Tony Burns, Boxing Coach
Pass under the sign that says “No guts, no glory,” then walk through the humid air laced with sweat, and the clamor of the boxing gym, where youths are sparring and slugging at punchbags, until you reach the tiny office in the corner – barely more than a cupboard – where Tony Burns has his lair. Once upon a time in the old East End, Tony came here to this former bathhouse for a wash, but today he is the head coach at the Repton Boxing Club, Britain’s most famous amateur club, which occupies the building now.
Tony took my hand with a boxer’s grip and cast his intense blue eyes upon me with a gentle yet incisive gaze from beneath such straggly brows, it was as if he was looking out at me from inside a cave. “You’re not a boxing person, are you?” he queried with a derisive smile, getting the sum of me in an instant. Yet in spite of my shortcoming, Tony indulged me magnificently, bringing out two pages of handwritten lists of boxing triumphs at Olympic and Commonwealth games which may be attributed to the noble Club, before tantalising me with enigmatic old black and white photographs of unidentified men in suits, some of which turned out to be illustrations of stories that I shall never be party to.
“It was a public school, Repton, what started this in 1884,” Tony explained, turning historian suddenly and gesturing around the atmospheric tiled spaces, lined with faded bills for the boxing bouts of yesteryear. “I often speak to the people at Repton School and they say ‘Couldn’t you bring a dozen boys up to Derbyshire for an education?’ But I don’t think you could take a kid from the East End and put him in a public school in Derbyshire, where all the pupils are the children of high ranking generals and such, he would bash everybody up”.
“When I was a kid you either kicked a ball or you hit someone. So, when I was twelve, I became a boxer,” continued Tony with faultless logic, “My mum died when I was a kid and if you lived in a place like this years ago, you was very fortunate to have a loving family. We all lived in Bacon St and Charlie Burns was the eldest, and they was a pain in the arse that family, but when I boxed all the family and friends would come, so I used to have quite a following.”
Then Tony looked at me critically. “I knew the Krays,” he confessed with an implacable gaze, returning to the pile of photos and searching my face for a reaction while showing me a picture,“We grew up together. I used to go round to their house in Valance Rd all the time, but I chose one path in life and they chose another.” The photograph was Tony with Reggie Kray, on the occasion of Reggie Kray’s wedding in 1997 at which Tony was best man. “He looks more dead than alive.” quipped Tony with a grimace, resigning the thought as he put the picture away again, closing the subject.
“The Repton was a club where East End boys could do all kinds of sports and they had around a thousand members when I joined,” Tony recalled, “but then it got closed down and Albert Jacob, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, gave us this building on a thousand year lease. He saw the future of the East End – by putting this club here where it is – getting the kids off the streets and getting them off everything. The asset of the Repton is the area, it’s packed with talent out there.”
Tony was eager to tell me about his coaching, without filling in the details of his own distinguished boxing career which included winning the Amateur World Championship. “For some unexplained reason I had three gold medallists in the Olympics the first year I was here as coach in 1968.” he said, and at first I thought this statement was another expression of reserve on Tony’s part but then I realised it was something more intangible. “People do come along,” he puzzled, shaking his head in wonderment, as we walked through the gym to examine the photographs that lined the wall of fame extending around the corner, “We’ve had three hundred and fifty champions here – that’s national titles not championships – which is really quite unbelievable in forty years, roughly about ten a year.” he said.
“I can fall in love with a lad the minute he walks through the door, and make a fuss of him and build him up and make him think he’s a big talent.” admitted Tony, speaking tenderly, “The beauty of it is that I am at a club like this where maybe sixty or eighty youths come every weekend and you see them developing.”And he turned and cast his eyes around at the enthusiastic crew of young boxers of different races that filled the gym, all dripping with perspiration, full of fight and eager for glory.
Freddie Mills presents a clock to fifteen year old Tony Burns of Bethnal Green, who won his contest against R.Brice of Kingston, whilst Sammy McCarthy congratulates the young boxer during the recent amateur tournament at the Kingston Baths, October 31st 1955.
Tony Burns as a young boxer of twenty years old.
Tony Burns, Amateur World Champion Boxer, with Howard Winston, Professional World Champion.
Tony Burns with Mohammed Ali.
Tony Burns with Reggie Kray in 1997.
Tony is best man at Reggie Kray’s wedding in 1997.
Tony Burns with Frank Bruno.
Tony Burns, Head Coach at the Repton Boxing Club.