'When I was their age I was on a bad path'
Plus: Jess Phillips follows her heart
Good morning readers and welcome to Thursday’s Dispatch.
Today’s big story is by Wolverhampton’s Abi Whistance, who is a staff writer at one of our sister newspapers in Liverpool. She visited a Wolves boxing gym with a difference. The coach is Khalsa — a special order of Sikhs — and has become more than a coach to the kids in his classes. He is also a confidant who champions them to become strong and considerate members of their community.
Our Brum in Brief leads on the news that Jess Phillips MP of Yardley has resigned as the shadow minister for Domestic Abuse and Safeguarding. She stood down after backing a ceasefire in Gaza in a tense vote in parliament last night.
But before that, a big thank you to local data journalist extraordinaire Paul Bradshaw who gave us a shout-out on Twitter yesterday. He said:
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Brum in Brief
☂️ Cloudy and damp with light rain throughout the day.
🗳️ Yardley MP Jess Phillips has resigned from the shadow cabinet after voting for a ceasefire in Gaza. Keir Starmer had warned members that any who voted out of line yesterday — Labour backed the government’s call for humanitarian pauses instead — would lose their positions and be moved to the backbenches. Phillips posted her resignation letter on Twitter/X, which said: “On this occasion I must vote with my constituents, my head, and my heart which has felt as if it were breaking over the last four weeks with the horror of the situation in Israel and Palestine.”
⚧️ The University of Birmingham has published an interesting article that criticises the UK’s lack of progress in banning conversion therapy. The practice is used to try to change someone’s sexual or gender orientation and interestingly, 60% of British people want it prohibited according to a YouGov poll. “The political context of this issue is long and torturous; filled with senior politicians and civil servants calling out the government for the appalling lack of progress. PM Theresa May first promised to ban conversion therapy in July 2018 – five years ago, but a series of successive governments have not acted on this promise.”
✈️ A Herefordshire teenager has become the UK’s youngest ever pilot at the age of 14. Milo, from Kington, went on his first flight at nine years old and collected his licence on his 17th birthday on 31 October. "It's just a sense of freedom really, you can just take off from this runway, this strip of tarmac and you can just go really wherever you like," he said.
🎄 Christmas has arrived at Pigeon Park. For the third year running, a festive market is located at Birmingham Cathedral Square. For the next five weeks, local traders will be serving festive food and drinks accompanied by live music from Vintage Got Soul artists. “From fine wines and fried chicken to macaroons and craft beer, Christmas 2023 at Cathedral Square brings together the best tastes from Birmingham and beyond.”
🍸 South East Asian inspired cocktail bar Spirits of Anarchy is opening in Moseley on 22 November. The menu includes creative cocktails — including booze-free options — and locally brewed beers with a focus on pale ales. A selection of wines and spirits featuring untypical brands makes for an interesting change too.
‘50% saint, 50% soldier’: the Khalsa boxing club teaching kids the art of defence
"Some of these kids — they’re going to be world champions.”
By Abi Whistance
In 1699, Sikhs from across the Punjab gathered in Anandpur, India to celebrate the harvest festival of Vaisakhi. From a tent emerged the tenth guru: philosopher, poet, and warrior Guru Gobind Singh. Wielding a great sword he called upon members of the congregation to make the ultimate sacrifice. He wanted five men to give their heads in offering. One by one the brave volunteers entered the tent with the guru who each time reappeared alone, his blade slicked with fresh blood.
Later, the crowd was shocked to discover the five men were in fact alive — the blood belonged to several unlucky goats. But Guru Gobind Singh had found his fighters for a courageous new Sikh order. They had proved their unflinching dedication to god and their fellow people. He called them Khalsa, from the Arabic khalis, meaning pure.
Those same principles of commitment and protection continue today and have manifested in a very 21st Century way in a boxing gym in Wolverhampton. Sundeep Garcha — or Sunny for short — has been on a spiritual journey in the past year to become part of Khalsa. At his Khalsa Boxing Club in Blakenhall’s Gurdwara, he trains kids and teenagers in the art of self-defence. At the core of his approach are the same principles of social justice and tolerance found in the Sikh faith.
“It’s not just about boxing, it’s about teaching a way of thinking as well,” he tells me. On his phone are dozens of thank you texts, praising him for his advice about school, life and personal goals. Before they started boxing, he says: “Some of these guys didn’t know how to make eye contact, or how to speak up or defend their mothers and sisters.”
I watch a class of about 30 eight to 11-year-olds, most of whom have been coming since the club opened in January. “And jab! Jab! Jab!” a voice shouts across the gym. A row of small fists punch the air in perfect synchronicity, dozens of eyes staring intently at their coach.
“When I was their age I was on a bad path,” Sunny explains. His dad died when he was ten, and soon after he was spending his time on the streets. Wolverhampton was a tough place to be on the streets. He got roped into a “bad crowd” and had to distance himself from a lifestyle of petty crime which many boys his age had entered into.
Unsurprisingly so — the West Midlands has one of the highest crime rates in England: 123.6 crimes were committed per 1,000 residents in the last year. By comparison, the crime rate in London sits at 102.3 crimes per 1,000 people. It always amazes me that boxing is often the choice activity under such circumstances, especially in the West Midlands where violence stacks pretty high. Don’t painting or drama classes seem a better fit?
Sunny explains that for him boxing isn’t violent — it’s an art form. He’s been a fan of the sport since he was around eight years old, and remembers setting an alarm for 3am and sneaking out of bed on a Saturday morning to see Mike Tyson on the telly. He’d watch in awe as the heavyweight glided across the screen; feet and hands nimble as he landed the winning blow on his opponent. Tyson was his idol, and by 18 years old Sunny had taken up the sport himself.
Now 47, his love for boxing burns brighter than ever. He points to his long beard, navy turban and the small dagger (known as a kirpan) attached to his side. “I’m designed this way so I can’t hide in a crowd,” he says. “We’re supposed to be ready at any moment to fight against tyranny — it’s my duty as Khalsa to help you, and you’ll spot me in a crowd and recognise that.”
He says that this is where boxing fits into his faith. There are skills to be learnt in the sport; self-restraint and patience, an ability to defend others without resorting to weapons — all qualities that are important in Sikhism. “This club is all about giving the kids the confidence to protect, not just people inside the club, but people outside the club as well,” he says. “Our religion is 50% saint, 50% soldier.”
It’s just past 6pm, and the final class of the evening is about to begin. This session is for the older kids — between 12 and 18 years old — and a mix of boys and girls pour through the doors and put their bags down. Without instruction they begin warming up, a steady hubbub of chatter bubbling in the background as they start stretches and jumping jacks.
Sunny points out a number of kids to me; some Khalsa like him, others still Sikh. He calls over one boy, 17-year-old Rajan, to chat. Rajan is polite, if a little nervous, and tells me he’s been a member of the boxing club since the start. Why does he come here? I ask. “I’ve always been into combat sports,” he says, adding that he attended karate and kickboxing lessons as a child. “But if you look around as well, everyone here is of a Sikh religion and most lads have turbans.” Why is that important to him? “When we’re fighting and you see someone with a turban, especially the young kids, it gives a bit of a confidence boost.” He says that growing up, he doesn’t remember seeing many other Sikhs outside of his community. “Now you do — just look around.” Time for the all important question: does he think he could be a world champion one day? “Well yeah, that’s the aim!” he laughs. “But it’s what God wants it to be, whichever way it goes it’s God’s plan.”
“When was the last time you ever heard anyone say they wanted to be world champion?” Sunny says to me. “You don’t even think it’s a possibility, but some of these kids — they’re going to be world champions.”
It’s time for the sparring to commence. Until today, I didn't appreciate how physical and combative sparring is. From the excited shouts filling the sports hall I can tell it must be important. A circle begins to form and two of the older boys strap on head gear; Sunny offers both boys words of encouragement before sending them into the ring. Sparring is the closest thing to a real fight — headshots and torso punches can be delivered with considerable force here, unlike in usual practice. I stand on the sidelines and watch, grimacing at each swift blow.
After a few minutes the bell sounds, and both boys collapse into one another. They hug, complimenting each other's hits and footwork. It’s all surprisingly respectful — and despite the pummeling both youngsters receive they have smiles spread across their faces. I ask both boys what they’d be doing with their Monday nights if they weren’t at this boxing club. Both have the same answer: watching telly.
“If this wasn’t open right now, some of them would be doing nothing, or just be out on the streets,” Sunny says, explaining that he often sees groups of teens out in the dark, patrolling neighbourhoods. “And you know, when you’re out there you’re always going to come across another squad that is bigger and badder than you, that’s the way it goes. It’s dog eat dog.” Instead, kids from eight years old all the way up to 18 are kept safe indoors, coming together three times a week to practise their jabs with the hope of becoming the next Tyor Ali.
As the lesson comes to a close exhausted looks spread across the room. I ask Sunny what he sees in Khalsa Boxing Club’s future. “I want to see these kids go professional,” he says. “That’s my big dream.” Does he think that could happen? “Listen, if this was to end tomorrow it would break my heart, but I’m so proud of what we’ve done in such a short time — these kids understand that they can be real life champions.”
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