Stuart Macbeth talks to the person behind the area’s first white-collar boxing club

John Houston smiles, raising his eyebrows as though he can’t quite believe his luck. “It’s amazing how my life my has come together,”

The huge 45-year-old father of five towers over the table as he talks about his dream career in boxing. It became a reality when he founded South Moreton Boxing Club, near Didcot, in 2006.

“For so many years boxing was passion,” he explains. “If I wasn’t in in the ring, I was in the gym, training. If I wasn’t in the gym I’d be at home, studying books about boxing. Even at my lowest I’d be watching Rocky on VHS. For years it was all I thought about. Now it’s my life.”

John moved from Dublin to Wallingford with his family when he was 14. He later toiled as a barman, a bookseller and an antiques dealer while taking his amateur and professional coaching badges in his spare time.

He said gyms were grimy places when he first pulled on a pair of gloves at Henley’s boxing club at the age of 14. The decision to make the bus ride along the A130 coincided with his family’s move from Dublin, when his father had taken a new job in the area.

“I’d had a difficult transition, leaving my friends in Ireland,” he reminisces. “I was bullied when we first came here. I stood out because I had a thick Dublin accent, and I didn’t know anyone.

“It was at the club in Henley, and later at boxing clubs in Abingdon and Didcot that I found friendship and companions.”

John has vivid memories of his first fight: “I felt excited and scared when I stepped into the ring. Then I remember feeling elated when I finished the fight, and the referee raised up my hand. It was possibly the best thing I have ever experienced.”

Having worked his way around the world, training with the best from New York to New Zealand, John moved back to Wallingford in 2002. Four years in the South Oxfordshire ‘wilderness’ followed.

“I suppose I was just waiting for something to come along,” he admits, shaking his head. “I was a little bit lost at that time.”

What eventually got John up off his feet was the evolution of white-collar boxing.

“The whole concept of white-collar boxing started in the late 1990s,” John explains. “Legend has it that a couple of Wall Street traders were walking over Brooklyn Bridge one night after work. They paused to look at Gleason’s Gym, situated on the waterfront.

“Gleason’s is the gym where legendary fighters such as Jake LaMotta, Mohammed Ali, Mike Tyson trained for their biggest fights. These two traders had never boxed, but one of them turned around to the other and said ‘who do you think would win if we had a fight?’. The next day they made their way to Gleason’s and hired a trainer.”

Three months later they held a boxing match. Soon their colleagues started making their way to the gym too and that’s how white-collar boxing was born. It’s boxing for people with normal jobs, who want to try their hand at the sport.”

A New York versus London traders boxing match was proposed and the craze made its way across the Atlantic.

“That’s when I got involved,” John beams. “A friend of mine worked as a trainer at the famous Ring Boxing Club in London. He needed me to help with this sudden influx of new members.

“A year later I founded the club at South Moreton where I’m now head boxing coach. It was the first white-collar boxing club outside of London.”

At present, South Moreton has 350 members, aged from 16 to 65 and over. They range from professional and semi-professional boxers to people whose main interest is in using the facilities to attain high levels of fitness. Currently 35 per cent of the club’s members are women.

“I’ve always though it was archaic that women have been excluded from boxing,” John shrugs, “but the Olympics have made a huge difference in terms of acceptability.

“Most women come for fitness classes but we do have women members who spar and compete. We put two shows on a year through which we’ve raised £50,000 for local charities such as Helen & Douglas House and Care For Casualties, and we’ve promoted a number of women’s bouts as part of those.

“I can see the numbers of women in boxing rising fast,” John enthuses. “All it’s going to take to really popularise women’s boxing is for one good, amateur boxer like Nicola Adams or Katie Taylor, who both excelled at the Olympics, to turn professional.

“For both men and women it’s such a good, interesting way to keep fit,” he adds, “that’s what drives our club. People gain self-respect, self- reliance and confidence through the training they do with us.”

Boxing has its opponents, of course, and John addresses the issue with patience.

“The fact is that boxing is very intelligent,” he reasons. “There are psychological layers as well as physical. The further you progress within the sport, the more the mental side takes over. It’s like chess with blood – you always have to think three or four moves ahead of your opponent.

“I think the main reason for opposition is a confusion between boxing and violence. In my eyes violence is ugly, hot-headed and emotional. Boxing isn’t like that at all. There is complete respect among competitors. The worst thing anyone could do in the boxing ring is to get angry.”

Starting off with 500 square feet in 2006, John has built the club up to 6,000 square feet, and it now stretches across three buildings.

“Running a club has been a natural path for me,” John asserts. “As soon as I went to boxing club when I was 14 I came home and made myself a gym in the garage. I remember going out to buy a punch bag and some weights from Argos.

“From then on, wherever I went I would put a gym together for myself, and now I’m fortunate enough to run one.”

John says his next ambition is to open a boxing club in Oxford in 2016. He’s already on the look-out for a suitable property.

“Apart from that” he grins, “what would be nice is to bring a British title back to South Moreton.”