Kash ‘The Flash’ Gill wants to add after-dinner speaking to his career portfolio. “I’ve got a lot of charisma, I’m quite funny and I’ve got a good story to tell,” he says with charming immodesty.
He might also mention that he can talk the hind leg off a donkey, which of course will come in quite handy on the speakers’ circuit.
Kash – real name Kashmir Singh Gill – is certainly a character. He also happens to be a four-time world kickboxing champion and the UK’s “most prolific kickboxer”.
He has competed across the globe and rubbed shoulders with a host of celebrities, from Belgian martial arts film director Jean Claude van Damme to members of the Birmingham-born reggae band UB40.
Today, at the age of 48, his fighting days are over – although he is still passionate about keeping fit and looks much younger than his years. His boyish looks, enthusiasm and chattiness, coupled with his drive to help disadvantaged youngsters, have helped to keep him in the media spotlight.
Last year he was inducted into the BBC’s Hall of Fame in recognition of his titles and community work, and a documentary of his life is currently in production. “If it’s done properly, it could be a Bollywood blockbuster – like an Asian-style Rocky!”
Kash, a divorced father-of-three, now runs an eponymous gym in Ladywood, Birmingham, where he trains children and adults in the art of kickboxing and other martial arts. Since setting it up six years ago, he’s produced six new world kickboxing champions.
Having come from a deprived background and experienced a difficult childhood, Kash is as focused on helping disaffected and underprivileged youngsters as he is on financial success for his business.
“I’m a giver, not a taker. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping kids to change their lives,” he explains. “I work with all sections of the community, including kids who have been into drugs. It’s why I made it into the regional finals of the Pride of Britain Local Hero Award in 2011. As well as coaching, I also go into many inner-city schools to spread the word about the importance of health and fitness.”
But he’s also keen to attract more of a corporate clientele to his gym business: “Companies already come to me to train: kickboxing and other martial arts are good for anger management and stress relief. I’m looking to attract more corporate clients.”
He set up the gym, on Icknield Port Road, with £100,000 that he and a sleeping partner put in. Not only is it well kitted-out, it’s also something of a shrine to Kash’s fighting years. There are cardboard cut-outs of him (made to advertise his biography, My Life in a Flash, published in 2012), the walls are lined with photographs and newspaper cuttings and the shelves are packed with cups and trophies.
It opened in 2008 and although it’s gone through “tough times”, it’s now well established. Kash also runs “mobile gyms” at leisure centres around the Birmingham area. “Quite a few of the people I’ve trained, who have got their black belts, have gone on to open their own gym or coaching businesses.”
Kash’s parents who came to Britain from India in the 1950s. He grew up in Handsworth, the second youngest of six children. When he was nine his mother died, leaving his sister to care for the family while his father worked 18-hour factory shifts to support them all.
One imagines his mother’s death would have been a traumatic time for him, but Kash says he took it in his stride.
“It didn’t affect me that much. It made us independent – we had to learn how to iron, how to wash clothes. I look at the positives rather than the negatives, although it probably did affect us. Our sister, who was 16 at the time, took mum’s role. My dad was working double shifts, getting up at 5am. I remember him saying, ‘make sure you kids don’t end up doing what I’m doing’.”
Kash took up kickboxing when he was 14. “I spent a lot of time in Handsworth Park when I was a kid and one day I saw a kickboxing demonstration there and decided it was what I wanted to do. I loved it from my first lesson. My father was a wrestler back in the Punjab, so it was in the blood. He encouraged me. I’ve got four brothers and a sister. I was a bit of a scrapper.” When teachers asked Kash what he wanted to do when he left school, he would reply: “I want to be the world kickboxing champion.”
They would smile indulgently and say: “What do you really want to do?” But his mind was made up. “I knew I’d achieve it,” he says.
After leaving school at 16 without any qualifications, he threw himself into training.
“I would train four times a day – it became a full-time occupation. People ask me what I did before kickboxing, and I tell them I didn’t do anything else.”
Becoming a martial arts devotee not only made Kash super-fit, it also helped to bring him out of his shell: “I was a shy kid and this gave me confidence. I see the same thing happen with kids today when they come to train at my gym. It changes them. They get a chance to compete and do well at something; it gives them something to channel their energy into.”
By the age of 20, he was world amateur kickboxing champion. The same year, 1986, he lifted the British and European professional titles, and at the age of 24 was crowned professional world champion – in Birmingham – for the first time. He went on to win the title a further three times before formally retiring in 2002 – after a mammoth 101 fights.
Standing 6ft 3ins tall, it was Kash’s speed and athletic ability combined with his flashing showmanship that earned him his nickname. He suffered his fair share of injuries, as well as battles with his weight, en route to world glory: “In my third fight, in Austria, I was in hospital for a week after being knocked out cold, and in 1989 I broke my jaw in two places – but I still won the fight!”
Kash won his four world titles at three different weights – from 10st 12lbs to 11st 6lbs. “Being tall, it’s not easy to keep the weight down. I made a lot of sacrifices. I was dehydrated and dizzy a lot of the time: in those days there was no real sports management or sports science.”
He still misses fighting, he says. “It was tough, but I really enjoyed it. It’s been a good life – and it still is. If I had my time over again – I’d do the same all over again.”
Since his divorce from wife Julie in 2011 after 16 years together, Kash has lived alone in Solihull. But you get the sense that his heart’s still in Handsworth – where it all began.
“Handsworth is famous for riots and bad things, but good things have come out of Handsworth, and I’m one of them.”