Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Tunde Oyedoyin
[email protected]
London, UK

Sir Ishola Akay
- The story of a boxing legend

The name of Sir Ishola Akay may not ring a bell among Africans, both at home and abroad, and he may be likened to an unsung hero. But for those who make their living from the noble art of self defence, Sir Akay is a household name. At least 25 world champions, including Mike Tyson, have trained in his West London gym. He spoke with Tunde Oyedoyin recently.

Akay stresses a point
during the interview
nlike several millions of others of Nigerian parentage, Ishola Akay was born, bred and raised in Ghana. He's never been to his fatherland in his entire 67 years of living, and not surprisingly, he doesn't speak any of the languages either-apart from a few ones he picked in conversations while growing up. But apparently, as a reflection of his background, he's very fluent in three different Ghanian dialects. Despite other indices, passport and accent inclusive, portraying him as a citizen of the former Gold Coast, he has not forgotten whose son he is."I'm looking forward to visiting home one of these days," he said.

Involvement in Boxing: I got involved in boxing at the age of 13, when my uncle, who was a tailor took me to watch a boxing tournament. Its so funny because there were boxers from Accra, the capital, who had come from a small town called Odobin, that's where we used to live at the time.

One of the opponents of the boxers didn't show up and the Master of Ceremony asked if there was anybody in the hall with a small knowledge of boxing who would like to take on the boxer. It was an open challenge to the crowd, and to my utmost surprise, my uncle, Mustapha stood up. I pulled him down thinking he was out of his mind or something, you can imagine the type of thoughts going on in the mind of a 13 year old boy. I told him he could be killed in the ring, but I never knew he was an ex professional middleweight boxer. Uncle raised hands again and said, if you can get me some boxing pants and boots, I'll take on this man for you. With excitement on my mind and a bit hysteric, I rose up and went with him to the changing room.

When the bell was sounded, I still didn't believe what he was about to do, but Mustapha went out there, throwing punches, left and right hooks and the spectators were just on their feet. All his clients who had come to watch that fight were amazed and couldn't believe that the tailor was an ex professional fighter. By the third round, Mustapha knocked this guy out and his hands were raised in victory. He was given some money at the changing room and that evening, I ended up sleeping in his house. You can imagine, that night, I couldn't close my eyes. I asked all kinds of questions and said I wanted to be a boxer.Mustapha told me not get involved because its a dangerous sport, he did all his best to talk me out of it, but I kept nagging him. He asked me to go to school and come back for a talk afterwards. I went to school that day bragging that my uncle is a boxer and I was going to follow in his steps.

In those days in 1948, boxing was a sport for people from different backgrounds without too much education, it was a way out of the ghetto to make a living for their lives. With me coming from a very good family and being very, very brilliant at school, my parents thought that wasn't a good choice for me and I was told not to get involved. But I still wanted it, because my uncle has done it.

Later that afternoon, Mustapha gave me a tutorial on boxing. I sat on the chair while he threw fake punches at me. When it was my turn, I threw so many punches, but he kept moving his head and not one of them landed. When I became so tired, I told him to stop and allow me hit him, it was then he told me that boxing is about defence, hitting someone without being hit. 'That's what its all about and unless you're prepared to learn that skill, you have no place in boxing".From that day, everytime I finished school, I went for boxing lessons in his shop and that was how I started.

Early Days: I was 14 at the time and there was no junior boxing in Ghana, so I joined a gym, YMCA, where I grew very well, but my education was given first priority. To me, it was like a hobby. I used to do all kinds of sports and boxing just happened to be one of them. At 16, I moved to Accra and joined another club called, Accra Community Boxing Centre. I performed very well there as well, I won the national title, but still, it was like a hobby to me, I never wanted it as a profession. But because I was good and once they discover that, you can't walk into the gym one day and tell them you're quitting because of your education, they wouldn't allow that-it was difficult to pull out.

While working with Mobil Oil as a sales representative, I continued the sport and turned professional. I had 37 fights, losing just three. After moving from Mobil to Panam, I continued and in 1955, I was sent to America for more training. Two years later, I started a boxing gym, Golden Gloves, in Accra and five kids were trusted to my care by their parents. Not only did they live with me, they were also fed and given boxing lessons and the boys became very good. It was then I told my employers what I was doing and also took a step further by starting a football club for the company, the great Pegasus - flying horse. The club was also doing well and the national director of sports in Ghana approached me with an offer that he wanted me to work for the government. This I declined, I told him I had a good job and was only doing that to keep the kids off the streets and some of them happened to become very good in the process.

Despite his involvement in boxing, he still found time to express himself as a social being. This resulted in his getting married in 1961 to a Ghanian lady, Paulina. For someone accustomed to winning, the arrival in 1962 of his first son, Taju, only goes to confirm that what he does best in the ring, he's capable of reproducing in the bedroom. The following year, he left for new York, but only helped others in various gyms before changing his base to Chicago. That was the era of the black power and so on, a situation he felt wasn't appropriate to raise kids. So, in 1971, he moved to London on the advice of a friend.

Sir Akay and a Nigerian boy
nicknamed after Azuma Nelson
Like Father Like Son: When Taju was 10, the boy said he wanted to become a boxer like his father, but because of its dangerous nature, Akay wouldn't allow him until his wife intervened. He took up the challenge and for six months, TJ - as he's called received lessons on the trade from his father. When dad felt his son was ready, he took him to a local gym and to his surprise, his boy was put in the ring on his first attendance.TJ's performance was so brilliant that the Irish coach at the gym stopped the exercise, asking all types of questions about who's been training him and all that.TJ pointed to his dad among the crowd and the coach was more than enthusiastic to meet him. Although, Akay was quite upset that a first timer should be put in the ring, he was told that was the only way to get rid of the many kids who came calling. According to the coach, 'Once they get thoroughly beaten, they don't come back unless, they're really interested."

Boxing And Racism: TJ continued at the club, but when his friends at school wanted to join, the coach refused. To him, one black boy was okay, but anything more than that, you wanted trouble.TJ had 11 contests in club and won all, but because his friends were not allowed to join, he became upset and withdrew his membership."I followed him to the gym to plead for other boys, but was told there was no place for too many black kids. That was our last time of attending."

The Beginning Of All Stars: In 1974, I told my son I was going to start a club for him and his friends and we took off in my council flat living room with about six boys. This continued and when we grew to 24, I knew we had a space problem. I found it ridiculous to have so many kids training in my flat and it was then the idea of a gym occurred to me. I approached the local authority for a space, but surprisingly, was referred to the same gym where my son's friends had been turned back. We later got a space which we used twice a week and beyond that, the club became so successful that we started competing with the big clubs in London.

I realised we needed our own property in order to take the club to the highest level and after seeing an advert for sponsorship in a national daily, I approached them, met their conditions and that was how we got the money to finance and build our gym. Interestingly, our present site was an abandoned property which nobody wanted, it was really bad at the time. But I took it up and raised about 150, 000 needed to renovate it and that was how we moved here in 1983.

Glory Days For TJ And The Club: My son went to the 1994 Los Angeles Olympics where he fought Evander Holyfield, but because Evander was too classic, he lost. On his return, he turned pro and two years later, became the British Cruiserweight champion. We've also produced five British national amateur champions and between 1983 and now, 25 World champions have trained here including Mike Tyson. As I said, the club just grew from strength to strength.

But in 1990, disaster struck and Westminster withdrew from giving grants. I've noticed that in this country, when you become great and well established, they want to drag you down. All Stars was a household name, the Police too were coming here for training and I was given a lot of awards. All the boys involved in antisocial behaviour come here and I counsel them to get away from drugs and to use boxing as a springboard for something positive in their lives. Go to school, I told them, I was like a father to them and what their natural parents couldn't tell them, I did.

I was made a lay visitor from Westminster and could go to any Police Station in London and visit any young man arrested for any offence. I'll talk with them, get a lawyer and the boy would be dealt with leniently, but if he's a first offender, they released him to my care and that went on for about three years. But some people wanted us to close shop for no reasons,

I became upset and in 1991, during a trip to New York, I was at a gym, where I saw kick boxing being organised for business men and women for them to keep fit. I imported the idea and it was from here - All Stars-that it spread to every part of the city. Prior to that, i'd used my money to pay the overhead costs we only pay 5,000 per annum-but when we introduced it, the club was being sustained on that and that's how we've been going stronger ever since. Many Tv stations have been at the club to interview us and i've also done many others on radio as well over the years.

Akay gives some tutorial
to one of his boys
Awards: Somebody recommended me for an award in March 2000 and I had the opportunity of meeting the Prime Minister, PM, Tony Blair.He gave me an award for Active Community Service and this was presented to me-alongside other awardees-by the U. S Secretary of State, Colin Powell.After returning from a trip to America, I met another letter from the PM's office saying, i'd been recommended for an MBE -Member of British Empire. This was collected on October 10, 2000. I met the Queen and she made enquiries about the club, it became so unbelievable and makes you feel appreciated.

Contribute To Your Community: Well, i'm from Africa, I never came here for MBE, I came to do my own thing, it is something I enjoy doing and coincidentally, it became a contribution to the community. There're a lot of people out there who don't do anything, they keep complaining that the government is not helping them. I think its time we get out there and do things ourselves. Its easy to complain that someone's not doing something right, but if you've got the time and power, get people together and do something. People will appreciate what you're doing and that's exactly what I did.

To be appreciated and get honours from both the PM and Her Majesty is awesome. Before we went there, it was like a joke, I had mixed feelings, but as the day was approaching, I became humble and apprehensive. The first time I had a glimpse of the Queen was in 1950 when she visited Ghana. At that time, I was at Mobil and we were asked to line the streets and give her a wave. Who would have thought that 50 years later, I'll have the opportunity of shaking her hands and talk to her, its an unbelievable experience.

Everytime someone comes here and sees the certificate, they're surprised that i'm MBE, but that hasn't changed me. I still do what I was doing and i'm getting the same pleasure from it. The most important thing is for me to use this platform as a contribution to the society I belong. If these boys become World champions tomorrow, good luck to them. But I'm not sitting here and waiting for them to be successful so as to get some money out of their achievement, no. I feed some of them and over the years, some have grown to become adults and have also brought back their kids here.

His Fame keeps Spreading: But how do the World Champions get to know Sir Akay? Well, about four years ago, the leading British promoter, Frank Warren, who has been our promoter when my son was a pro, started working with Don King and he was promoting leading American fighters like Keith Holmes, Virgin Hill-he once battered Nigeria's Joe Lasisi to submission in the defence of his World Light Heavyweight title etc..But because Warren had no gym, he used to make use of mine. When many of them come over, its like home from home. They show a lot of respect and also give complimentary tickets to for their fights. I always made it a point of duty to help them out during their contests and that's how they know me.

Frank Bruno was coming here when my son was a pro, he was very, very strong but with limited skills, so he was coming to acquire more knowledge. I went to his wedding and every Christmas, he sends me a card, so we're like family friends. That's how they come and when they return to America, the news is passed around. They usually tell each other, if you go to London and need the best place to train, then go to All Stars. They were telling Frank Warren, when we come to fight in London, we want to use All Stars. Azuma Nelson came here and he used to call me uncle. He spent three weeks and successfully defended his title, he's been back after that.Tha's how they started coming, people like Sugar boy Malinga and Mike Tyson.

The Day Tyson Came Calling: Although Tyson didn't train here when he fought Julius Francis, but when he had a bout in Glasgow, he wanted a day's training in London and needed a proper gym. Frank called early in the morning and said Mike was coming at 10a.m. At 10, an entourage of about 14 people, including Showtime TV came and inspected the facility and to them, it was awesome. He was contacted in the hotel and within 10 minutes, he was here. Prior to that, he's tried two other places and didn't like them, he wanted a proper gym and didn't want to use his hotel as one.

When Tyson came, his first statement was: 'who owns this shit, this shit is awesome, I love this shit, this is what I call a gym, no f**** told me there's a gym like this in England. I don't want to train in a hotel," and he went on ranting, while I was just looking at him. When he finished his comments, his manager asked if he would like to meet the owner of this shit and he continued his ranting: 'this is a man's gym, I was thinking of going back to the States because I didn't feel like boxing, but now, i'm going to kill somebody."

When I was introduced to him, he said: 'he's a brother, a black brother, and we hugged each other. He was very excited, looked round and when I told him about my son they'd met each other at the 1984 olympics, even though Tyson wasn't in the American team. When we got talking, he asked what he could do for me? I said, nothing. He was surprised and asked if I was crazy. I said I don't want anything. He told me I was different and when he returns to the States, he 'll tell everyone and I thanked him for it. But before he left, I said, just one thing I'd like you to do, and that's to autograph a set of boxing gloves for me. He was so disappointed and requested that we take pictures together. He also gave my two sons two 500 ringside tickets to be at his fight in Glasgow.

Has He Met Henry Akinwande? I know him, I had a boy from Nigeria called, James Oyebola. He was about 6" 7, he heard about All Stars from a Nigerian boxer who was at the Los Angeles Olympics and when he-James Oyebola was born in London, but was taken to Nigeria as a boy-returned to London, he joined the club. He won the National Super Heavyweight title and it was through him I met Akinwande. They were both very respectful and used to show a lot of courtesy until I told Oyebola not to prostrate, but to shake me. However, Akinwande was with another club and they never wanted to meet each other because they were very close. In 1985, when Oyebola won the British Super Heavyweight title, Akinwande lost the heavyweight title fight, but the following year when Oyebola successfully defended his, Akinwande won his as well. I'm so pleased he later became a world champion. I know Akinwande is now in Florida.

How Does He Spot Potential World Champions? From my experience in Ghana, all those kids I told you about were very, very small, about eight years old or so. After leaving Ghana for America, five of them later won Commonwealth medals-gold and silver-for the country. I can spot champions when I see them, they've got the temperament among other qualities, and they do whatever they're told to do in the ring. They also have natural talent and that nine year old boy a Nigerian boy named after Azuma Nelson, see pix I showed you, God willing, will become a World champion. He's got the temperament and does things that most professional boxers cannot do. He could be a kid, but he's got boxing brain. But having said that, they grow up and change, but if he doesn't, the sky is the limit.

Q: What Goes On At A Boxer's Corner? We try to remind them of everything and all the training they 've had in the gym. What you see in the ring is a finished product, the real hard job starts in the gym, its really hard. So, when i'm in the corner, I remind them of what we've done. But sometimes, the opponent doesn't allow you to do what you want to do, its also for the trainer to tell them when the other guy is dropping his hands and your boy must capitalise on that mistake. We change fights and its possible for a boxer who's been doing well in the first five rounds to lose a fight.

Any Other Contacts With Other World Champions Of British Origin? Yes, the only person who's not been here is Chris Eubank, but he knows my son very well and was on the same bill with him when he-Eubank-just arrived from the States. Funny enough, his first fight in England was with one of my boys and my boy was winning. But because he had a cut and they wanted to make a star out of him, the referee stopped the contest and I was really disappointed.

Lennox Lewis beat my boy-Oyebola-at the Commonwealth Games and he's been here a couple of times.Nazeem Hammed has been here too. I met Naz when he was 16 as an amateur. TJ was having a fight that day and Naz just burst in and said: 'Excuse me, excuse me, are you an American"? I said, no, I am an African. Who the hell are you? He replied, in about a year or so, you'll hear about me, I'll be a household name then. he just went on and on and I thought he was jus one of those excited kids, but he was correct. Over the years, we've met and we've also been together on the same interview on radio.

Terry, the love of his life
But When Is The Ideal Age To Start Boxing? It's a young man's game and anyone hoping to make a career out of it should start from about eight. There's so much to do learn and do, and its a sport that requires dedication and your commitment has to be 200%. But its a dangerous sports, I know about two or three boxers who have died in the process. There's a lot of baggage you have to unload and unless you're dedicated, don't come. The latest age to join is between 18 and 20, anything afterwards is dodgy.

His Love Life: The Holy book says, 'It is not good for man to be alone," and Sir Akay knows that too well. After separating from Paulina, he continued doing his thing and one of the pioneering members of All Stars is a slim fit and beautiful lady, Terri.Sir Akay knew he needed someone at his corner and what was initially a trainer/member relationship later developed into a romantic association. That was in 1984, and till date, they've lived together as man and wife. But Terry plays more than the role of a wife and mother, she also works in the gym as a fitness trainer.The couple also go on annual pilgrimage to America, an habbit Sir Akay developed many years ago.