STANDING in front of a hall full of attentive primary school students, Stuart Hall is asked what the most difficult fight of his career was.

“I’d say it was when I fought against a South African called Vusi Malinga for the World title,” said Darlington’s first and only boxing World champion. “That was a really tough fight. Mind you, I don’t think it was as tough as standing in front of you lot today!”

ALL sportspeople tend to struggle with their retirement, but boxing seems to make it especially hard for its performers to walk away. Maybe it is the relentlessness of the training schedule or the powerful adrenaline rush of competing in the ring, but boxers tend to be especially reluctant to call time on their careers. Comebacks are ten-a-penny; successful ones rather rarer.

Hall admits he has been tempted to turn back to the fight game, indeed if he was offered an opportunity to put his gloves back on tomorrow, you suspect he would jump at the chance. But the numbness down one side of his body returns sporadically, and despite a major operation at the end of last year, the back injury that saw two of his discs start to crush his spinal cord will continue to need careful management. Having turned 39 in February, this is not the time to be reliving past glories.

So here we are, on a midweek morning, at assembly time at Wolviston Primary School. Flanked by the belts that are proof of his sporting success, Hall is introducing himself to a group of pupils who will take part in a 12-week coaching programme after the Easter holidays.

Later that day, he would conduct a similar talk to a similar group of youngsters in Middlesbrough. The following morning, he put pupils from Embleton School in Darlington through their paces, talking them through the basics of boxing footwork and the need to combine an athletic training programme with healthy eating and good nutrition.

His courses, run under the “Hall Of Famers” banner, are non-contact, non-sparring. But judging by the captivated responses that greet his introductory speech in Wolviston, they still pack quite a punch.

“When you finish as a boxer, you think, ‘What am I going to do now?’ said Hall. “I had a few months of sitting around at home, and I was starting to get sick of it. Then one day, I was watching TV, and the news came on about a stabbing in Sunderland. You hear about it down in London, but it hits you more when it’s up here.

“The reporter was talking about knife crime and a lack of opportunities for youngsters, and I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to try to help do something about that’.

“My story’s been well told. I did some things I’m not proud of when I was younger, but boxing made me turn things around. If I hadn’t had boxing, and I’d stayed out in Ibiza doing the things I was doing out there, God knows where I’d have ended up.

“Boxing made me get back on track, but I look back to when I was young and think, ‘If only someone had got hold of me then. If only someone had talked to me, inspired me and showed me I could make something of myself’.

“That’s what these courses are all about. It’s just a chance for kids to see that if you work and train hard, and live your life the right way, you can become a World champion. It doesn’t matter where you come from.

“We’re only just starting up, but it’s been great. We’ve been working in a gym at Spennymoor with a group of teenagers who have had difficult times. A lot of them have been excluded from school and stuff like that. The first time they came, they were messing around and all sorts. But we laid down the rules, and within a couple of weeks, they were as good as gold, training hard, listening, doing whatever we told them.

“It’s simple – you mess about once, you get told off. You mess about again, you don’t come back. They’ve all bought into that and they’re enjoying doing the training. It’s great.”

Boxing, in Hall’s eyes, teaches discipline and self-respect as well as providing an outlet for exercise. In time, he hopes to be able to spread his gospel even wider.

“I don’t want to just stop at schools,” he said. “I’ve got a meeting with Jenny Chapman, and hopefully there’ll be a chance for me to help out with some adults in Darlington. I want to speak to the Council to see if there’s anything I can do there too. It’s great to be able to inspire young kids, but there are plenty of adults who could use boxing to help get their lives in order.”

AT the end of his talk, Hall packs his belts into their boxes. There is the Lonsdale Belt, still his favourite, that was initially the extent of his ambitions. There is the Inter-Continental Belt that confirmed his ascent up the rankings. Then there is the IBF World title belt, the result of that unforgettable night in Leeds when he survived a war against Malinga to make North-East sporting history.

“I’m proud of what I did,” he said. “I didn’t start boxing professionally until quite late, and if you’d said when I started that I would become a British champion, I wouldn’t have believed you.

“It felt amazing when I got to keep that Lonsdale Belt, but the opportunities came at World level and I was able to take them. The Malinga fight is obviously the most memorable, but I also loved defending the title in front of family and friends in Newcastle.

“I fought in Monte Carlo – not bad for a lad from Monte Darlo – and then there was the (Lee) Haskins fight at the end of my career that I’m still convinced I won. That was the night I felt robbed.”

Any regrets though? “Nah, not at all. Boxing was great to me. It saved my life really, gave me a job and a purpose, and meant I was able to meet an amazing wife and start a family.

“It turned a kid from Darlo into a World champion, and that’s the story I want these kids to hear. Don’t ever think you’re not good enough, and don’t give up on your dreams. But stick in at school and don’t go wild in Ibiza. If the kids stick to that, they won’t go far wrong.”