Aged 10 and in his own words “not a well-behaved kid,” a young Tony Jeffries began sparring at Sunderland Amateur Boxing Club (SABC) under the tutelage of the late Bobby Bute and other dedicated coaches.
Not only did it keep the young Jaffa off the streets, it sowed the seeds for a boxing career which saw him take bronze at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 before turning pro.
Although injury forced him to hang up his gloves after 106 fights, Tony is never far from the ring. Today he runs a successful duo of Box’N’Burn gyms in LA, which has spawned spin off Box’N’Burn academies where he teaches personal trainers how to teach boxing, which are in demand around the world.
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For the first time in two years, the former Farringdon School pupil has been back on Wearside and took a break from catching up with friends and family to go back to SABC, which is housed above Barnes School.
“It’s 10 years since I’ve been back to the ABC, but I still remember the first time I went there in 1995,” said Tony, 33. “It’s really emotional going back. That’s where my journey all started. The men there dedicated their lives to helping kids for free and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them. I wasn’t a well behaved kid and I don’t know what I would be doing now without that training.”
Whilst there, Jaffa donated some of his Olympic kit and professional outfits to the club, which has been home to numerous national champions at schoolboy, junior and senior levels - as well as gaining international success including Tri Nation, European, World Championship, Commonwealth and Olympic Games medallists.
He said: “It’s great to be able to see kids from my home city and to motivate them. I know how difficult the struggle can be and 99 percent of them won’t make it in boxing but there’s always a chance.”
Major hand injuries meant Tony could no longer fight professionally and at 27 he had to stop competing in the sport which had been his life for almost two decades. Just over six years ago he moved to America and was teaching personal training in a basement gym for $10 an hour, which is less than the minimum wage.
It was a far cry from the glory days of the Olympics and he began putting on weight and drinking without the fighting to keep him focused. But the American Dream eventually gave him a new path in life. He used his knowledge of the sport to open his own gym in Santa Monica, where he passes on his skills for fitness purposes, while juggling family life with childhood sweetheart Sarah and their three children Jayde, four, Jessie, two and Jodie, nine months.
A second site soon followed in Brentwood and the gyms have proved a hit, attracting the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Hemsworth through the doors.
“It was certainly a gamble moving to America,” he explains. “Over here I was well-known and in the public eye, but no one knew who I was there. It was like going from one extreme to the other. But I worked hard and it’s a gamble that’s paid off. I never thought I’d be happy not boxing but now I love teaching it for fitness, it’s a great workout, and I don’t get punched in the head anymore.”
Since he was last in Sunderland there’s been many changes to Wearside, a place Tony loves so much he fought with the moniker Mighty Mackem on his shorts.
“I wasn’t sure about coming home because it’s so expensive for us to fly back and I have to take time off work,” he said. “But now I’m home I’ve loved it and feel like, for the first time in a while, I could live here again. There’s been so many changes in Sunderland, such as Keel Square and all along the seafront is lovely, they’ve even started working on the Vaux site since I was last here. It’s a beautiful place really, it just needs to be 10 degrees hotter.
“I’ve even been swimming in the sea in Seaburn and Seaham as I’m a big believer in the benefits of cold therapy, it’s great for your joints and the mind. It’s a bit different to swimming in the Pacific Ocean though.”