Boxing is the government's latest strategy to deal with delinquency. But why is the noble art back in favour and can it really save youngsters from a life of crime?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Online Magazine
The image of the wayward kid rescued by the discipline and demands of boxing is a well-worn cliché, but one on which the government is hanging its latest policy for engaging disenchanted youth.
Home Secretary David Blunkett says amateur boxing training offers young people "a positive way of life" and his department now funds 26 boxing training projects across the UK.
Run by Positive Futures, a government-funded sports-based social inclusion project, the number of youths involved in the projects rose from 150 to 530 last month.
For many the government's stance has come as a surprise, particularly at a time when even the traditional autumn pursuit of conker fighting is under threat because it is deemed too dangerous. But the noble art is undergoing a revival.
This is in part down to the success of Bolton teenager Amir Khan, who was Britain's sole boxer at this summer's Athens Olympics and won a silver medal.
But its rehabilitation is also due to the simple fact that it appeals to troubled youngsters, say those involved in the sport.
Khan's boxing coach Mick Jelley, who travelled with the 17-year-old to the Olympics, is in no doubt about what boxing offers youngsters.
"It gives them the dignity and the self confidence to deal with whatever life throws at them and for some that's quite a lot, " he says.
Jelley has run Bury Amateur Boxing Club for 40 years on a voluntary basis and says during that time he has kept "a lot of people out of prison and even more sane".
"They come here, pay a quid to train all evening and when they go home they are too tired to do anything but sleep," he says.
"In the end it all comes down to teaching respect - for me, themselves and others. I have school teachers, doctors, probation officers - all of them ring me up for help. What I do is a job in the community."
Khan was one such boisterous youngster when his father first took him to Jelley's gym aged eight to "burn off excess energy".
"I stopped fighting outside the gym pretty much as soon as I started boxing," says Khan.
Tony Pluckrose, 19, from Folkestone in Kent says if he hadn't walked into his local gym two years ago he would now just be pushing up the crime statistics.
"I was going off the rails and starting to get into trouble with the police, my general attitude was bad," he says.
"I decided to change before it was too late and went to a boxing club. I love it, it keeps you physically and mentally fit. It's great seeing the progression you make, you are always learning and meeting new people."
Tony is one of a number of young boxers taking part in new television series Boxing Academy, starting on Monday on Five.
Mick Jelley coached Amir Khan from a boy
The youngsters will be whittled down to just 10, separated into two camps and trained over four weeks, culminating in a fight between each camp's best boxer.
The programme reflects the sport's current rehabilitation into the mainstream but series producer Dan Clapton says he was surprised by the support at grassroots level.
"There are 60 boxing clubs in Liverpool alone. It is the city's second sport behind football and when you consider how footie mad the Liverpudlians are, you realise just how big it is," he says.
Tapping into boxing's popularity and credibility is behind the government's latest strategy.
"It is about getting kids through the doors and quite simply this is what young people want, we are reacting to demand," says Positive Futures.
But not everyone is happy about the government promoting the sport.
The British Medical Association says other sports can provide discipline with far less risk of injury.
Critics also say the boxing projects perpetuate the idea that the only thing kids from certain backgrounds are good for is physical sport - nothing more.
But Future Positive says its focus is on training rather than fighting.
Lennox Lewis credits boxing with turning his life around
"These projects are not about kids getting in a ring and thumping the hell out of each other, they are about fitness and discipline.
"The aim is to reach them and then introduce them to a broad programme of training and education projects."
But the sport's increase in popularity has been a mixed blessing for some of those involved.
"Since Amir's success most of my time is now spent turning people away," says Jelley.
"The government can praise boxing all it likes and fund a few projects, but the average club is struggling to stay open. There are too few public buildings left where you can base a boxing club and no one is willing to volunteer to run them.
"I have had to fight hard for 40 years to keep this boxing club going. In the end I'm not only fighting for boxing, but for every local sports club. We do an important job in the community but get little thanks."