OLYMPIAN Tony Jeffries is back on Wearside and says he couldn’t be happier after swapping boxing gloves for bibs.
The 29-year-old from Silksworth, who fought his way to medal glory in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is back on home turf for the first time in two years after moving to LA.
And he’s brought the latest addition to the Jeffries clan with him.
Though she may be only three months old, Jayde Jeffries has made the long journey from the sun-drenched shores of California to wind-swept Wearside.
“It’ been really nice for Jayde to see Sunderland for the first time,” said Tony, who hasn’t lost his Mackem twang. “My family have been dying to meet her. I haven’t been home for two years but I’m amazed how many people from home still follow what I’m doing on social media. We had thousands of messages of congratulations when Jayde was born, more than when I was boxing.
“I’ve been out and about in Sunderland and people still recognise me, it’s mad.”
Tony first walked into Lambton Street boxing gym at the age of ten, before joining Sunderland ABC in Barnes. He had his first fight at 11 and went on to rule the ring, winning seven national titles, fighting for England and Great Britain 56 times, winning four European medals and fighting in the Commonwealth Games.
After winning bronze in the Olympics as a light heavyweight, he turned professional as a super-middleweight and had ten undefeated bouts as “The Mighty Mackem.”
But more than 15 years of using his fists took its toll, and gradual wear and tear of his hands led to a permanent injury which forced him to retire from boxing three years ago.
Depression kicked in, Tony will admit. But the sport which had led him into a spiral of depression would also be his salvation.
Instead of being the fighter, Tony turned trainer.
He opened a gym, Box ‘n’ Burn, in Santa Monica in December 2012 and three months ago opened its sister gym in Brentwood, the suburb of LA where Tony now lives with Jayde and wife Sarah, 29, his childhood sweetheart.
“Even if I could box again now, I wouldn’t. It’s the hardest job in the world. The training, the dieting, the stress, it’s so hard,” he said.
“The expectations on me were so high after the Olympics.”
The former Farringdon School pupil added: “Boxing was all I knew. I left school with no qualifications, not one GCSE, but now I’m running a business with 17 staff, working 13 hours a day, and I love it.”
Word soon got out about Tony, his Olympic medal and his skills in the ring. And, as well as running boxing fitness classes, 70 per cent of which are attended by women, he’s attracted a celebrity clientele.
Thor actor Chris Hemsworth, actor Jason Statham, fashionista Nicole Ritchie and American footballer Tim Tebow have all trained in Box ‘n’ Burn.
The cameras have turned on Tony too. Casting directors have spotted his rugged charm and he’s appeared in a global billboard, magazine and commercial campaign for Levi’s, a TV advert for Gillette and acting roles in two episodes of US TV drama The Blacklist alongside James Spader.
“There’s a lot of fake people in LA who will tell you what you want to hear, but I think they like the fact I’m more real and tell it like it is,” he said.
There’s no doubt Tony, who once worked flipping burgers in a van outside the Stadium of Light, is living the American dream. He and Sarah, a former Sunderland Royal Hospital nurse who passed her exams to work in an emergency room in LA, both hold green cards and little Jayde is an American citizen.
The new dad is even in talks with a director about making a documentary on his rags-to-riches tale.
But, there are some things he misses about his homeland.
As well as catching up with his close-knit friends and family - especially nana Irene Bryce, 74, who’s been diagnosed with leukaemia - he’s been tucking into Greggs pasties and filling up on belly-busting breakfasts from The Bungalow Cafe in Roker.
“I miss the British sense of humour too,” said Tony. “I do have American friends, but a lot of my friends are English as American people can take themselves so seriously.”
After a whirlwind of catch-ups, the Jeffries will next week be heading back to LA to build the Box’n’Burn brand.
But though boxing, in its many forms, may be in Tony’s blood, he doesn’t want Jayde to follow in his fighting footsteps.
“I’ll teach her to box to protect herself, but I wouldn’t want her to box. I’m still a believer that girls shouldn’t be punched in the face, even though it’s an Olympic sport. I’m old school,” he said.
“Jayde will create her own future, like I did.”
l Tony has started a series of Boxing Life podcasts, featuring guests. For more information follow Tony on Twitter @Tony_Jeffries.