Some of St Clare’s boxers (Credit: St Clare’s ABC Instagram)

A big win from Cardiff’s smallest boxing ring: The rebirth of St Clare’s Amateur Boxing Club

The Fairwater fight club crowned its first amateur champion in a breakthrough 2023 after battling through funding problems, Covid and vandalism

FAIRWATER’S only amateur boxing club enjoyed a knockout 2023 with its first Welsh champion – only four years after opening its crowdfunded doors.

St Clare’s ABC, based in Ashcroft Pavilion, saw their fighter Sophia dos Santos, 36, win a Welsh title in just her second fight.

Dos Santos – an insurance broker by trade – raised her arm in triumph after the women’s 75kg national title fight in April.

Now her trainers and club organisers Mike Gadd and Nick Shellard hope that dos Santos’ success will inspire local interest to help raise funds and improve facilities.

Mr Gadd said that the club has “the smallest ring in Cardiff – and it is falling apart”.

A famous name in Cardiff boxing history

Nick Shellard (left) and Mike Gadd (right) at St Clare’s (credit: Will Rogers)

The St Clare’s boxing name is one of the oldest in Cardiff, with its origins in the foundation in St Clare’s Church in Ely in the 1930s.

Founded by Mr Gadd’s grandfather, Gil, and Johnny Furnham, the club produced numerous champions over the years, before ownership was passed on to the famous Pat Thomas in Tiger Bay in 1984.

Mr Thomas came from St Kitts and Nevis to settle in Cardiff and went on to became the first immigrant to earn a British title, winning his Lonsdale Belt at Wembley against Jimmy Batten in 1979.

Mr Thomas, who was recently inducted into the British Boxing Hall of Fame, would eventually coach and inspire a young boxer called Mike Gadd.

The boxing club didn’t survive in Cardiff Bay but Gadd didn’t forget it.

He dreamed up St Clare’s in its current form in 2016 but it took a three-year campaign to bring it to reality with the community rallying round to raise funds.

Mr Thomas was the first immigrant to win a British title

Local boxer Evan Rees took part in an unlicensed fight in 2019, which raised £1,500 for the club, and alongside £8,000 from the National Lottery, the owners had the opportunity to get the club off the ground.

Despite numerous vandalism problems – including a fire on the balcony and the destruction of the front door – the club was finally able to open in July 2019.

Following the pause of the pandemic, former Commonwealth Games medallist Nathan Thorley was brought in to provide his experience to the novice classes.

Sadly for the club, Thorley emigrated to Perth, Australia, in 2023, with Mr Gadd saying: “ (He) is a big loss really, he is so experienced and great with the kids.”

However, the coaches say they have finally started to see numbers return to their pre-pandemic levels in 2023.

There are plans for the club to expand further in the future, yet its location above Fairwater Rugby Club – and that small ring – present difficulties.

That’s why the coaches are keen for their members to get as much fighting experience as possible, with further fight nights in 2024 anticipated to bring more funding into the club.

The front of St Clare’s Boxing Club and Fairwater Rugby Club (Credit: Will Rogers)

The First Champion

The undeniable highlight of 2023 was Sophia dos Santos’ victory over Tarnie Evans in the women’s 75kg national title fight in April.

In just her second fight, dos Santos, avenged her debut defeat to become St Clare’s first Welsh champion.

Dos Santos said: “It felt great to win it for the club even if the whole thing was very overwhelming.”

Despite always wanting to give boxing a go she had been put off by the limited opportunities for women in Wales.

However, when the Fairwater resident saw a club opening just five minutes from her house she went along in 2022 and felt welcomed by the coaches.

“(They) 100 percent brought me out of my shell as I am generally quite an awkward, shy person,” she said.

“When I was younger I always thought that going into a male-dominated gym would be intimidating, but now it is so far from that.

“Hopefully in the New Year there will be more women who take up the sport as the coaches are so supportive and push you to be your best.”

Dos Santos is no stranger to the sporting spotlight and believes she was able to transfer her experience as a roller derby champion into the boxing ring.

Welsh Champion Sophia dos Santos (Credit: Welsh Amateur Boxing Association)

Dos Santos plays for the top roller derby team in Wales and has competed on the European stage, which she believes helped her to deal with the pressure of a national title fight.

While she says her family and friends rarely come to her roller derby games, they were all there for her fight night and loved it, although “perhaps they just wanted to see me getting punched in the face”.

She hopes that next year, with more fights, she can inspire the next generation of fighters at St Clare’s and continue to grow her own journey in the sport.

Hopes for the future

The club is open six days a week, with a variety of classes for both social and competitive boxers.

Fitness classes on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays “help keep the club ticking over” but it has taken some time to get to that stage.

“No one wanted to come back after Covid, they were too scared to return to the social environment,” said Mr Shellard.

Now, though, the coaches believe it is the fitness and social aspects of the club that have brought so many novices into the building – and having a national champion in their midst helps newcomers to see the potential for achievement.

Mr Gadd said: “Everyone here is a novice, so for Sophia to be a Welsh champion is extremely impressive.

“We hope and need to have more champions but it is so difficult as everyone here is up-and-coming”.

Mr Gadd and Mr Shellard hope that they can build a stronger relationship with Welsh Boxing at Sophia Gardens, getting their fighters more experience at an intermediate level.

Having come so far in only a short period of time and on such a limited budget, the belief now exists that the club will continue to improve.

Mr Shellard said: “Things have just started to pick up now all around Cardiff and with the direction we are going, the sky’s the limit.”