Martin’s charity gives kids a fighting chance

October 05 2014

The innovative charity Empire Fighting Chance celebrates its first anniversary this month. Jayne Taylor meets co-founder and Downend man Martin Bisp to find out how boxing is giving some young people a brighter future

martin bispempire club

The innovative charity Empire Fighting Chance celebrates its first anniversary this month. Jayne Taylor meets co-founder and Downend man Martin Bisp to find out how boxing is giving some young people a brighter future


IT was a chance meeting with two lads dealing drugs that set Downend man Martin Bisp on a mission.

This mission would eventually involve setting up a charity to give thousands of young people across Bristol a chance to make a success of their lives.

Martin along with Jamie Sanigar, son of boxing promoter Chris, witnessed the shady exchange while working at the Empire Amateur Boxing Club in St Paul’s.

They ran out to the two youngsters and invited them back to the club. The rest, as they say, is history.

“It was about seven years ago and we were sat in the gym office on a Friday night and saw two young kids dealing drugs in the park over the road,” Martin said.

“We decided it just wasn’t acceptable so we went over and tackled them. We said ‘You can’t live like this; there has got to be a better way’. 

“We got them in the gym and ran a boxing session with them. They left the gym and we didn’t think too much about it. But on the Monday they came back with a couple of friends for another session. On the Tuesday there were a couple more. Then, within five weeks, we had 50 kids coming five nights’ a week.”

Martin, 44, and 35-year-old Jamie, who lives in Frenchay, knew they were on to something when they took a phone call from a school to talk about one of their new recruits.

“They told me that since he’d been working with us his behaviour had improved and he was no longer getting excluded from school,” Martin said.

They asked them to work with another lad and the phone calls from schools kept coming. This spiralled and Martin and Jamie kept up with the demand for their services.

But the turning point came when the pair discovered their work could attract funding, paving the way for the charity they were to later set up.

“One day someone from Safer Bristol knocked on the door and said they could pay for the sessions. Until that point we didn’t have a clue we could be funded. All we were trying to do is respond to a need.”

Anti-exclusion programmes followed and work with young people in schools continued to flourish. Word soon spread about how they were reaching out to young people who could so easily have got on the wrong side of the law. After working with charities Fight for Peace and the Young Foundation, Martin and Jamie were armed with the knowledge to set up their own charity.

Empire Fighting Chance was born and celebrates its first birthday this month with a trail of success stories in its wake.

“Sport is used as the hook,” Martin explained.

“All our programmes are non-contact so we use boxing techniques and boxing training to engage young people to look at things in a different way. We underpin the sports side with personal development, using mentors and therapists, and deliver education as well as offering employment prospects. We’re not looking at this as a sticking plaster; hopefully young people will come out seeing the future differently and making a permanent change.”

There certainly is evidence to show this approach is working.

“One lad jumped out in front of me as I was driving past the gym as he wanted to tell me he had his own plumbing business and the reason he wasn’t in prison was because of us,” Martin said.

Another particularly charismatic lad was using his influence to encourage his school peers to get involved in violence and drugs. He started working with Martin and Jamie and now he plans to take A’ levels and become a lawyer.

“People write off street kids who run gangs but to be honest it takes a lot of skill to do that. If we can channel that in the right direction than we will end up with young people who are going to end up achieving great things.”

The pair continue to work with schools, recently winning a School Links award. Martin and Jamie were presented with the accolade by Prince Edward at St James’ Palace in July.

The charity has also been nominated for a nationwide mental health good practice award, facing tough competition from none other than Arsenal Football Club.

Martin has every reason to believe the club’s future is looking better than ever. He has just received the keys to their new premises, the former Mill Youth Club, after their current landlord decided to sell up.

“It’s just over the other side of the road in Easton. It’s a fabulous building and will be perfect for us. It’s got a basketball court, a car park and is bigger than our current home.”

As a result of the securing the Mill, the club has received £360,000 from Sport England and £120,000 from Bristol City Council. The money will be spent on refurbishing the building to include two gyms, fitness studios, a community space, class rooms and one-to-one mentoring space.

If everything goes to plan the new premises will open on January 2 next year.

“We were limited by space in our old building but now we can work with more young people to offer more services including a club for disabled young people. It’s massively exciting because the charity can now grow to where it should be as opposed to being limited by the building we’re contained in.”

The charity works with young women as well as young men, with roughly a 65/35 male/female split. Around 200 people a week use the re-engagement and schools programmes and statistics show that an incredible 92 per cent of these young people are no longer committing criminal activity with 98 per cent feeling fitter and better about themselves.

“We don’t judge people who walk into our gym,” Martin said.

“We don’t care what they’ve done, where they come from or what religion they are. They see the champions on the wall who have come through the club, like Glenn Catley and Adrian Stone, and no one else can give them that.”

What makes this success story all the more incredible is that Martin is a full time business analyst and runs the amateur wing and charity side of the Empire Boxing Club in his spare time.

“For me, it’s a lifestyle. I’ve done it for so long that it’s second nature but it is a difficult balancing act. I’ve got two teenage daughters and you’re always juggling boxing plus the charity plus work plus home life. We wonder if we’ve created a monster but the problem is, if we’re not doing it, who’s going to do it? I feel I have a responsibility to try to put something back.”