Martin Bisp – giving young people a ‘fighting chance’
The Empire Amateur Boxing club has been part of the Bristol boxing scene for 40 years. It became a home for local stars like Chris Sanigar, who brought professional boxing back to Bristol in the 1970s, and created World Champions in Adrian Stone and Glenn Catley.
When we met Martin he told us the story of how in 2006 everything changed, and Empire Fighting Chance was born.
Chris had become an ambassador for the club, his son Jamie ran the professional boxing side, and Martin Bisp ran things for the amateurs part-time. The catalyst was Martin and Jamie spotting two teenagers dealing drugs on the street opposite the club. Martin says they still don’t quite know what prompted them to do it, but they crossed over to speak to them, and invited them to work out in the gym. To the pair’s surprise the boys turned up, and the next night they brought a big group of friends back with them. By the end of the week there were 50 young people coming to Empire every evening, and it snowballed from there.
“In those days I was working full-time in an office job”, says Martin. “My job at Empire was just meant to be a few amateur training sessions a week in the evenings.”
The growth was so unexpected that there were about six weeks of juggling and trying to keep the wheels on, during which time Martin says they quickly realised something more meaningful was happening. “Schools were getting in touch with us to say they’d noticed improved behaviour in the kids we saw in the evenings. The kids were mentioning to their teachers that they’d been at Empire, and the schools were putting two and two together.
“We were paying for this ‘programme’, if you could call it that, out of our own pockets”, says Martin. “After 12 weeks we realised that boxing was never going to be enough. We were talking to these kids; they needed support for domestic violence; they needed support with emotional literacy, with personal development, and we were seeing good results.”
Boxing as a sport and a community is no stranger to challenges like these. “All sorts of things bring people to boxing”, says Martin, “but most people in the sport have had a tough time at home, there might be issues with gangs, violence, or physical abuse.”
Martin says that Chris’ personal influence as an ambassador of the club set a culture that has made their current work and ethos feel like a natural progression. “He’s always been very strict about ‘no swearing’ at Empire, and it’s down to Chris that we’ve always committed to treat everyone who comes in those doors with respect, because we understand what they’re all going through.”
From the very earliest days, Quartet was one of the first funders to support the new direction of the club. First with advice, and later with grants support. “Quartet and Ronnie Brown in particular educated us about grants”, says Martin. “We didn’t collect any stats, or measure our impact. Anecdotally we knew we were making a difference, but we couldn’t talk to funders about it at all as we didn’t have the evidence.
“We’re incredibly grateful for Quartet’s support”, says Martin. “In the early days you were the people that backed us and ensured that we could keep going, especially when we weren’t even a charity. It probably isn’t overstating that without Quartet’s support it’s unlikely we would be where we are now.”
And ‘where we are now’ is seriously impressive. Empire runs the largest schools’ boxing programme in the country; they see around 200 young people a week, mainly in group sessions and some one-to-one. They mainly operate Bristol-wide but also send their boxing coaches out into areas of South Wales. 60 or 70 of the young people they currently support are considered extremely ‘hard to reach’ by the schools system or other services. Empire officially works with young people aged between 10 – 25 years, but in reality they accept referrals for kids as young as seven, who are struggling to engage with education or have severe anger or behavioural issues. Amazingly, they provide nearly all of their personal development programmes in-house, but sometimes also refer on to other mental health services in the most extreme cases.
“We’ve been told we’ve saved lives”, says Martin. “Kids who were contemplating suicide, who self-harmed, who have anxiety. Now they can come to the club and they see themselves achieving, gaining skills, confidence, and they can go on to be successful in their lives.”
In 2013 Empire Fighting Chance became a charity, and since January this year they’ve moved into their new premises on Lower Ashley Road as part of a community asset transfer. Martin was finally able to relinquish his conventional ‘nine to five’ job and move to the club full-time.