1 Nov 2015

Teaching the 'sweet science' of boxing

From Spectrum, 12:15 pm on 1 November 2015

“I’m still fit and I’ve got a lot to do yet.” - Billy Graham

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Billy Graham, at home at the Naenae Boxing Academy in Lower Hutt Photo: RNZ Phil Smith

Billy Graham reckons lessons learnt in his boxing gym are valuable lessons for life.

Since 2006, he's been training young boxers in his Naenae Boxing Academy, north of Wellington. The academy was set up by Billy as a charitable trust to work with at-risk youth.

Coming in low

Coming in low Photo: RNZ Phil Smith

Billy had a dream to start a gym from his own days as a young boxer. He started boxing in Naenae under Dick Dunn - New Zealand’s legendary boxing coach-  when he was eight years old. He won four gold and two silver titles at the Nationals, the Jamieson Belt, and the Australasian title in 1967. Billy was also a finals trialist for the Commonwealth Games in 1966, Edinburgh in 1972 and Christchurch in 1974.

Billy Graham

Billy Graham Photo: RNZ Phil Smith

Inspired by the life-changing experiences he was given under his coach's tutelage, Billy was determined to offer that same opportunity to a new generation of kids.

To join the boxing gym, there are a few simple rules. There’s no swearing, no drugs, no alcohol. Billy trains his young charges to look people in the eye and shake their hand.

But the life skill training doesn’t stop when his boxers put on the gloves. Billy says boxing teaches young boys to face their fears, be brave and stand up for themselves.

He scoffs at the idea that boxing teaches violence. "This isn’t like getting beaten up in the carpark. They’ve got headguards, mouthguards, we make sure to look after them. This is just beautiful; this is like Beethoven to me.”

Billy Graham’s own journey from snotty-nosed truant to champion boxer, author and motivational speaker is a remarkable one.

He grew up in the Lower Hutt suburb of Naenae in the 1950s. He was dyslexic, hated school and had several brushes with the law, until he was carted off to the boxing gym by the local policeman.

In Dick Dunn’s gym, he found his passion and a mentor prepared to coach him to become as fit and skilled as he could. Dick Dunn approached boxing with a keen intelligence and kindness, Billy says, and his aim was to make sure his boys weren’t hurt.

He owes a huge debt to his coach, he says, who instilled in him ethics and virtues that are as much part of his life now as they were back in the days when they trained and travelled together to boxing competitions.

A young boxer at Billy Graham's Naenae Boxing Academy in Lower Hutt.

Waiting for your turn Photo: RNZ Phil Smith

When he hung up his gloves, Billy spent years coaching in gyms and at schools around the country, and developed a previously untapped skill in motivational speaking. He has addressed groups throughout Australasia, Singapore, Malaysia, the US and Britain for over 30 years.

Billy finally realised his dream of starting his own boxing gym when he bought a property in Treadwell Street in Naenae in 2005.

These days, the Naenae Boxing Academy, and a recently opened gym in Cannons Creek, continues to train hundreds of young boys each year in what he calls the “sweet science”.

At 68, Billy still feels he has plenty left to offer his young charges. “I’m still fit and I’ve got a lot to do yet.”