Boxing gets a bad rep. We’re not all thugs and brawlers

‘It’s like trying to playing chess while getting hit in the head’


Boxing makes headlines for the wrong reasons. When figureheads like Tyson Fury make homophobic comments, or remark that he would “hang” his own sister if she were promiscuous, it can certainly appear to be a sport for morons.

People say it’s a bloodsport, dominated by voluble aggressors who get a kick out of violence: big lads with lopsided skull to brain ratios. This is untrue – and it’s a reputation I’m sick of because when you scratch beneath the surface you come to realise there’s so much more skill involved than just throwing a straight left.

I started out hoping to burn off energy. I found an outlet; I became calmer, and  more composed. You’re learning six or seven punch combinations at speed – which means you’re improving your hand eye coordination, your reactions and your recall abilities. Far from being knackered, it keeps me sharp.

I box at All Stars gym in West London, an old-school boxing club with a heavy smell of sweat and broken leather. We start each session with two or three rounds of skipping, then another few rounds of shadow boxing, where you focus on your movement, then find a partner and throw some combinations on the pads or on the bags. The coaches will ask if you fancy sparring – if you’re feeling up to it you put on the heavier 16oz gloves, head-guard and gum shield and do another three rounds in the ring. It’s pretty much the most exhausting piece of exercise you’ll ever do.

At university, I competed in inter-spars against those at a similar level. These days, I just train for fitness as the standard of competitions is so much higher outside the university bubble, and I don’t have time to train like Rocky to stay competitive.

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Top pic: Rod, right, in the ring; above, boxing 

It’s the same story for Callum Craven, a medic who also has a degree in Biomedical Sciences. He also happens to be a two-time British Universities & Colleges light-welter weight champion, and is the captian of his own boxing society.

“I started boxing as a teenager because I needed an outlet for aggression but as well as it being an outlet for aggression I found a new sense of discipline too,” he says. “It is very much a skill sport and having a good level of intelligence helps in my opinion when developing skills.

“You’re constantly assessing and reassessing your opponent. His stance, his movement, his punches. Sensing whether he’s growing tired or getting stronger. Deciding when to up your work rate or when to go into defensive mode. You might notice your opponent likes to swing wildly from out of distance – so you leave yourself in range to lure him in.”

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“Then when he swings wildly you step back, slip his shot and counter,” adds Callum. “It’s all about making your opponent fight to your rhythm and to dance to your tune. You’re setting little traps for him all the while he’s setting traps for you. It’s like trying to playing chess while getting hit in the head.”

Boxing is not only about being the fittest and the fastest, but also about being the smartest athlete in the gym. And it’s reaching more people: it’s shedding its macho reputation and all-female and mixed-sex classes are flourishing as a result.

“I remember being really intimidated before the first time I went down,” says Rachel Powell-Horne, who boxes. “I imagined being ridiculed and that I’d be [boxing] among Olympians. But now its one of my favourite things, and I feel like I’m part of a community.

“It’s never been a better time for girls to get involved. Just a couple of decades ago you would have stuck out like a sore thumb, but so much ground-work has been done for us by women who put themselves out there and got involved in the last 20 years or so. Whenever a guy hears I’m a boxer often I get ‘oh, boxercise?’ and it feels good to smile sweetly and ask if they want to do a couple of rounds in the ring!”