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Ian McDowall Talks Tough – By Martin Leggatt


Many years of violence, fuelled by steroid addiction, sleeping with a carving knife under his pillow and carrying a knuckleduster in his pocket became a way of life for east London doorman Ian McDowall. Ian grew up in east London, leaving school at 15, and started working at a local gym a year later. By the time he was 17 he was already addicted to bodybuilding and was competing locally.

Former weightlifter, doorman and all-round tough guy Ian McDowell talks about his life.

How did you get into this life?

I was in a gym at the time, I was using a lot of steroids; I was very much into trying to win competitions. … I was a big young fella [and] a local guy who was running a firm at the time [approached me]. This was years ago, before there was any organisation regulating the industry; it was all run by firms, and this [one] came out of the Inter City Firm. And this fella just offered me some work … on the doors. To be honest, I was a young 18-year-old, I didn’t really fancy the job at the time, but the money was easy and it led me onto a path, deeper and deeper with these guys, and into things like debt recovery.

It wasn’t something that you had a background of, then?

It wasn’t a career option, it wasn’t something I thought I’d get into. I was just desperate for a bit of quick, easy cash, and they were a violent bunch of people I was working with.

The ICF were football hooligans, weren’t they?

They kind of were; it was one of these groups that came out of football hooliganism and they were running the doors.

And the steroids you were using, I’ve read they were animal steroids.

Do you know what, I was using a lot of steroids at the time and there was a particular phase when I was skint and they were cheap and easy to get hold of. So yeah, there was a stage where I was using animal steroids. These days steroids are an epidemic in this country … but back then, they weren’t. We experimented with different types, getting responses and different results, but were damaging our health. The first guy that I took steroids with ended up dying from the abuse of steroids. The abuse can kill you, that’s for sure.

Is it still common today?

It’s massive, even in just general gyms, young people, young men in prisons, in schools, in universities, it’s one of the biggest drugs being sold at the moment. It’s this image of well-being, looking good, looking what a man should look like. It’s gone out of control and that’s certainly a big part of what we’re doing, going into schools, prisons, the army, and the police and talking about it.

So how did you end up going to church?

What happened about the whole church thing was, at the time I was out on bail, there was some crazy stuff I was involved in, but I started having these dreams about God and to me it was like lightning. And I was on the doors, and quite often you’re there for five or six hours having these random conversations and I was telling this fella about my dreams, and I didn’t know he was a Christian, and he said, “Why don’t you come along to church with me?” I liked the fella, but I didn’t really give church any thought one way or the other. I suppose I didn’t really have any good impressions of it. He took me to this church and to be honest I didn’t really like it, I didn’t want to be there, and I wanted to get out.

And the coming to faith, how did that happen?

I got involved in a fight where my friend and I ended up in hospital – he had his head smashed to bits with a pickaxe handle and I took him to this church some months later, this place … Kensington Temple. He got prayed for and was running around telling everyone he’d been healed, and I couldn’t believe it. They say seeing is believing but I couldn’t believe it. Then one night I’m sitting in my car, I’d just been in a fight, I was sitting covered in some bloke’s blood, the place I was working at had just been petrol-bombed. And I’m sitting in my car thinking about my friend running around telling everyone, I thought about God, I thought about the dreams, about how low I was feeling. I was sleeping with a carving knife under my pillow, I couldn’t go out without a weapon and I just remember crying out to God. I was sat in my car feeling guilty for the fight I’d just been involved in. I remember saying, “Jesus, if you’re real, please can you forgive me?” As I said that I felt this incredible feeling of peace and love, and I’m crying my eyes out. I went home that night and I just fell asleep and felt this incredible peace and this feeling that everything was going to be all right. And it was that, waking up in the morning with this incredible feeling of peace in my heart that made me think that there was a God and that I needed to investigate this further. I started going to church and decided that I’d done enough evil in my life, that it was time to get right with God. I threw myself into every church activity and group I could, every prayer group, every church group.

And did you carry on being a doorman?

I was still a doorman, working on the doors at the pubs and the clubs, and it was a challenge. … Instead of going to work with weapons on me, I went praying Psalm 91 over me. In the past we’d done some wicked things and I just needed the strength of God to get me through those nights. I worked for three years on the door as a Christian. I’ve done some wicked things, but didn’t respond with the usual violence, in the way I used to react every night with anger, but with peace and an inner strength to calmly diffuse the situation.

It’s funny because we do talks in prisons, and quite frequently we go to South Africa, and people would ask, “How did you get away from the gang?” and … when you start talking about Jesus the people [would] just walk away.

So Tough Talk – you go around prisons and schools.

Twenty years ago I approached my pastor, Steve Derbyshire, and asked if I could share my testimony to give people an idea of what had happened. We did some weightlifting as a backdrop and I can remember people responded. In 1996, I got invited to a church and a guy said “tough talk” and we called it Tough Talk. We do talks now in prisons, with the police, the army, churches and Christian conferences.

And for the future?

We’re fully booked up for the year, we’ve got overseas trips to prisons, Moldova, India – the diary is full of churches and the prison work we do. Prisons take up a lot of our week … We get the opportunity to go into the gym with them – two members of the team in [the] gym for two hours with 150 inmates. We’ll get some of the inmates down doing powerlifting and weightlifting and the team will talk about their testimony as they do it, and we’ll always finish with a prayer. We use the weights to attract a crowd, really, it’s visual; people like visual things and [it] gets their attention and allows the team to talk about the stories and the gospel. It’s quite unique in that it’s quite unusual. We don’t call ourselves evangelists, but that’s what we do, really.