Thursday, 27 March 2008

In with the master

GOOD fun today, although I ache. Like Hell.

Couldn't make Thursday training, so I booked an earlier session with Steve, so that I didn't miss out. It all went really well, as far as I was concerned. Yes, there were the usual issues with fitness and stamina (although not as much as usual, which shows there's improvement), but every now and again, flashes of sharpness surfaced.

It could be a jab, either in sparring (did three rounds of it with Steve), or pad work (five), or even on the bags (four rounds), but evry so often, there it is. I don't know where it's coming from - my previous training, I guess - but it is most welcome. I knew, Steve knew, and anyone else that cared to watch could see it coming out.

Other things have changed. I could never skip the way that most boxers do, having only learned it when I started boxing. Today, for no reason at all, I just started doing it the way it should be done. Well pleased. I've also managed to get halfway decent on the speedball and the punchball (I think that's what it called). So there seems to be a co-ordination there that wasn't present before.

All of these things act as positive encouragement, and make me want to go back again, because you just don't know where it will lead. My defence is still absolute rubbish, and the footwork requires concentrated effort. I was still cooking some several hours after I finished, but it's all happy days.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

The Warsaw express

WELL, I gave myself a month, and it took a week.

Foolish enough to be hanging around the area where those that spar gear up, I was coerced into the ring by Robbo, and got a really good idea of just how far I've fallen. In for four rounds against two of the Poles, I just about held on for three of them before being almost completely overwhelmed in the fourth. Fortunately for me, my opponent (we were introduced afterwards, but my inferior English hearing lost the name) took pity on me and stood off. If it had been one of my old sparring partners, I think I would have been pummelled.

I should also admit that the fighting wasn't that tough. Both the guys are new to boxing, having only been going three months, and there was a lot of bobbing and weaving and not much jabbing. Had I had a few months under me, it would have been very uneven - I think. Both of the guys showed promise, and put in far more spirited performances against one another than against me. I think I benefited from a bit of fear of the unknown.

There were some plusses to take from my sparring, some nice touches, some old flashes. Same as last week - I just have to be patient. Particularly humiliating was a smash to the gut. It wasn't the punch, it was the wobble afterwards (from my fat belly, not all of me). I can't imagine that the fight was much of a spectacle.

However, as I said last week, this time around it's a spur, not discouragement. I went into this with my eyes open and knew that 18 months of being in a state of mental flux, with plenty of vices as crutches, was going to take its toll. Every time that I hit a challenge, I'm not daunted by it - I find it a comfort. There is the advantage that I know what's coming this time around, and it's hugely, hugely enjoyable. I love it. It's home.

Of course, I'll ache for a couple of days, and I'm running the risk of a cold because I pushed myself to the point where I was wheezing and coughing - well, retching. But wtf?

And I'm well impressed with the Poles. One of the great things about working for myself is that I can now say what the Hell I want. Those boys have just confirmed my view that Eastern European economic migrants who come to this country put most of us to shame, with their work ethic and their willingness to take on anything.

I had a Polish mate at my last boxing club called Mario. He spent the day jet washing cars. No matter what your level of education, it's hard to believe anyone would derive a great deal of satisfaction from such a job. We all know that a lot of British people would turn their noses up at such work, despite not being qualified for much else. I'd rather have a million Poles (or Romanians, Bulgarians or Hungarians) in the UK, working their way and paying their taxes, than pay for just one drongo's drugs bill. These are the very same people that will blame everybody but themselves and then vote BNP.

Every hard working person in this country should be grateful for Polish immigration. If you aren't, go make friends with a couple of them.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

I want to fight that bloke, but this bloke wants to fight me

I RETURNED tonight to a different fight club. I thought things wouldn't stay the same, but I recognised only two people there, and one of those was from my last abortive effort, so I don't really know him.

Matt, my old sparring partner was there, of course, as reliable as Swiss transport. Although he tells me he's given up sparring, which I'm partly disappointed about it (this is the man who's hit me in the face more than any other person on the planet, even my brother). But I'm also a little bit relieved, as his fitness, dogged tenacity and downright madness sometimes overwhelmed me.

I'm a month away from sparring. I was thinking two weeks, but then I saw my new Fight Club associates. To a man, they are all younger than me, and nearly all of them are fitter. Not all of them are experienced, but there are one of two that look very good, and will surely be in the ring soon.

I was particularly taken with three Poles, who spend their time between rounds and time on the bags engaging in lively banter. They just cheer you up, even though I don't understand a bloody word they say. One of them is particularly tasty, and did very well in the sparring against two guys that probably had at least three inches in reach on him.

Of course, he's the guy that I want to fight. He has to be. I haven't watched him close enough to suss out his style (and find some attack points), but he he has combined a quick boxing brain with some serious ferocity, and bested his opponents many time, on one occasion reducing one of them to a quivering wreck.

But there's another guy there, and I can see it in his eyes: he wants to fight me. It's an alpha male thing - insecurity, uncertainty, fear. The session is is broken into three parts: the warm-up, sparring and bags, and core fitness work. During the last part, he was shouting. "Come on, lads!", as if he had some hand in training. My response to that was "fuck off", and others around me felt the same way. We're going to fight, and he's going to lose.

Another guy there intrigued me. Friendly, and quite new to Fight Club, by the looks of it, he looks really wimpy, but he looks very, very handy. Very quick, obviously with previous experience, he seems like a nice bloke with it. It will be interesting to see how he prospers.

I'd forgotten how much I enjoy boxing. I felt very, very calm afterwards (although I'm still cooking from the exertion and I ache on a global scale). It felt like coming home, a return to a comforting bit of normality.

But it did feel a lot different this time round. I didn't feel any pressure to perform. I felt like I was there for myself, for my benefit, my enjoyment. Of course, a lot of things have happened since I left Fight Club in earnest in September 2006, a lot of things that have been resolved. I think Matt got it right. He said, "I've got nothing to prove anymore," - the reason why he no longer wants to go into the ring. It certainly feels that way. Sure, there will be competition, probably flashpoints (why wouldn't there be? It's a room full of blokes fighting), and various other issues. But I won't be involved in it.

Do your talking in the ring. As Hemingway put it, boxing's the most honest conversation two men can have.

First night nerves

IT'S been a long time, a damn long time. And last time's effort was a complete failure. But tonight, for the first time since last April - almost a year - I'm going back to boxing.

Before my last short-lived, abortive effort, I had gone some eight months without boxing, and prior to that, I had only boxed for eight months. So, in other words, the time that I've not boxed is substantially longer than the period that I did.

In the interim, I've grown fat, weak, and I don't like it, don't like it at all. I got back to smoking, too, and that robs me of my energy. I was smoking when I last returned to boxing and I don't really know what I was thinking, trying to combine the two.

But then I lost my job and my mother died, and things feel different now. I don't feel like I'm piling the pressure on myself any more. I don't feel like, when I reach the gym tonight and realise I'm the biggest guy there (fat, not muscle) that I'm facing an insurmountable task, that I'll never be ready to fight.

Having had good sessions back on the bags (apart from poor stamina) has helped. It fets really good to get back to whacking bags and, while my footwork has gone to pieces and no doubt my mind is working too slow, and I'm sure there are hundreds of other things to fix in the return to form, I feel like I'll be there for my pleasure, that it won't be eroded to a chore as the weight of my own expectations bears down on me.

In short, I can't wait.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Happy slapping

IT'S usually the way that if you believe something is going to be really, really bad, it rarely is.

So it proved to be with my return to sparring, some six-odd months since I stepped through the ropes and threw a glove in anger (well, sort of anger).

As predicted, Steve paired me up with my old mate Matt, who seems to have lost none of his aggression, fitness and ability to keep on coming, even when you are bouncing his head around with your fists.

It was an interesting evening. When I went for my first session proper last Thursday, there were a lot of people who hadn't been at the previous gym, and I wondered then who would spar - mainly because I was looking forward to sizing them up and working out if I could fight them or not.

But in the end, it was just myself, Matt, Mikey and John (previously Little John, but now the only John). I'm glad that Steve didn't throw me in with Mike who punches as hard as a horse kicks, but that's not to say I had it easy with Matt. Not at all.

First, I should point out that Matt gives away two-and-a-half stone to me, so I should be able to deal with him easily. However, it shows either how good he is or how bad I am that our contests are nearly always even Stevens. It might sound perverse, but I didn't realise how much I enjoy the warmth of soft stinging around the face that comes from being struck there. It's a life-affirming feeling.

First round was just jabs, of the left-handed variety. This went well for me, I felt. Matt shows quite a lot of the top of his head, which gives me something to hit. I was a bit dismayed that I've lost the ability to launch across-the-ring attacks. I used to be able to cover half the ring in a flash and get a jab in before my opponent had time to react - and that was in a bigger ring. It didn't feel like speed was the issue (although fitness definitely was - more of which later). I just think I've yet to re-discover my distances. No doubt that will come.

Second round was mix-it-up. This turned into great entertainment, not just for ourselves, but for the whole gym. Matt's technique involves crashing through your reach and then working away in close. It put me on the back foot and had me reachingh my chin backwards, a very silly thing to do. However, when someone tries something like this, you have to find a way to fight back, otherwise they'll keep doing it, keep racking up the points, and they will beat you. I planted my back foot and fought back.

What followed was a flurry of blows, some good, some not so. I remember getting off three good hooks to his head, just before he landed a wind-taking jab to my midriff. The intensity started steadily rising as we both went for it, until a "Stop! Stop!" came from Steve. He said we were slapping. This means we were not turning in our fists, hitting with the base of the hand rather than the knuckles.

I thought it was fair comment. Matt's reaction was, "I like a bit of slapping every once in a while". But as I looked up, I ould see everyone, but everyone, in the gym had stopped and were watching us, some with grins, thinking something was kicking off, and others in amazement.

To be honest, Matt and I have had more bruising encounters. He said as much after we left the ring a couple of rounds later, commenting on our spectators, "They've never seen us fight before, have they?" One thing I was particularly pleased with is that I managed to duck and weave out of a few of his shots (although I managed to misjudge one and get a smack straight in the chops for it!).

Sitting here the following morning, feeling the exhaustion that came from not only sparring, but the intensive fitness training that Steve and Darren had us doing afterward, I can say that I really, really enjoyed it. Really enjoyed it. Although I think my performance was flabby when taken as a whole, there were sharp little bits to take heart from, flashes to build upon.

I definitely felt it in the final round. This is not unusual, but it remains worrying. Matt could have been all over me in the final minute. If that was a closely fought contest, I imagine that would count against me. I knew fitness was going to be an issue, but I believed I had slipped further down than I have. That's not to say that all is dandy, but it is encouraging and, again, gives me a base to build from. Oh, and I've lost half a stone in a week - well pleasing.

I'm having the day of today. I was supposed to be going to lunch with someone but they cried off. And even though I'm knackered and my body deserves a well-earned rest, I feel a little bit cheated really. Oh well.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Read all about it

HERE'S a copy of the feature I wrote for a magazine I edit, called Welsh Business. We publish it on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce in Cardiff.

Hanging Tough

Steve Robinson took on and beat all comers to become a boxing world champion. Since then, he has built a business training others. Now he faces his latest challenge - running his own gym

CALL it an art, call it the sweet science - you can even call it the game. But don't call it a game.

Think about it - you play football, rugby, cricket or golf, but you most definitely do not "play" boxing.

A century before sports science became the way for players to train, boxers would be on regimented training programmes, their food carefully chosen and their intakes closely monitored. It is the only way to succeed.

Steve Robinson - better known to his friends as "Robbo" - quite clearly still trains like a boxer. Some five years since he officially retired from the ring, he looks like he could still step back through the ropes and dish it up just like he did in the early to mid 1990s when he was on his way to - and won, and retained - the title of world featherweight champion.

Since retiring, he has become heavily involved in training. Here in Wales, he played a pivotal role in the introduction of White Collar Boxing, a pursuit that arrived from the US around five years ago.

It is what it is called - lawyers, accountants and other professionals undertake rigorous training regimes before strapping on the gloves and going toe-to-toe in four-round bouts that are as authentic as anything you'll see in boxing, particularly at amateur level. It should be pointed out that just as most amateurs will never turn pro, their level is a step up from White Collar Boxing.

But it's real taste of boxing and expert conditioning has won it many converts. Working out of other gyms across Cardiff, Steve yearned for a place of his own.

At the start of this year, he got his wish. Having teamed up with fitness trainer Mike Parsons, a former Glamorgan Wanderers and Caerphilly rugby player, the two men opened Fitness Factory Cymru, a state-ofthe-art boxing and fitness facility on Dumballs Road in the Bay.

Even though it only opened on January 8, it already has around 50 members, as well as 12 members of the Fight Club, the gym's White Collar Boxing class.

Steve's also setting his sights on something higher. "I want to train pros here. It's been my dream to train someone all the way up to world champion. I think it's possible. I'll be looking to take amateurs - I have contacts on boxing boards who can tell me who the good ones coming through are. I'd like a stable of fighters - boxers I can bring on and make as good as they can be. Help them realise their dreams."

It is not beyond the realm of possibility, either. Operating out of an unpreposing former rugby club in Newbridge, Enzo Calzaghe has managed to fashion a roll call of champions, not least his son Joe, who successfully defended his title for the 20th time against Peter Manfredo in Cardiff recently.

Like Joe, Steve belongs to an elite club of Welsh fighters who went all the way to the top. He did it against the odds in April1993, having only two days' notice to prepare to fight John Davidson for the featherweight title after Ruben Palcios, the champion that the Englishman was supposed to fight, failed an HIV test in the week of the contest.
Robinson fought with a dogged determination and won on points. He went on to make a further seven successful defences of his crown, until he was stopped by an ascendent Prince Naseem
Hamed in September 1995. He remained a force in boxing, however, going on to take the European featherweight title and challenge once again (although unsuccessfully) for world honours.

These days, his passion lies in training others. "With White Collar Boxing, people can get a buzz from fighting. They can get rid of all the stress that builds up in their day jobs. They can forget about everything. They can go into the ring and just focus on what's going on there. There is a lot of fun in it, too."

Steve has changed the way he has organised White Collar Boxing classes before. "This is much more set up like a boxing gym," he says. "There's more ring work, more sparring." The group is effectively split in two, with Steve supervising the sparring, and ex-boxer Darren Wilson taking the remainder of the group on the bags.
Along with brand-new equipment throughout the gym, members can also take advantage of specially-tailored training regimes, which will tell you what to eat and when to train, offered as
standard to all those that join up.

But you don't need to have ring aspirations to become a member at Fitness Factory Cymru, as the gym is also set up for more general purpose training.

Mike said, "This place isn't just for boxers, and we already have plenty of people coming here who don't want to do boxing. We are offering individual training, set up to suit the user. There's no point training if you don't enjoy it. It is for you, after all."

"I'd like the gym to grow - not too big, but big enough," says Steve. "I see there are
lots of things we can do here. I think we are set up to bring in new ideas. We are only really getting started here now."

- Basic membership at Fitness Factory Cymru costs £25 for the first two months, rising to £35 a month after that.
- Fight Club membership is £60 a month. There are two sessions a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 6-7.30pm. There are also boxfit classes on Wednesday evenings, from 6.15-
7.15pm. Fight Club members can use the facilities at any time.
- One-to-one sessions cost £30 an hour, and one-to-two cost £40 an hour.
- Fitness Factory Cymru opens from 7am-9pm on weekdays, 9am-2pm on
Saturdays, and 9am-1pm on Sundays.
Call (029) 2049 8200 for more details.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Training, Steve style

LORD O Lordy, it's hard to remember a time I felt this pole-axed. In fact, I'm not sure I ever have.

My legs are in absolute agony, and I'm hoping that the two tonnes of protein I took on after my first real training session at the Fight Club will sort them out by the morning. Tonight was also my first introduction to Robbo's new number two, Darren, who I'm beginning to suspect may be a closet sadist. In a nice sort of way, of course. Ahem.

A long, long warm-up kicked off proceedings tonight, perhaps 20 minutes or so. This was followed by a trip round the bags, a minute at a time, plus two skipping stations. Straightforward? Not when, in your minute rest in between, you have to do 12 burpees. Everybody has an exercise they hate. Until Tuesday, I thought it was press-ups. Now I know it's burpees. As well as the bags, Steve had a pad in the ring and Darren was on hand pads outside, and they motivated us to exhaustion in their own ways. That made it 12 stations in all.

Another session on all the bags and the rest came next, with 30 seconds on each punctuated with 20 sit-ups. I was on home territory here, until the final set, when I struggled around the 15 mark. Still, plenty to be pleased about.

Then we did all kinds of jumping from different positions. This pretty much killed us all off. When we were stretching at the end, I started to see black and dots around the edge of my vision.

But that makes it sound like it was a bad experience, when it was nothing of the sort. It was great to see some of my old mates from the other gym there, like Mike, Little John and Brandon, who reckoned afterwards that it had been the hardest session they'd had so far at the new Fight Club.

I was pretty pleased because I managed to do everything, and I was no more or no less tired than everyone else. It's an elusive business, this fitness lark. Since I've been back, I've found myself excelling at the sort of things I used to do badly, and struggling in what were once my areas of strength. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. But then, as my brother once said, it's wrong to look on the human body as a machine, one that responds to an oil change or a fresh tank of petrol. The best you can hope is that you follow all the rules, that you eat what's good for you (which is protein, in my case - I can feel the shake and the prawns I had afterwards at work repairing my aching leg muscles already), rest when you should, don't overcook it, but do enough to make sure you lose weight (in my case) and get fitter.

Next Tuesday presents an interesting conundrum for me. I haven't sparred for at least six months. Steve suggested afterwards that he put me in with Matt, if he's there. This is good and bad. Matt won't bang the shit out of me. This is a weight thing. If I fought guys my weight I'd be in real trouble, but Matt must ship at least three stone to me. However, as you probably know if you read my last blog, I've had a number of classic encounters with him, enough to know that he's like the Terminator: he never gives up and he can keep going long after I run out of steam.

So the question is whether I sit out sparring for a couple of weeks until I feel fitter, or whether I jump straight in with both feet. At the moment, I'm tending towards the latter. We do this because we want to fight. There's a unique and irreplaceable buzz at the heart of boxing that makes all the hours of training worthwhile, and it happens in the ring.

Your observations, opinions and comments would be greatly appreciated.