Octogenarian Pat Benson has been building communities since the 1970s. Born in 1934, Pat Benson joined the Irish army and won his first prestigious Irish boxing title before moving to Birmingham in the late sixties.
While working as a block paver, Pat started boxing for Frank O’Sullivan’s Ladywood Club before moving to Small Heath Boxing Club.
Originally named The Irish Forester’s Club in 1931, Pat became involved with the Small Heath Club as a coach. When Steve Hayden passed away in 1971, he saved the club from collapse.
A respected and highly technical head coach, he travelled the width and breadth of the country investing countless hours into the boxers in his club.
The humble Small Heath Club laid a firm foundation for building community ties. Over the years, the club has produced countless County and National Champions.
1987 was a memorable year with Small Heath Boxing Club stars Paul and Mark Ramsey winning Senior ABA in the National Championships. The Ramsey brothers represented England and competed against Andreas Kotelnik, Kostya Tszyu and Ricky Hatton.
It is not only in the boxing ring where young people have achieved success. Mark Ramsey’s son, Jacob Ramsey, a rising star in Aston Villa, sparred at the academy. Trips to Small Heath ABC were an off-season tradition for Ramsey and his younger brothers, Aaron and Cole.
More recently, the club has produced Sky Sports stars such as Matthew Macklin, Alcock Small Heath and Frankie Gavin. All of whom boxed for the club. As well as younger County and National Champions Cinan Foley, Louis Regan, Connor Goodchild and Michael Sweeney.
Pat Benson’s grandson Paddy Benson began training for his grandad’s academy in the nineties. Now CEO, he remembers in the early 2000s when disaster struck, and a fire destroyed the boxing club. Pat rebuilt and restored the gym: “Grandad’s biggest achievement was not just creating champions but building a new gym and a new club-he built the foundations for what we do now.
“I graduated University and took over the gym- I loved the coaching and I wanted to keep the tradition of coaching champions. Before lockdown grandad still coached, watched sparring, and travelled to tournaments”.
Paddy Benson has continued his grandad’s tradition working with community groups, charities and healthcare providers to use boxing to better equip young people to life’s challenges and setbacks. The club has developed a Volunteering Programme for Apprenticeships: “The cost of living and congestion makes volunteering quite difficult. Volunteers need expenses paid for. Funding allows us to employ staff who treat their work seriously”.
The New Irish Centre
The future is also looking bright for the Boxing Academy and there are plans in place for the Boxing Academy to be part of the vibrant development at The New Irish Centre in Kings Heath:
“The New Irish Centre is a brilliant opportunity, and we are excited to hopefully be part of a huge investment into the city.
“This is about integration with sports and conference facilities. From a sporting point of view this will be a sporting centre of excellence that will be a flag-bearing pinnacle of sport.
“The hotel, boxing facilities and outdoor space will be an ideal hub which will add so much value to the city.
“It will make it more accessible for the Irish Community to be part of something quintessentially Irish which will bring people together and create a common shared identity.
“The investment into facilities is important within the Irish community in Birmingham”.
Amidst the cost-of-living crisis, the Academy is also supporting people who are struggling to find work and have recently launched a weeklong programme with the Prince’s Trust:
“It is a weeklong course to get young people who are NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) to participate in training. This week-long intensive programme will help to make them more employable and sustainability plans to continue with their course.
“We are seeing the condition of deprived areas and it is at breaking point. People need access to some form of intervention support as they can’t access clinical support”.
More recently, the Boxing Academy has also seen more women put on gloves and take to the ring: “The Women’s Support Group aims to empower women to be healthier, confident and more independent”.
Lightweight World Champion Katie Taylor even popped into the gym recently. The Bray fighter, aged 34 attended a promo shoot with sponsor Gym Shark and hired out the gym for a day.
A lasting legacy
With his ninetieth birthday is fast approaching, Pat Benson has left a legacy at the Boxing Club:
“Grandad originally carried out social work to keep children out of prison and help those who couldn’t eat. They did that work within the Irish community. He paid for the gym out of his own wages. Today we are lucky enough to have charity and funding from charities and organisations. Grandad was so respected amongst the Irish and he has clearly left a lasting legacy”.
For more of our Birmingham Irish history series, check out our blogs here, and then come celebrate our rich history at Páirc Festival this year!