BBC’s Idris Elba’s Fight School: Meet the Oldham teen starring in show

A teenage boy from Oldham drifting through life with ‘no direction’ has been taught how to box by actor Idris Elba in a “social experiment”.

Naeem, 19, is one of eight young people who went through Elba’s Fight School – an intensive five month program training disadvantaged youths to take part in an amateur match at one of the world’s most iconic boxing venues. Elba had the idea for the project after seeing first-hand how a local boxing club transformed the lives of young people in South Africa, and wanted to give the same opportunities to struggling youngsters.

All eight taking part in the project – being shown on the BBC – have experienced hardships, with some spending spells in prison like 19-year-old Finlay, from Scotland, or 29-year-old Sophie from Solihull, who was first arrested at age 11. Others are trying to get their lives back on track after traumatic experiences, like 29-year-old Chanika from East London who miscarried a set of twins before her child died shortly after birth.

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Naeem joined the program after realizing he had no long-term goals. He told the BBC: “There was sort of no direction for me, no long-term objective. I won’t do something until I’m pushed to do it.”

All of the participants were expected to train twice a day, six days a week, with morning runs and gym sessions upping their fitness levels before they stepped into the ring with some of the country’s top boxing coaches. Naeem was quickly seen to be struggling by organizers, as the then-18-year-old turned up late to a training sessions, frustrating his coaches.

He insisted he didn’t have a problem with motivation, and had just been “silly” with his timing. It wasn’t just punctuality that was a problem, as the grueling training regime quickly took its toll on a number of members, including Naeem.

“The training was intense which surprised me,” he said. “The first session showed me how hard it was going to be. It also made me realize how unfit I was and I needed to make some changes to my diet. I dreaded the running during the first few weeks, but when I reached the point where I felt healthier, I began to look forward to the morning runs.

Idris Elba with coaches Rachel Bower and Greg White

“Watching someone box looks easy, but when I had to step in the ring and do the sparring it was the most difficult thing I have been put up against. Taking part in Fight School gave me confidence, it was my first venture into London and I learned that everyone – whatever their background – was the same. To pick up the sport of boxing in five months made me realize I can pick up new things.”

All eight people were thrown into an unusual environment too, sharing a house together right from the start of their training. This was the first time the participants had ever met each other, which was a new experience for the younger people like Naeem. He added: “I hadn’t lived in that kind of environment before. But what I did find was that living in a house with people I had never met before was one of the biggest things that pushed me towards change. The others were great motivators. I was one of the youngest people in the house and they really looked out for me.”

All eight people had access to a life coach and inspirational mentors during the program – helping them make good decisions and transform their lives for the better. Unfortunately, not all of the students made it through the full five months – but no details have been revealed about who was forced to leave early.

Speaking about the program ahead of its broadcast, Idris Elba said: “When I was young I joined a boxing club, and my trainer Joe took me under his wing. It was a real turning point in my life, teaching me discipline and control moving During my own experience of fighting there was a level of peace I was able to achieve.

“Boxing requires you to switch off all the noise and focus on the moment, a skill that I believe all people need, especially younger people who need direction. Looking back at my own experiences, I’m reminded of how powerful boxing can be on Disadvantaged young people, giving them a sense of purpose.This was the inspiration behind Fight School.This was my first time filming something like this, a social experiment of sorts.

“Taking on the responsibility for these young people’s lives is not something I take lightly, and I wanted to be there for them as much as possible and to make sure that there was an incredible support group of trainers and mentors around them as well. As the process went on we dealt with our fair share of injuries, and sadly some of our students were not able to stay throughout the duration of the process. Saying goodbye was the hardest part.”

The first episode of Idris Elba’s Fight School will air on BBC Two Sunday, April 17 at 9.00pm. The five-part series will continue at the same time the week after, although all five episodes will be available on iPlayer from Sunday night.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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