Ingle Gym is nothing if not unassuming. It sits on a residential Sheffield street replete with white-haired ladies dawdling across it; its exterior is a repurposed old church in need of a lick of paint. The occasional supercar is parked outside – looking comically out place – and may be the only hint that this is a world-renowned hub for world championship boxing.
Since Ingle Gym was founded in 1964, technically as a Christian youth club called the St Thomas Boys and Girls Club, it has produced over a dozen British champs and five world title holders, including Prince Naseem Ahmed and Kell Brook. Its storied place in British boxing history was secured by its founder and trainer Brendan Ingle – now 79 and retired. His son, Dominic Ingle, runs a tight ship and has a series of major talents under his wing, including Brook, Kid Galahad and middleweight world champion Billy-Joe Saunders.
But there's another famous frequenter of Ingle Gym. Unassuming though the place might be, it perfectly suits the likes of Paddy Considine. He may be one of the finest British actors of his generation, but he seems utterly at home chatting with Dom Ingle and messing around on the bags. After a diverse range of acting roles, Considine's career as a writer/director was firmly established with the critically-lauded Tyrannosaur in 2011, and from there he always knew he’d make a boxing film. His lifelong passion for the sport made it a no-brainer, and training under the tutelage of Dominic Ingle was the ideal choice to prepare Paddy for a role in the film. "This seemed the most obvious place to come, because of its heritage and history," he says.
Considine's new film, Journeyman, is the story of fictional middleweight champion Matty Burton (he directs himself in the role), who is faced with overcoming a traumatic brain injury. His wife Emma (Jodie Whittaker) and his team (Paul Popplewell, Tony Pitts) are by turns broken and hopeful about his recovery. It's an intimate, sometimes oppressive, drama, with raw performances from its leads, but also one with a warm, old-fashioned undercurrent of love and community therein. "The film became about what happens when an athlete is injured in the prime of his life and the door closes," Paddy says. "It's left to him and his family to deal with the aftermath of his injuries. It was a subject that I thought hadn't been touched upon much in other films about boxing."
Considine is far from the first actor or director to take an interest in the fight game. Actors from Sterling Hayden to Mickey Rourke have dabbled in the sport, but Considine's interest is neither fleeting nor superficial. If you've been paying attention, Journeyman isn't even Considine’s first brush with the sweet science in his film career. He's had a role in Ron Howard drama Cinderella Man, and rumoured connections to a Shane Meadows project about "king of the gypsies", Bartley Gorman, a beloved bare-knuckle fighter. He’s also working on getting a boxing/true crime story called Years of the Locust off the ground after buying the options for the book, and his Twitter feed is roughly 80 percent boxing, 20 percent movies. The sport is his great love.
The actor has been photographing and training at Ingle Gym since the 1990s, when – as a photography student – he snapped photos of the big personalities of the day. "He did some training and sparring with Kell Brook and Kid Galahad," trainer Dom Ingle – a burly, affable Yorkshireman with a shaved head – tells me. "Paddy came in a lot for the group sessions to get the feel." A pause. "We also thought about doing a body sparring session before he did the emotional scenes," he adds, grinning.
Those emotional scenes are actually pretty harrowing. Matty's wife, Emma, bears the brunt of her husband’s cognitive incapacity and the emotional impact it causes. Reduced to the status of a child, but with incredible strength, he’s no longer the man Emma married. "It's your job as a director to set the tone and create the world for everybody to step into," Paddy says. "For that space of time while you're making the film, it takes over your life. You can be pretty easily sucked in by that. When I was directing this film, in my head, I was terrified I'd run out of energy or creativity. But they were in abundance all the time. Oddly, it became a joy. It wasn't hard at all."
Although Journeyman is as much an introspective family drama as it is a boxing film, it keeps one foot firmly in the reality of the sport. A series of gilded names appear in cameos, including Prince Nas himself, and the press conference features real sports journalists. This realism extended into training for the role of a veteran champ. "You're trying to fast-track your way through experiences these guys have been doing since 12 years old," says Considine. "I think most fellas like to fancy themselves as a bit of a boxer, but within 30 seconds, when someone’s coming toward you, you start burning up energy from everywhere. There’s this nervous energy. You think things will flow but they’re tense; you’re trying to think about hitting and being hit back. Years ago, I remember being in training, just for fitness. The trainer said to me, 'Oh Paddy, get in and keep this lad ticking over for a few minutes.' The kid was only 12; I was in my late twenties, and it was like he had six arms!"
The interior of Ingle Gym is suitably careworn. The daily hard graft of physical routine clings to the walls of the place, as palpable as the familiar sweet-sour smell of perspiring bodies. Concentric circles and various shapes cover the floors, primary-coloured guides for the defensive footwork the Ingles are renowned for instilling in their fighters. To an outsider, they look as forbiddingly baffling as a series of hieroglyphs. But the stern black lettering on the wall is more decipherable: "Boxing may be dangerous, but there are rewards. Drugs and alcohol are dangerous with no rewards at all." It may initially seem like a strange kind of motivational poster, but it’s grounded firmly in the practical awareness of the kind of person likely to find a home at the gym: someone with chaotic energy; bent on finding a structure and outlet for that energy, for good or ill.
Enamoured as Paddy Considine is by this atmosphere and aware as he is of its foibles, it's telling that he decided to make his character, Matty Burton, a polite sort of gent. There are no motor-mouthed antics or wild parties. While his opponent trash talks, he turns up to a press conference in a suit and says little. It may seem to the casual viewer of boxing that there are reasonably few of these types in the sport today, but Considine, with his expansive knowledge, is happy to list several: Johnny Nelson, Nathan Cleverley, Derek Barker.
In Journeyman, Matty’s success is delineated simply by a pristine modernist mansion and the familiar roar of support for him in the crowd. "I just thought I’d seen so many cliches in films about fighters," says Considine. "They're always about people dealing with their demons. And films where the fighter was portrayed as so, kind of... stupid and repugnant. I thought about Dom when I thought about the character of Matty. He told me stories about his dad Brendan, talking to kids in here and giving them advice about money. I thought, 'What if Matty listened and was one of those who didn’t blow it all on cars?'"
That amiable, soft-spoken manner seems pretty innate to Paddy as a person, but, more vitally, it’s key to the type of story Journeyman tells: not one of bombastic comeback sequences or flashy melodrama, but of the unnerving quiet left once the circus disappears.
Dom Ingle is in the position to know about that. The witheringly bleak reality is that boxing is a tough sport to lose at. Fighters must take the burden of the blame without teammates to share it with, and if a loss is spectacular, it’s a serious blemish that remains not only on your record, but in the collective memory. When it comes to severe injury, this is often even worse. Ingle says: "You know that passage in the Bible where Jesus comes into Jerusalem and the same people cheering him on the way in are the ones who later want him crucified? That’s the boxing crowd. And when a tragedy happens, people are divorced from it. They move a different way. They don’t want to be involved with that. And you’re left with just a few people to pick you up. Boxing is a good community in one sense, but boxers [...] they all go through a dark place at some point."
When real tragedy strikes – as with the recent case of light-heavyweight Nick Blackwell, who found himself with bleeding on the brain in 2015 – it’s rare, but terrifying. How does one reconcile a love for the sport with its dangers? Ironically, Ingle Gym is known for its sterling safety reputation – not so much as a hospital trip in its incident-free 50 years. "We don’t do a lot of head sparring," says Ingle. "Life has to go on after boxing, and we want to save it for the fight. The kinetic force of something hitting you, and your brain bouncing around, is going to cause damage. Brendan taught me that boxing is a long-term game. You can have success, but what happens after your career’s finished?"
"Journeyman could never be an anti-boxing movie," Considine says. "This guy’s foundations of being a fighter – it’s that philosophy that he puts into play, and it brings him through the darkest period of his life. All he needs is a purpose to fight for something. That’s innate in every boxer. When these guys go in and do what they do, they put their health on the line. They choose to do it, but it doesn't work unless we're paying the money to see it."
It's this giveth-and-taketh-away spirit of boxing that has continued to give it a huge cinematic heritage, and so much of its ambiguity. In Journeyman, a thoughtful and moving reversal of old boxing redemption narratives, Considine expands what we understand about the ferocity and willpower of the people who take part in the sport, giving his fighter a battle that any of us can get behind.
Journeyman is in cinemas on Friday the 30th of March.