boxing for fitness

Side-eyeing a provincial champion. Not the wisest move I’ll ever make. Photo: Luke Daniel

Boxing for fitness: What I learned training with a champion [video]

What happens when fat takes on fit? I did the first boxing session of my life this week and it was as hilariously bad as you’d expect.

boxing for fitness

Side-eyeing a provincial champion. Not the wisest move I’ll ever make. Photo: Luke Daniel

*Record scratch*, *freeze frame*: Yep, that’s me down there. Clinging on to the paltry amount of life left in my body after Western Cape boxing champion Onke Cephe put me through my limited paces.

boxing for fitness

We spent a couple of hours with him at the Burgundy High Performance Centre this week. Onke showed us the ropes and demonstrated the painful amount of exercise required to become one of the best in the country.

Onke Cephe is a regional champion. Photo: Luke Daniel

Now, perhaps it’s because I’m an Englishman on a team full of South Africans. Perhaps it’s because I made a typo in a big story a few weeks ago. Or perhaps it’s because I have the fitness levels of a wet sponge which meant I was nominated to go the distance with Onke.

Did I suffer? My word, yes. Do I regret it? Absolutely not. As the least active person in the Southern Hemisphere (and Northern, when I’m back there), I was taken to the school of hard knocks this week. I came away having learnt a few life-changing lessons.

What I learned during my boxing training

Running, running, running

Upon arrival at the Burgundy High Performance Centre, the first thing I did was strap some gloves on and indulge in a bit of shadowboxing. Come on, you all know you’d do the same too.

I was gravely mistaken. Coming as a shock to precisely no-one apart from a naive fool like myself, boxing is just as much about fitness and cardio as it is landing a knock-out blow. Not all matches go to KO which means you have to dance around the ring… for a long time.

If you can’t last the distance, you haven’t got a chance. Big units like Tyson Fury may appear to have a bit of excess weight, but because he’s put the hard yards in over years and years of training, he’s able to operate at the same fitness levels of a flyweight.

First, we ran in a manner that simulated skipping. I haven’t skipped since I was eight, and even then I fell flat on my face on the tarmac of Morven Park Primary School. So already, Onke’s won a psychological battle with me here.

We ran suicides, we ran backwards, we ran in a high-knee drill that damn nearly broke my brain. Then we graduated to short, sharp sprints with the distances gradually increasing. They broke my body. I learned just how rigorous a boxer’s regime is before they even throw a punch in anger.

Counting to two isn’t easy

boxing for fitness
Boxing moods for days. Photo: Luke Daniel

After my heart had finished trying to jackhammer its way out of my chest, we finally got geared up for combat. Interspersed by a session of stretching and sidesteps, Tom “The Hammer” Head (still working on a nickname) was ready to show the world how to pack a punch.

Look, it was my first time, okay?

There was uproarious laughter on the cutting room floor when we watched our footage back. Onke, used to training and fighting with the best, has a bearded lump of lard to contend with. I know my lack of fitness stunned him, but my lack of comprehension also blindsided him

There are commands you’ve got to get familiar with when you’re sparring. When you “jab”, you’re hitting across your body from left-to-right or vice versa if you’re a southpaw. You better believe I went with the wrong hand on the wrong pad several times.

A “double-jab” requires you to make the same punch twice. Unless your me, and you intermittently decide “nah, one’s enough isn’t it.”

A “jab-jab-cross” requires you to land punches with both your left and right hand. Again, my hand-eye coordination hit the skids, as I frequently strayed from pad-to-pad. When you’re in the heat of the moment – trying to process instruction and physical activity – things do not come easily.

Nothing pumps the adrenaline like whacking pads

Eventually, I landed my punches correctly. I hit a rhythm and started floating like a butterfly, while stinging like… well, still like a butterfly if I’m being honest. And it was the funniest feeling. Despite Onke not throwing any punches, and the training itself being utterly informal, something goes off in your brain.

If you throw punch and punch, and sweat is dripping off your forehead, it gets very primal upstairs. I was punching harder, moving faster and keeping a defence up like my life depended on it. No matter the condition of your physical state, boxing training has a unique ability to alter your mental state.

As you can see on the video below, I’m an eater, not a fighter. Never thrown a punch in my life. Yet here I was, convincing myself I’ve got enough in the locker to turn professional.

The science of a punch

One of the biggest takeaways I received from the session was an alternative way to punch. There’s a very subtle movement boxers have when they are striking their opponent.

The “corkscrew” punch involves twisting your wrist when punching. It maximises the effectiveness of the punch and keeps your wrists more protected. If you’re going for a knockout blow, you need to connect with the first two knuckles – the corkscrew technique is the best way to make this happen.

“Focus, man!”

And finally, two words that are going to haunt me for a good, long while. We’ve discussed the struggles I had counting to two, which lead to Onke’s despairing cry of “focus, man!”

Rather than punching your hardest, or getting a shot away quicker, you first and foremost have to focus. Boxing isn’t just an exhibition of power. It’s mental chess. You have to do all of the gruelling things we’ve spoken about, plus keep your mind completely zoned-in for the best part of an hour.

boxing for fitness
Onke Cephe, one of the best boxers in the country. Me, an alright beard from time-to-time. Photo: Luke Daniel

You’ll never meet a daft boxer. Some may not be book-smart, but the sheer intensity of thought required to get to Onke’s level is staggering. I was a little self-conscious and aware that my failings were being filmed. But to see any sort of positive result from this type of training, you need to be fully switched-on.

Watch: Boxing training with a champion