Bill Judd, Boxer
“That was brilliant!” A boy no older than nine years old pulls free from his dad and runs to his mum who has come to meet them both outside the KO Muay Thai Gym HQ situated beneath three railway arches in Globe Rd, Bethnal Green. The woman grins as she catches her son’s hand and her brightly patterned shalwar kameez flutters in the breeze. “You will be a champion?” she asks, ruffling his hair.
It is Saturday morning, and sessions for children aged between seven and twelve at the gym are just coming to a close. Girls and boys jostle out into the sunlight, many of the boys stopping to admire the gleaming Ducati motorbikes lined up on the forecourt of the workshop in the arch next door. “You’ll have to wait until you’re a bit older and bit richer before you can have one of them.” Gym owner Bill Judd smiles as one of the tiny fighters ogles a particularly impressive red model. “When I’m famous?” the boy asks.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility. The KO Gym has a track record in training, nurturing and producing world-class competitors in the emerging sport of Muay Thai Boxing. Current World Champions Amanda Kelly and Greg Wotton are just two of the gym’s success stories.
Back inside the cavernous arched space, adults are beginning to drill. It is almost like watching a ballet as two heavily-padded men circle each other. Suddenly, one of them lashes out with his foot and the heavy ‘whumph’ as it makes contact with the pad secured to the other man’s arm demonstrates the force and strength of the strike. They repeat the sequence on the red foam matting, then that kick comes again – swift, high and viciously accurate. Although it is clear this is a fierce contact sport, there is a rhythmic grace and elegance that is beautiful.
It is mesmerising to watch the pair of them work through the choreographed moves that will enable them to perform fluidly and instinctively when they are in the ring. Each time they run through the combination, they are establishing a pattern in their brains and muscles that will allow them to act on auto-pilot in a real fight.
Bill Judd, who studied Sports Science at university in Australia in the seventies, explains,“It’s technical, by repeating the moves again and again you create neurological pathways in your brain. When you’re learning to drive a car you come to a point when you don’t have to think about what you’re doing anymore. Muhammad Ali would disrupt his opponents in the ring by whispering something in their ear – that would make them angry and break their concentration. Their automatic responses would stop and then he’d go in. It’s all psychology.”
Born in East London of Irish stock, Bill is the son of a boxer. As a child, he followed in his father’s footsteps training at a traditional East End boxing club, Fairbairn House. But from an early age he was also involved with Judo, which led him to compete at international level in Japan. It was there that he first became aware of Kick Boxing and he subsequently went on to win a world Kick Boxing title.
He smiles ruefully, “As a champion Kick Boxer I thought I knew it all, but when I came up against a very experienced Thai Boxer I soon found out I didn’t! I was a cocky so-and-so back then and I got completely hammered. I wanted to find out more – that’s how it started really. There was just something about the history and culture of Muay Thai that got to me. The whole ethos of it appealed – the structure, the strategic element. I went on to train –and train hard – with a very famous master in Thailand.”
He brought hard training and the very particular culture of Thailand’s national sport back with him when he returned to the East End. The KO gym opened in 1976 and today it offers classes in Muay Thai, traditional boxing and the increasingly popular discipline of Mixed Martial Arts.
Initially, Thai Boxing was viewed as something outside the mainstream, but that has changed. The sport is on the verge of Olympic recognition and the KO Gym, which is revered in Thai Boxing circles throughout the country, attracts people from all walks of life. City boys spar with Bangladeshi boys from the estates in Tower Hamlets. Heavily accented Eastern immigrants – from Russia, Poland and Lithuania – spar with easy-framed, street-sharp black lads. Some people here – men and women – are professional fighters, some are here simply to keep fit while others use the controlled explosion of Muay Thai technique as an outlet to relieve the stress of modern living.
Bill explains, “This place is all about community. It’s something that’s increasingly lacking from the East End these days but, here, we cross all boundaries of religion, nationality, cultures, class and race. We have members who are Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and atheists – you name it, they’re here. It’s amazing the diversity of languages spoken in the gym, but everyone understands the ‘language’ of the sport. It’s like a home, everyone leaves their prejudices at the door. It’s how a community should be.”
With his clipped grey hair, piercing blue eyes and compact build, Bill Judd has quiet authority – a natural dignity. You listen when he speaks and you get the strong feeling that the people who attend the KO gym see him as a mentor. It is obvious that he takes particular pride in the young people who attend sessions. “First and foremost it’s fun,” he says, “but it also gives them discipline, confidence, a sense of progress, and it encourages tolerance.” He pauses for thought, “Most of all, I think it gives them somewhere they feel they belong. It’s better to be part of this sort of community than part of a gang that idolises violence and money.”
As well as bringing a new heart to this community, the gym also continues an East End tradition. Just up the road in Paradise Row, opposite St John’s Church on Bethnal Green, stands Daniel Mendoza’s house, complete with blue plaque. Though he stood five foot seven inches and weighed only one hundred and sixty pounds, Mendoza was England’s sixteenth Heavyweight Champion from 1792 to 1795. He was the only Middleweight to ever win the Heavyweight Championship of the World. In 1789, Mendoza opened his own Boxing Academy and published ‘The Art of Boxing’ on modern ‘scientific’ boxing style – a book from which every fighter has learned since. Notably, he was Jewish and his success and popularity helped transform the popular English stereotype of a Jew from a weak, defenceless person into someone deserving of respect.
‘Respect’ is an important word for Bill, it crops up often in our conversation. He is absolutely clear that everyone who comes to the gym should show respect for the art of Muay Thai and for each other.“I’m proud that everyone round here knows this place,” he says,“It’s become a landmark and people respect it – the kids respect it and their parents respect it too.” Then he thinks for a moment and nods to himself, “Yeah, I am carrying on a tradition here and I’m proud of that. But I’m also proud of what I see people achieve here through hard work and determination.
“It’s not fighting spirit that wins, it’s the indomitable spirit – rising to the challenge. Some people climb mountains, some people swim in the wild, some people go deep into the earth to find caverns that no-one’s seen before.
“Whatever you do, you’ve got see it through to the finish.”
“It’s not fighting spirit that wins, it’s the indomitable spirit”
Abdul Yassine, Trainer
Amanda Kelly, current WMC, MAD, and ISKA World Champion, fights between 58kg and 63kg. She has beaten all the top names in women’s Muay Thai including Julie Kitchen and is considered, pound for pound, best female fighter in World Muay Thai.
Danielle Anderson is being trained by Amanda Kelly
Bill Judd, Boxer
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
The KO Gym HQ, 186 The Arches, Globe Rd, E1 4ET
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