Jennings Gym is not your average boxing gym. Tucked away on the ground floor of a former cotton spinning mill in Chorley, Lancashire, it looks unassuming enough from the exterior. But as you push open the door and drop down a few steps, it is not a smell or a wave of sweaty heat that hits you, but the sound of song.
Coach Dave Jennings is leaning back on a gym bench, vigorously strumming away on his black acoustic guitar (covered in kid’s stickers) whilst belting out vocals to his self-penned tribute to corned beef hash. His brother and fellow coach Michael is keeping the beat, slapping away on the cajón box drum he is sitting on.
Professional fighters Jack Cullen and Mark Jeffers are warming down after their session, both skipping and smiling at the scene before them. The lyrics - belted out in a voice with more than a hint of George Formby (Google him kids) - include lines like ‘in Yorkshire, they’re famous for their puddins, but you can’t beat a bit of corned beef with a little bit of spud in.’
Performances such as this do not happen every day – more a treat for The Sportsman’s visit – but music has always been a passion for the boxing brothers. Their tastes are an eclectic mix ranging from The Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys to the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays to old skool hip hop and rave. And when both Michael and Dave were active as fighters in the pro and amateur ranks respectively, the opportunity to pursue an alternative path took hold. The result was a punk/indie combo called ‘The Shoks.’
“Our Dave and a few of his mates wanted to start a band and they had no drummer. I said, ‘well I’ll try!’ I’d never played drums before in my life,” Michael says, smiling. “Boxers need timing and rhythm. You’ve got to use all four limbs in different sequence. It’s a hard thing to teach your brain to do, but because of boxing I picked it up pretty quickly.
“I practised, learned how to play, we started doing a few gigs and we got pretty good to be fair. With the local gigs, we got most of the pubs in Chorley packed out.
“I was mates with [former Stone Roses and solo star] Ian Brown. We started doing a few gigs in Manchester, some of the bigger venues, and I was speaking to Ian, and he said we could support his next gig. I was like ‘what?’ He said we could support him, so we did, and we ended up supporting him for most of his gigs all around England. It was class. Proper good times. We were in the band from 2005 until 2011. It was a bit of an escape for me. Something where I could just go and enjoy it and take my mind off boxing.
“There were times where we did some recording in different places. We were offered some recording at Sony, but at the time, I was busy with the boxing, so we didn’t do it. We were pretty popular to be fair. You can still listen to our songs on Bandcamp. Most of our old ones are on there. Some good uns actually.”
In tandem with his musical adventures, Michael was going about his business as a serious campaigner in the welterweight division. He picked up a British title with a first round stoppage against Jimmy Vincent and shortly after claimed the WBU belt after a unanimous decision over Takaloo. The biggest night of his career was to come. While The Shoks did not headline the music industry’s most iconic venues, Jennings the fighter had his name up in lights in the finest of them all when he challenged the great Miguel Cotto at Madison Square Garden in 2009.
“I boxed Takaloo in Cardiff. Joe Calzaghe was top of the bill (against Peter Manfredo) and there was 35,000 people there. Comparing that to Madison Square Garden – different levels altogether. The press conference in New York, there must have been five hundred different press people. It was a massive room. It was like, ‘wow, this is mad!’ It was a massive eye opener. I didn’t know what to expect.”
The fight itself, for the WBO world title, did not go the Brit’s way with Cotto winning by TKO in the fifth round. Hardly a disgrace against a Puerto Rican legend and three-weight world champion. It was a tough but valuable lesson, and an experience Michael now intends to pass on to the next generation.
“I never knew I was going to be a coach, but now my boxing career’s done, everything I did in that is now for this. I don’t want to sound like some philosopher, but everything I’ve learned I’ve got to bring to these kids.
If any of these [fighters] get that chance I can explain that this is what it’s going to be. It’s all good learning.”
As Michael talks, the pro fighters have finished and left for the day except for Mark Jeffers. The 23-year-old super-middleweight prospect (13-0) is a local lad who helps with other elements of the gym’s work. In common with many boxing clubs, the pros train in the mornings with the evenings set aside for the amateurs. The time in between is used to provide vital services for the community. The gym is an off-site provider for children at risk of exclusion from school – a safe haven of enrichment, learning and training. Other vulnerable groups such as people struggling with addictions attend regular sessions. It is work the coaches take just as seriously as plotting the career path of the next champion.
“We try to not just be a boxing gym. We’re a community hub,” Dave explains. “We work with people in recovery from alcohol or drug problems. We work with the authorities and with boxing charities like Maverick Stars Trust to help provide opportunities. We’ve got people with trades who come here to train with the amateurs, so we’ve offered kids apprenticeships. The kids have gone on and done well.”
Providing a vital service to the community is something Jennings Gym has in common with every boxing club. Not many clubs can boast having its own vegetable garden, however. A few hundred yards from the gym is their very own allotment on a patch of land surrounded by green fields.
“Along with boxing, one of the things we like to do is teach the pupils how to cook – hence the idea for an allotment to make the connection with nutrition,” Dave says. “It’s getting the kids understanding where food comes from. It’s just a case of getting healthy food into them. We think outside the box a bit but keep it relevant.
“We’re starting off with basic stuff - onions, carrots, potatoes. We might get a bit more adventurous. But it’s a bit of fun and you never know, one or two may take a keen interest in it. And it’s just a nice place to be.”
It is a bright, dry autumn day as Dave walks around the allotment, pointing at various vegetables and chatting away to Mark Jeffers and another product of the gym, 15year-old England international Jadan Crook. They’re taking it all in, when Dave points at Mark – “he’s one of the kids we couldn’t get any proper food into. It was pasta and red sauce all the time!” Mark smiles and nods his head in agreement.
Music and food aside, Chorley punches above its weight in boxing terms. Twenty-five miles north of Manchester, the former cotton town is possibly best known for Chorley Cakes, or more likely for Chorley FM (coming in your ears) – the Peter Kay invention from comedy series Phoenix Nights.
But it is also home to Jack Catterall who has a chance to become the undisputed world super lightweight boss when he takes on Scotland’s Josh Taylor in December. Other champions such as Matty Askin, Jack Arnfield and Scott Fitzgerald have trained under the guidance of the Jennings brothers. And as Mark Jeffers and Jadan Crook (among others) intend to prove, there is much more to come.
Back in the gym, Michael is getting ready to take some young fighters sparring in Manchester – the city he had to travel to every day to train under the guidance of the legendary Brian Hughes at Collyhurst and Moston ABC.
“I wish I had this [gym] when I was a kid,” he says. “Without blowing my own trumpet, I’ve got experience in the ring and on the coaching side too. I was trained by Brian Hughes and Pat Barrett. Brian at the time was the Godfather of boxing. You pick different things up off different coaches and pad men. When Brian left the gym through illness, I did a stint with Joe Gallagher. I learned things from Joe. You never stop learning in this game. I love to go to different gyms and pick things up.
“And Chorley’s got everything I need. There’s the West Pennine Moors where I used to go running, there’s the nightlife! Well, I don’t know about that, I’ve not been out in a long, long time! But there are things to do. It’s a good place, I like it.”
The Jennings gym – for all your boxing, musical and nutritional needs. A true community hub that lives for its town.