Three-time boxing world champion Duke McKenzie is facing the toughest fight of his life yet – a battle for the survival of the gym in Crystal Palace which he has worked hard over eight years to establish as a thriving hub of the community. JOE PAXTON reports. Photos by JAMES BALSTON
Even some of the best boxing establishments in New York, Philadelphia or Chicago would struggle to match the poignancy of the address of Duke McKenzie’s gym in south London.
Victory Place seems such a perfect name for a sporting citadel which in the eight years since the former king of the ring converted the disused warehouse into his gym has become a hub of the local community, where middle-aged joggers can go for extra fitness work-outs, as well as being a place where youngsters can learn the fistic arts and self-respect from a man who holds a unique place in British sporting history.
But Duke McKenzie’s gym in Crystal Palace will close its doors for a final time next month.
It was just before Christmas when McKenzie was given notice to quit the gym, off Westow Street in Upper Norwood, by the site owners, property developers, St Aidans Developments.
St Aidans have been granted planning permission for a mixed use development on the site, to include a hotel, shops and the inevitable “luxury apartments”.
Land prices in the fashionable Crystal Palace Triangle continue to soar, so the developers must expect to make a fortune. Especially since the site in the middle of a sensitive conservation area.
This redevelopment scheme is just the latest in a series of proposals for the site made by St Aidans which go back more than a decade.
Inevitably for any planning issue in Croydon, there is the controversial involvement in the matter of Paul Scott, the architect who until recently was the chair of the council planning committee.
As a committee member 10 years ago, Scott managed to propose and vote in favour of a St Aidans scheme, despite his having declared a “personal prejudicial interest” in a linked development by St Aidans intended to provide affordable housing in Portland Road.
Those 2008 St Aidans proposals drew strong objections from the Crystal Palace conservation area panel and wider community. The council’s planning department, however, failed to consult English Heritage over the nature of the proposals, which were criticised as being “monolithic” and not in keeping with the existing buildings in the conservation area.
There was more than a suspicion that Labour councillor Scott was being especially “helpful” to developers, rather than acting in the interests of local residents.
Don Bianco, the chair of the conservation area panel at the time, said, “The machinations of the planning committee in their consideration of this application was farcical and beyond comprehension.
“We saw how the process could be managed, to drive through a scheme of low-quality, low-investment volume housebuilding that has little merit in the historic village context of Crystal Palace and little support from the community. Clearly we have members of the committee who are not aligned with the people they are supposed to represent.”
One councillor who did represent the views of locals, Upper Norwood councillor Pat Ryan, spoke with disgust when he told the committee, “This development does nothing to enhance the conservation area but will positively detract from it…
“If this was Chelsea, Canterbury or Richmond it certainly would not be allowed.”
Despite the controversy it attracted, St Aidans failed to act on that planning permission, and in 2011, Duke McKenzie, looking for a suitable venue to set up a gym after the end of his own boxing career, moved in to an old warehouse building in Victory Place.
He has been there ever since, slowly building up a reputation among youths and young adults as a caring, wise counsellor, providing a physical activity when so many other youth services have been lost through austerity cut-backs.
Croydon-born McKenzie’s started boxing aged 13, at the Sir Philip Game Centre.
His pro career in the ring lasted from 1982 to 1998 and saw him win three world titles at three different weights – flyweight (for boxers weighing between 7st 10lb to 8st), bantamweight and then junior featherweight (under 8st 10lb) – a unique achievement among British boxers.
He retired having won 39 of his 46 fights, 20 by knock-outs, and was honoured with an MBE.
For someone schooled in the game of hard knocks, McKenzie, now 55, has shown himself to be full of compassion as a manager of his gym, which he has built-up to having more than 200 members, from aspiring boxers to keep-fit enthusiasts.
The gym, as well as being a business, is clearly a means for McKenzie “to give something back”. Despite numerous offers to take on lucrative coaching roles with current day professional boxers, McKenzie has preferred to keep things local.
From motivating those in need of direction, to instilling respect and self-discipline in the young, the gym provides a friendly environment in which to train and get fit, for all ages and backgrounds. The youngest of the gym’s members is under 10, the oldest 73.
McKenzie has also worked as an ambassador for MIND, the mental health charity, and he runs weekly sessions for people with mental health issues. He gives regular seminars to patients in conjunction with The Royal Bethlem Hospital, as he is a strong advocate of the benefits of physical activity on mental wellbeing.
With the increase in street violence and knife crime in this part of south London, in an area largely devoid of facilities and youth service provision, the loss of the very popular evening boxing training sessions is causing much concern.
Recognising this, Upper Norwood ward councillor Stephen Mann is taking the lead in trying to find an alternative venue for McKenzie’s gym. But suitable buildings are few and far between.
It is not yet known whether the closure of the gym will actually see the start of the redevelopment of Victory Place. Local traders will not want the site to remain in its present semi-derelict state. However, the developers’ failure to progress their project over the past 14 years does not give grounds for confidence.
And as you might expect from a champion fighter, McKenzie is not ready to throw the towel just yet.
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