When Isola Akay established his West London All Stars Boxing Gym in 1974, the Ghanaian immigrant envisioned a place of athletic refuge for teens who didn't have any other place to go, who were excluded from afterschool clubs because of race or class.
Today, Akay's gym is not only a bustling and inclusive boxing club for young men and women, but also something of a spiritual center. Which is fitting, considering the gym is housed in an old church.
Many of the teens who come to All Stars need a reason to get off of the street — family issues, gang affiliations; some are even referred directly by police — and the gym offers them a healthy way to fill their time, to vent and focus their energy. But as a boxing facility, All Stars is also known to turn out world-class athletes, including British heavyweights Frank Bruno and Gary Mason. Mike Tyson has even trained in the gym before fights.
When London photographers Amit Amin and Naroop Jhooti — who go by "Amit and Naroop" as a photo duo — first discovered the gym about four years ago, it was dangerously close to shutting down, due to increasing rent. "We wanted to capture it in its very rawest form," Jhooti said in an interview. "To capture the essence of what it was before it was gone."
Indeed, Joohti and Amin's photos depict a place pumping with possibility. Teens, glistening with sweet, practice jabs and uppercuts, others step into the ring to spar, and Akay circles the various scenes with an encouraging smile. Even the walls — littered with photos of boxing greats — feel abuzz with inspiration.
And, lucky for all involved, the All Stars Boxing Gym didn't have to shut down. Akay's church is still there, with open doors, for any kid in need. "When they can see themselves getting better and better every week, for them, there's a sense of achievement," Jhooti said. "As humans, we're all motivated by progress. Not necessarily getting to that end goal — it's just progressing and moving forward and knowing that you're going somewhere."
Isola Akay | (Amit and Naroop)