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Quinton Shillingford MBE – British Boxing’s People Person

by Michael Walsh

Heading into my interview with Q, after doing research I knew that I was going to be sharing time with a key figure in the British boxing scene; that much was obvious. However, it wasn’t until an hour and a half later that I could appreciate the full extent to which Q has helped to shape the landscape of boxing in our country.

Q singlehandedly resurrected a boxing programme in the Navy, brought that success to the England and GB boxing teams and now has his own gym which he plans to expand to create a GB team quality training centre for prospects down south. His story is quite simply amazing.

Tough beginnings

Our chat was fascinating and all-encompassing but considering the current climate in the world, it is only right we start with some of the issues Q dealt with early on in his life which brought him into boxing. As a mixed-race person in England in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, it was decided that it would be easier to be raised in Dominica, his father’s country.

“I lived there until I was seven years old. The marriage, unfortunately, didn’t go well and within a year of being back they were separated, and we moved into my grandmother's flat in Basingstoke. We then moved to Andover and it was quite hard while all of this was happening because there were hardly any black or mixed-race people. Racism was our first test. I learnt how to fight from a very young age because you had to know how to defend yourself.

“My mum had it difficult too as a white woman with mixed-raced children, sometimes having to hide us from people in case something would happen. So, all the time you’re growing up with a rough edge and full of nerves and anxiety and courage has to come really early otherwise you won’t survive.”

Finding a father figure

After a fairly unpredictable and tough start to life, it was apparent that Q was going to need something to keep him on the straight and narrow

“I was quite lucky because there was a travelling family who was trying to get into school and I hooked up with members of that family and their dad ran the boxing gym; Billy Pike. Not just physically or socially, but emotionally I found someone that I was able to have as a male role model; someone you see and you think ‘I want to be just like you’. That was my coach Billy Pike. He turned loads of boys to men. He probably did a better job than a social worker.”

The admiration Q held for Billy and his family was clear to see, labelling him his surrogate father. “His family took me in. I was basically one of the family and I loved going round there. His brother, Eddie, would have me come round his to play pool and snooker and it just helped me stay out of trouble. They took the role of a father figure on. The point is, it stopped me from going around the streets and getting into trouble. Unfortunately, that have both passed now but I had a couple of angels sent from heaven to look after me.”

Joining the Navy

After fighting out of Andover under Billy Pike, Q was looking for a bit more from life than training around working on construction sites and that opportunity presented itself in the form of the Navy.

“When I joined (the Navy), everyone there was ranked top ten in the country and I was only 17 years old. I boxed 90 odd fights for Andover and I joined the Royal Navy when I was 18. I was boxing in the National Championships, won it and the Navy coach, the Army coach and the Royal Marine coach were there scouting to get kids to join the forces. They wanted top boxers in their team. I got all kinds of offers but the Navy were the most persistent and they were the closest too.

“I went down there for a weekend and had a great time, I couldn’t believe they were able to train every day. I then had the uncomfortable situation of telling Billy that I wanted to join the forces and he was a bit upset but he realised it was the best thing for me.

“So, I joined in September 1985 and the National Championships started in October and even though I was just a trainee, they wanted to put me in. I was doing basic training and then also doing my boxing training for this competition. I ended up winning the Under 19’s National Championships when I had just turned 18 so that put me right up there. I was boxing for the Navy from that point on.”

While in the Navy, Q served on the Gulf War in 1991, the conflicts in Bosnia on the HMS Southampton and the Falklands in 1999 amongst others; while maintaining his boxing career showing the measure of the man.

Life after the amateurs

Despite winning numerous titles and having 142 amateur fights, losing just 22 and amassing 120 wins, Q never turned over as professional. His coach Billy encouraged him to stay in the Navy and nurse a bad wrist injury he had which would hamper a career spent wearing eight-ounce gloves. It was at that point, Q had to work out what was next for him.

“It came to a situation where my hands were just hurting too much and I felt I just had to stop it. I had done twelve years of competitive boxing which was a good innings and I wanted to get on with the rest of my life. I had a chat with the career and boxing coaches and I learned I could become a boxing coach. I did a six-month course learning all different sports and assault courses and I really enjoyed the course.

Coach’s calling

“It was all about people’s skills and I was learning how to encourage, support and motivate people. Some of the lads might have hated me because I pushed them to do things, but it built a good relationship with them and they benefited from it in the end. That teaches you as a coach on how to develop people and learn about them. Coaching is all about welcoming, developing and finding out about them.

“It’s an enjoyable job. I had 7 Navy men in the semi-finals of the National Championships and I was as proud as it gets, at the same time though, when someone comes to me through depression or because their lonely that is very important to me.”

I then asked Q what was more rewarding for him, coaching fighters from nothing to winning titles or making a difference in the lives of people who are struggling and having a tough time. He told me a story about a lad who asked him for advice about leaving the Navy to see his brother.

“He asked me why I left the Navy so I told him I left because I thought I could do better than this. He told me his dad is a serviceman and that his brother is in New Zealand and he didn’t join the Navy so his dad doesn’t speak to him. I told him: ‘write your dad a letter, organise it with your brother to go over to visit him and go – you can’t stay in the Navy for your dad, it’s your life.’

“I helped him work out how he was going to leave the Navy and he came back and told me he was leaving for New Zealand and to thank me for my help. He did all of this with me in the boxing gym and I was proud to be part of that story to help him.”

Reviving Navy boxing

It was in the Navy that Q really developed his coaching blueprint which would go on to become a formula for success throughout his career and still to this very day. What he would achieve under incredible circumstances is nothing short of miraculous.

“Navy boxing wasn’t doing very well by the time I was thinking to get in there and get it going again because I had been doing well with my camp stuff and I felt like I owed boxing. However, I got told that after doing so poorly, Navy boxing had been disbanded so there was no longer a post for that role specifically and there was no funding for it. That was not part of the programme.

“So I told them I wanted to have a part-time coach and a full-time squad and I would do that by training the boxers at 6 in the morning until 7:30, then I’ll train them 12 – 1 pm which is my lunchtime and I’ll train them again 5 – 7 pm. They told me they didn’t think it would work but I told them that we’ll see.

“To cut a long story short, three years later, not only did we have all the boxers ranked in the top ten in the country, not only did you have a number of them boxing for England but now boxing was so popular in the Navy that the Royal Navy sponsored England Boxing. It was used to draw people into the Navy through boxing because it was the most successful sport in the Navy. That’s probably the biggest accomplishment that I’m most proud of.

“That success also means that there was a full-time post brought back so right now there is a Navy boxing coach working full-time. That was done because of our hard graft and it was hard graft, training boxers every day from 6 am and putting on shows. You have to sacrifice if you want to fulfill dreams.”

England Boxing

After the incredible success with Navy boxing, Q was making a lot of noise in the industry so it was only natural that other organisations caught wind and looked to use him and his proven track record for their benefit.

“After sending so many fighters to England boxing I did some work for them which then led to some work on the GB team. The GB team was great but I wasn’t in control of a whole team. With England, they would ask me to take a team to a competition in another country. You feel a bit more valued whereas with GB you’re there in more of a supportive role. The phrase ‘just because you fit in doesn’t mean you’re in the right place’ comes to mind.

“You can’t get any higher with Team GB but England gave me more value and I wanted to be more involved and hands-on. After what I had done with the Navy, I felt like I could really add value there and it turned out alright.”

I asked Q what were some of his personal highlights from working with both Team GB and England boxing; things he looks back on fondly.

“The highlight is watching the elite athletes in the gym. The likes of Nicola Adams, Joe Joyce and Anthony Joshua. I was the only one in the gym when Joshua Buatsi came in. Me and him got talking, we bonded and we’re very good friends now. I was speaking to him yesterday. Watching those guys train and develop, you just love watching people get better, develop and achieve.

“The glamorous bit is watching your fighter win stuff. It’s brilliant. As much as I liked working with all those guys, having National Championship’s, European Champion’s World finalists, that guy I spoke about earlier wanting to leave the Navy – he is also part of the club and that is just as rewarding.”

A people person

It became apparent that a lot of Q’s success came from his ability to work with people and get the best out of them, as well as developing their boxing skills. I asked him what were the personal qualities he looked for in his fighters which were required for a productive relationship.

“So, let’s say you have a natural talent like Sugar Ray Leonard or a Naseem Hamed, they have everything already. Your job then is to keep them grounded, keep them motivated but not big-headed. You have to remind your fighter than their opponent is training hard to grind them down. Let’s say you have that opponent instead of the talented fighter. I would tell them, ‘yes this guy has the thrills and spills, but you have the engine, let’s work on your strengths’.

“I have done that so many times when we can’t outbox an opponent but we can out-fit them and we absolutely take them to hell and back. If you can’t outbox someone, you have to wear them down and you have to stay in the pocket; give him no time to rest.

“You find the strengths and weaknesses but you work on both things. As long as someone is coachable, they listen and have a level head you can work with them. Otherwise, they may as coach themselves. You don’t have to have boxed to be a good boxing coach. I think it helps because you can draw from experiences and I’ve done it many times. But I know some really good coaches who have never boxed before or very limited.”

Heart of Portsmouth

After leaving the Navy in 2007, Q set up his own boxing club aptly named the Heart of Portsmouth Boxing Academy and he has big plans for it.

“I’m proud to say that every year for the 12 years it’s been open we have had an international boxer and a national champion. Sometimes, three or four in one season. It goes down to the team because every one of those coaches shoot from the same hip. They all watch each other and I think the success of the club comes from the fact that we’re all one team.

“I want to bring England Boxing more south because it all happens in Sheffield and that is an unbelievable base. What I want to do is have a really good boxing gym and England starts putting more things down south to develop the southern boxers so they don’t have to travel so far to Sheffield to train. I want Portsmouth to become a centre of excellence and it will bring a lot of hope to the local area.”

Royal Recognition

After all this work in boxing and subsequently in the community, it was only fitting that Q was recognised and awarded with an MBE and he couldn’t have been prouder of that moment.

“It comes in a brown envelope and I thought it was just another bill so I sat on the stairs and I opened it. I read it and I thought it was a wind-up!

“Then the hairs on the back of my neck started to stand up and when I read about the services to boxing and my work with young people, I got a bit emotional then. There was a number to ring so I had to make sure this was real and it was. It was a major shock and I felt a bit bad because there are a lot of coaches that do well, have champions and just as importantly keep kids off the streets.

“It was quite nerve-wracking at Windsor Castle and I didn’t actually expect the Queen to be there and give me the medal. That’s when I got a bit emotional. It was nice to hear the Queen mention all the work I had done. It was unbelievable and really nice.”

With an obvious track record of success, I asked Q the difficult question of pinpointing the key ingredients to his recipe.

“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been in a team environment ever since I joined the boxing club since I was ten-years-old. Even in workplaces, you have departments and teams but if they do not work properly together, it’s destined to be doomed. I think one of the key things is forming a team and letting people be in charge. I let my coaches work independently and I’m really proud of the team I have got.

“The three things I work from as the club ethos is that whoever comes through the front door is greeted and they are welcomed and asked a bit about themselves. Secondly, they are developed so they are put on a structured programme so every time they leave the gym, they feel they’ve done better so they’re working towards something.

“The third one is we believe in them and that’s massive because in life if you can find someone or somewhere to believe in you, that’s everything. People go to work and bosses, I see it all the time, they don’t value the staff or believe in them. There is no development plan. They’re not even welcomed sometimes, people don’t even say hello.

“It’s about welcoming people, developing people and believing in people. They’re the three things.”

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