“Where did the Foundation begin, and what was your own circumstance at the time?”
I remember very clearly. I was nineteen years old and working as an instructor at an outdoor adventure company. I had just met the lady who would go on to my wife, Kirsty. She was from a ‘good’ family (a term used by society, not her family I hasten to add) and I was from a poor family. From day one I knew I wanted to spend my life with her, and would need to be able to provide something more than minimum wage and zero hour contracts.
I had no degree, no higher education – not even a C in maths. Before turning twenty I had worked around five or six different jobs, from seasonable hospitality through to manual labouring. It’s a lonely place to be, especially when it feels like everyone around you has so much more.
“How would you describe your childhood?”
Lonely, and tough. I didn’t really enjoy it. I was born into poverty and whilst it varied throughout my childhood, there were times when food on the table or electric in the meter was far from certain. My father worked so hard to provide for us, quite often working 70 or 80 hour weeks. Like so many families in the UK it just wasn’t always enough.
There was alcohol abuse within the family unit too, and when a family breakdown led to my parent’s splitting up just before my thirteenth birthday things got really tough, really fast. My father – who became a mother and father to my three siblings and I – had to give up work to look after us all.
My elder brother and I began work aged around twelve, helping out in a local fruit and veg shop. What should have been a few hours of Saturday work for pocket money quickly became twenty or so hours each – before school and after, as well as at the weekends, to help us get by. I remember so often being tired at school, and constantly being more focused on the finances than my education.
It’s hard to be all that enthusiastic about an education when you’re hungry and worried about whether or not you’ll have a house over your head at the end of the month.
As a young adolescent boy the frustration was at times palpable. If it hadn’t been for martial arts, I just don’t know where I would have ended up.
A superb coach named Steffan who taught Thai Boxing for the love of it changed my life and I am forever grateful to him. He gave me something consistent – something to focus on. A cause to become absolutely dedicated to, and through this I built up a sense of self-worth and bags full of resilience.
The friends I had which came along to that gym largely escaped that little town. Of those who didn’t, quite a few now have criminal records and some are unfortunately no longer with us.
As soon as I could I left that town and joined the Armed Forces. After a very short service in which I just couldn’t settle my mind to follow orders without wondering more about the bigger picture, I came out, moved away and set up the association.
“So did you have any funding available, or any help setting up? Surely you didn’t have the qualifications or experience needed to get a governing body off the ground. What was the general feel at that time?”
I was in quite a bad place, financially speaking, when I made the leap to set up the association. It didn’t feel like the ‘right’ time in that sense but there seemed little prospect of my finances improving drastically unless I took direct and immediate action to make that happen.
At the time I had actually just ‘defaulted’ on my overdraft. A previous employer failed to pay me wages owed before going into administration so I was £800 out of pocket. With a black mark against my credit rating and only earning £300 per month in an ‘apprenticeship’ (which involved working long days over 7 days a week with just one day off) I had practically nothing left on pay day. Deduct the £40 I was paying back to the bank plus the cost of living on site with the employer, and I had less in my pocket than I would have had if I was unemployed.
I managed to set aside £20 to start the Association – British Martial Arts & Boxing Association. I spent a fiver on a domain name, and pretty much just taught myself everything else in the following year or so. Web design, marketing, governance, business management – you name it. When you just don’t have the funds, you have to improvise.
“Was everyone supportive of what you were trying to do?”
No, not at all.
The only person who really believed in me is the same person I’m lucky enough to call my wife.
Everybody in the industry looked down on me because I was just 19/20 and hadn’t been on a committee for the last 20 years. Those out of the industry told me it was a stupid idea, and that I would ‘be stacking shelves in petrol stations for the rest of my life’ (a job I did actually take on at one point to allow me to do night shifts around the association’s day work). Even friends at the time seemed skeptical.
The hardest thing was the total lack of belief from within the martial arts community. I understand why; it was a crowded market place dominated by quite cash-rich, long established organisations.
Feeling that alone and doomed to failure is a hopeless place to be, for sure. I’m very thankful for my Wife’s (then Girlfriends) support. It quite literally made all the difference.
“If the association was doing well, why not just keep it a limited company and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle? Surely setting up the Foundation hindered this?”
Life is short. It’s a cliche so many of us fail to take seriously until you’re forced to consider your own death. When you have that pivotal moment you realise what really matters, and what really doesn’t. Ultimately, we all have just 5.5 litres of blood. Strip away our skin colour, our religions, our class, our backgrounds and we’re all the same. We’re almost all entirely good people who just want to be safe, and who prefer to feel love than pain.
Money doesn’t make me happy if it’s coming from a selfish place. When I pass on very little will remain to show that I was ever here. Fancy cars and houses are eventually recycled or replaced, and much like the relationships we build with loved ones, the legacy we leave for future generations is to me the most defining contribution I can make.
I feel supremely privileged to have escaped poverty. Whether that’s through hard work or luck – or a combination – is hard to say. What I do know is I still have a chip on my shoulder about the disadvantage I faced as a young man and that feeling of a complete lack of control over my own life choices and opportunities. If I can leave this world someday knowing that the opportunity and ‘break out’ I had has been delivered to another child, I will be able to leave this world in peace.
I’m not religious – this isn’t about faith. It’s about humanity, and believing that we’re all so much more than we’re often led to believe.
“What difference are you trying to make, and ultimately what is the ‘end goal’?”
I think there is perhaps a bit of a ‘I have to prove you wrong’ underlying the work the association does. I have to show others that it’s possible to break out of the life you come from – the start to life that you don’t chose. Ultimately, it’s about providing a safe and sustainable plan to use martial arts in the right way, to inspire more social change. The income I now contribute to society, the employees I pay a salary to, the tens of thousands our organisation has paid in taxes – none of it would be there if it wasn’t for that one coach believing in me.
Belief makes things real. We’re just not taught that enough in school.
The end goal is the Foundation no longer being needed because we move to such a just society that things like childhood poverty, knife crime, violence against women and girls and so on is no longer an issue. In reality, that’s never likely to happen. What we can do, however, is provide as many people as possible with the chance to access the same inspiring moments I had in that dusty old Thai Boxing gym.
“What are the biggest frustrations you’ve faced in business and in setting up the association/foundation?”
I think it all ties in to what I’ve said already. It’s the lack of belief in you from the world around you. I couldn’t get any funding from banks or institutions without security. This means if I had money (or more accurately, assets like land or houses etc) already I could effectively use that as security on further money. My experience of going to banks empty handed is that, no matter how much promise you or your idea shows – they won’t back you until you’ve taken all the risks and proven them wrong. That’s not much use.
I think the biggest problems I’ve personally faced is my peers. The comparative ease of some private schooled, ‘good family’ gents in the industry have had funding lucrative funding routes and commercial success makes me sick, quite literally. I am absolutely done with who you know speaking louder than what you know. It undermines everything you’re taught as a child and simply shouldn’t be the case.
One thing that always surprises people is when we mention that we are completely self funded with absolutely no support from Sport England, the National Lottery or the Government. We’re just as frustrated as many of the public are. I don’t know if it comes down to who you know, but as the last near-decade has already shown the world, we’ll prove them wrong. We’re destined to continue growing and moving onto better things because what we do comes from a genuine love of martial arts and the communities within which it’s taught.