So you wanna be a boxer?
A love letter to the sweet science from a pacifist with two left feet.
This film is gold. If you haven’t seen it, please do. And if you’ve watched Bugsy Malone as an adult and haven’t felt a nostalgic pang for your childhood, you may well have a heart of stone.
This song is the one I always remember from the film, it’s just so damn catchy. However, I never wanted to get into boxing, let alone be a boxer. It just didn’t land with me as something I may want to do or that would be beneficial. Not when I first watched Bugsy Malone in 1992, not when I watched it again a few years later, not when Frank Bruno was a UK hero and top of the tree, and not even when Prince Naseem Hamed was the main man.
Maybe I was just too busy collecting football stickers.
Health & fitness in my teenage years was mainly PE classes (cross country runs and getting spear tackled playing rugby, seemingly always in freezing rain), a bit of football and cricket at the weekends, and then discovering girls and pubs. The idea of taking up boxing didn’t even cross my mind, and presumably not the school sport teachers’ either.
When I went to university I remember an ill-fated attempt trying Taekwondo — the less said about that the better. Other than that I did a bit of swimming, kept a somewhat regular attendance at the gym and did the odd bit of sprinting when the local beer monsters fancied jumping a group of students. The idea of taking up boxing still didn’t even cross my mind. In fact, my perception of it was of brutal backstreet beatings and intimidating, stinking gyms in railway arches. I’d pass, thanks.
Fast forward 8 years, and my music industry career meant late nights, high stress and too much on-the-go (aka unhealthy & rich) food. My skin was grey, I had dark rings under my eyes and I was tired and irritable more often than I should have been.
I found running boring and a killer on my knees, and whilst I played football most Sundays, getting regularly bamboozled by talented wingers 5 years younger was taking its toll. Something had to give.
My gym had recently undergone refurbishment, and as well as a nifty new online booking system and app, the new space had a studio for various fitness classes. I used the gym but found motivation tough and a personal trainer pricey. I was in search of something that would up my fitness levels, started well after 7am, didn’t involve lycra and would keep me interested. £50 went into the app’s digital wallet and I was signed up to 6pm Monday boxing classes.
The leader of the class didn’t look like the boxing coach I had in mind. A diminutive man of very few words, his name was Paolo. I soon discovered Paolo had coached numerous Olympic medallists and pro boxers, was himself a former international champion and was in the process of opening a new boxing gym in Tottenham. And now I was his newest charge.
At first I was simply awful. My long skinny legs wouldn’t move quickly enough when we were in pairs trying to tag each other foot-to-foot. Bailing out of press-ups halfway through was emasculating. As someone very tall, my main weapon was the long jab, but even that supposedly lethal instrument became a feather duster after less than a minute of activity. I barely made it to the end of the classes — short on breath, drenched in sweat, feeling weak and unfit.
Despite all of that, I came back. Those sessions soon became a mandatory booking in my diary. There was just something about the mix of skills and drills, plus the dichotomy of simplicity and complexity that I found compelling. After a few weeks I could sense the faintest touch of style and grace coming — and Paolo’s quiet words of encouragement did wonders for my confidence.
The Art of Boxing
About 18 months after I started boxing, journalist, author and amateur pugilist Tony Parsons presented an episode of The Culture Show entitled ‘The Art of Boxing’. Frustratingly short at 30 minutes, he explores how generations of writers, filmmakers and artists (amongst many others) went to find out what was really inside them — and us all — by entering the boxing ring.
When I first started sparring, I came up against a chap who we’ll call Markus. He was jovial and encouraging, but clearly fitter, stronger and more technically skilled than me. He also had a look in his eye that suggested he’d done this more than once before, plus a constant and slightly maniacal grin indicated he may enjoy hunting me down just a little too much.
We got to work, my usually advantageous southpaw neutralised by him also being left-handed. Markus let me throw a few shots, absorbing one and slipping the others. We kept moving, and I tried to remember the footwork drills (don’t cross your feet or you’re toast!). Markus’s right jab glanced me on the forehead, causing my guard to drop, before a bazooka left came from nowhere and thumped me on the bridge of the nose. I’ll never forget that fizz of pain, shock, fear and adrenaline all rolled into one, with the fight or flight mechanism kicking in immediately. So that’s what Tony Parsons was talking about.
My Monday evening sessions were doing a lot to keep my fitness up, but I also starting thinking about wider benefits and why I chose boxing above all other activities.
Other than the obvious improvements in strength, endurance, confidence and being more able to look after yourself if the situation may arise (although for me this is far down the list of why I box), there are a few other benefits of boxing I’ve come to value:
Discipline: taking a direct hit from Markus’s howitzer of a left cross makes you want to cry, run or make a frenzied attack. Discipline makes you do none of these and choose the right course of action. Discipline makes sure you finish the 3 minutes of jabbing the bag and the last set of burpees.
Focus: Mimicking the coach’s instructions for even the simplest combinations can be very hard to execute. A 4 or 5 punch combo with a couple of foot movements can leave you flailing and put you back to pre-school trying to work out the difference between left and right . To execute correctly you have to focus.
Co-ordination: Connected to focus is co-ordination. Co-ordination helps with all sorts of things, and boxing is one of the best things I’ve ever done to improve my full body co-ordination.
Range of movement: My arms and legs feel (even) longer; I didn’t even realise I wasn’t using the full length of my arms previously.
Dancing: Despite working in the music business for nearly 10 years, I hate dancing. I’m terrible. Thus, wedding receptions are kryptonite to me; awful music, drunk aunties, being cajoled to dance, being 6ft 6 and highly visible to all in attendance — no thanks. Until last summer, when my footwork drills (and yes, some champagne) enabled co-ordinated movement in time to rhythms! I could dance!
Finally, and most importantly:
Schools: Contrary to popular belief, boxing is more likely to instil discipline, co-ordination, trust and confidence rather than violence. I see clear benefits for schools by having some of the key principles and training methods used in boxing on the curriculum.
Now, my main goal is to train at least twice a week, whether that’s with Paolo, at another gym in London, or just with a like-minded soul now I’ve bought a good set of gloves and pads.
I’ll keep sparring but I’m not fussed about entering into a proper bout, let alone making a late charge to take on Anthony Joshua.
The subject of professional boxing and the potential dangers it brings is another discussion (and at the time of writing a very poignant one), but for anyone looking to build up strength, endurance, focus, discipline, co-ordination and a bunch of other skills through training you should wanna be a boxer.
And if you’re looking to spar with a long-armed southpaw, you know where to find me.