Valhalla Combat Gym in Cheltenham packing a powerful punch
Tucked away in an industrial estate on the north side of Cheltenham is Valhalla Combat Gym, run by Jake Evans.
Amongst the punchbags and the boxing ring you’ll find some of the city’s best boxing talent. But you’ll also see representation of a growing trend in the sport – white collar boxing, which takes people from normal walks of life and pits them against fighters of similar age and ability.
It’s the chance for those who may not be professionals, or dedicated amateurs such as those we saw doing Britain proud in the Olympics, to have a go at boxing and test themselves inside the ring.
Jake was born in Llanelli in south Wales, a region well-known for producing boxing talent. Apart from the undefeated former world champion Joe Calzaghe, other boxing high flyers from that part of the world include his stablemate Enzo Maccarinelli, current European lightweight champ Gavin Rees and the reigning light heavyweight world champion Nathan Cleverly.
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So Jake, aged 46, is from a region with a proud boxing heritage, one where the techniques and history of the sport are appreciated, and it’s something the influences the ethos of his gym today.
He was taught by Gareth Howells OBE, at 84 years Britain’s oldest boxing coach, so it’s no surprise that his training methods are traditional, rather than modern.
“Gareth was self-taught,” said Jake. “He taught me the old style of boxing, which isn’t taught so much any more.
“My father was a judo instructor and had his own club. I learned judo until I was 16 but I was always drawn to boxing.
“I started fighting when I was 23, which was quite late. I was really shy of getting in the ring, thinking it would be all thugs and bullies. But it wasn’t like that at all and I found out I was quite good at it. I’ve been competing or coaching ever since.”
Valhalla Combat Gym – Valhalla is the afterlife home for the heroes of Norse mythology – has only been up and running for three years.
Since then, fighters from the gym have fought in 26 contests and won 22 of them, so it is already earning itself an enviable reputation.
Most recently, several of its fighters are starting to take part in the white collar Queensbury Boxing League, where people without the free time to train like a professional can take part in bouts against contestants of similar standard.
It’s popular stuff, receiving two two-hour slots of air time on Eurosport every month, and Valhalla is the only gym in Cheltenham affiliated with the league.
Contestants wear full face and headguards, with their hands covered by big 16 ounce gloves, so it’s a far cry from the bare-knuckle underground scenes in the Fight Club movie, for example.
Still, it gives people the chance to take out some pent-up aggression, to challenge themselves physically and size themselves up against an opponent.
And it attracts all sorts. “We’ve got teachers, factory workers, carpenters, electricians, physiotherapists, doormen and photographers,” says Jake.
“It’s for anyone who wants to get fit and have the opportunity to test their training against a real person in a competitive scenario, rather than against themselves, or a bag.”
Jake even met his wife, Vicky Jones, at the gym. She came along to train a couple of years ago and the couple married six weeks ago. A bookkeeper by trade, Vicky’s never fought – she said Jake wouldn’t let her compete even if she could find another 41-year-old woman to fight against – but she has shown skill with the gloves, winning the Fastest Pad award at the gyms recent open day.
“I came here to get fit and I got a husband as well!” says Vicky. “I hadn’t been to the gym since I left school then someone suggested I come here. I’ve been coming for two years and I’ve hardly missed a session.
“It’s hard work, but you see the results really quickly because the training is so intense. There’s always something different to do and the trainers are really passionate about passing on their knowledge.”
There are two or three training sessions per night at Valhalla Combat Gym from Monday to Friday evenings, with classes for adults and children on a Saturday morning too.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is taught at the gym too, under the tutelage of head coach Chris Cleak.
And like any sports club, there’s the mixture of the club membership and the elite players. At Valhalla, these are Cheltenham residents like the Newman brothers Leon and Scott from Hesters Way, who used to be into weightlifting but are now becoming fearsome boxers. Leon, 27, is unbeaten in five fights while his brother Scott has suffered one defeat in his first three, winning two bouts by knock-out. Scott will be headlining the gym’s Judgement Day white collar boxing show at the Pittville Pump Rooms in Cheltenham on Friday November 9.
There are other up-and-coming fighters based at Valhalla, too. Josh Taylor won his first fight recently, Adie Eckworth won a huge fight last month and hopes to challenge for titles in the Queensbury Boxing League. And Jason Grunland, 24 from St Paul’s in Cheltenham, is training in MMA and is unbeaten with three wins in three.
He said: “It’s an interesting way to get a workout. I work in security so it’s a useful thing to have if I ever get into trouble.
“But it’s also really fun. Whenever we put on shows in the local area it’s great to show people what we are about and encourage them to come along and have a go.
“I think more and more people are realising that it’s good to get some kind of release from their normal 9 to 5 job. Lots of people end up starting fights in pubs at a weekend but this way you can let off a bit of steam, get fit and learn a sport at the same time.”