“When you finish every day it’s an amazing feeling,” Sam Cox says late one afternoon after he has helped deliver the latest batch of meals to NHS workers. Cox, a professional boxer with a 5-0 record, has had to put his promising career on hold during the Covid-19 crisis. But he now moves relentlessly from hospitals to health centres with his mass deliveries.

The 26-year-old looks exhausted but quietly elated as he reflects on work which, amid adversity and tragedy, has such personal meaning. “By the end of last week we’d done 40,000 meals,” Cox says. “I’ve delivered around 15,000 meals personally. Probably more. In a normal job you finish work and think: ‘Aarrghhh, at least that’s over.’ But when you finish this you think you’ve actually done something. It makes me especially proud when I am bringing food to the district nurses at the Goodinge health centre [in Islington, north London]. Two or three were in my house most days changing my mum’s medication and looking after her when she was so sick.

“When I go to Royal London [hospital, in Whitechapel] I think: ‘I was born here.’ My mum had all but one of her kids there. Today is actually the anniversary of my nan’s passing. I’m thinking about all this stuff as I go from hospitals like NorthMid [in Edmonton] to St Barts [in the City] and King’s College in Camberwell. It means so much to me.”

Like many professional fighters, Cox does not earn enough from boxing to make a living. He works for Powerday, a waste management and recycling company which has joined forces with London Irish, the Premiership rugby club, as they aim to deliver over 100,000 meals to the NHS. The food is cooked by chefs at London Irish’s training ground and then a small army of volunteers on furlough, including Cox, distribute the meals. “They’ve set up an organisation called Powering the NHS” Cox says. “They’re cooking over 1,000 meals a day and we’re getting them to 14 hospitals across the capital. I work Monday to Friday and for nine weeks it’s been full on, especially for those chefs at London Irish. They’re in from 5am.

“We’ve got masks and gloves but at King’s College we actually walk into the hospital and drop it off. Full PPE is required for that. At first I wasn’t anxious about the virus but after three weeks I became quite nervous. But the more I did it the more I thought I should be OK. Last week I had myself tested and it came back all clear.”

His mother’s struggle with cancer, which led to her death in January 2019, made Cox step away from the ring for a year after winning his first two professional fights. He wanted to spend as much time with her as he could. “We found out she had the cancer two weeks before my second fight,” Cox says, as his face clouds. “Then they had scans and looked into it further. About a week before the fight I heard [that his mum had less than a year to live]. My mum didn’t want to come to the fight because she was really proud and didn’t want people to pity her. The day before I boxed I said: ‘Mum, after everything we’ve been through, I need you at this fight.’ And she was there. It made my night.”

Sam Cox: ‘I had about three sponsors ready to come on board. Then all this corona stuff happened’. Photograph: Philip Sharkey/TGS Photo/Shutterstock

The family had a special last vacation together, in Mallorca, and Cox remembers playing tennis with his mum. “But the last six months she was bedridden,” he says. “That was hard. But she was so strong. The drugs made it difficult for her to walk but she would be up in the middle of the night making tea, coming upstairs. I had to tell her off. She was like: ‘No, if I can do it, I’ll be doing it.’ You had to let her get on with it.

“Before she got delirious and really ill she sat me down to talk about my boxing. I wasn’t bothered about fighting then. She was like: ‘Look, you can’t throw away everything. If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it properly.’ My mum was one of them people. If she did something, she did it right. Like the house. I’ve never seen someone hoover like it in my life. I’m surprised we’ve got carpet left.”

In March 2019, just weeks after he lost his mum, he made his return to the ring and won his third fight on a first-round TKO. He won his next two bouts and was set to fight at the O2 in March. The lockdown then intervened. It should have been his first fight at super-flyweight [112lb or 52.1kg]. This is his natural fighting weight but a shortage of opponents in this division means Cox has campaigned at bantamweight.

“As a baby I had a growth hormone deficiency,” he explains. “I was under Whittington hospital for eight years as an outpatient. From 13 I’d be in hospital every few weeks for check-ups. I was also under Great Ormond Street. They would come to Whittington to see me especially. My case was quite severe. At 15, I was the size of a six-year-old. Three foot seven. I couldn’t get no one to box me because of my size.

Sam Cox (right) gets the decision over Steven McGuire at York Hall in Bethnal Green during September last year.

Sam Cox (right) gets the decision over Steven McGuire at York Hall in Bethnal Green during September last year. Photograph: Philip Sharkey/TGS Photo/Shutterstock

“But then I’d have growth spurts. At 16, when I left school and went to college, I was 4ft 10in. At 18, I was 5ft 2in. Then at 22 I shot up to where I am now. Five foot six. Not too bad.”

Cox grins and then becomes serious as he considers his debt to the NHS. “My monthly prescription when I was young was three-and-a-half grand a month. So I love the NHS. After the virus the government really needs to give hospitals what they need. I hope ordinary people feel the same because this pandemic has brought us together. I walk down the street and, at safe social distance, everyone’s nodding and smiling. I hope that stays. When I see an old person on the train I like to help and talk to them. But nowadays they look at you like you’re a mugger. That’s how bad London is. Let’s hope it changes.”

Cox has a rare kindness and compassion. He also works with mentally disabled people at Mencap and with troubled kids at school – teaching them to box.

The lockdown has cost him at least £7,000, following the cancellation of his last fight, and the future is uncertain. Cox relies on ticket sales and any boxing that does resume in the coming months will be behind closed doors. “I usually sell 300 tickets, which means I can walk away with about six grand. But the good thing about getting on bigger bills is you get more sponsorship. I had about three sponsors ready to come on board. Then all this corona stuff happened.”

Yet Cox is so bright and optimistic he does not remain downbeat. “I believe boxing will be back bigger than ever. It’s going to give guys like me more opportunity on TV. There are going to be a lot more shows behind closed doors and if I get some chances I could be fighting for the British title next year. So I’m looking through a rose-tinted glass and hopefully it pans out this way.”

Last Thursday saw the final communal clap for the NHS and Cox smiles when I say I also clapped for him. “To tell the truth, when I clap the NHS I do think I am also contributing myself. If there weren’t people like us, who really put themselves out, the NHS would be out there on their own. And that’s just not right.”

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