Holyrood Boxing Gym marks 10th year

Bradley Welsh in his gym. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
Bradley Welsh in his gym. Picture: Andrew O'Brien
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TEN years have not slowed Bradley Welsh. If anything, the decade which has passed since he first opened the Holyrood Boxing Gym – “which is still without showers”, he laughs – seems, if anything, to have made him even more energised.

The bad boy turned good is still as verbally dextrous as he was physically in the ring back in the late 90s as one of Edinburgh’s leading amateur lightweight boxers, and his belief in the sport’s ability to change people’s lives remains undimmed.

It’s certainly changed his. Ever since he opened the doors at Holyrood, thousands of people have taken classes, he’s revolutionised the amateur boxing game in Edinburgh, opened a string of similar boxing gyms throughout Scotland, raised tens of thousands for charity and he even has a Guinness World Record to his name.

Walking around his newest place, Castle Boxing Gym in the heart of the city, he says it’s Europe’s largest boxing gym with seven rings, 170 pieces of equipment and the capacity to have 150 people training at any one time.

He’s also delivered his manifesto on social inclusion through sport, dealt with the evils of the professional game and revealed his own design which he claims will revolutionise community sport, and allow him to “pop up” with a boxing gym anywhere in town.

He talks like a speed train – despite admitting he’s rather hung over after a night in the company of Chris Evans and George Clooney, along with 2000 others at the Scottish Business Awards in the EICC.

“Yes, not much has changed . . . except I’ve been fed by Emma for the last ten years so that’s had an impact,” he laughs, indicating his larger girth at 43 than 33. That’s perhaps the biggest change – he and fiancée Emma have been through a lot; the birth of daughter Eva, now five, and the deaths of his mum and step-dad, and Emma’s dad too.

“All of that makes you stronger together, I think,” he says. “And she’s been with me all the way with all of this.”

He sweeps his arm wide, taking in the refurbished car park tucked away from Spittal Street Lane which now boasts too-many-to-count punch bags, mirrors, ropes and rings.

“So much has changed but it all has Holyrood at it’s heart, where it all started. I can hardly believe it’s been ten years, but so much has happened. There’s a lot to celebrate.”

A party which included a boxing showcase was held to mark the anniversary on Friday, but Bradley reveals that the impending birthday was making him contemplate pulling out of boxing altogether.

“I don’t get paid for any of this,” he says. “We’re a charity, we’re all volunteers, for me to draw a salary would be repugnant. I make money as a consultant in another area and there was a moment I thought I should maybe concentrate more on that, but to be honest this is what I’m passionate about.

“A couple of weeks ago we had kids in here from George Heriot’s and from Gorgie Mills, and for me that’s what HBG represents. Yes, we’re different now as we’re a registered charity and called the Amateur Boxing Association Scotland Ltd, but it’s still the same ethos which started Holyrood, it’s still me and we’re still focusing on kids, getting them fit and giving them a reason to take pride in themselves, and breaking down barriers. Along the way we might find one or two actual boxers but I’m not concerned about that, I’m about getting as many people as possible to see that boxing is the best way to be healthy.”

He adds: “The social exclusion in this city is terrible. Kids in the estates never come into town, so that’s where I’m focused. We’ll be going into Muirhouse, Bingham, the Inch, Oxgangs, Gorgie, Musselburgh, starting with free boxing sessions twice a week with a pop-up gym. I’ve designed an A frame which we can hang four punch bags from and put up in two seconds in any community centre – which we’ll pay for.

“And then at some point we will bring them all together here at the Castle Gym right in the heart of town, so it will expand their horizons too.”

It was boxing which did that for Welsh. He took up the sport aged seven, made a Scottish select team at 13 and became Scottish amateur champion. A brief foray into the pro game made him all too aware that wasn’t for him. “It’s a business not a sport,” he says.

But his past includes shadier activities of which he’s not proud – “but that’s long gone, I’ve moved on way past that” – which saw him serve time in Penninghame Open Prison when he was 20. Inside, he began to box again and realised how it could help kids who were like him.

How then does his charitable boxing organisation with its many gyms – he has some in Glasgow, Perth, Stirling and Falkirk – make its money?

“That’s what the events are all about,” he says. “The amateur bouts at the Usher Hall or in Princes Street Gardens, that’s what funds all of this. They’re the biggest sporting events in the city aside from Hearts and Hibs games.

“And it’s all run by volunteers so there’s no overheads there. What I would like to do which I haven’t managed yet is have a bout on the Castle Esplanade with all the money raised going to the Sick Kids. That would be tremendous.”

What he is most proud of apart from the involvement of so many children over the years, is his Guinness World Record which he landed last year, after a 24-hour bout of “pad work”. He raised £42,500 for charity and even had Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle come along to throw some punches.

He completed 360 three-minute rounds all in memory of his mum Patricia who had died in 2012. “I wanted to do something in her name,” he says. “I think she’d be proud I have a world record for something.”