It is a freezing cold day outside, the kind that chills the bone marrow if you let the Arctic Wearside wind wash over you for any longer than five minutes or so.
Criss-cross the streets that straddle a nondescript housing estate on the outskirts of the coastal village of Ryhoe, however, and you will find a tale to warm even the coldest day.
The few hundred yards from Leechmere Way to the Olympian Gym are the final steps of the remarkable journey made by Thomas Essomba, a 26-year-old boxer who has fought for the grandest prize in amateur boxing – the Olympic title.
Back home he was one of the Indomitable Lions – Cameroon’s elite boxing squad – who had two Olympic games under his belt. Here, in Sunderland, he is known affectionately as “just one of the lads”.
Essomba fought for gold at London 2012 but then disappeared, along with five other athletes and a coach on the boxing team. They re-appeared some two months later in the North East of England, having been living in a shelter without money for food or clothes. Despite their elite status back home, they didn’t even have the money to pay for a bus from the Salvation Army homeless shelter to the gym that was to offer them some sort of salvation.
The Olympian Gym is more than just a boxing facility, though. These are hard men but there is a fistic brotherhood and Essomba, through his diligent training, work ethic and generous nature, soon became one of them, despite his radically different upbringing and circumstances.
Every day he would turn up in the same shirt that he wore in the Olympics. His new-found friends took to bringing in food for him, helping him to assimilate in this far-flung corner of a strange country.
On a dark Wednesday in the middle of January, Essomba works the hard leather bag in the corner of the Olympian under the watchful eye of Phil Jeffries, the owner of the gym and father of Sunderland’s bronze medal winner Tony – who has since relocated to Los Angeles to find his fortune as an actor, model and personal trainer to the West Coast’s great and good.
Jeffries senior was stood at the door of the gym when I pitched up, 15 minutes late after getting lost and huddled in a thick winter coat looking for Essomba. He has turned away plenty of inquisitive eyes in the last six months, reporters who he felt might be missing the point of his charge’s wonderful, redemptive story.
“He’s an absolutely golden kid. Everyone in the gym absolutely loves him – he’s a class act inside and outside the ring,” Jeffries says, admiringly.
It is the night when the gym’s young hopefuls are being visited by the doctor to pass medicals to allow them to start training, and excited chatter fills the space. Jeffries is at the centre of it. But there is an oasis of calm around the young man who has made such an impression on them.
Six months previously, Essomba surprised everybody by walking into the gym with heavyweight counterpart Blaise Yepmou Mendouo in tatty shorts and a T-shirt, asking whether he could train there for a while.
He did so in broken English and on the back of broken promises. He has never gone into detail about why he decided to abscond but he tells about political interference with the Olympic boxing squad in and around the London games. It’s as far as he really wants to go about an experience that has scarred him.
“I was captain for my team Cameroon. I was proud but then it changed. The problem was with the government in sport,” Essomba explains in occasionally halting English.
“I cannot go back to my country so now I am targeting another Olympics and Britain is the country that helps me. I want to repay Britain. If it is something I can do, then I would like to fight for them.”
To talk so confidently, you would never guess where it all started for him in Sunderland. Jeffries takes up the story.
“They turned up at the gym a year or so back. It was raining and they asked to come in. To be honest I had no idea who they were but we don’t turn anyone away from this gym,” he says.
“They didn’t get any preferential treatment in this gym. No one does. But as soon as they started to spar you could tell they were absolutely class. He’s a lovely, lovely natured lad and he’s an absolute inspiration, especially for the young lads who are in this gym.
“He’s come here with nothing and he had everything when he was fighting for his country. Yet he works and works and works. He’s smashing and to have him in the North East, well, we’re really pleased about it.”
He introduces himself with a firm handshake and pleasantries. He was lacing up his gloves – usually the point where a boxer gets himself into the “zone” for an intensive training session – but steps out of his preparation to explain how he ended up in the North East.
There is a quick glance to the sky. He says: “Why Sunderland? God sent me here to find myself. This is the life that was chosen for me and I thank God that I found this life, this gym and the North East. I never thought I would live in Sunderland. I did not speak English, I had nothing when I arrived here but the people here have been so kind to me. I am not rich here but I feel blessed. I am happy and I chose to re-start my life and my career here.”
He trains every night apart from Sundays, when he goes to church.
In November, a new chapter of his life opened when he fought against 19-year-old Middlesbrough boxer Joe Maphos. It was a first step and he fought valiantly before losing a decision that Jeffries put down to hometown favouritism. “He won it, no doubt in my mind,” he says.
The next step is on March 26, when he competes in the North East bracket of the Amateur Boxing Association championships. This is the cream of the crop in amateur boxing, where the very best test themselves against the rest of the country.
The competition is fierce, with teak tough fighters from every corner of the country aiming to plant one foot on the path to the dreamed-of professional career by emerging triumphant. Those who don’t go that route invariably end up donning the vest of their country in the Olympic games.
“My new life will start with the ABAs. This is a competition I want to win, I want to do that. I am training every day,” he said.
“I have been to two Olympics. On my first Olympics I lost in my first fight, in the second I went through to the second fight and competed twice. My dream is an Olympic medal, that is true. If I can win the ABAs, an Olympic medal is what I dream of. If I can’t do this, I want to turn professional and there will be no limits to my ambition.” He beckons around his waist. “The belt,” he says. “A world title belt.”
He has an enthusiastic ally in the well-connected Jeffries, who admits that he will need to “invest” in Essomba to try and launch his professional career.
In the dog-eat-dog world of boxing, the fighters who rise to the top are not always the most talented. As well as will-to-win they also need to be able to sell tickets, which usually means encouraging friends, families and club members to fill buses to follow them around the country – or pack out the arenas or clubs they fight in.
Essomba’s only family in Sunderland, as he readily admits, is a charity worker he refers to as Maggie. His guardian angel, he admits.
In the absence of people around him to buy tickets, it may be his personality or back story which draws people into Essomba’s remarkable tale of giving up everything to start a new life. “Jaffa has changed my life. Sometimes he gives me things, he encourages me,” he said. “He is a special man.”
“Jaffa” Jeffries was in London when the Home Office gave them indefinite leave to stay, having ocasionally dipped into his own pocket to fill trolleys full of food for his youthful charge. He has ferried him about and will be in his corner during the ABA for a man he now considers a friend.
“I never got into the politics of it,” he confides. “I don’t want to discuss the politics of it to be honest because we have people who come into the gym from every walk of life. Everyone gets a fresh start here and they get judged on what they do here.” There is a ringing endorsement from his current coach, Alan Topping, who reveals that he has started coming to train 45 minutes early – just so that he can pass his ability on to a new crop of hopefuls filing through the doors of the Olympian.
“He’s absolutely class. He’s so polite. If he comes in the gym early and the little ones train between 5-6pm, he will help them out. We didn’t even ask him to help out the kids. One week I turned round to help one of them and Thomas was there, holding him in the right position, showing him the right footwork and stance.”
When Thomas leaves, Jeffries lowers his voice. “His hero is Manny Pacquiao and I’ve got a signed pair of his shorts. If he wins the ABAs, they’re his.”
Given all that he has been through, you wouldn’t bet against Sunderland’s indomitable lion.