How to feel great after a punch-up

The latest workout is boxing without bruising. Rosie Millard watches the action in a London gym

Approaching a church hall in west London, the signs of the evening aerobics class are familiar: steamed up windows, sweaty with condensation; the teacher's voice shouting over pounding music; a pile of gym bags and sweat-pants outside the door. It's a national phenomenon; since Jane Fonda enthused us to burn it off, back in the early 1980s, millions have become devoted to mid-week exercise.

Open the door on this class, however, and Ms Fonda's influence vanishes. There are no blue and red step platforms, no ranks of exhausted looking women and no one is wearing scrunch bands, Princess Di-inspired "fitness outfits" or bobble socks. Instead, 40 men and two women in no-nonsense T-shirts and shorts are doing intense press-ups beneath rows of swaying punch-bags. A bell rings every three minutes. In the middle of the hall is a full-size, fully furnished boxing ring. Welcome to the KO Circuit.

The KO Circuit, where you spar, shadow box and pummel punch bags rather than people, is the brainchild of Isola Akay. And it is a superb example of how answering a market need can enable you to get your own way. Mr Akay, a startlingly young-looking 60-year-old, arrived in Britain from Ghana 32 years ago. As well as setting up a sports shop in the Queens Park area of west London, he founded the All Stars youth club for boys and gave his young members free lessons in boxing and football. Mr Akay soon became a local legend. Boys from the club began to win British boxing titles; his own son boxed for Ghana in the 1984 Olympics. In this sometimes dangerous area of London, the club gained respect, a permanent following and alumni that included several professionals. It expanded, taking over an old church hall; it received pounds 30,000 a year from the borough of Westminster, and it thrived.

Last year, however, the grant was axed. Mr Akay, who had put 30 years of effort into building up All Stars, was suddenly looking at a club with no funding and no future. Then, while on holiday in New York, he was invited to see a fitness class at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn. "To my amazement I saw all these white-collar workers, professional men, doing boxing training," he says. "It was absolutely the same regime as you would use for a professional boxer, except with no contact. I couldn't wait to get back to London and get it off the ground. I knew this was our life-saver."

Training at the KO Circuit is the same as that for conventional boxing, with the emphasis on fitness and speed - but without the bruises. "The only difference between this lot and real boxers," says Mr Akay, waving over the rows of heaving men, "is that they don't get their fists on each other. I honestly believe there is no better way to achieve all-round fitness. It has nothing to do with Boxercise, either." Mr Akay shudders at the mere mention of step aerobics' close cousin. "Boxercise is taught by women who don't know a thing about boxing."

Indeed, the KO Circuit is purpose-built for fitness enthusiasts who shun the rather girly atmosphere of the step class and who certainly don't mind paying for their daily burn. "Most of these guys are doctors or lawyers," says Mr Akay. The authenticity of the All Stars is ideal for serious professionals who want to know they are working out. Instead of the traditional corporate club set-up, all white fluffy towels and polished floors, All Stars' bare brick walls are furnished with faded posters advertising Joe Frazier/ Mohammad Ali bouts and the ceiling is hung with hard leather punch-bags that mean business.

The no frills, what-you-see-is-what-you-get atmosphere is a key to the club's success. It's rather like shopping at Gap. You work out for two hours. You sweat a lot and punch things and then you go home feeling manly. "There's no fancy side to it," says 51-year-old David Lieber, who runs a cosmetics firm and has been coming to the KO Circuit for over a year. "Gyms these days have got so superficial. This place is honest and it has a purpose." At a cost of pounds 5 per person per class, the combination of tough authenticity for people who are willing to pay for it has saved the club's future. Mr Akay continues training boxers to hit people and everyone else pays to get fit and feel tough.

"I've tried everything," says Amir Kasraie, an optometrist, attacking a punch bag with sweaty vigour. "Martial arts. Step. Weights. That sort of stuff just didn't motivate me. But this is all-out, no fancy trainers, no million-dollar buildings like the Harbour Club. Uuuugggh!" he shouts suddenly, raining blows at the bag. At which point I feel forced to admit that the mass exercise routine of the class does seem rather flat by comparison. "Aerobics is terribly dull," agrees Jason Gared, a 27- year-old surveyor, between sessions with a skipping rope. "And it doesn't give you all-round fitness. Not like this. After two hours of this, you can feel the fat falling off you." Mr Gared is breathing rather hard. "I haven't been to class for about three weeks. I'm exhausted," he says, waving the rope by way of explanation.

It's not just an issue of fit versus fat. According to regulars, a certain pinnacle of masculinity can be attained by a two-hour session with Mr Akay and his two pro-coaches cheering you on as you hit the punch bag. "Aerobics is, well, it's just too feminine," says 30-year-old Bertie Miller, the managing director of a commercials production company. Mr Miller lives in west Hampstead and, when he gets his licence back, drives a BMW. "Aerobics gives you co-ordination. But what I need is co-ordination in a macho-centric form," says Mr Miller firmly. He wipes his face with a towel. "This gives you the physical exhaustion you lack in a modern-day job. In my job, yeah, sure I can manipulate people and I can gain fulfilment from the daily challenges. But this gives you a sense of physical achievement. And you can run away quicker if you're ever in trouble." The three-minute bell rings. "Gotta get into the ring," says Mr Miller, leaping up under the ropes.

Everyone in the class has a go in the boxing ring with the coaches. The coaches wear square "Focus"' pads on their hands. The participants, wearing proper boxing gloves, hit the pads. It's the nearest you get to hitting someone. "Right to the head! Right to the body!" shouts the coach, putting his hand up to the appropriate area and warding off the blow.

Although Mr Akay claims that non-contact boxing is as exciting as the real thing, it's clear some would like to go all the way. "Yeah, I would like to hit someone," says James Philips, a rather mild looking 42-year- old marketing consultant. Mr Philips looks about him and fastens the tapes around his wrists in a contemplative manner. "Just as a tester, you see. To test the skill side of it. I'd find out where I was in the pecking order."

According to Lisa Maclaren, a law student and one of the few women in the class, it's precisely the concept of the pecking order that keeps the attendance up. "Guys are very keen to show their prowess in competition. Particularly when I'm around," she says. She clambers into the ring and punches the coach's Focus pads with considerable force. The coach grins.

Inspired by his success in west London, Mr Akay has big ambitions for the KO Circuit. "I'm hoping to open another club, but in the City this time," he says. "I need to cater for some more of these yuppies." He looks around at the picture of diligence and effort going on around him. "Get more of them out of their wine bars," he says, and laughs loudly.

All Stars Gym, 576 Harrow Road, London W10. Tel: 0181-960 7724.

Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy as ECB finally wield the axe
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
News
news... you won't believe how bad their skills were
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas