Gerry Storey MBE is a man who doesn’t need introductions.
The most successful boxing coach in Irish, British and Commonwealth history, his boxing troupe at Holy Family boxing club, just off North Queen Street in north Belfast, has, over the decades, ran rings around his equivalents.
The club, situated in the renowned ‘Reccy’, continues to do so with European gold medallist and Olympic bronze medallist, Paddy Barnes under it’s wing, —and now, the hotly tipped new recruit, 22 year old Carl Frampton, Barry McGuigan’s latest protégé, on the books.
Gerry, the head coach with six Olympic boxers under his belt, is now 74 - but by his own admission, “is only starting.”
I meet Gerry amidst one of Carl’s arduous training sessions. When the session drawed to an end, Gerry turned to me and said: “It’s an early start for us tomorrow, we will be running up the mountain’s tomorrow at half six.”
“ Oh yes, I still work out, and I’m here at the club every day, and every evening, except when I am in Dublin on a Saturday to train the Irish team.”
Down to his unsurpassed commitment and ringside talent, Gerry was, and still is a desired man in the world of boxing – he has turned down coaching offers from around the world, including, Canada, New Zealand, and the States. Gerry said: “The offer I was given in Atlanta was they would move my entire family over — everything would be set up. The only condition was that I could never return to Ireland. They knew if I came home I would want to stay home. So I declined the offer, I couldn’t leave here - I love Belfast and the people too much.
“During the troubles I would often think if the people living to their best of their abilities go, what kind of country would be left behind? I felt I had a duty to my country to stay here in Belfast and in the area where I grew up.”
Gerry’s definition of ‘duty’ I find, exceeds the normal boundaries after he explains how he had to answer a certain call during the height of the troubles.
He said: “ In the eighties, the Sport’s Council I asked me if I could make an exception in my boxing coaches because of ‘exceptional circumstances.’ They told me all the prisoners in the Maze — the UVF, UDA, IRA and INLA, were refusing to take part in physical education and that none of them were speaking to anybody — not even the Sport’s Council. But they were all asking for me to speak with. I thought, well, I better go down and see.
“I visited every block as well as the cages and spoke to those ‘in charge’, the O.C’s of every compound with the Prison governor.
“It was strange – the O.C’s of each compound, who were standing two foot away from me and the Governor, but I had to repeat everything they told me to the Governor, and then repeat back to them everything the Governor wanted to say to them. It was surreal.
“Anyway, the prisoners from all political divides wanted me to coach them. We trained in the cages and I’m pretty certain I was the one of the first civilians ever allowed in them.
“I remember getting the basic boxing equipment was an issue, the boxing gloves and pads and things. I was going to train the IRA prisoners the following day and I knew I needed more equipment. I can’t name names, but one of the leaders of the UVF in the compound said to me, ‘Sure they can use some of our equipment, so long as we get in back on Friday for our next session.’
“It’s hard to believe sometimes, but that’s how it was in there. They were killing each other outside, but inside, they seemed to help each other out.”
No swearing, no drugs, no car thieving, and no talking about politics are the rules you have to follow to be a member Holy Family Boxing Club. Standing by these four rules, Gerry and staff brought the club through the troubles — Gerry said: “The Holy Family club was the only cross community sporting club to endure the troubles. There were no others around that served a mixed community, we were the only one.
“This was at the time when you would walk from North Queen Street to Royal Avenue and not see one single soul, the streets were deserted.
“No international sporting teams would come into the city either it was so dangerous. But, again, our club was the only club to tempt an international team over for a competition during this time.”
Gerry explained further: “Because we made it a rule never to talk about politics, the club was accepted by everyone. I would put on shows down the Shankhill Road and the next night, the Crumlin Star. We were told by the leaders of the UVF and the provisional IRA that we were protected on all their ‘patches’. They even went as far as telling me, ‘you know if anyone threatened you or your family, we would issue a death warrant against them.’”
Despite these words of ‘loyalty’, Gerry’s life was threatened four times by targeted bomb attacks. Gerry said: “The last one could of killed my son. The leaders on both sides of the divide told me it was nobody on their patches, and where this bomb was placed, at Belfast Docks were we used to work, wasn’t on any ‘patch’.
“Special branch visited me and told me it may be someone in boxing circles, annoyed with what we were doing in the community —even our success perhaps.”
“When special branch spoke to the manager at Belfast Docks that these bombs were targeted at me, my boss laughed at them and said , ‘You don’t have to tell me that, no one will get into a car with that man!’.”
Though deeply worried for the safety of his family and himself, Gerry remained undeterred and continued what he did best — coach. His past undoubtedly playing a part in his commitment to the boys from the ‘back streets.’
Gerry got into boxing that way himself. He said: “I was born on Artillery street, just round the corner from here, but it’s been demolished since called a new name now. My father left us when I was two and my mother raised my brothers and sisters on her own.
“I was getting into trouble on the street, fights and the like, when Jim McStravick, a professional boxer caught on. He would have always kept an eye on us after my father left, and when he saw me running up the street getting up to mischief, he got me by the ear, and brought me up to the gym. And that’s how I started boxing.
“I loved it and boxed up until I was 18. But that’s when we noticed that my eye wasn’t strong enough to box professionally, or even at all. The sight in it was bad, and it was just too dangerous to box. However I was told there was a space for a coach at the club and I was glad of that.
“So I wanted to give something back to the kids — get them off the streets. I would train them until they reached professional — then they would move on. One day I came down to the reception at the Reccy, and a lady called Irene Crawford said to me, ‘Gerry, you have a sin to answer for! I know you were great with my sons, training them up and getting them off the street. But you abandon them when they come professional Gerry and leave them to the sharks! Why is that?’.
“And I just couldn’t give her an answer. So I thought, well alright, I will start to train the professionals!”
Gerry then listed off to me all the boxers he brought to the Olympics after Irene’s wise words to him —Gerry Hamill, Hugh Russell, Sam Storey (Gerry’s own son), Paul Douglas, Paddy Barnes, and this month Ryan Burnett in the junior Olympics. He is dismayed when he can’t recall all the names of the boxers he trained for the European, Commonwealth, British and Irish championships — but there are just far too many.
However, everyone who has ever visited the Holy Family boxing gym well know only too well about ‘Paradise Row’ along one of the walls in the gym. Gerry is immensely proud of that wall and was one of the first things he mentioned to me after watching Carl train in the ring. He said: “Did you see all the shamrocks up on the wall with the pictures of boxers in them? Everyone at the club wants to get their name on Paradise Row once you fight for your country, you go on the wall.”
Opposite Paradise Row, and hanging on the other wall are the five Olympic rings —a constant reminder to all who box in the Holy family ring that ‘the dream’ is possible. Gerry even conceded that there were not enough rings to represent the club members to have made it to the Olympics, now that 17 year old Ryan Burnett has made the junior Olympic team.
For all of the Holy Family’s success, and for all the great memories ‘the Reccy’ holds for Gerry, he remains deeply disappointed that the club struggles in a facility much to small to suit the demand.
Gerry commented on the situation: “A man I did not know, who had never even visited the club, had heard about what we were doing with the kids in the community and offered us a 20 year lease to a large premises of the bingo Hall on York Street —for free.
“All roads lead to York Street — it doesn’t matter what area you come from it was easy for everybody to walk to —it was a neutral venue and the premises were the perfect size. This man was called Mike Footer and I was overwhelmed with his generosity of what he was offering us, so we immediately set about trying to get the £300,000 together to get the facility set up as a boxing centre.
“The Sport’s Council initially offered us £150,000 and asked us to source the rest. It took some time to get the other funding in place, with broken promises and the like, but in the end we managed to get it.
“When we went back to the Sport Council they said they now couldn’t give us the money now, it was too late they said and ‘they couldn’t make exceptions’.
“I couldn’t believe it — how quick for them to forget what they had asked me to do in ‘exceptional circumstances’ at the Maze, yet they couldn’t do the same for our club and the kids on the street?
“This club has done a lot for the community on both sides, and is recognised by the community for doing so —we are getting the kids off the street, yet you can’t swing a cat in our boxing gym. I still hold out hope that one day we will get the premises we deserve. And I am still very grateful to Mike Footer for what he offered to do for us without even knowing any of us personally.”
Gerry doesn’t hold on to the disappointment for too long in the interview though and on the subject of space, divulged to me he thought they would never be able to fit all the filming equipment and camera men when filming ‘The Boxer’ — starring Academy Award winner Daniel Day Lewis.
Gerry recalled: “They managed somehow to put one of those train tracks for the camera along one of the sides of the boxing ring. It was a great honour to see ‘Dan’ act — I know they get paid a lot but he was willing to do anything and work all hours —he trained really hard for the part, a real professional.”
This is not Gerry’s only moment of rubbing shoulders with Academy Award winners. In 2005, Gerry was introduced by leading actor Morgan Freeman when collecting the ’Sport For Good’ award at the Laureus World Sports Awards —the equivalent to Academy Awards but for sports. It was only the year before that Arnold Schwarzenegger collected the same accolade.
But in Gerry’s eyes there has only been one star, his beloved wife Belle, who sadly passed away after a long crusade against cancer.
Gerry said: “She was a fighter, and battled cancer for four years. She died five years ago last Sunday (August 15). She was the backbone to me and the backbone to this club. She worked hard to help everyone including washing my our kits every week — in fact I think she had washed everybody's kit!
“When Barry (McGuigan) was a young boy, his father would drop him off at the club for a weekend of training and come to collect him on a Monday morning. Barry would stay at our home and my wife Belle would look after him — as she did with everybody.
“She was very understanding of what I did. She would say ‘When I first got married, and people ask me where Gerry is, I would look at my watch — now I looks at the calendar.’ Ach, she was terrific.”