I first walked into the Denning Boxing Gym when I was 13. Up until then, I didn’t even know what a gym looked like!

I knew a couple of the kids from the neighbourhood that trained at Denning’s and one afternoon I just walked past and thought I would go in and see what all the fuss was about.

As all young kids probably do, my mates and I used to play fight all the time, but never did I ever do any kind of martial arts or combat fighting while growing up in Bunbury.

I remember walking into Dennings that day and kind of wanting to do a 180 and walk back out almost immediately.

I don’t even know why I went in, I suppose curiosity got the better of me. As I shifted slightly back towards the exit, one of the local trainers made a beeline for me.

“Can I help you, son?”, the trainer said.

They were the first words Peter Stokes ever said to me.

I told ‘Stokesy’ I had never put on a pair of boxing gloves before, let alone even punched a bag with a trained combination set.

To this day I still don’t know exactly why, but Stokesy took the time to sit me down and tell me a bit of his story and how he came to be a trainer at Denning’s.

As is the norm for most boys growing up in Western Australia, AFL footy was all I had ever known. It was the game that all the boys in the streets played and for as long as I could remember that’s all I wanted to be when I grew up. A footy player.

Footy always just felt like my calling. Two of my uncles, Lewis and Neville Jetta are in the AFL at the moment.

Lewis and Neville were always destined for the big time and I shared the same dream as both of them.

Never did I expect, that that day, thanks to Stokesy I would welcome a new passion into my life.

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I walked back home that afternoon and told my family I wanted to start training down at Denning’s.

I started learning the craft and technique and Stokesy took me under his wing. He said I had a different look about me in boxing and that he hadn’t come across a kid with as much firepower or quickness in my legs.

I suppose his interest in me, fuelled my curiosity in the ring.

A couple of weeks after I started, Stokesy arranged for me to spar a few of the people in the local area. His long-held view was the greatest classroom for a boxer, was the ring, so he made some calls and helped me out.

One of the first guys I faced was actually an Australian title holder. I could have knocked Stokesy out, there and then, when he told me who I would be sparring against.

“Why the hell would you go out and get the best kid in the block?!?” is what I said to him.

I wasn’t terrified or scared – more just anticipating a level of embarrassment that I was pretty keen on avoiding. Why on Earth would I want all that smoke, when I only just learned how to put on a pair of boxing gloves properly.

As it would happen, I ended up dropping him in the early rounds.

It was after that fight, I thought to myself, “Wow, okay, there might actually be something to this boxing stuff.”

Stokesy couldn’t have been happier. He never said this to me, but I feel like he might have been waiting for someone like me to walk into the gym, all those years ago. And to be honest, Stokesy was probably someone I didn’t realise I was waiting for as well.

For nearly 10 years, Stokesy was by my side every step of the way. He became so much more than just my trainer. Stokesy was my mentor, teacher and above all my best friend in life.

When he first shared with me his diagnosis with cancer, it honestly felt like a knock-out punch that I would never recover from.

Being the “fighter” Stokesy is, he never let it show how much pain he was in. Just like his boxing advice, he never wanted to give his opponent the satisfaction that he was hurting.

The manner in which he battled throughout his treatment, really did inspire me to give my best in all areas of my life, most importantly in the ring. Seeing him go through what he was going through… what excuse did I have?

If he could approach the greatest fight of his life with that level of determination, what excuses do I have to get to where I want to be? None at all.

When Jeff Horn fought Manny Pacquiao at Suncorp Stadium, I was on the undercard and Stokesy had been in the hospital all week. He was in really bad shape, but true to his word, Stokesy rocked up to my weigh-in the day before the fight.

“What? You think cancer was going to stop me from coming to watch you fight, Nath?” he said.

The emotion just seeing him, standing there with that cheeky grin on his face… man, it really got to me.

I remember all the reporters kept asking me, “Nathaniel – how do you feel about your fight tomorrow?”, and all I could think about was Stokesy. He was the one who was in the real fight, and I none of us could tap in and throw some punches for him.

Sadly, only some months later, Stokesy passed his away – he fought until the very end. Even now, it’s really hard to come to terms that Stokesy is no longer with us.

Having him in my corner since I was 13… we had a bond that some people search their whole lives looking for.

To be honest, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t know where I would be today.

Where I’m from, Bunbury, it’s a real small town. I could have went with footy, but you never know what happens. I could have been caught in the wrong crowd as well, which is a familiar story for so many of the boys I grew up with.

But Stokesy made sure that wasn’t going to happen to me. Stokesy changed my life. And for that, I will always be thankful to him.