“The bronze means everything to me,” says boxer Muhammad Ali, 18 from Keighley, who in August overcame injury to help Team GB to its best ever result at a Youth Olympic Games.
His three-nil defeat of Indian flyweight Gaurav Solanki brought the team’s total to seven gold, six silver and 11 bronze medals – a record-breaking haul that prompted Lord Coe to describe Muhammad and his teammates as an "extraordinary generation of young talent”.
Coe added, “We saw from the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore that there is a pathway from youth to senior Olympics that for some is only a small journey," and for Muhammad at least the next Olympic Games in Rio in two years’ time may be on the horizon.
But was boxing always the ambition for this fast-rising star? With such a famous name you might expect so but the Yorkshire fighter says although his namesake remains his sporting hero (“because he stood up for what he thought was right and was a great boxer”), it was Amir Khan’s success at the Athens Olympics in 2004 that first inspired him to take up the sport.
“I thought, ‘I want to do that’,” explains Muhammad, who was eight at the time. “So my dad took me to the gym and ever since then I have loved it.”
His progress since then has been remarkable. Ten years on, at the start of 2014 he won his seventh national title with a victory in the flyweight (52kg) division of the England Youth Championships. This led him to the prestigious Three Nations Championships in Scotland where another gold medal earned him a shot at the World Youth Championships in Sofia. Again, he stepped up and won a silver medal there which earned him his place at the Youth Olympics this summer in Nanjing, China, where he was to become one of just 33 young athletes representing Great Britain.
But then, just six weeks before he was due to depart, that was all thrown into doubt. An otherwise typical training session left him with a cut above his left eye that meant he could not fight or even train properly. It was the worst possible timing.
“I stopped sparring early so this tournament was the first time I was back in the ring for more than a month and my fitness was nowhere near to what it normally is and neither was my timing but I still got a medal so I am over the moon.
“Obviously I have not been sparring so I have had to do more running, more bag work, more pads to make up for the sparring and I am really happy to get a bronze.”
It is testament to Muhammad’s ability and fitness that he was able to put all of this behind him and become one of 20 British athletes to reach the podium in China. He did so by defeating Azerbaijan’s Masud Yusifzada in the first round before bouncing back from a semi-final defeat to the eventual gold medallist, reigning youth world champion Shakur Stevenson from the USA, by beating Solanki in the bronze medal bout.
Muhammad’s success is no surprise to coach Mike Jelley from Bury Amateur Boxing Club who says the youth Olympian “eats, sleeps and drinks boxing”. Training four to five times a week during and after college and getting up early most mornings to run, Muhammad says “the discipline in the sport and the hard work that you have to put in to become successful” is what he enjoys most.
His greatest challenge then is not motivation but, as many aspiring sportsmen and women find at this stage of their career, the financial pressure. As an amateur, with the exception of support he gets from the charity SportsAid – which has been made possible by funding this year from Bradford b Active and last year from Lloyds Bank Local Heroes – the costs of his sport fall almost entirely on Muhammad and his family.
“My SportsAid award helps to cover my travelling expenses as we have to travel quite a distance for sparring and access to our boxing gym which is 40 miles away from our house. It also helps me to buy new training equipment which helps me a lot as I always need new gloves to protect my hands.”
To help a rising star like Muhammad to achieve his or her ambitions text ‘NEXT01 £5’ or ‘NEXT01 £10’ (or as much as you can give) to 70070 to support SportsAid’s work. Find out more at www.sportsaid.org.uk.