BEHIND the fists flying at a Chester boxing ring lies the tale of a remarkable environment bringing nervous youths with learning difficulties to train side by side with reformed drug addicts.
Boosting confidence, keeping teenagers off the streets and providing a distraction from the temptation of drugs, the Heavy Hitters gym has become an unusual public service.
At the same time, the club accepts people who are in rehabilitation, working with residential care centre Turning Point to help them find work and, in some cases, taking them on itself.
Trainee coach Olivier de Souza, a recovering cocaine addict, says the club's owners have helped him to get back on his feet.
'This place is something special,' he said. 'It doesn't matter what background you have, how much money you have, where you're from or the colour of your skin. They didn't treat me different from anyone else. They try to take you as a person and help you through life.'
Described as an alternative 'family' by Olivier, the gym is helping to transform youths with a thirst for self-improvement.
Shy 13-year-old Michael Buckley, of Stamford Road, Blacon, suffers from extreme learning difficulties.
His family and school say he has come out of his shell since signing up to the gym.
'He's improved out of all recognition,' said his father Paul. 'He has always been over-weight due to inactivity, he didn't have many friends. But since he's been going boxing all that's changed dramatically. It's made a hell of a difference in him.
'When Michael first went to the gym he was shy, introverted and didn't go out at all. He had no confidence. But keeping fit and mixing with the other kids has brought him on, he's like a rose blooming.'
He believes the spirit among fellow fighters is inspirational.
'They encourage each other,' said Paul. 'They understand it's a rough sport and have respect as they know what each other is going through.
'Michael comes back from there and he's happier - if you had only seen him a few years ago. Now he trains four times a week and on Saturdays he'll normally bring a change of clothes and go into town with one of the lads. They'll have a coffee or go to McDonald's - two years ago you wouldn't get him out of the door.'
Michael's brother Pete runs the gym along with Steve Goodwin and has been following his progress.
'When Michael first came here, at the age of 11, he would just stand in the corner and look around, not wanting to do anything,' said Pete.
'All the lads would be cheering him on every time he came along, so he became involved more. Now he trains as a side-boxer, a much more advanced skill.'
Michael's school, Blacon High, has recognised the positive change in him since he took up boxing.
His head of house Ann Peers said: 'Boxing has given Michael the chance to shine and feel proud of his achievements. He is a quiet pupil who finds it difficult at times to interact with other pupils within the school environment. He has had to cope with learning and speech difficulties which have affected his self-confidence.
'Boxing has given him the confidence to talk to other pupils and staff, boosting his self-esteem and feeling of self-worth.
'On Monday he brought in a trophy he had won at a tournament over the holidays, he was beaming. Many pupils showed a keen interest and wanted to know all about it. His achievement will be recognised in a forthcoming house assembly.'
Teenagers looking to turn their energies to more productive use have been flocking to the gym in Chester Enterprise Centre, Hoole, where Steve and Pete put them through rigorous training.
Having produced Chester's first professional fighter since 1948, Omar Gumati, their work is reflected in the talent being produced and the number of youths desperate to sign up.
Omar's younger brother Adam is also expected to go far.
When Pete and Michael's brother Kevin reaches his 18th birthday, he will become the city's second professional boxer.
Established three years ago to develop the boxing skills of people regardless of their age, sex and disabilities, the club is heavily reliant on charitable donations for its existence.
Heavy Hitters provides a choice of classes, from boxing training to Tae Kwon Do, oneto-one fitness programmes and fitness classes. More than 150 people make use of the gym in some way.
The club's record speaks for itself and since its formation it has produced three area schoolboy champions.
Children from as young as eight attend classes and while membership is male dominated, girls are not excluded.
'We have about 15 girls,' said Pete. 'I treat them the same as everyone else. Some of them fight for us.'
Despite funding problems, the gym is well equipped, with four punch bags, a running machine, stepping machines, free weights, weight systems and a sun bed, while a sauna is being installed.
The Heavy Hitters gym is open from 9am-9pm Monday to Friday, and 10am-2pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Further information is available from club secretary Barbara Buckley on 01244 342 012.