How former champion Derry Mathews made the sweet science safe for all

Words: Elliot Foster

We’ve seen disability football and, of course, we have the Paralympic and Invictus Games. But not many people will have given boxing a thought as a sport to bring to the disabled community.

That, however, was the brainchild of one former fighter upon retirement – to give the disadvantaged youths a platform to excel, both physically and mentally. Yet Derry Mathews’ vision has now become a national phenomenon.

The 33-year-old former British and world champion announced his retirement after 52 fights at the start of the year, yet already had big plans for the next stage in his life: teaching disabled youths and adults the sweet science.

“It all started on social media,” he tells HWRK, ahead of one his capacity disabled boxing classes. “In the build-up to the first Anthony Crolla fight, there was a girl called Zoe Robinson who was giving me stick.

“She was a massive Crolla fan, but after a certain amount of time of us giving it to each other back and forth, we became mates and I invited her to my gym for a session on the pads.”

Robinson is herself a two-time Paralympic medal winner, having won winning a boccia (bowls) gold back in 2008 in Beijing and claiming bronze four years later in London. Yet it was her passion for boxing that inspired Mathews to engage with the disabled community on a much wider scale.

“I teamed up with Mark Horlick, who works in disability football, and from there it just grew,” Mathews adds. “We started off with four lads and girls on a Thursday afternoon and now we get 20, 30, 40 in each class. It’s a massive achievement and I’m buzzing.”

Mathews’ belief has always been anyone who can pull on a pair of gloves and that philosophy has ultimately led to this initiative, which has earned rave reviews nationwide. “I see everyone the same. They are just the same as me, just the same as you, just the same as him over there,” he says.

“I treat everyone the same; everyone deserves respect. Disabled people don’t want to be treated any differently and they shouldn’t be. That’s what they like, the banter and the rapport. They like the way I give them stick, but believe me they can give it out too.

“I feel better after taking a session with them, but they’ve started taking the sessions themselves now. They do a proper warm up, they work on the heavy bags, they do a circuit, they throw medicine balls and slam balls, they use kettlebells. All of the standard training routines that you’d get in any boxing gym anywhere in the world are there for them to do and they do them.”

Mathews describes how his sessions have transformed a group of disabled and somewhat disadvantaged youths who were lacking in self-esteem and self-confidence into young people who use their disability as an advantage.

“When we started this, I started with a group of people who had not been out of the house for years, people who had never been to the shops on their own, never been on a bus on their own and always had to be chaperoned by helpers. Now, they’re telling their helpers to stay in the house, that they’re going to knock for their mate and then going to the gym.

“It had never been done before, they’d never had the opportunity and we’ve opened that up to them. I just want to give something back and show people that everyone is equal. We cater for everyone and it goes to show that people with disabilities only need to be given a chance.”

Mathews is a veteran of the fight game and wants, as he says, to give something back to those who’ve gone without for so long through mere lack of opportunity.

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