Bouhanni: The Pugilist
Words and Images by James Startt
“He really knows how to box.”
Those words were spoken by a boxing trainer after observing one of his many hopeful fighters’ ring sessions. But Hamid Zaim, a highly regarded French coach, is not speaking about his many amateur prodigies or Olympic medalists. Instead, he is speaking about professional cyclist Nacer Bouhanni.
Bouhanni, leader of the Cofidis team, is one of the world’s most respected sprinters. At 25, his palmarès already includes 48 victories, including five stage wins at grand tours and near-misses at the sprinters’ classic, Milan-San Remo (fourth in 2016, sixth in 2015). But once he hangs up his wheels, Bouhanni plans to put on his boxing gloves full-time.
“After I’m 30, I’d like to focus on boxing for two or three years at the highest level. I want to be 100-percent committed, just like I’ve always been in cycling,” Bouhanni said between morning and afternoon workouts on a cold November afternoon in Charleville-Mézières, a small city in eastern France.
Bouhanni understands that he will have trouble matching the six-digit salary of a cycling star with that of fledgling boxer in a sport reputed for its top-heavy pay scale. But, he insisted, “If I make the move, it’s because I’ve really thought about it. I’m going to get up early every morning, just like I do as a cyclist, but as a boxer.”
For the moment Bouhanni is focused on cycling, and boxing remains his private passion, a complementary activity, but one that is different and allows him to take his mind off of his profession after a long season on the roads of Europe. His contract with Cofidis prohibits him from actually competing in the ring. Instead, he focuses on the training and learning a new craft.
“It’s another world. It’s a change,” Bouhanni said. “Between October and December I do three workouts a week as well as several weeklong training camps. It’s good, because on a physical level I work in other areas. In cycling most of our work focuses on the lower part of the body, but in boxing it is more focused on the upper-body. In boxing we do use our legs, but it is not the same thing. And we use different muscles. I really hate running, but the jump-rope poses no problem. The biggest difference though is what we do with our feet in the ring. Foot placement is really important in boxing but it is foreign to cycling. There are not many cyclists that would be at ease in the ring.”
Although Bouhanni has always been passionate about what American essayist A. J. Liebling called “the sweet science,” ironically he only became actively involved in boxing after signing his first pro cycling contract with the Française des Jeux team. A regional journalist, learning of his interest in the ring, put him in contact with Zaim and his team.
Ever since, Bouhanni, a Mike Tyson fan, has spent a good part of his off-season as an aspiring pugilist in the boxing gyms of Team Zaim. Mornings are generally devoted to core training while afternoons are devoted to more specific workouts in the gym. Here, during his training camps, Bouhanni works with amateurs or professionals such as Daouda Sow, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the lightweight division.
A quick glance suffices, and one quickly understands to what degree the boxing bug has bitten Bouhanni. Every gesture is studied, every movement memorized. And even if he sees the two sports as distinctly different, he understands their historical links. “They are both so hard,” he said. “Your weight is key in both sports and both require huge amounts of physical sacrifice and intense training.”
And for a sprinter like Bouhanni, there are direct similarities between the two sports. “In sprinting, as in boxing, you have to possess a certain aggressiveness,” he said. “Two hundred meters from the finish line is like being in the ring. Both are filled with adrenaline and explosivity. And boxing, like sprinting, has its rules. You have to hold your ground, be respected, but also respect others.”
And while his current cycling contract prohibits him from competing in the ring, it is clear that this future junior welterweight is already preparing himself mentally. And here, in the boxing gyms of eastern France each winter, Bouhanni steps closer to his future métier.