Road to the ring - A boxing rites of passage

 
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Three minutes before the fight my dad entered the locker room. In one look we knew why I was there. Boxing was a seed planted decades earlier. This moment of reflective relief was broken by a scream from the arena. Fight night, under the arches and this evening I wasn’t a fan in the crowd…I was the Main Event!

Aged nine I remember with joy the era of Eubank, Benn, Tyson & Bruno. Watching ITV Saturday night prime time with dad was very special. Boxing was for me then and still is now pure escapism. Frank Bruno once described boxing as show business with blood, the weigh in, the ring entrances, the lights – he wasn’t wrong. I was totally hooked and I wasn’t just an observer either. Like many an English boy, I had a football goal in the back garden, but I had something else too, in the shadows, inside the shed walls, was a full-length punch bag.

Fast forward twenty-three years, aged thirty-two my journey to the ring formally began. My sporting career up until then was far from glamorous, but certainly varied, a melting pot of amateur football, racket sports & the occasional round of golf.

For all the joy, treasured memories and friendships these endeavors brought – they’d also brought a knee injury requiring keyhole surgery. Sprinting around the pitch wasn’t such a wise idea now, it was time for the shin pads to go away and the gloves to go on, to go back to the punch bag of my childhood. 

‘Back to Boxing’

The first hurdle was the pure logistics of the training; I started at a local gym but with limited boxing classes on offer I soon realised I needed flexibility in terms of access. Once I found a dedicated boxing gym, persistent corrections from the coach showed me that my technique of jumping around throwing wild punches (although fun and weirdly therapeutic) wasn’t going to work. Fitness was another issue, I considered myself a generally sporty chap who’d be okay, however after two minutes of a fitness class I nearly threw up a lung! In boxing a superhuman level of fitness is not the chequered flag – it’s the baseline for getting in the ring.

In these early experiences when I walked into the gym I experienced a strong sense of fear. Many times I'd run from this emotion, however, with the experience I now know it may be worth a minutes pause and some exploration. I spent some time alone reflecting and knew that my fear was connected with the impending journey. The fear was complicated, there were a number of facets both mentally and physically; fear of the training, fear of the fight, fear of telling people and them maybe watching me fight. The fears were present but my desire to overcome was stronger, one gym session after another, I started walking the walk.

Slowly learning the basics and increasing my training over nine months I was confronted with my biggest fear so far; 

‘the infamous sparring class’

 Now for those less knowledgeable on boxing training, this is the class where you put on a head guard and gum shield and test yourself in a semi-competitive environment. My boxing trainer says ‘You can hit pads and bags all day long, but they don’t hit back. Sparring is where you’ll really learn the game.’

Man! The nerves I felt that evening walking into the gym. The trainer called my name as if I were being selected for some kind of strange sacrifice. I tapped gloves with my opponent and away we went. It was all a blur – but I remember being amazed at how quickly I was out of breath. Being in an extreme situation (someone trying to pound me into the ground) my brain had executed an adrenaline charged survival program. All my senses were heightened, I was fully alert and burning energy fast. It was incredibly exciting, however, after about thirty seconds I felt like I’d been sprint training with Usain Bolt.

‘No pain, no gain!’

I’d completed the class & it felt amazing, i had survived. That’s the deal with fear – there is little else better in life than confronting it and coming out the other side. Sparring had taught me two important lessons. The first was the requirement to maintain a level of calm in the fury. I’d gotten too easily caught up in the adrenaline of the moment and as result, some of the fundamental boxing skills I'd learned previously were forgotten. The second was getting used to being hit. With the choice of; freeze, fight or flight my natural instinct was the latter! But by trying to ‘avoid’, being hurt I was instead retreating, taking more hits than ever. My coach explained that at certain stages of a fight I would have to take a punch or two in order to get in range and connect with my own shots. I was over another hurdle but there was work to be done. Only more sparring experience and time in the ring would allow me to improve.

In the ensuing months, after taking a lot of punishment and dishing out a little of my own, I was ready to face my next test. I remember well the apprehension I felt approaching the gym front desk and shakily saying those words ‘ Do you have any fight events open later this year? ‘ During this moment I remember passing through a kind of out of body experience. Logic had left me as I smiled, nodded and signed the paperwork. In just a few months time I would be going for three-two minute rounds with someone who was going to try and knock my head off in front of an audience of my closest friends and family, Nice! Only when I was walking away from the gym and I re-entered my body did my logical self suddenly interject and say ‘F*** Clive – what have you done?!’ What I now know looking back was that in this moment I’d won fifty percent of the battle, I’d committed and said ‘I’m in.’

An internal fear had been overcome and my reward came the following week in the form of trainer Martin Dimitrov. Martin had seen my commitment and offered to help train me. Martin was a highly respected trainer and previously a Bulgarian champion. A disciplined character renowned within the gym for his brutal gym classes and top level results. I’d always respected his approach but now in his small brood of fellow fighters I was going to be pushed to my limits. No pain…no gain. In preparation the intensity increased ten fold – immediately I moved from the one sparring class a week to three. I was given a strict running program to build my stamina and both before and after sparring were put through intense drills and bag/pad work.

I was improving but on my boxing fast track I took some hits, in one sparring session I was on the ropes and took a solid right over the top and my nose was busted open – blood spilling onto the canvas. I had a black eye for a while too, this I discovered, is the best ways you can promote a boxing match to friends and family. It didn’t feel like it at the time but looking back I was learning the sport the best way you can, the hard way!

Training with a small group of fellow fighters accelerated my learning, we kept each other motivated, supporting one another through some tough days in the gym. Pummelling each other during intense sparring battles in the ring one moment, sharing stories and jokes outside the next. Both Martin and one of the other fighters in our group named Genadi were to stand in my corner on the night of the fight. Knowing they were going to be there gave me a certain confidence and inner strength, the bonding between a close knit group of people, with a similar aim has the undoubted power to do that. A week prior to the fight I completed a final full blooded training session. In this class Martin pushed me to my absolute limit as after one final round of gym sprints I collapsed on the floor panting, covered in sweat. 

‘I was ready!’

In the days building up to the fight, I felt naturally nervous but confident in the work I’d done in the gym. The training had left me tired at times, but feeling fit, clear and confident. I even walked differently, an improved grounded version of myself.

On the morning of the fight, I awoke to confront a final fear. A fatalistic fear that knew something serious was around the corner. I did my best to keep busy, I must have repacked my bag four times. Moving through the day I began to mentally prepare for the evening ahead, psyching myself up. By the time I got to the gym itself I was ready to get in and go. One small problem, I was last on the bill! There were to be a few more torturous hours ahead before I could claim my prize. In those hours many emotions ran through my body. I sat quietly, I paced up and down – minute by minute my brain flicking between nervousness, calm, confidence, and fear.

Pair by pair others walked the path before me – points or a knockout, victory or defeat. Until only two remained. Now we’re back where I started, three minutes before the fight, in the locker room – me and dad. I knew why I was here now, understood the history and how it had come to this. These gloves, this arena, the final chapter. Martin stuck his head around the door and said;

‘Clive…..it’s time’

I stood and Martin lead me to the corner of the locker room. He raised his pads and I began to warm up throwing combinations 1,2,3,4….1,2,3,4. I built up a rhythm over the next three to four minutes, focusing me completely on the present. Any remaining thoughts concerning the past or future melted away.

We paused, I turned and there he was, my opponent, our eyes locked for a second and just like that he went through the curtain and was gone. A few more seconds and I was ushered across the room to stand in front of the same red curtain. The sound generated by the crowd was near deafening as the announcer called my name. My music played, I was so close, no turning back now! Brushing the curtain aside I stepped forward into a sea of noise and flashing lights! Moving under the ropes into the ring for a very brief moment I smiled to myself, I'd made it. Deep down inside I knew whatever happened over the next eight minutes…my boxing rites of passage was complete.

‘And the winner is….’

So! What happened next I hear you ask? No more written word, instead head to my contact page on the button below, drop me a quick message, and I will provide you with exclusive access to a video of the fight itself:

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Interested in boxing training? Amateur Boxing Coach Martin Dimitrov is the man to speak to. You can either e-mail him at j_juga6vili@yahoo.com or contact him on 07943 578490 to discuss training options and start your own boxing rite of passage.