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Boxing in the dark: Incredible story of the 66-year-old deafblind fighter

Boxing in the dark: Incredible story of the 66-year-old deafblind fighter

James Peline began boxing, aged just 14, in a basement gym on Govan Road.

Boxing is in his blood. Second cousin to Scots fighter Bert Gilroy, James grew up in a Cardonald household in the 50s full of newspaper splashes of Gilroy's success, with a boxing-mad dad encouraging him to train.

James remembers the sparring matches, exhausted clinches and the crack of fists against his face from those early training days; five nights a week spent revelling in the sport he loved.

At that stage in his life, James was completely deaf.

His sight was also rapidly deteriorating, his peripheral vision increasingly blinkered as his retinas failed. Born with the genetic condition Usher Syndrome, James, now 66, is entirely deafblind and his perception of the world is restricted to darkness, memories and sign language communicated through touch.

At 21 he was told his eyesight was too poor to fight, but as a pensioner James has remarkably returned to training.

He will also be the honoured guest of WBO lightweight champion Ricky Burns at his upcoming fight against Terence Crawford at the SECC in Glasgow on March 1.

  (James Peline/DeafBlind Scotland)
via STV via STV

Re-learning the ropes

Coached by Tam Fraser at Kirkintilloch's Rivals Gym, James has rekindled his teenage love of boxing. He and Tam have struck up a unique tactile language, tracing instructive words on each other's chests and tapping shoulders to communicate.

"When I gave up boxing it broke my heart, I just cried," recalled James, who communicates by clutching his guide Gina's wrists as she signs.

"I loved the boxing. My father was always encouraging me, always saying, 'go for it James'. He was always so excited, he was so upset when I had to give it up.

"Normally I'm sitting in the house, fed up and doing nothing. Going to the gym is really good. It takes me out of the house."

  (James Peline and Tam)
via STV via STV

Life can be extremely monotonous for Scotland's deafblind people, many of whom only receive a guide's help for a few hours a week - rendering them unable to communicate or adequately comprehend the world around them.

Deafblind Scotland, the nation's deafblind charity, liken the experience to being trapped in a silent, dark room, the door of which is opened only once or twice a week for two hours.

There are 2500 people registered as deafblind in Scotland due to their severe degree of combined auditory and visual impairment, many of whom are elderly.

James' unassailable determination and fighting spirit, while characteristic of the boxers he idolised in his youth - personalities like Muhammad Ali that populate his cuttings scrapbook- is not common in other people with deafblindness.

The isolating nature of being completely deafblind can lead some individuals to feel hopeless and discourage them from interacting with others or engaging in hobbies.

For James, light training with Tam once a week breaks the every day monotony. It allows him to relive his memories of that 1960s Govan training gym, his youth and life before he lost his sight. He has also struck up friendships, drawn praise from top boxing manager Alex Morrison and met champion fighter Ricky Burns.

  (© SNS Group)
via STV via STV

“I’ve never met anyone like James, it's amazing," said boxing manager Alex Morrison.

"I realised as soon as I met him it’s not sympathy he is looking for. I'm not completely surprised he's been able to take up the training if he boxed in the past but it must be hard.

"I'm so lucky to have my sight and hearing and it’s a pleasure to do something like this for James. It's really nice to see Deafblind Scotland offering James these opportunities.”

James was Alex Morrison's honoured guest at a recent February 15 fight, and James and guide Gina will also be special guests at the Burns vs Terence Crawford fight on March 1. Gina communicates the action of the boxing through signing, enabling James to keep up with the fight.

"I'm lucky I've got the guides to take me boxing," said James.

"I didn't know anything before and I'm lucky to have them. I couldn't do it without them."

  (James Peline/DeafBlind Scotland)
via STV via STV

"Now I'm 66 years of age, it's been 45 years since I last boxed. I'm back and I love it." - James Peline.

James still remembers the face of his old trainer, Peter Keenan. He recalls him as a wavy-haired man with an eye for money-making fighters, one who let James train alone in the gym rather than encourage him. The encouragement he lacked in his youth, James now receives from Tam.

"Peter knew he wasn't making money out of me. I'd just come, skip, box a bag and go away," said James.

"Peter used to look out over the gym and they'd choose which boy were strong enough to fight. When someone called my name, he said, 'Nah, not him - he can't see.'

"Tam teaches me well and my balance has improved. Before I was frightened to punch in case I lost my balance, but now I'm still. Tam is wonderful. He's brilliant at boxing.

"When I was young, I was strong and I wanted to fight. I was so disappointed when I had to give it up.

"Now I'm 66 years of age, it's been 45 years since I last boxed. I'm back and I love it."

For more information on Deafblind Scotland visit their website

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