My fists were bound tightly with tape and large red boxing gloves were pulled over my trembling hands. Punchbags hung from the ceiling like overgrown hams, regimented rows of well-worn leather boxing gloves were lined up and an empty boxing ring added to the general air of menace. A small group of tough and skilled-looking boxers exhaled loudly, competing with the mumbled rumble of trains passing overhead. A bell sounded and, pushing scenes about the underworld to the back of my mind, I hesitantly climbed through the ropes into a boxing ring. My head was already thumping as my trainer ordered me to adopt a fighting stance. What the hell was I doing here?
It all started as just another average day in the life of a couch potato. I was working my way through a pack of chocolate biscuits and idly lying on the sofa, channel-hopping through TV stations. Among the usual news items there was one that kept shaking me out of my slumber: an item featuring a victorious boxer with chiseled jaw and rock-hard torso. Later that day I tried to jog up a flight of stairs and, when I eventually reached the summit, I fought hard to catch my breath. Inspired by the images of Joe Calzaghe, I made a pledge to throw away the remote control and get into shape by taking up boxing exercise.
First, I needed to find a gym that was more affordable and less elitist than the upmarket gyms I[d previously abandoned with just a complimentary towel as a memento. I contacted the Fitzroy Lodge Amateur Boxing Club, which resides beneath catacomb-like railway arches in north Lambeth. My trainer thankfully turned out to be friendly and experienced, judging by a boxing career which saw him fight an impressive 90 bouts. However, Adam Martin wasn't going to be messed about with and, when I pathetically announced that I was feeling a little fragile from the night before, he casually stated: "Don't worry, we'll soon sweat that out of you."
Martin put me to work on a series of combination punches that involved jabbing and then punching. One of the routines involved avoiding his contact pad striking my head and then attempting an upper cut from a crouched position. After the ring session, I practiced my boxing technique on a punch bag and then swiftly moved onto skipping exercises, interspersed with a series of taxing exercises, including press-ups, squat thrusts and star jumps. At the end of an hour, I was doubled up trying to recapture my breath and at the same time felt elated and relieved that I had completed my first session of boxing training without being carried out of the gym horizontally.
Martin explained that the gym is used by a wide cross-section of society, ranging from the police at one end of the spectrum, to less law-abiding citizens at the other. Black-cab drivers, who are also frequent users, were placed somewhere in between. And while the diverse membership might not normally have much in common, things are completely different in a training environment, where everyone gets on well together. A number of social projects are also undertaken at the gym, coordinated by the club secretary, Jim Atkinson, who explained: "We deliver social programmes for young people who are in danger of falling through the cracks in society. Boxing is growing in popularity thanks to positive role models for young people such as Amir Khan."
Stepping out of the gym and back into the bitterly cold afternoon, I experienced an awe-inspiring sensation of spent exhaustion, coupled with a calm and confident sense of wellbeing. The cathartic half an hour I had spent striking the pads had helped release a mammoth amount of pent-up frustration. And while one boxing session hadn't turned me into Richard "the Hit Man" Sharp, it did provide me with a sense of calm confidence that going for a run or playing football doesn't.
Next morning I went for a run and ascended a flight of steps holding my arms aloft in triumph, recreating the famous scene from the Rocky movie. The one-to-one boxing session had got me hooked on exercise and I incorporated a few combination punches as I jogged along, having caught the boxing bug. At home I practised my feet positioning and shadow boxing in front of the shaving mirror.
Eagerly returning to Fitzroy Lodge for another one-to-one session, we moved on to some more punches and footwork drills. This time, Adam said: "Try to hit me in the face!" Fighting my inhibitions and praying he wasn't going to hit me back, I tried to land a punch. With a lightning reaction, he grabbed my glove to demonstrate how to block. Adam also sent me a few light punches in the stomach to teach me to keep my hands up when we were sparring. A mild panic set in. We again ended with a gruelling exercise session as I skipped, dipped, jumped and punched my way to fitness. Even though I was soaked in perspiration and exhausted, it dawned on me that I was rapidly punching the calories out of my couch potato body, and I didn't appear to be developing any violent tendencies in the process.
I was surprised at how I had taken to boxing training, when the British Medical Association (BMA) has concerns over the risk of physical injury among participants. Since the early 1980s, the BMA has called for a total ban on amateur and professional boxing in the UK. As a first step, they believe that there should be a ban on children below the age of consent. Their opposition is based on medical evidence that reveals the risk not only of acute injury, but also of chronic brain damage which is sustained cumulatively. In other words, it may take many years before boxers and ex-boxers find out they are suffering from brain damage. A BMA spokesperson said: "Boxing is sometimes defended on the grounds that it is a good way to keep fit. The BMA believes there are many other sports, such as athletics, swimming, judo and football, that can do this but do not pose the same threat of brain injury." While the evidence regarding amateur boxers is far less clear cut and a number of studies found no evidence of cumulative brain damage, the BMA is still opposed to it.
Medical reservations did not apply to Fitzroy's non-contact circuit sessions, at the recession-beating price of £5 for an hour-and-a-half session. Like the one-to-one boxing sessions, the circuits involved skipping and exercises including press-ups, star jumps and working in the ring practicing jabs, punches and upper cuts. Training in a group helped to reinforce the camaraderie and no one appeared to be showing off. The circuits were also attended by women, indicating that boxing is no longer a male preserve. In 1996 the Amateur Boxing Association of England (ABAE) voted to lift the 116-year ban against women boxing. This year there are 508 registered female boxers.
Oddly, at the end of the session, plates of mini muffins were passed around with steaming cups of tea. One of the circuit groups, Alex Quero, said: "I have had gym memberships of various clubs in London over the years and overall these expensive gyms are soulless places with most people cutting themselves off from their surroundings by wearing their iPods. There's a friendly, encouraging atmosphere here whatever size, shape, gender or level of fitness you are." Quero wasn't kidding about all comers being welcome: I later found out that the oldest member is 82 years old.
Next morning I stood on the scales: I had lost more than four pounds without having to modify my diet or ease up on my drinking.
The dramatic and speedy health and fitness benefits of boxing I had experienced were described by Jim Atkinson who, as well as being club secretary at Fitzroy Lodge Gym, is also an ABAE full coach. "If you are looking to lose weight and become strong, lean and toned then boxing training fits the bill. You burn calories at a high rate in an intensive workout. Your coordination will also improve and all the muscles in the body will become more toned, including stronger and more defined arms and legs. These boxing-related movements require you to develop balance and coordination and your body becomes more stable and able to maintain good form."
All the staff at Fitzroy have emphasised that pugilism isn't simply about hitting or being hit. I now understand the complexity and beauty of boxing training and, in the time I have trained, I have lost weight and feel mentally better equipped to engage with a frenetic and sometimes aggressive urban environment. I am already counting down the days until my next training session and, in the words of the legendary Muhammad Ali, "I shall return".
Packing a punch: Boxing as a workout
* Boxing training combines pad and bag work, skipping and ground work, and these are all aerobic exercises.
* The training provides a workout for muscles all over the body.
* Boxing workouts can burn between 350 and 500 calories in just one hour.
* Repetitive motion in punching and movement, supported by the "core" muscles of the body, helps develop cardiovascular efficiency, local muscular endurance and a degree of strength.
* Training tones up and helps define the arms and legs. More importantly, it helps to strengthen the core muscles of the body, which support the limbs and movement.
* Boxers say the sport helps to relieve stress and improve mental acuity, speeding up reactions.