Fionola Meredith: Billy Murray’s new gym is the perfect place to help young people have fun

Billy Murray opened the first ProKick kickboxing gym in 1991 on Wilgar Street in East Belfast. As a phenomenally successful kickboxer himself – a four-time world champion – he wanted to share his skills, passion and experience.

but it was more than that. Murray knew from deep personal experience that kickboxing has the power to change people’s lives. It could inspire, motivate and unite them, no matter where they came from or who they were.

Resentful youngsters, those with nothing else and few prospects in life, could find a new sense of commitment and purpose through the disciplined passion of kickboxing.

“You bring any child, no matter how troubled, damaged or out of control, take them to the gym and I guarantee I will give them fresh hope and perspective and you will have a completely different child,” Murray said.

It has been proven time and time again that he was right.

Belfast was still in the grip of trouble when it first opened, but ProKick Gym, with its famous motto “truth, discipline, respect”, has always been a place where life, hope and opportunity flourished.

A club dedicated to promoting peace and respect through martial arts without being distracted by politics or religion, where all that matters is showing up and doing your best.

And their best turned out to be better than anywhere else. Under the inspiring leadership of Billy Murray, the club has produced 17 amazing world kickboxing champions.

But only 10% of the 250 club members actually fight. For most, it’s just contactless; a way to learn self-defense, lose weight, cope with stress, be attentive, get in shape.

Many of the members are girls and women, contrary to the traditional macho stereotype.

And there are people of all ages and ability levels.

Those who mistakenly persist in trying to characterize kickboxing as a violent or gangster sport will be struck by the friendly and respectful spirit of the club.

When I first met Murray three years ago, the first thing that struck me was his soft yet strong presence. He had only to utter a word, and the whole club fell silent to listen to him.

He is known to both adults and children as Mr. Murray. Everyone bowed to him as they entered the classroom, regardless of age.

But while the club was clearly full of great energy and camaraderie, the building was in a terrible state.

“The old tin hut,” as it was affectionately called, was falling apart.

There were gaping holes in the roof, and the ceiling tiles were cracked and stained with water.

Murray told me that time is running out fast. They urgently needed a new place.

Three years later and just over 30 years since its founding, ProKick has finally found a new permanent home.

Through investment in the Urban Villages project, which regenerates areas with a history of deprivation and social tension, as well as their own relentless fundraising efforts, the club has moved into a new, state-of-the-art, £1 million building. This week they opened their doors for the first time at Laburnum Court, just off Bloomfield Avenue.

It has not been an easy journey, but Billy has been there every step of the way, providing momentum, vision and direction.

He even supervised the initial demolition of the new premises, along with club stalwart Johnny Smith, another world champion fighter who is also the father of Billy’s grandson, Leo.

From an architectural point of view, the new gym impresses with its glass and brick façade and bold interior design. It’s a long way from the old tin shack on Wilgar Street, now completely abandoned, its corrugated iron roof disappearing under the ivy. They couldn’t leave the traffic much longer.

But the fundamental values ​​of ProKick have not changed. Truth, discipline, respect: the old motto flaunts on the glass facade of the new premises.

Murray can’t hide his delight. He’s already making plans to introduce the wonders of kickboxing to a new generation of youth, this time with all the amenities of a top gym.

We all know that life in Northern Ireland can be tiresome at times: the politics, the weather, the ever-present weight of the past.

But people like Billy Murray are like a light in the dark, pointing the way forward—showing us who we could be if we had the courage to make a change.