When Joe Gallagher was 16, he had to get a job. He followed his dad into the construction trade and whatever dreams he had for making it as a boxer were washed away by his economic reality.
And while decades later Gallagher would achieve success as a boxing trainer, that pivotal moment from his teenage years still haunted him. Too many kids like him had to put education or athletic achievement aside because of financial necessity. Young adults were falling through the cracks and as a result it would become much harder for them to discover and achieve their potential.
Unlike many who chafe at society's ills without helping to find solutions, Gallagher decided to take action. In 2018 he started the Joe Gallagher Academy to help 16 to 19-year-olds. Featuring an education curriculum and boxing instruction, the Academy helps students who would otherwise be left out of more traditional educational avenues. Students go through rigorous coursework, prepare for their national exams and receive boxing education from Gallagher and many of his current and former fighters.
|Photo Courtesy of Joe Gallagher|
Now in its fourth year and with two locations in the greater Manchester area, the Academy has 50 students with 26 new ones enrolling this year. And for Gallagher, he couldn't be happier regarding the progress of the Academy.
"It's getting bigger and bigger," Gallagher said. "The female section is growing. We're having national [amateur] champions. We have people who commute on the train every morning from Leeds, from Liverpool, from Stoke, from Carlisle. We had people relocate to Manchester and set up here. I'm very proud of it."
Gallagher sees the Academy as a second chance for his students. Many had not applied themselves academically or had the confidence to achieve their goals. He sees the boxing part of the program working in tandem with the educational coursework to create more well-rounded individuals. The one-on-one time with professional fighters such as Charlie Edwards, Anthony Crolla, Callum Smith and Tasha Jonas has also been confidence-builders.
As the Academy has matured, the success stories are growing. A number of students have gone to university. One is part of the Team GB squad. His students now have avenues in their academic, professional and athletic careers that weren't available to them just a few years prior.
"We have students going into sports psychology," said Gallagher. "They've gone into conditioning, nutrition, journalism and also people that wanted to work in the leisure industry. And some people have carried on and turned professionals or have been called up by the Team GB program."
As part of the Academy, Gallagher pays for an annual trip to Barcelona where his students receive boxing instruction, experience leaving home (a number for the first time), and even take a tour of the Barcelona football (soccer) stadium. He believes that taking students out of their comfort zone is character building and can open their eyes to other opportunities in the world.
Gallagher's day job is of course a full-time boxing trainer, with current fighters such as Callum Johnson, Edwards, Jonas, Paul Butler, Callum Thompson, Mark Heffron and many others. Gallagher has now been a professional trainer for 20 years, but he is used to the juggling.
When he started out as a trainer, he was working at the airport. He had a secure job that included strong benefits. But boxing kept gnawing at him. It wouldn't let him out of its grasp. By 2009, Gallagher had established significant momentum with Matthew Macklin and John Murray, both of whom were making their way up the world rankings. Over the objection of many, he made the decision to quit his job at the airport and give boxing his full attention.
"I was working five nights a week," he said, "working 12-hour shifts. Getting home at 7 o’clock. Get up at 11 or half 11. Get to the gym by 12. Train until 3. Get on the track to 6 or half 6. Then get on the train and start working again at 7. I was shattered at the end of the week...The wife didn’t want me to pack it in, but I just said to her, if you don’t let me do it, I’ll be thinking on my deathbed 'what if, what if.' I told her I just got to go with it."
And Gallagher, unlike many others, was able to follow his dreams, even if belatedly. It has paid off for him handsomely, with world champions like Callum Smith, Anthony Crolla, Liam Smith and others. He won the Ring Magazine Trainer of the Year Award in 2015, an honor rarely given to a trainer from England.
|Students from the Joe Gallagher Academy|
Photo courtesy of Joe Gallagher
Gallagher is no longer the young gun in boxing training and he understands the cycles of the sport. Sometimes you're the hot name. Sometimes another one comes along. In recent years, he's lost fighters to retirement and others like Liam and Callum Smith have joined with other coaches. Gallagher harbors no ill will towards those who have left him. He would rather reflect on what they were able to accomplish together than say a disparaging word. And as Gallagher has lost fighters, he has also added some, most notably former champion Charlie Edwards.
Although Gallagher has won accolades, he acknowledges that peer and public recognition help motivate him. "When you’re a child at school that’s done well," he said, "you get a sticker in your book and a pat on the back. Or if you’re a salesman selling cars and you hit the target this month and you get the bonus. Boxing trainers are no different. Everyone wants a pat on the back."
Despite his longevity and success, Gallagher still has the chip on his shoulder of someone who was never given anything. He likes fighters who aren't necessarily blue chips, who have underperformed with other trainers, or who have been written off. He points to Liam Smith as one of his favorite success stories. Gallagher likes his fighters hungry and feeling passed over. It helps with his "us vs. them" mentality. Famously, Gallagher makes every new fighter undergo a month trial period before making a decision on whether the boxer is the right fit for his gym. And that applies to every fighter: world champion or novice.
He's looking for fighters with a certain mentality – those who want to prove people wrong, those who can be a diamond in the rough, such as Anthony Crolla, a boxer few would have predicted to become a world champion.
Gallagher is a great talker and he remains a student of boxing. There's very little in the sport that slips past him. He can opine on boxing's trends, problems, and peculiarities. And if he laments the inactivity among top fighters or the sport's inability to produce big fights on a consistent basis, he also knows what boxing has done for him: It has helped him achieve success far beyond his dreams.
So, while there will always be new dragons to slay in boxing, challenges to face, and opportunities to prove oneself, Gallagher is aware that he has made a real contribution in the sport, and just as importantly he is playing a significant role in helping young adults gain their footing in the world. Gallagher had to chart his own course, against stacked odds, but he knows that he's an exception. Perhaps the odds don't have to be so stacked for his students. Because of his efforts, a few dozen young adults might not need to say "what if, what if." And that extends to the boxing ring, and far beyond.