Bridge legend boxes on

SUZANNE McFADDEN gets in the ring with a man whose passion is teaching kids to box.

Gerry Preston still climbs into the ring, but his only jabs are from the lip.

As fit as a flea, the 78-year-old stands at the shoulders of the sparring kids, coaxing them on even though he hung up his gloves years ago.

Now and then the wiry little man will do a few press-ups just to show his budding pugilists that he is no slouch.

A humble brown shed Preston built in Mangere Bridge 45 years ago has turned out hundreds of champions - among them New Zealand's best heavyweights of modern times, Jimmy Peau and David Tua, who faces a career-saving bout in Las Vegas today.

More than 7000 young boys have jabbed and hooked in this tiny gym - and Preston, who first fought 70 years ago, has taught them all for free. Today he has 25 boys boxing under his roof.

Three times a week they turn up, sparring after school until dinner time.

Preston's wizened, nicotine-stained fingers tie bandages on the boys' hard young hands before they glove up.

"They're tough kids but they're good kids," he says. You just have to sit down and talk with them. You can't growl. It's not like in our day you got a clout in the earhole and told that's what you do.

"If any kid comes to the gym, I never charge them to learn to box. I have never taken money off any one of them in my life."

The kids talk about the Tuaman, but Preston says Jimmy "Thunder" Peau is their idol.

"Whenever he's home, Jimmy comes in here and the kids are all over him like fleas," he says.

Preston swears he taught Peau to catch flies between his thumb and finger.

"Jimmy would be one of the best I have ever trained. He was flatfooted like a duck when he came in, so I took him to a chiropodist and he got things made for his boots that he still wears today."

In his latest bunch of promising pugilists, there is a 10-year-old who has caught Preston's eye.

"There's one champion there - he's a cracker," he smiles.

"You can spot a champion by his movements - you show him something and you see him shadow sparring in front of the mirror."

Today, one of his proteges, Tua, fights American Danell Nicholson for the IBF world No 1 spot. If Tua loses, it could spell the end of his boxing days.

Preston says it will be hard. "David's too short for the weights he's fighting."

Preston started boxing at eight, encouraged by his father and his grandfather, who was a boxer in Ireland.

"Our time was rough. We had to work like blazes on the farm, then we'd get on our bikes at Hunua and ride 30 miles to the gym at Otahuhu.

"My father was teaching us then, and when he died, my world just about sunk. I was going to chuck boxing in."

Instead he took over the mantle as trainer, starting off with young proteges battling it out in his front room.

In 1956 the Swanson Park gym was built.

Now there are boards over smashed windows which Preston cannot afford to replace.

"Everyone said I was mad when I built that gym down there. We've been robbed about 20 times," he says.

"Some of the kids' mates pinch the gear, and sometimes I catch them and give them a swift kick up the bum. But the kids who come here to box worship this place - it's like a religion."

He gets training help from some of his former charges, among them one of his favourite boxers, Monty Betham.

The proudest moment in his life was receiving a special carving from Black Power honouring his work with the kids of Mangere Bridge.

Preston acknowledges that his wife, Joyce, has "put up with a hell of a lot" as he carries on with his lifetime passion in the ring.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a5 at 01 Aug 2014 08:11:04 Processing Time: 696ms