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Islington Boxing Club fighter heads ‘left-wing gym’ in Stoke Newington

PUBLISHED: 12:05 15 December 2016

Islington BC's Ella Gilbert (left) is declared the victor against Ruth Wright (Dynamo ABC)

Islington BC's Ella Gilbert (left) is declared the victor against Ruth Wright (Dynamo ABC)

Dieter Perry

Boxing and politics are often closely intertwined – and, at the pioneering gym run by Islington BC’s Ella Gilbert, it’s certainly difficult to separate them.

Gilbert, who recorded her first victory in an Islington vest on the club’s open show this week, has been coaching at the Solstar gym in nearby Stoke Newington for just under a year.

As well as providing an environment designed to attract more female boxers to the sport, Solstar is also a self-styled left-wing, anti-fascist organisation.

However, newcomers to Gilbert’s weekly classes need not expect to have their political opinions thoroughly scrutinised before they are permitted to don the gloves.

“We’re not militant or anything like that,” explained the 24-year-old. “It’s just to appeal to a certain type of person and, if you’ve got views that are prejudiced against anyone, you’re not welcome.

“If you’re willing to change them, then you are welcome! We get people from different communities and from quite far afield, all over London and from other cities coming to visit us.

“It’s basically a lot of lefties training together! We have about 20 people that come religiously every single week, around 200 involved in all and we have over 600 likes on Facebook.

“The gym aims to have at least a 50-50 split of men and women, or just to be more welcoming to people who might be turned off by a traditional boxing model.

“We do a lot of inter-club European sparring, which is really popular, and we run the class on Tuesdays, but we’ve had to start a kids’ class as well and we’re hoping to do another on Thursdays.”

Gilbert, who works in Cambridge as a climate scientist, grew up across the road from Islington’s Hazellville Road base – but never actually tried boxing until her student days at the University of East Anglia.

Although she was well and truly bitten by the boxing bug, competitive opportunities proved to be minimal in Norfolk – so Gilbert made up for lost time by joining Islington when she completed her studies.

“I used to go past the club and thought that it looked fun, but it’s a bit intimidating when you’re 16!” she recalled. “So I started boxing at UEA and got really into it. I wondered why I hadn’t been doing it for years.

“Then I joined an amateur gym in Norwich and got carded. I was the first woman they’d ever had in 100 years and they’ve never had another since.

“I did two seasons there and they did try and get me bouts but there are so few female boxers in Norfolk that I never got any, which was a shame.

“When I came back to London and joined Islington, I was amazed by the fact there were 10 to 15 girls I could spar. It’s partly because of my experience in Norfolk that I started the women-led gym.

“For a lot of women, it can be quite intimidating coming to a very male-dominated world. I’m quite in your face and I don’t mind it but a lot of women do and that can turn them away from a great sport.”

There is no danger of that happening with the enthusiastic Gilbert, who was defeated on her Islington debut last month in the surroundings of the Millwall FC community centre.

But she broke her duck by edging out Dynamo ABC’s Ruth Wright on a split decision in their 63kg clash at the Boston Arms, Tufnell Park – the only female boxer among Islington’s senior development contingent to taste victory.

“I felt like I worked hard enough,” she added. “You can never tell how a bout’s going to go, you just have to work your hardest and hope that pays off.

“I’m trying to get back down to 60kg so hopefully boxing a lot will give me the impetus to do that. The Boston’s a great venue and it’s so nice to have a home crowd screaming your name – it feels really good.”

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