Hackney People: James Cook MBE

The former European middleweight boxing champion and youth worker in ‘Murder Mile’, Hackney, London talks to Gareth Mason... 

Fifteen years after retiring from a successful career as a professional boxer James Cook still pulls few punches. Gone is the Mexican moustache that earned him the fighting moniker The Bandit, but his tall lean frame still cuts a dash as he strolled up to me outside the Pedro Club with the relaxed and smiling demeanour that he rarely exhibited in the ring.

The former European super middleweight champion is now the easily recognised figurehead of The Pedro Club – a thriving centre for young people, which caters for those interested in everything from boxing to more gentle disciplines such as singing, dancing, and creating fashion and art.

Cook now works as an outreach worker for Rathbone, a national voluntary youth organisation. He has helped over 500 young people into full-time work since 2000 and received nationwide attention for his work turning young people away from gangs. Much of his time is spent in the Hackney streets. Here he has found many young people with nowhere to go and nothing to do and given them a place where they could channel their energies more positively. They also pick up some life skills that they have thus far lived without.

‘All I ask is that when they enter the club they follow the rules and show some respect. A lot of these kids don’t even know how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ because it’s just not part of their world. But if they want to come in here – they are going to have to learn that. I also want to teach them that they can’t win everything – losing is part of the learning process. After that, if you give me an hour, I figure I can get the kid with the biggest scowl to smile.’ 

Working with young people wasn’t a new experience. He had already spent more than a decade doing so before retiring from boxing. ‘People told me I needed my eight hours sleep but I’d often be working in youth clubs till midnight and then getting up at 4am for a 10-mile run!’

Born in Jamaica and brought up in Peckham, Cook moved up to North London as a child. He has been a Hackney resident for 27 years where he has lived with his three daughters and son. He believes that those who have achieved some measure of success in a community should give something back to it.

‘Whatever your field, it’s only right you go back and show people that if I can do it, so can you. I was doing some promotion work with [the boxer] Lloyd Honeyghan the other day and he started getting annoyed with people asking him for autographs. I told him – think about it man – these are the people who put you here!’

Although the club was established in 1929 and later revived with a donation from the actress Elizabeth Taylor, it was in a sorry state around the turn of the millennium when James set out to revitalise it by forming a new management committee with his many contacts in the sports world. It re-opened in 2003. The Eureka moment in the club’s revival came when he found the deeds to the building mouldering away undiscovered in an old safe in a back room.

In 2006, he re-emerged on the public stage in the Channel 4 show Secret Millionaire. The club received a much needed £20,000 boost to build a music studio and indirectly led to him getting married onscreen following a donation towards his wedding that featured in the show’s climax. In mitigation for his late proposal he says: ‘My fiancé and I had a 24-year engagement, but the time was never right while I was still boxing. Because the guy said I should get married in both London and over in Jamaica with my family, I ended up ringing home and saying “Dad, I’m going to need some more money for the wedding!” Sometimes now when I’m sitting watching a fight I hear someone whistling the Secret Millionaire theme tune from the row behind!’

A boxing career that extended into his mid 30s has provided him with a bulging contact book which has benefited many of the youths he has brought in from the cold, dark roads of Hackney’s so-called Murder Mile.

‘I’m still good friends with Frank Warren [the sports promoter] and he’s always happy to offer some of the boys tickets for a match or bring one of the sportsmen he promotes down for a chat.’

Cook was awarded an MBE for services to Youth Justice in Hackney in June 2007. He had ignored the letter announcing the honour for days assuming it was a hoax. ‘Talking to the Queen was one of the only times I got nervous!’ joked the man who had faced down British boxing greats from Errol Christie and Michael Watson, both of whom he beat, and Herol Graham.

‘I even offered her one of my vests,’ he laughed though he didn’t mention whether she took him up on the offer. While it seems unlikely that the Queen took to sparring on the lawns of Sandringham – if anyone could persuade HRH, Cook might with his grounded and unaffected charm. 

Talking of Herol Graham, I had planned to ask him how it felt to take on one of British boxing’s great stylists – a fighter considered by many to be the best home boxer never to be world champion. Graham’s ability to make top-class fighters look foolish was such that I didn’t want to risk spoiling Cook’s mood by asking him about this loss early on in the interview. I needn’t have worried. Cook brought it up himself laughing off the experience of trying to hit the bewilderingly elusive opponent and joking with little hint of rancour that the referee stopped it too early.

‘I knew I had a chance if the fight went to the late stages. I had worked really hard for it running up and down the stairs of the shopping centre at Elephant and Castle and racing the bus down there from my home in Hackney.’ Aside from frequenting legendary boxing clubs such as South London’s Thomas A’ Beckett, his Elephant and Castle base was his auntie’s flat where he often fled from less appealing chores elsewhere.  

He knew his time had come when he recognised the waning of his powers in one of his last fights in which he lost to a fellow British fighter – an event that he had always said would signal his retirement.
‘I knew that a few years ago I could have gone out and won it, but as I came out for the last rounds I knew it just wasn’t there any more.’

Cook concedes that his image as a youth work is lent a credibility by his skin colour, as well as his boxing past, which a social worker from a white, middle-class background would struggle to match. In Hackney, he has encouraged many to swap the temptations of drugs and violence for the honest endeavour of the boxing ring. And in these streets, few of the young black men he meets like to see themselves as soft touches.

‘A few of them look at me and say “One day you’re going to get old and then we can get you!”’ But his firm but fair stance, backed up my his reputation, let alone obstinate bravery, to go where the local police fear to tread has seen him through safely thus far. During our interview, the first two teenagers who banged on the door to be admitted were dealt short shrift. They quickly assumed a more humble aspect when greeted by the stern countenance that has faced down 36 opponents. While respectful, the boys joked with him, but with a cheekiness that betrayed affection beneath the bravado.

Macho posturing might be dangerous stance to take on Cook’s home ground. While the former pugilist posed patiently for photographs by the ring the young men kept a respectful distance. Beyond a few jokey comments as Cook narrowed his eyes at the lens into a fighter’s scowl for the upteenth time the photoshoot went interrupted. When we finished, he reminded a passing kid to pull up his belt on jeans drooping midway between waist and kneecap. The directive was accepted without a word of dissent.  

At 50, Cook still looks like he could make the 12-stone middleweight limit without missing his lunch. Bar for a few grey hairs around his sideburns, there is little evidence of physical decline. Respect is certainly due in streets where he carved out a career that involved sport and community work from his teenage years.

‘My daughters once told me that these guys hanging around a corner wouldn’t talk to them because the guys heard that they were James Cook’s girls. I said: “That’s good, isn’t it?” but they complained, saying “but we like them dad, we want to talk to them!”’

Despite the added recognition of an MBE and the 15 minutes of fame brought by his appearance on Secret Millionaire, Cook displays few of the trappings of wealth and fame as he makes me a mug of coffee in a cramped office crammed with files and trinkets of the paraphernalia of his career. He lives in a modest house nearby and shows little inclination towards a more materialistic lifestyle telling me that ‘money has never been that important to me.’ Help is still needed to keep the club running smoothly and it’s not just for people who can make a difference in the streets.

‘Some help in here would be useful,’ he says gesturing with distaste towards the piles of paperwork that stand high around the plate of biscuits he places between us. ‘I’m a people person – not a paper person!’

He makes no claims of hardship in his early life though it’s clear that his climb into the championship ring from humble inner city origins would have needed decades of disciplined hard graft. His immediate family life sounds close and harmonious as are his reflections on his upbringing where his only bad memories were the fear of a tongue lashing from his mum, which far outweighed the threat of his father’s wrath. He also retains a sense of perspective when viewing the demonisation of the infamous and feared hooded youths he works among.
‘A lot of them are just hanging around having a laugh with their friends. They haven’t got anywhere else to go and often they are not doing anything more than what you and I got up to when we were young. And for all the talk of murder mile, the violence isn’t new – it’s just the way it’s fought now with kids fighting each other over postcodes.’  

Before the interview, James was up at six training one of his stable of boxers. ‘We went about 10 miles, but today I sat in the car. I still do a lot of the training myself, but I’m not as young as I used to be and I’ve got a long day ahead!’

By the time we had finished an hour or so later than we had planned, a small group of young men from a mix of ethic backgrounds were shooting some pool, their ardour for the more demanding punch bag work now diminished. Cook chastised one for leaving equipment on the floor, but as he turned from them a small, suppressed smile emerged from behind the frown. Hiding his soft side beneath a stern demeanour may be his toughest daily challenge.    

Hackney Today 2009