Two very different lives, same story of hope through boxing

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Murray Leaning and Amber Rowland-Connor’s lives weren’t meant to cross paths.

Murray is a 53 year-old radio presenter, well-known MC, former football referee and he is obese.

Amber, 22, is a part-time waitress, mother to a two year-old girl and a year ago weighed just 41 kilograms. She had started drinking and smoking at school and that had lead her down a “different path”.

Both were unhealthy and unhappy – it was one thing they had in common.

But both say stepping inside Victory Boxing turned their lives around.

Victory Boxing started as a programme to help give kids at Victory Primary School “a bit of direction”, it grew to be a centre that sees hundreds of school students pass through its doors every week.

Founder Paul Hampton says the programme hasn’t changed its focus but it has had to adapt to the growing demand from adults seeking a challenging form of fitness.

Five times a week up to 40 people will gather in its Vanguard St gym. They skip, shadow box, hits pads and mentally push each other. The classes attract lawyers, mothers, professional athletes, chefs, fishermen, students and doctors. It attracts people from every corner of Nelson.

The adult classes also help subsidize the kids’ classes, where Paul and his team make sure cost isn’t a barrier to participating.

The charity’s other major fundraiser is the high-profile, high octane, Fight4Victory charity boxing event.

Murray has been a key player in the Fight4Victory’s success. He was the MC at both events, along with comedian Mike King, and says he was hoping to do the training with last year’s competitors. But then came the health problems: shingles, kidney issues and a knee that was so weak it would pop out of its socket during work outs.

He had to pull out. It pushed Murray further into his “dark space” that began a few years earlier with a knee injury while refereeing football and the death of his mother.

“At one stage I got to 140 kilos, I went to Weight Watchers for four and a half years and got down to 79 and a half. Then I blew my knee out refereeing a game at Neale Park and I haven’t done any meaningful exercise since and I’ve got back to 120 [mumble, mumble].

“I’ve had a couple of years where I was really depressed and when you’re depressed you eat more, you’re lethargic, you hide away, you eat more… And then you start getting muscle injuries because you’re just too heavy.”

He says he got good at pretending during the many community events he MC’s. “You might be feeling shit, you might be dragging your arse, but no one wants to know that. If you’re out there to entertain them you have no right to drag them down with you.

“So you put on a mask, go out there and do it. It doesn’t matter how bad you feel you have to give them impression that you’re on top of the world. No one wants to see a sad-o behind a microphone.”

But when he got home, the mask came off and Murray says a big packet of chips and bottle of Coke would help make him feel better.

It took a coffee with Victory Boxing’s Paul Hampton to snap him out of it.

“Paul said ‘hey, you’ve got to come into the gym, 10 o’clock tomorrow’,” says Murray.

That first session was 20 minutes, the next 30 and five weeks later Murray is now doing sessions over an hour, three times a week.

“I’m feeling so much better. You start changing your eating habits, you get out more, the dog’s been walking faster than he’s ever walked before.”

Murray has already lost weight but, more importantly, says Victory Boxing has been the first step to climbing out of the hole he was in.

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Amber Rowland-Connor hits pads at Victory Boxing.

Amber’s hole was a different shade of dark, but it was dark nonetheless.

Last June she was a stay-at-home mum with post-natal depression and had no motivation to work. By her own admission, her daughter did not have a good role model in life.

“I had quite a few bad habits and I had to get rid of them.”

She says she was instantly hooked on boxing. It took a month or so for her to gain the courage to join in with an adult class, but eight months on she says she can’t imagine her life without it. “I had quite bad anxiety at the start. I’ve never really played any sport and hadn’t even owned a pair of sneakers since I was at intermediate.

“But there was something about it that caught my attention. It’s a challenge and every time I think of giving up I just need to remind myself of why I started, it keeps me going.”

Amber is in the gym four times a week and also runs the Tamaki St steps several times a week. She has put on almost ten kilograms and says, for the first time in her life, she’s proud of herself. “I’ve never really been good at anything and I actually feel good at something for once, and it’s an amazing feeling. I’m proud of myself, amazingly proud.”

Amber says she’s made a “heap” of new friends at the gym, feels the best she has since she was a kid and, most importantly, boxing has made her a better mother.

“I feel like I have more energy for her now and I want to take her out and do stuff. I can see it coming out in her too, she’s a happy child and that makes me happy.”

Paul says hearing Murray and Amber’s stories, along with the dozens of others, fills him with pride. “How good is someone feeling better about their life? It doesn’t get better than that. It’s a tough old world out there, a busy world. Everyone has their own story, you never know what people are going through.”

Paul says he often gets letters and emails from teachers and parents saying how the gym has helped a child or teenager, but to get that feedback from adults as well shows his team is doing something right. “The fact that the adult classes have grown is really a testament to the philosophy of the gym really, where everybody is welcome. We don’t care your history, if you’re going to respect the values of the gym then you become part of the Victory family.”

In Murray’s words, it’s a family that has “given me my life back”.