk about how this can be averted than what’s already been and gone. “In some areas you have to have your street armour on, that’s a fact,” he asserts. “It makes you grow up quicker. I was lucky to have boxing, it allowed me to come through my youth as a more rounded individual.”
I ask Eric if the Oldham of today has moved forwards or backwards from the Oldham of his youth. “Life ain’t like that,” he replies. “We’ve been sold the story of good or bad, win or lose, but life isn’t linear,” he continues, meandering into the abstract. “We’re held together by narratives and stories in a post-modern world.” Someone pokes their head round the door, wanting training instructions. “Get him on the treadmill. 600. Yeah, fast” Eric responds.
In 2019, Nigel Farage delivered a speech at Lock Haven University in America. In it, he deployed Oldham as an example of English racial divides. He said: “I could take you to a town called Oldham in the north of England where literally on one side of the street everybody is white and on the other side of the street everybody is black. The twain never actually meet, there is no assimilation.” Biting back, Eric sent Farage a photo of members of his gym - of various ethnic identities - standing together in a boxing ring.
‘I am a boxer’
The effect Eric has on people is everywhere. Naomi Kalu is jarringly confident for someone a year shy of their 18th birthday. She lectures me on the importance of getting back up when you’re knocked down, gesticulating emphatically at a poster of Muhammad Ali on the canvas. She used to walk 40 minutes to get here and back from her Mum’s home on the Derker estate several times a week, even in the rain or snow. “Every single person in this gym has a story of how they’ve developed. You cannot come here and leave with nothing,” she says.
This year she became a national champion in her age category. Eric accompanied her on the four-hour drive to Banbury and they listened to a psychology audiobook. She has a keen interest in psychology and clearly buys into the notion that the individual has to be trained in the same manner of the athlete. She also writes and performs songs, one of which has earned the praise of poet Benjamin Zephaniah. I ask if she plans to become a boxer. “I am a boxer,” she replies.
Had it not been for Oldham Boxing, Charlie Henson believes he would likely have fallen back into the same patterns of his pre-rehab life. “People said coming back to Oldham was a bad move for me,” he explains. “You can’t say for certain, but the chances are I would have hooked back up with the same associates.” He tells me that a lot of those “associates” (not friends, associates) are no longer with us. “To be honest, I shouldn’t be here too, that’s why every day is like a gift.”
The tentacles of Oldham Boxing have managed to extend to every aspect of Charlie’s life. His upcoming marriage, something he had ruled out entirely, is testament to a newfound capacity to manage and develop relationships. His relationship with his daughter — from whom he was once kept at arm’s length — has blossomed. She wrote her university case study on him. The club even provided financial guidance. “There was a time when every penny I earned went up my arm,” Charlie says, “now I look at my bank account and I don’t even know what to do with it.
“I can thank Eric for that.”