The sweat from the morning’s 7am session hasn’t quite dried on the leather punchbags that still swing gently on their chains. The last boxer left the gym 20 minutes ago; only trainer Paul Clemit, 64, remains.
“Anybody who knows me knows that it’s not about money. It’s never been about money. Never.”
For a man who’s spent 15 years in Shanghai and many years in the south of England before that, Clemit hasn’t lost any of his thick northern accent.
Paul Clemit in Shanghai with his English Bull Terrier, Lily.
Growing up in the mining town of Barnsley, England, Clemit knew early on that he didn’t want to go down the pits (a popular profession for anyone born in or around the 1960s).
Walking through his hometown one day, a young Clemit decided to enter a boxing gym. It would be the beginning of a 52-year “love-hate relationship” with the sport.
“I was walking past the gym one day and I thought I’d pop in. I got beat up pretty bad by a big professional wrestler called Gordon Kilmartin. I was only 12 or 13 years old at the time.”
Despite such an unforgiving introduction, Clemit returned and became a regular in a gym that had two punchbags, a boxing ring so old the sport’s first heavyweight champion John O’Sullivan could have used it, no toilets and a shower with a bit of old polythene hanging down as a shower curtain.
“It stunk,” Clemit bluntly recalls.
Clemit did inquire about a toilet on one of his first visits to the gym. The owner, Reg, laughed at him and shook his head, “Toilet?” he shouted. “He thinks he’s training in the Ritz!” Clemit was then shown the shower cubicle and told to turn on the water after he’d finished.
Despite the lack of amenities, the gym did have some credentials. Barnsley native and father to the actor Brian Glover (as seen in Kes, An American Werewolf in London and Alien 3), Charlie Glover, once owned the gym where Clemit trained.
In the 1976 documentary, It’s No Joke Living in Barnsley, Glover junior revisits his father’s old gym. Leaning on the boxing ring ropes as two men trade punches in front of him, Glover confirms Clemit’s description:
“This is no suntan and sweatshop, no sauna palace this, it’s a real sweatshop. There’s been more blood on these floors than a pork butcher's... It’s produced some real fighters.”
Clemit (right) lands a right hand during a professional fight.
Clemit was one of those fighters, and after more than 60 amateur fights, he turned professional in 1975 at the age of 19. During his six-year, 17-fight career, he shared the ring with future champions.
A few years after finishing as a professional, he started as a boxing trainer, charging members just two pounds a week in fees regardless of “whether you are a kid from a wealthy family or a raggy-arsed kid. Two pounds a week, that’s it.”
Building on his experience, Clemit became a certified amateur coach, adding to a boxing methodology he would eventually export to Shanghai. “It was so different going from boxing to coaching. To train someone right, it’s hard. I think I brought a lot of my own personal training to China. It’s just a natural progression.”
Clemit advises one of his boxers during a UK amateur fight in the 90s.
However, when first arriving in Shanghai in 2007, Clemit had no intention of training anyone. Instead, he arrived hoping to become a teacher. But that only lasted three weeks. According to Clemit, the “very pretentious” people on his training course put him off the idea of teaching.
Still, boxing wasn’t on his mind.
Clemit was working out one day on the solitary punchbag in (what used to be) the Total Fitness gym on Shanghai's Nanjing Xi Lu when a girl approached him to ask about the possibility of boxing training. Unsure at first, he eventually agreed and told her to meet him the following morning.
Before long, he had 14 people coming to these morning sessions. This didn’t last long. One day they rocked up to the gym to find the door shut and the establishment closed for good. If they wanted to continue, they’d need a new venue.
Gym memberships are not always cheap. Shanghai consistently features in the most expensive-for-rent lists, and memberships often reflect the rent they need to cover, a position Clemit says he “never wanted to get into.”
Instead of owning his own gym, he works out of others, which allows him to keep prices low.
He explains, “I’ve always considered boxing as a working man’s sport. I respect people who’ve got the balls to open their own gym. They’ve got rent to pay and some of these rents are extortionate in my opinion, and they must charge accordingly.”
Where it all started. Clemit coaching his first ever student in Shanghai.
Clemit’s attitude to training is similar to rent – he doesn’t let the city dictate how he does things. “I don’t take notice of how people train here in China, that’s their business. I train how I train, and a lot of that I’ve brought from England.”
The 90-minute training sessions are mixed: professionals, amateurs and absolute beginners, all together. Regardless of your age, background, level or gender – Clemit treats everybody the same.
“I try to train everybody like they’re professional boxers. I try to train them like they’re fighting for a world championship, even though some people are never going to have a fight in their life. That doesn’t matter. I want people to train hard like they’re fighting for a world championship.”
Celebrating super-featherweight Diogo Garcês Reis’s win in 2019.
A WeChat message comes through on Clemit’s phone as we speak; one of the boxers is thanking him for last night’s “great but brutal” session.
Clemit smiles, “I want people to have a good experience with boxing and I like to think everyone’s had a good session when they’ve been training.”
And while Clemit admits his style might not suit everyone, providing people with the opportunity to “see a boxing gym in real-time, a proper boxing gym where fighters train” is important to him.
We notice the gym that Clemit currently uses has no shower or toilet, and ask him if there are any other comparisons to his first gym in Barnsley.
“Not one. That was the roughest gym I’ve ever been in,” he tells us. “There’s no gym in China to compare it with.”
Paul Clemit is the trainer at Ringwise Boxing. For more information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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