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Nottingham’s Marcellus Baz became a household name last year when he was honoured with a British Empire Medal and the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Unsung Hero award for services to youth boxing and the local community.
Since then, Marcellus’ initiatives – Switch Up and the Nottingham School of Boxing – have both found international recognition, with Marcellus travelling to Los Angeles and Rio, rubbing shoulders with celebrity supporters such as Anthony Joshua, Frank Bruno and Stevie Wonder.
However, growing up in the Meadows in Nottingham, Marcellus had a difficult start to life, getting involved with crime and the city’s gang culture.
“My dad was always at work, doing long hours to keep a roof over our heads, and my mum was suffering from mental health issues. It was hard, so I spent a lot of my time out on the streets.
“I ended up getting into the wrong crowd and taking part in criminal activity.”
On the ropes
As the gang’s activity became more and more violent, Marcellus began arming himself when out and about, carrying knives and even guns for protection.
“Violence just became normal. We were always on edge waiting for an attack or for the police to kick down the door.
“It got to the point where we couldn’t go into other areas of the city because we’d got rivalries there. We didn’t even know them, but we hated them anyway.”
One of the most profound moments in Marcellus’ life came when he stumbled upon what would become his life’s greatest passion – boxing.
“It’s funny, I was actually being chased by a police officer, and I ran into a leisure centre to hide. I ran through into a boxing gym full of people training, and it was just like, ‘wow’.
“Everybody seemed really positive, doing something that they loved. There were even people in the ring fighting, and no one was telling them off! I thought ‘hang on, this is alright – I could be part of this.’
“The police officer came in, and I think the coach knew him – he had a word and we didn’t get into trouble. We stayed there, and the coach encouraged us to join in.”
The coach was Albert Tandy, who would go on to be a huge influence in Marcellus’ life.
“It became a complete contrast to the life I was living on the streets. In the gym nobody was looking down on you or judging you. It felt like a family, and it gave me a sense of purpose.”
Tragically, his boxing days were cut short when he was attacked with a knife during an attempted mugging. His attackers sliced through both his hands, permanently damaging his ligaments and tendons.
“I was in a dark place after that. I didn’t really get much of an education because I was never at school, so I didn’t have anything else to fall back on. Boxing was everything to me, so when that ended I was suicidal.
“I felt vulnerable and depressed and I isolated myself even further. It was a horrible place to be in.”
It was this ‘dark place’ that spurred Marcellus on to make positive changes in his life – and he credits Albert Tandy and his boxing club for helping him.
“The people at the boxing club were always a positive influence on me, and a few of them were starting to mentor me and became like father figures.
“Without them I think I would have gone straight into revenge mode.
“Instead I went to college, and I studied injury rehabilitation and sports therapy.
“By the time I finished, my criminal record was spent, but it was still really difficult to get a job. There was still that stigma.
“I started volunteering with Headway. After a while, the manager said she knew someone who was looking for a gym instructor. I went for an interview and got the job.”
Beating gangs to the punch
It was this job that sparked Marcellus’ passion for helping others, and became the catalyst for starting Switch Up and the Nottingham School of Boxing.
“I noticed a lot of people coming in who were a lot like me in the past – stuck in this cycle of crime and going through personal traumas. I started trying to mentor them and link them to organisations that could help.
“Then I became manager of the sports centre, and I drew up a business plan for the sports hall in the centre. It was hardly ever used, so I went to the owners and asked to set up a boxing club, which I ran voluntarily.
“Quite a few kids started coming and eventually I got the parents involved too – they took on kids for work experience, or taught literacy and numeracy after boxing sessions.”
The programme grew in popularity, even attracting a visit from Prince Harry, who commended Marcellus for his engagement with the community.
Marcellus then gave up his job, and focussed all of his energy on his programme, which became the Switch Up and Nottingham School of Boxing initiatives he runs today.
“The boxing school teaches kids respect, discipline and time keeping, while Switch Up is the mentoring side, which gives them the life skills needed for employment.”
The initiatives continue to go from strength to strength, with Marcellus being invited to Denmark, Norway, Brazil and Los Angeles to speak at conferences and offer his expertise on tackling youth violence.
“Some of these conferences I was at had Harvard professors speaking there, and then there was me – some guy off the streets with a criminal background. I had to pinch myself a few times!
“When I was in Los Angeles I was invited to do a radio interview – it turned out it was Stevie Wonder’s radio station. Afterwards I got a phone call to say Stevie loved my interview, and I ended up going to his birthday party that night!
“Another surreal moment was getting the Sports Personality of the Year and British Empire Medal awards. It was incredible to get that kind of recognition; I never imagined I’d get that kind of success. It was an honour.”
Today, Marcellus continues to act as managing director of Switch Up, alongside his role as director and head coach of the Nottingham School of Boxing. He praises his team for helping him grow the initiatives, and says that the programmes are creating positive outcomes for many young people in Nottingham.
“My team are incredible- I just couldn’t do it without them. I’ve got seven people working for me and around 25 volunteers who have all dedicated themselves to helping me grow my vision.
“We’ve got more than 800 kids going through the Switch Up programme right now, and the most rewarding thing is seeing them turn their lives around.
“I’ve seen young people come here who have been totally written off by their school, the police, everyone saying that they can’t ever amount to anything.
“Today, they’re totally different people. Some of them actually work here as coaches, or one young man is now working for the council as a youth worker.”
Currently, Marcellus is working on securing long-term premises for the boxing school. Since the beginning of this year, the school has operated out of the Pakistani centre in Nottingham city centre, but they need a more permanent home.
“Right now, we want to focus on getting our roots down in Nottingham. We need to raise around £500,000 to buy our own place – I’m hoping we can stay here, but we’d definitely remain in Nottingham.
“The support we’ve had from the local community, from businesses and influential figures has been brilliant. It’s part of the reason why I love this city – the people here are amazing. Nottingham is in my DNA.”