'Christmas Day' | 

Ulster kickboxing legend Billy Murray to open new £1m gym

‘There were times I never thought I’d see this day but at the minute I’m like a dog with two tails’

Billy Murray

Billy Murray, founder of ProKick gym

Former World Kickboxing champion Billy Murray at Prokick Gym at Wilgar Street in East Belfast. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Sunday World

Kickboxing legend Billy Murray says every day is like Christmas Day as he prepares to open his new £1 million gym.

It’s been more than 30 years in the making but the four-time world champion will finally throw open the doors this afternoon to his new state-of-art ProKick gym in the heart of east Belfast.

Thanks to the Stormont Executive and its Urban Villages programme, Billy just had to raise the funds to buy the property on Laburnum Street near the Holywood Arches area – and in return they built him a brand-new all-purpose gym.

Billy gave us a sneak preview in what he firmly believes is the best gym in Ireland.

He told us excitedly: “The last eight weeks when the gym equipment has arrived and it’s all started to take shape has been brilliant – it’s pretty much what I asked for so getting up every morning it’s been like Christmas Day every flipping day! “There were times I never thought I’d see this day but at the minute I’m like a dog with two tails.

“Our official opening is on September 12, which is coincidentally the date I won my first world championship in the Ulster Hall in 1989 which ties things up nicely.”

Since 1992 the 64-year-old has been teaching the working-class kids from the tough streets of east Belfast – and further afield – the discipline required to succeed in life, and sometimes the ring.

But the famous Wilgar Street gym, nestled under an old stand of Dundela FC just off the Belmont Road, had long stopped being fit for purpose since it became the home of ProKick in 1992.

Billy Murray, founder of ProKick gym

The dingy tin hut gym with a low ceiling had a rainforest of weeds growing through the roof but without backing from the authorities Billy was stuck where he was.

Still, that didn’t stop him producing 16 world champions from the gym.

Last week, half a mile away geographically, but a million miles away in reality, Billy held his last kickboxing class at Wilgar Street and throughout the week some of his 250 members have shed tears at leaving the atmospheric home of Ulster kickboxing.

“There have been tears from some members who have been coming to Wilgar Street for over 20 years,” says Billy.

“It might be small and smelly and completely unsuitable, but my life has been based here for the last 30 years and it will always have a special place in my heart.

“But just look at what we are moving to. For the first time we have a proper air-conditioned gym with windows for natural light. The ring is on wheels so it can be moved into the centre of the gym for shows and we can have 200 people, seated, to watch.

Former World Kickboxing champion Billy Murray at Prokick Gym at Wilgar Street in East Belfast. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

“The lights can be moved, there are a dozen CCTV cameras for health and safety and child protection, and we have a separate gym downstairs with weights, running machines and everything a kickboxer needs. “As far as I’m concerned it’s the best gym in Ireland and it’s going to be a fantastic asset for the people of Belfast.”

This afternoon between 2pm and 4pm Billy’s throwing open the gym doors to the public so they can come in and take a look and sign up if they wish.

And he says that with mental health issues spiralling in society, there has never been so much need for such a facility.

“There are so many people suffering from mental health problems since the pandemic started,” he says.

“This gym will be a beacon of hope for those who need it – our ethos has always been to provide somewhere for people to go to unwind, to keep fit and to improve their mental health in the process.”

There have been countless big names through the doors of the Wilgar Street gym over the years, from former President of Ireland Mary McAleese to Marvellous Marvin Hagler, along with various Belfast mayors, politicians and top boxers.

While many could have given up with the poor facilities at hand, Murray kicked on. In 2017 the BBC produced an award-winning documentary Kick Me, which charted the life-changing work done behind the scenes at ProKick as five fighters prepared for title shots.

That seemed to have captured the attention of the Stormont government.

“We would never have got here without Urban Villages and the Executive who came to me one day in 2016 and told me they loved the cross-community work we’d been doing here and if I found a suitable building they would build me a gym.

“My own team here have been amazing too, including my daughter Brook, Johnny Smith and my partner Edel.

“I’m 64 and this has really come about 20 years too late for me but hopefully I’ll have at least ten years in the new place before I have to find a successor to take over the mantle.”

Billy decided it would best for them to buy the building so it would always be theirs and with a successful GoFundMe campaign he was able to raise enough to get a mortgage.

“Covid hit us badly because we couldn’t train properly so we couldn’t collect all our fees but our members were brilliant with many of them continuing to pay throughout. I think they just wanted to make sure they had a club to go back to after the pandemic,” he said.

Last week after his last classes in Wilgar Street, Billy drove straight to Waterford with his eight-year-old grandson Leo who was fighting for ProKick along with two other fighters before driving straight back to Belfast to prepare for today’s ‘open house’.

Clearly five decades in the kickboxing world has not diminished Billy’s passion for the sport! steven.moore@sundayworld.com


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