Hope in school of hard knocks
The Victory YMCA boxing programme took some knocks in the public arena earlier in the year, but it's received a thumping endorsement from one man who's learnt life's lessons the hard way. Alan Clarke reports.
One-time national boxing champ, author and motivational speaker Billy Graham shares not only the name of the celebrity American evangelist. He's equally bullheaded about his beliefs and values and has a punchbag full of passion and zeal for making a difference among some of the most at-risk youngsters in New Zealand.
Graham is not one to pull his punches - whether in a phone interview, or in his latest book, Making Champion Men - How one New Zealand Man's Vision is Changing Boys' Lives.
Critics of programmes like the one run by Victory Primary School teacher Paul Hampton and former champion softballer Marty Grant need to get real, he says.
"If I had my way there'd be boxing in every school in New Zealand and there'd be no bullying in the school; that would stop it overnight."
Parents who prevent their children from taking part in controlled physical activities, fearing they might get hurt, need to wake up for their kids' sake, he says.
"Well, they're gonna get hurt if they don't learn to defend themselves. It's a tougher world than the one most parents grew up in.
"When I was growing up there was honour in fights. These days, people shoot and use knives, or it's five on one and they beat the living crap out of each other. It's a changing world, and kids have to learn to be men; boys have to learn to step up to the mark."
Graham has backers in high places.
Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett is a fan - the admiration, says Graham, is mutual - and also in his corner is Principal Youth Court Judge Andrew Becroft, someone exposed to the consequences of parenting and societal breakdown.
In the book's foreword Judge Becroft describes Graham as "a special person with rare gifts . . . an unsung hero who is putting boundless energy and enthusiasm [into helping] disadvantaged and marginalised young people, who represent one of our country's biggest challenges".
Graham lived in Nelson for a decade 20 years ago and has family here.
"You have got some hard-case kids there even if it's a very up-market area, a well-heeled town. There are some hard kids there."
It is getting through to so-called "hard kids" that Graham is devoting much of his life to.
His story, co-written with sports journalist Phil Gifford, is packed with anecdotes about his upbringing, fighting career and, much more importantly, the way his Naenae boxing academy is transforming a challenging region.
He sees many problems resulting from inadequate or absent fathers. "There are fewer boys with fathers - I don't know how we're going to turn that around. We have 80-odd kids here at the academy, and we're lucky to see three fathers in the gym. It's really sad.
"If they haven't got an older brother or a coach to look up to, they have no-one to look up to, so anyone that befriends them, being a gang or some other dropkick, they're involved with them.
"I knocked round with some real dropkicks when I was a kid until I got involved with boxing, and all of a sudden I had sportsmen to knock around with who were going somewhere and were dedicated, and didn't want to drink as they had a fight the next night, a weight to make.
"We all need a little help along the way."
Boxing is his thing, but "any sport is better than no sport", he says.
He worries that youngsters spend too much time online rather than learning about the real world, and says parents need to set rules and boundaries.
"If you've got no control over your kids then you've got problems."
Like the Victory programme, most of the emphasis at his gym is on discipline, fitness and respect.
"Out of all the kids that come here, we have only 12 who are registered to box. Most of them don't want to fight."
Another supporter - among dozens - is Cookie Time owner Michael Mayell. "He gives all my boys free cookies every time they come to the gym, has been for seven years. The big ones, they're a meal in themselves.
"Another guy came to see us and said, ‘Your boys need shoes.' So he supplied each of them a new pair, from his shop. That kind of support is amazing."
Graham acknowledges his work has positive spinoffs for the wider community: "The cops love us to pieces 'cause our crime rate's right down in the town."
But not everything wearing the boxing mantle wins his approval. He's scathing about the likes of Sonny Bill Williams dabbling in the ring, and equally dubious about the so-called Fights for Life, despite their charitable intent.
"I'm completely against it. You have men 40 years of age trying to regain their youth, trying to beat some guy who can't fight either. I've seen some guys damaged, and it's a wonder someone hasn't been killed."
And he reckons that, at just 65, he's got a good two or three decades left in his legs and ticker.
"I'll be coaching as long as I can stand. My health's good, I'm as fit as a 30-year-old, to be honest.
"It's a good journey that we're on; it's exciting, eh."