Islington Boxing Club: The Beating Heart of the Community
At the end of a long corridor, as though illuminated through a keyhole, Lenny Hagland can be seen sitting at an enormous desk. It is impossible to enter the Islington Boxing Club (IBC) and avoid his gaze.
If his vista of the club’s open door wasn’t enough, CCTV probes every corner of the IBC, split into around 18 small screens on a monitor above the office door.
“Sometimes I know I’m a hard taskmaster, with others, but I can’t help it. I put in 100%, so I expect it back.”
Search all you like, it is impossible to tell where the club ends and the man begins. Beyond the scratched punching bags, bouncing fluorescent light, linoleum floors, and black-and-white photographs of muscled athletes in the ring, lies only Lenny’s best intentions.
“The way I look at it, if we can keep one kid off the streets – off gang crime, out of the criminal justice system – bearing in mind we have hundreds of kids come through here, if we can just keep one kid out of that system, for one year, that saves the system at least £30,000. That’s just if they lock him up for one year. What about all the legal fees and social workers that have to get involved? That’s not added on,” he says.
The IBC is the spine of its environs. It’s remained unchanged for 40 years – its inception occurred when the Hagland family suffered the loss of Lenny’s sister. Ron Hagland, Lenny’s father, became involved in boxing as an outlet for his grief. It has since become a mainstay for wanderers who require discipline, support and therapy.
“It’s about teaching people life skills, helping them throughout their life to try and make them better people,” Lenny says.
“We’ve dealt with and tried to help them, with the problems they’ve had in life. Tried to steer them, tried to basically just help – see if we can be a father figure or parental figure to them. Some people come from broken homes.”
To maintain this stream of support, Lenny works 60 hours a week, not counting shows and tournaments he attends internationally. He boxed as a young man, and now he coaches.
“I boxed for Young England twice, in the USA and Germany. I done well, I was pleased with my time in boxing.”
This modesty is characteristic of Lenny. He has won two national titles, first in the USA and then in Germany, and turned down offers of boxing professionally. Though he knows he is the subject of this article, he dodges questions about himself as expertly as punches in the ring.
“Professional boxing is a business. You’re there to earn money. If you want to play the sport, you do amateur. If you want to earn money at the sport, you go professional,” He says of why he never did go pro.
He knew he had the skills to do well, but lacked conviction.
“Did I really need it, was I hungry enough?” he asks rhetorically, before shrugging.
Now, Lenny’s role as club chairman, development officer and all-around proprietor has recently come to involve protecting the club from Conservative austerity and gentrification.
Most recently, Lenny has pioneered a programme called ‘Fighting Chance’.
“People who find it hard to get into employment, they come in, do a bit of boxing training, and the guy sits down and tries to find them work. They come from job centres, probation, they’re ex-service people, disabled people. All sorts come, do a bit of training, and they have the advantage of a one-to-one session, to try and get them into work.”
There are no doubts about the IBC’s authenticity, but over decades of hard grafting, did Lenny ever want to bow out?
“No,” he says firmly, without hesitation. “Not seriously. I might have thrown my toys out of the pram, but not seriously. It’s just – it’s my life. It’s my family’s life.”
Lenny’s wife and two children are active patrons and volunteers: his son will inherit the reins in around a decade’s time.
“My dad doesn’t do computers. It was books, pen and paper. I had to take it forward from there. In 10 years’ time someone’s going to have to take it forward from me. I’ll be the old-fashioned one.”
And what will he do when his life no longer orbits the club?
“Try and relax. I don’t know. I might get back into golf,” He laughs.
He hopes to fuel the IBC’s expansion to larger premises before he retires.
“We’re looking at four floors, opening from 7am to 10pm, having different classrooms, while people learn, help with jobs, possibly lettable areas where other partners can come and hire and use. A creche, old people’s bowling, all associated with the community – what they need, but our main focus will be boxing,” he says, with a familiar confidence.
“We are Islington Boxing Club. And that’s how we want to stay.”