By Dewi Powell: The Royal Oak pub in the Splott area of Cardiff, capital city of Wales, is home to one of the most historic gyms in the history of British boxing. For many years the upstairs of the pub was the gym of Jim Driscoll. As soon as the pub is entered it’s clear to see the pride of its history as memorabilia is covering most of the wall space.
Driscoll, born in 1880, spent a fair share of his amateur career in Wales’ infamous boxing booths - where he fought any man of any size. His success in the pro game involved becoming the first featherweight to win a Lonsdale belt – meaning he fought for a British title three times successfully. The actual belt he won is thought to be to be the oldest British belt in existence.
The biggest fight of “Peerless” Jim’s career was in February 1910 in New York city for the featherweight world championship against Abe Attell. Attell would only agree to fight the Welshman if the fight was over 10 rounds and that for Driscoll to become champion he would have to knock Attell out – a time in American boxing history referred to as the No Decision Era. Driscoll thoroughly outclassed Attell but couldn’t score the stoppage, meaning a No Decision and Attell retained the belt.
Further testament to Driscoll’s domination was that all American writers present said he won the fight with American commentator, Nat Fleischer, saying “Driscoll was easily the best. The Welshman easily out pointed Attell and virtually took his title away from him. He definitely proved, as far as I am concerned, that he is the best featherweight in the world”. Driscoll may not have been the official champion but he returned to Cardiff having gained cult status and was now firmly the people’s champion.
Driscoll’s story is a true rag’s to riches story but he never forgot his roots. The honour of the man is highlighted by the fact that he turned down a rematch of the world title fight with Attell because it clashed with a date on which he’d promised to hold a charity fundraising event at the orphanage he grew up in, Nazareth House Orphanage.
A career which saw Peerless Jim become a Commonwealth, British, European champion and recognition as the best featherweight in the world was followed (all that with a six year break from boxing due to World War 1) by his death at the early age of 44. The funeral of Driscoll saw over 100,000 people lining the streets of Cardiff; he was finally laid to rest at Cathay’s Cemetery just five minutes from the Royal Oak where the nuns from Nazareth House Orphanage still tend to his grave.
Driscoll amassed an official record of 58 (39)-3-6. A record worthy of worldwide recognition in any era of boxing.
In modern times the term legend is used too loosely, however, Driscoll truly deserves to be remembered as a legend of not just British boxing, but the worldwide community of boxing.
The gym above the Royal Oak soon became unused and at one time even converted into four flats but now after hours of work its been refurbished and its now the gym of Gareth Piper and trainer Gareth Seward (also a published contributor to the UK’s oldest boxing magazine, Boxing News) ahead of Piper’s professional debut. The gym was resurrected by both from scratch and both deeply appreciate the opportunity. Seward described the opportunity to train in such a historic place as “a dream come true” – testament to its often neglected historical importance.
The gym opened on an event attended by many well known boxers, such as Glenn Cately – former WBC super middleweight champion, Nathan Cleverly – current European light heavyweight champion and (uncle) Nicky Piper – former super middleweight world title challenger, raising money for the Joshua Foundation which cares for terminally ill children. A selfless act in the true spirit of Driscoll’s own nature.
Ahead of Piper’s professional debut he was kind enough to spare this reporter some time to catch up with him and ask some questions.
I arrived and the aura of the pub hit me as soon as I walked in, the walls are filled with memorabilia and the pride is clear to see. You’d need a day to look at it all and truly appreciate it. Once I was shown to the upstairs gym and greeted by both Gareth’s it was humbling to be even sit in the gym Peerless Jim once plied his trade.
Piper and Seward did some ring work, working on combinations and movement to be used up-close, at range, on the back foot, on the front foot, on the ropes, in the corners, in the centre of the ring, at an orthodox stance, at a southpaw stance.
The obvious first impressions of the two were that they’re well prepared and focused on adaptability to any style. But after a few minutes of watching and listening it was clear that the focus on adaptability went much further than the glancing eye realised. The adaptability was subliminally centred on the pace at which a fight is fought at and becoming familiar and effective with/at various paces. Therefore allowing Piper not to lull at certain uncomfortable paces as some fighters do, which eventually will give him the ability to box efficiently at any pace should this be mastered.
After that I had my chance to find out all things possible about the duo in the form of a question and answer interview
Q “For those who are yet to come across you, when did you start boxing and what did you achieve in the amateur game?”
Piper: “I started boxing, well, my earliest memory were actually being babysat in Penarth ABC when my father was boxing. So, I believe I started when I had my first pair of gloves at 4 years old maybe, something like that.
I started competing then obviously at 10 which is the minimum age, so I had my first competition at 10 for the WABF and won a couple of championships there. I’ve been a little bit unlucky with selection processes (reference to the split of the WABF in the mid to late 1990’s which also hindered Enzo Maccarinelli) and stuff leading up towards the seniors.
So as I say, I won a couple of Welsh championships, boxed around, boxed in England, boxed in Ireland and moved around a bit. So yeah time to turn pro I think.”
Q: “Not only were you successful but in the last 6 years Penarth ABC has had 9 Welsh champions and 1 UK champion, what is that success down to and how is it going to stand you in good stead for your pro days?”
Piper: “Well Penarth has always had a good reputation I think and as you said it is going to stand me in good stead coming from a good background like that. People take you seriously, they understand that there’s a certain level of class and they in a way expect it from me then so it’s a little bit of pressure.
But there’s some really good boys coming in at Penarth. To produce of late 9 champions and 1 UK champion, well, they’ve got a good thing going there, solid, solid work routine.”
Q: “You’ve moved to a legendary location lately, how did that opportunity come about and then you decided to turn pro or?”
Piper: “Well what happened was Gareth (Seward – Piper’s trainer) and myself, found we had a good thing going together and we decided that we’re going to dedicate all our time during the off season and my last amateur season to basically being as good as I could be. Gareth has got a fantastic wealth of knowledge and found he can bring the best out in me and I hadn’t actually found that so I was learning things about myself as time was going on and we found that we could work to a higher level and the pro game is more suited to me and the style of the amateurs was not so much of a strategy but it was more of a 3 round race and as athletically gifted and talented as boxers are I felt that the pro game was suited to me more so as a strategist, as a craftsman.
So yeah we moved here and it was a good thing because the gym was out of use, as I say we left the amateur club and we decided we’re going to go pro having worked together and we were working out of different buildings and different spaces and stuff with no ring equipment, no ring, 1 or 2 bags with makeshift brackets we just put on the wall, we got a wealth of work done despite all that, we had to travel for some sparring.
We came here on the off chance and we just hoped that this derelict gym was going to be able to be given to us and the folks at the Royal Oak were wonderful enough to say “yeah its just a space at the minute, you can use it”. So we’ve thankfully breathed life back into the Jim Driscoll gym, it’s as it was and as it should have been I think.”
Q: “You’re no stranger to success as you said but you’re turning pro and you’re starting from scratch in one sense, do you dare to dream how far you can go, do you have a master-plan or are you literally taking it 1 fight at a time?”
Piper: “I do dare to dream definitely, but at the same time it is 1 step at a time. You can’t aim for the top today if you’re fighting for the middle tomorrow, you can’t overshoot targets.
The key to success it a series of small successes. You need to be prepared to beat tomorrows journey-men so you can beat next weeks men, and then you build up because if you don’t respect a fight enough you’re going to come unstuck, its those guys that are going to show you up basically. I truly believe that the sky is the limit, totally, especially with the quality of work we’re doing here and then the sparring and the team we’ve got together. We’ve got a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of resource access.
So I truly believe that just (interrupts himself because of his grounded nature), we’re going to take it 1 fight at a time definitely, you treat everybody as a world champion, you treat every fight like it’s a world championship fight and therefore success and world championship fights and hard fights are only ever going to be a 5% step up from the last fight. Rather than a load of easy type of wins, good and solid performances but no real challenges then all of a sudden you’ve got a title shot and you got to bump your game up 50%. I’d rather it only ever be a 5% step up, always ready, always prepared to do what’s required.”
Q: “When fighters do turn pro we sometimes see problems, Audley Harrison struggled to cope with the pace, and even James DeGale has got his critics in his first few fights. What special changes have you made or have you had to make changes?”
Piper: “Certainly, the amateur game and the pro game are 2 totally different things. And just because you’re specifically talented in one doesn’t mean you’re going to be specifically talented in another.
Myself, however I found that the amateurs wasn’t actually for me and I wasn’t able to express my talent in a way that was going to be exciting to watch me win fights because as I say, 8 rounds, 12 rounds – you got room to play, you can build people up, you can knock people down, you can set paces and stuff that other people think you want them to box at. It’s a world to play with and unfortunately the amateur game you just didn’t get that opportunity to shine as you would in the pros.
And the amateur experience has been phenomenal, again its been a wealth of knowledge for me to draw upon but that’s only going to enhance my pro game, its what I’m built for, its what I train for, its what I’m designed for and most importantly its what I enjoy doing.”
Q: “You’re managed by Chris Sanigar, he’s done very well for Britain and Bristol. He’s done well with Scott Dann (former British and Commonwealth champion), Lee Haskins (British and Commonwealth champion) , Dean Francis (former European, British and Commonwealth champion) and Glenn Cately (former WBC and British champion), how did that come about?”
Piper: “Well obviously with having known of Mr Sanigar for some time through his commitment to boxing he’s a local choice. Logistically it made sense in terms of Bristol not being too far away and there’s the quality he’s produced. I mean Sanigar’s a fantastic guy to have on your side, and we were willing to try break out of the local bubble I suppose. I’ve always, and Gareth has always made it a case that we’re willing to travel, we’re not willing to just stay at home, take the easy route and stuff. We want to push ourselves, we want to be out there, we want to be where the good things are happening and obviously earn those things and I think that Sanigar logistically and commitment to boxing wise is the best choice.”
Q “Have you set a date for the debut?”
Piper: “We’ve not no, we’re definitely working towards the beginning of the season come September. I’ll be speaking to Chris now in the next couple of weeks and see what’s coming up. But we are, and have been for a while now, been treating training as the training camp for the potential debut so I guess we’ll know opponent names within 2 or 3 weeks of the bill, we’re running out of the gate now, can’t wait.”
Q: “In a modern day context you’re very lucky to have Chris on your side, there’s not a lot happening actually in Wales in terms of professional boxing shows. Fighters have to take risky away fights, they’re not getting the right experience, how much do you think this is damaging Welsh boxing?”
Piper: “To be honest I think it’s a massive shame that the golden age of Welsh boxing is around. Boxing isn’t what it was in the 70’s or even the 80’s I guess. There’s a lot of talent unfortunately that’s not being harnessed, there seems to be a bit of bad ground between the Welsh amateur and the Welsh pro game, the transition between the 2 is a little bit shakey, I’m not entirely sure why but it just seems that unfortunately the talent that could be harnessed from the Welsh squad and the Welsh champions is not necessarily in British boxing’s face enough for them to take notice.”
Q: “Do you think its setting Wales back a few years?”
Piper: “Certainly, without a doubt, yeah.”
Q: “In terms of your sparring, who have you been with?”
Piper: “I’ve been lucky. Again, one of our main drives in good training is that we’re willing to travel. We’ve been up to Manchester to work with Kevin Maree and a lot of his boys, I’ve been sparring with Kenny Anderson, Billy Nelson has brought down Ricky Burns and John Simpson. The quality there is fantastic, there’s other names that are continually popping through, like Carl Frampton was there as well. We visited the Calzaghe’s obviously, Bradley Pryce, Gavin Rees and Tony Docherty and stuff so the sparring is good. Plus, Chris Sanigar has a fantastic wealth of young up-and-coming amateur talent, those guys are fantastic.”
July 28, 2010