Weekend Interview: Anthony Joshua the inspiration as Harris Akbar fights for shot at the Olympics

It is a quiet Tuesday lunchtime in the gymnasium that is home to the future stars of British boxing.

Bradford boxer Harris Akbar: At the EIS in Sheffield where he is training in a bid to reach the Olympics in Tokyo. Picture: Steve Ellis
Bradford boxer Harris Akbar: At the EIS in Sheffield where he is training in a bid to reach the Olympics in Tokyo. Picture: Steve Ellis

The two main rings are empty after morning training, a couple of members of the office staff are tucked away out of sight and the only sound that echoes around the great hall at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield is that made by Richie Woodhall as he pounds one of the bags hanging from the ceiling.

Woodhall also features in one of the pictures on display, one taken of him at the Seoul Olympics of 1988 at which he won a bronze medal.

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He is joined on the GB Boxing Academy’s ‘wall of fame’ by all of Britain’s Olympic boxing medallists; Amir Khan, Anthony Joshua, Alan Minter and Nicola Adams to name but a few.

Their images serve as a reminder of the high standards down the decades and as inspiration for future generations.

For Harris Akbar, the ghosts of British boxing past tell the story of what can be achieved with hard work, dedication and a competitive spirit.

“In this gym, it’s your team-mates that keep you inspired because the competition is so intense,” says the 19-year-old from Bradford, of Pakistani descent, who is one of the rising stars of GB Boxing’s Podium Potential programme.

“Learning takes place every time you wake up. That’s the best thing with the GB programme. You need to take as much on board as possible, you need to wise up.

Bradford boxer Harris Akbar at the EIS in Sheffield. Picture: Steve Ellis

“The support we get is great, from UK Sport, from the coaches, from the support staff. Without it we wouldn’t have champions like we see above us and it would be a lot harder to make it to the top step of the podium.”

Akbar has been striving for the top step for 10 years.

He may be part of the pathway to Olympic glory now, with a place at Tokyo 2020 a realistic aim, but it took more than eight years to get here.

A martial arts fanatic as a youngster, his boxing story began when a coach at the nearby Bradford Police Academy Boxing Club – Julian Cyprien, who himself boxed professionally under the name Jim Moore – walked into his Dad’s butcher’s shop and spotted an enthusiastic face behind the counter.

Bradford boxer Harris Akbar is put through his paces at the EIS in Sheffield. Picture: Steve Ellis

“Julian started talking to my dad about me and said ‘bring him down to the boxing gym’,” recalls Akbar, who would later switch to representing Bradford College.

“I was a fat kid and I’m not going to lie, boxing didn’t start very well for me, I lost a lot of bouts when I first started. I think I lost five of my first 10.

“I went straight to the national finals one year because there was no-one else in the weight category as I was that fat.

“I was in the final against this kid who was massive. I got pinged in the first round and they stopped the fight.

“Someone just came up to me and said ‘look you’re at the wrong weight, you’re too overweight, you need to cut it all down’.

“That’s when it started to click. I was 11 at the time. I really enjoyed boxing so that helped keep me motivated, but I knew I had to get my diet right.”

Standing in his corner through it all was his father, Mohammed.

“What helped was that my dad did it with me,” says Akbar. “Everything I was eating he was eating; everything I was doing, he was helping out. I was 11 years old but I was never alone, and that was the best part about it.

“He was always pushing me to get up in the morning, to go to the gym, to eat right, and it was he who pushed me to be where I am now.

“No-one encouraged me to go into boxing, education-wise they wanted me to become a doctor or even help my dad out in the shop.

“But then my dad just said ‘this is something he wants, let him go for it’. I owe a lot to my dad.”

Dedication renewed and with the weight falling off, Akbar began turning his fortunes around, earning his Yorkshire vest and then national colours for England.

“There’s been a lot of tournaments, a lot of fights along the way,” he smiles. “I’ve had roughly 130 bouts and won 116 of them. It’s been a lot of hard work. People don’t realise how much work is actually involved in getting to where you want to be.”

By the time GB Boxing came calling in the summer of 2017, Akbar was a silver medallist at the European Youth Championships, a Commonwealth Youth Games champion, a world championship bronze medallist and was ranked the No 3 amateur on the planet at 69kg.

When GB Boxing invited him onto the programme, he had to reluctantly put his education on hold, but being a funded British boxer is a full-time job and if his journey has taught him anything, if the faces on the walls above could impart one pearl of wisdom, it is that dedication and commitment can reap great rewards.

A constant reminder of those characteristics is a regular visitor to the GB gym and a young man who eight years ago would have been looking up at the pictures wondering if he, too, might one day see his own face staring back at him – Anthony Joshua.

The future heavyweight champion of the world was, like Akbar, a young member of the GB programme trying to box his way onto the London 2012 Olympic team.

“AJ is always in this gym when he’s preparing for his fights and he even lives near us when he’s based up in Sheffield,” says Akbar. “He’s the biggest inpsiration. He’s working hard 24/7, he’s eating well, he’s a proper nice guy, he’s humble, he’s down to earth.

“He’s a great ambassador for the sport and, honestly, such a huge inspiration for me.”

Whether Akbar can achieve anything close to what Joshua has managed, only time will tell. Ultimately, he would like to become the biggest name in boxing. “Being a champion and then opening up a gym and bringing up a champion, are the two main goals for me,” he says.

Of more immediate concern, however, is the chance to represent Great Britain at the Tokyo Olympics, though with only one boxer per country selected for each weight division and Pat McCormack the immovable object standing in Akbar’s way at 69kg, the road to Japan will be a difficult one.

“I would need Pat to slip up, and he’s looking really good at the minute,” adds Akbar.

“But you’ve got to be ready. Two years is a long time on the GB programme, as Joshua Buatsi showed. His story inspires me because two years after he started on the programme he was going to the 2016 Olympics and won a bronze medal. That’s a massive achievement.

“It gives me hope, but it also keeps me level-headed because if it can happen for me it can happen for anyone. So I can’t take my foot off the gas.

“But if 2020 doesn’t happen there’s always the Commonwealths in Birmingham in 2022, the 2024 Olympics in Paris, the world championships, Europeans. There are so many tournaments in which I can go and be the No 1 at.

“For me, right now, I just want to put my name out there... this is Harris Akbar and he’s coming.”

Back in the ring to decide best of British

NEXT UP for Harris Akbar is the GB Boxing Championships at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield on Thursday night.

Akbar was the star of the show 12 months ago when defeating Scotland’s Stephen Newns in the 69kg welterweight category.

As the English representative in the four nations event, Akbar defends his title against another Scottish fighter in Tyler Jolly.

“I know Tyler Jolly well – very well in fact as we’ve travelled the world together for tournaments,” says Akbar.

“He won the Three Nations this year, so I’m going to box him for the British title and we’ll see who’s the best.

“There’s a lot of good fights between some cracking British boxers.”

There are 12 bouts on the night, six men’s fights and six women’s fights.

Doors open at 6.45pm and boxing starts at 7.30pm.

Tickets are on sale now priced £10 at www.ticketsdirect.org.uk/gbchamps. Tickets on the door are £20. Groups who purchase 10 tickets will receive two free tickets.