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Des Brackett Interview
By Martin Hall
You don’t so much talk to Des Brackett as enlist in his cause. He radiates enthusiasm the way bulbs shed light. As the coach of the Oxford University boxing team featured in Stevan Riley’s documentary Blue Blood (reviewed in August’s Swine), Brackett is as garrulous and candid as you’d expect from a man who has spent the majority of his life less ordinary immersed in the world of gumshields and glory.
“I started boxing at eight years old and had my first contest at nine,” he explains over a pint in Oxford’s Shelley Arms, ten minutes from the University gym on Iffley Road, the site where Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile. “It was either boxing or going out in gangs.”
Although he modestly claims he “wasn’t a natural” he was representing his country within a decade of lacing up his gloves for the first time: “18 or 19 years old was probably when I was at my peak. Boxing got me abroad - I fought in competitions all over Europe. I boxed the French, German and Dutch champions. I was offered professional terms around then but it didn’t interest me. I was never in it for that.”
His career as a fighter was more of a prelude to his real vocation as a trainer and he explains he finds being in the corner even more draining than being in the ring: “I’m exhausted in the corner. I go through all ten, fifteen contests. I can’t remember until the end of the night what happened. I’m so passionate about what’s happening I can’t take it all in.”
Roy Keane has described boxing as “the best sport in the world. It's man against man. You are on your own.” Having Brackett in your corner must feel like having a battalion behind you such is his energy and his response to my question about the disparate personalities in the Uni gym is pure Keane: “The ones who think they’ve got it all are the ones I know I’ll be getting rid of. They think they know everything and they don’t. It’s the quiet ones who want it more. They’re my people. I see myself in them, the ones who give me 100% every session.
“I’ve had boxers come to me who would give me a victory in the Varsity match but I’ve turned then down in favour of boxers who don’t have the same ability but will put the work in.”
Brackett certainly isn’t afraid to put the work in and coaching is an all-consuming seven-days-a-week commitment that takes precedence over everything else - “I’ve lost God knows how many jobs through coaching; I’m very passionate about it” - except his family.
“Both my sons have tried boxing although I never forced them into it. My eldest son Damian tried sparring once and the lad he was with was knocking him about a bit.
“So I put the gloves on.
“I hit him a couple of times and let him know that I could take advantage of him the way he took advantage of Damian. Boxing isn’t about that.”
So do you ever feel like putting the gloves on again?: “Yeah, with the Lightweights! The Heavyweights? No thank you!”
His other son Tyrone plays football to a good standard but tried boxing as a teenager and fought the son of a rival boxing coach: “In the first round, Tyrone went in there full steam ahead – all guns blazing – and the Reading coach shouts over ‘I can tell he’s your son, Des!’”
You pass it forward and you pay it back.
Brackett is now 50 and although it’s taken him 42 years to become an overnight sensation he is pleased with the recognition Blue Blood has given his work, even if it’s not his proudest achievement: “I was running a YMCA boxing school in Oxford and a young lad who was being bullied came down to the club. Every session for six months he was the first there and last to leave. Didn’t really speak to anyone. Didn’t have any confidence.
“Anyway, six years down the line, this bloke - huge, he was - comes up to me in the pub and asks me if I want a pint. I said ‘Sorry, do I know you?’
“He told me who he was and I went ‘Where have you got all your confidence from?’ He said ‘I got it from you.’ That means more to me than anything else. To touch someone’s live and make a difference to just one person is a huge buzz.”
As the interview draws to a close, I ask Brackett what’s the bigger buzz - winning a fight as a boxer or coaching a team. The response is emphatic, delivered with his innate enthusiasm: “I get more satisfaction from coaching than fighting. I go through every weight division in the Oxford-Cambridge fights and I box ten times that night. When I fought ABAs I only fought once.
“There’s people who’ll remember me for the rest of their lives because I was the one that helped them and stuck with them. I’ve got more out of coaching than I ever got out of boxing. I just love bringing the best out of people. ”
It seems a passion for teaching runs in the blood – Brackett’s daughter Keeley is a successful dance instructor. Quite fitting, really: one Brackett teaches people how to stay on their feet as another continues teaching people how to knock others off theirs.
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