The signs are there. They always have been. The most eye-catching – ‘Phil Martin Centre’ in black and bold letters on a white background above grey steel shutters that at first glance suggest the place is closed for business. The iconic image of Muhammad Ali standing over a prostrate Sonny Liston adorns the wall with ‘Champs Camp’ and ‘Moss Side’ above and below it.
There is one shutter rolled up beneath another sign announcing, ‘Moss Side Amateur Boxing Club.’ Once buzzed in and up the stairs, the first-floor door opens into a sweltering boxing gym with the ring directly in front. To the right, another door leads into a windowless room with a couple of beaten-up brown leather sofas, bits of memorabilia and discarded boxing kit and equipment strewn about the place. In the corner is a large metal filing cabinet. Trainer Joe Gallagher opens the dented doors and pulls out a VHS video cassette and a frayed A4 notebook.
“This was full of video tapes, about six hundred of them,” he says. “The system was, you pick any tape, this is 393. You then go to this book, you’ll find the tape, and each tape has every fight [listed] on it. You’ve got ABA’s, Commonwealth Games, Olympics, everything. My job was to write them up. That was my education.
“It feels good to be back. You can tell by the energy and the smile on my face!”
Much of the once state-of-the-art gym equipment is now more than 30-years-old, but still in decent working order. The walls are adorned with pictures of the amateur and professional fighters from the 80s and 90s that put Moss Side and Champs Camp on the map.
It is a place that was built by fighter-turned-trainer Phil Martin. A man ahead of his time, he created a gym that would provide the disaffected youth of Moss Side with a purpose. This, all shortly after the 1981 riots that had further condemned this most disadvantaged of wards.
Boxing was the hook, but opportunity was the key to Martin’s work. Along with creating a feared amateur team, then British and European champions, he implemented training schemes for local unemployed people. A true visionary. His story is told in Jim Bentley’s brilliant BT Sport documentary ‘M14 – A Moss Side Story’.
A prominent contributor to that film is Gallagher who boxed for Moss Side ABC in the mid 80s before beginning his vocation as a coach under Martin’s guidance. By the time 1991 came around, with the backing of his mentor, Joe was in charge of the amateurs. His first national schoolboy champion – Levi Tute – came to prominence two years later.
So, it is back to where it all began for Gallagher, who has recently moved his busy stable of pro fighters from Bolton to his spiritual home in Manchester.
“In my opinion, we’ve got the best professional boxing stable in the country. I want to give Manchester the boxing spark. Champs Camp was the best gym in the UK, and it was the most famous gym in Manchester. That’s what we want to continue to do and get Champs Camp’s name out there again. It’s the Phil Martin Centre, Champs Camp, Gallagher’s Gym, Moss Side ABC.
“When we were here in the late 80s, there was nowhere open round here. The only place that was open was this. You could tell by all the windows and the lights switched on, everyone used to go past on buses and traffic and see steam on the windows and it was like, ‘what’s going on in there?’ It was a beacon, and we want it to be a beacon now for everyone in the area.”
While Champs Camp has always provided a haven for young amateurs from Moss Side and surrounding areas, the pro side of the gym has lacked a little lustre since the days of Ensley Bingham, Tony Ekubia, Frank Grant, Paul Burke, Carl Thompson, and Maurice Core (now club chairman).
The team ethos from the Martin days is something Gallagher has always tried to implement with his own pro stable. Now back in Moss Side, he intends to introduce the old squad colours too.
“It was known as the UK Kronk years ago. The gold shorts have been ordered; the fighters will be fighting in gold. It’s great. I’m sure Phil would be very proud.”
Along with the change of setting, there has been a few recent notable additions to Gallagher’s team of fighters. It is an ever-evolving squad list as fighter’s leave or retire – most recently Callum Johnson – and new blood comes in. Jack Massey, Josh Holmes and Jake Dodd have recently joined a set-up that includes unified world champion Natasha Jonas, former world titlists Paul Butler and Charlie Edwards, British and Commonwealth champion Mark Heffron, seasoned title challengers Hosea Burton and Marcus Morrison along with prospects such as Clark Smith, Callum Thompson and Sian Yaxley.
And not forgetting Macaulay McGowan, a man who is set to challenge English middleweight champion Tyler Denny on May 6. McGowan is from Benchill in Wythenshawe – his father Kevin boxed alongside Gallagher in the amateurs.
“It’s mad. My dad always used to tell me about Joe Gallagher being a great coach. He used to tell me the stories of Champs Camp. It’s mad now that I’m probably going to finish my boxing career here at Champs Camp with Joe Gallagher. After nearly ten years as a professional, I finally feel this is where it’s at.
“He [Joe] is so motivated. I think moving back here was a massive motivation for him. You can see the fire in him being here where it all started. We’re all going to feel the benefit from it. It’s mad. I’m going to feel the benefit from what Phil Martin started, and I never even met the guy.”
A very popular and humourous man, the Denny fight will be ‘Macca’s’ third this year, and for a man who labours on building sites when not training to provide for his young family, his ambitions in the ring have changed irrevocably since joining forces with Gallagher at the end of 2021.
“He’s just fought [Farrhad Saad] on Sky and got done on the decision,” Joe says. “He should’ve won that. His profile’s high and Macaulay’s changed his mindset. I said to him, ‘no-one takes you serious because you’re never seen to be serious. Once you get serious and people see you’re serious, your career will get serious’. He’s back believing he’s a prospect again and he can win titles.”
As ever, Gallagher is working on finding dates for all his fighters. He had hoped his new charge Jack ‘One Smack’ Massey, who put in a very admirable (but losing) effort when stepping up from cruiserweight to challenge former heavyweight world champ Joe Parker, would get an immediate opportunity to challenge for a world title in his own division.
“Jack performed really well last time out and I really wanted him to get the Lawrence Okolie fight, but [Chris] Billam-Smith’s got it. In the meantime, we can have a fight or be in the frame for whoever wins that. I think that Jack Massey’s got world class potential, world championship potential.
“Jack’s very happy to be here, Josh Holmes is and Jake Dodd. They’re excelling and enjoying it and I’m really pleased about that. We’ve had champions, we’ve done this, we’ve done that, I just want to make sure that they fulfil their potential.”
Gallagher’s Gym is clearly set to be a busy stable for the foreseeable future. That wasn’t always the plan. After so much success nurturing world champions such as Anthony Crolla and Scott Quigg – both who’ve successfully transitioned into coaching – Joe had always entertained talk that he’d walk away ‘when the current lot are done’. But the wheel keeps turning, the conveyor belt of talent seemingly endless. As Michael Corleone once said…’just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!’
“I thought about it [retirement],” he says with a chuckle. “It was more the case that it’s such a hard sport, not just the training side of it, it’s the management side of it. There’s ups and downs and fall-outs. It can be very emotional – it drives you round the bend. You do have your lows. I treat my fighters as though they’re my kids. You want the best for them, the best paydays, and the best opportunities. It can be exhausting. There’ve been times when I felt like, ‘do you know what, after this week, that’s it!’
“But moving back here now, there’s a lot of new blood in the gym that’s motivating and stimulating the old blood. I’m really pleased about it. I keep saying to everyone, ‘this stable’s going to evolve very quickly. We’ve got people coming to the end of their careers – Callum Johnson’s just retired, Natasha [Jonas] has two or three fights [left]. Butler’s got one or two, Marcus Morrison’s got a couple. The new ones will take over. I’m looking forward to the next chapter – the final chapter!”