It’s one of the most intense fitness regimes, but how can boxing benefit Mr Average? ShortList’s Andrew Dickens takes the 28-day boxing fitness challenge.
Facing me on the other side of the ring is the first British boxer to win world titles at three different weights. He’s smiling. Not because he likes me, but because he’s about to spend nine minutes hurting me, physically and mentally. Facing him is a slightly podgy journalist who, until a few days ago, hadn’t hit another human being since the late Eighties, when Scott Taylor fouled me during a kickabout. He is Duke McKenzie and I am, well, I am beginning to wonder if this is really such a good idea.
It seems like one four weeks earlier, when I ask Duke to get me fighting fit in 28 days. At 37, my chances of a world title shot are admittedly slim, but I want to know if I can make a fist of the fight game (yes, I wrote that) and also just how fit this regime can make me.
My ultimate challenge will be to face Duke in three three-minute rounds of body-sparring. This is boxing without head-shots and, according to Duke, more physically taxing than the real thing as you’re less guarded, which means you throw more punches. My lungs are worried; my nose is pretty chuffed.
WEEK 1: Trying hard now
Duke’s gym in Crystal Palace isn’t like most gyms. The central ring is surrounded by various exercise apparatus, punchbags and walls covered in boxing photographs, including plenty of Duke punching people and winning things. It’s inspiring stuff.
“Hello, champ,” says Duke on my first day. Is he taking the mickey or has he forgotten my name? He hasn’t. He outlines what will become my basic gym routine: circuit training, exercise bike, step machine, padwork and groundwork.
I remember circuit training from school. It wasn’t like this. If it had been, my teachers would’ve ended up at The Hague. I jog around the gym, occasionally sidestepping, punching, or carrying a 9kg medicine ball above my head. This gyration is punctuated by sets of exercises, including press-ups and squat-thrusts. It lasts 25 minutes and it’s hell. There are rules on the gym wall; one reads ‘No swearing’. I break this rule to roughly the same extent that Tiger Woods broke ‘Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery’.
This is followed by time on the bike and step machine (which has a worrying digital display of what looks like an exploding heart), and skipping. I’m not very good. The rule gets broken again. Duke then tells me to put my gloves on. At last. This is what it’s all about. I picture Duke as a little old white man with a woolly hat on, me as a slurring Italian-American.
I do two rounds of bagwork: jogging on the spot while rapidly punching the bag at shoulder height. This is followed by padwork – my first lesson in technique. I learn to jab, to cross and, to my joy, that I’m a southpaw – just like Manny Pacquiao, Marvin Hagler and Rocky Balboa.
Finally, it’s groundwork to strengthen the arms and core: press-ups, sit-ups, and a coup de grace of 30 seconds’ planking. As I lie crumpled in agony, my breakfast trying to escape, I look up to see Duke munching on a ham roll and laughing. Before I go, he lists my dietary restrictions: “No fizzy drinks, no full-fat dairy, no white bread and fewer potatoes.” I can deal with that. “No alcohol and no sweet foods.” That’s different. I drink almost every evening and have a sweeter tooth than Augustus Gloop. This is going to be tough.
WEEK 2: Getting strong now
It’s impossible to fit all the month’s highs and lows on to these pages, so think of the following paragraphs as a Rocky training montage (and hum Gonna Fly Now). Gym days alternate with days where I do a 30-minute run. As my entire being adjusts to early mornings, exercise and abstinence, week two sees a seismic shift. Through a combination of shame and encouragement (mainly shame), Duke’s motivated me to the point that I can’t give up. And my boxing repertoire increases. I now have uppercuts, hooks and, most importantly, a nickname: ‘Double-O’, because Duke thinks I look like Pierce Brosnan. Yeah, I know.
WEEK 3: Gonna fly now
I struggle to deal with the lack of desserts in the third week. I find myself eating an astonishing amount of fruit and yoghurt to compensate. I also notice changes to my body. I’ve lost fat and gained muscle. I feel stronger, push-ups are less embarrassing and my core is made of steel, to the point that I find myself on the floor of the ShortList toilets seeing how long I can plank. The loss of dignity is tempered by reaching an impressive three minutes.
WEEK 4: Showtime
I’m in fight mode. I’m doing more press-ups and dips on the side of the ring (and my bath) to strengthen my triceps, which are the punching muscles. I get my first taste of body-sparring with Wes, a gym member. At first, it’s uncomfortable hitting someone, but I soon get the eye of the tiger and, a few ungainly assaults later, the fist of the kitten. I’ve never experienced fatigue like it; my gloves feel like cannonballs suspended by string. Before today I wouldn’t have hurt a fly. Now I couldn’t. It’s a painful lesson; my big fight is going to be tough.
That day arrives. Entering the ring, I’m nervous. I know my face is safe, but Duke is going to punch me, he is going to do it for a sustained period, and his arms are much bigger than mine. The first round is a mess. I’m all over the place. Duke always told me to keep a poker face when punching, yet I look like the bloke whose head explodes in Scanners. I’m throwing ugly shots – almost exclusively with my right hand – and expending way too much energy. As I tire and try to get away from Duke, 20 years of experience means he closes the ring off in every direction.
Round two is better. I throw straighter punches that almost belong in a boxing ring. I’m actually using both hands, too, which is like a runner using both legs. Then, halfway through the round, the fatigue kicks in. I find myself holding on. Seconds out, round three, and I’m leaving nothing in the ring. This is my title shot, the culmination of 28 days without booze or cake. Tonight there will be both, but now there’s only blood, sweat and tears. OK, just sweat.
The action is relentless. I have to punch to avoid being punched, or at least to avoid only being punched. Again the arms die after 90 seconds. My respect for proper boxers is through the roof. While landing some uppercuts on me, Duke has time to ask the photographer if he’s getting the shot. I don’t care about humiliation, I care about the clock. I give it my all. The round ends, I drop to my knees, then to my belly, finally rolling on to my back. Down, but not out.
Once Duke has finished posing with his foot on my chest, I get up and he gives me a hug. “I’ve got to give it to you,” he says, “you’re tenacious. Most guys would’ve been looking for the exit.” I’m proud. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life. For some people, treadmills and MTV are the only gym requirements. However, if you fancy something a little more testing, more personal, more ‘Brando’, try this. I’ve been trained by a world champ. I’ve lost two kilos. I’ve gained muscle. I’m fitter, happier, more confident and less stressed. My resting heart rate is 10bpm lower than it was a month ago. I can skip. I’m basically superhuman. And maybe I couldn’t have been a contender, but I could certainly punch the crap out of a treadmill.
Duke McKenzie’s 28-day fitness programme
15 mins exercise bike. Just to warm up.
25 mins circuit training. Jog around the gym, sometimes with a 9kg medicine ball above your head, other times sidestepping, switching direction, touching down, punching out or punching up depending on what your trainer orders. Intersperse these with exercise sets, normally in sixes. First set: six press-ups. Second set: six press-ups and six squat thrusts. Third: press-ups, squat thrusts, star jumps. Fourth: press-ups, squat thrusts, star jumps, tuck jumps. Fifth: press-ups, squat thrusts, star jumps, tuck jumps, squat thrusts into star jumps. Then jog it out.
10 mins step machine. Normally a climb setting, between 100 and 200 floors.
3 rounds skipping. Rounds are three minutes with a minute’s rest in between. This is great for endurance.
3 rounds bagwork. This involves jogging on the spot and rapidly punching a bag, either upwards, at shoulder height or ‘body shots’. Improves coordination.
2 rounds padwork. Your trainer puts the pads on and you punch in combinations. For technique, not power. Less is more.
Groundwork. This builds your core and arms. Do different types of sit-ups, again in sixes: legs flat, touching feet; elbows to knees; with a trainer standing on your feet, you touching his shoulders; and ‘one and a halves’ – elbows to knees, then halfway down, holding for two seconds, and going up again. Then, leg-lifts: lie on your back with straight legs, lift them to vertical, bring them down to six inches from the ground and lift them up again. Finish with as many dips on the side of the ring as possible and at least 60 seconds’ planking.
For more on Duke’s gym visit Dukemckenzie.co.uk