Motivation

We all know it will come one day. It’s one of life’s cruel certainties, but despite the morbid inevitably, you’re never prepared for that phone call.

I was sitting in IT training on a bright summer morning, longing for an excuse not to be there. The universe delivered, painfully, as I checked my phone and noticed several missed calls. Another came through and a familiar but shaken voice told me that a loved one was unwell, and it was serious.

Manic thoughts whizzed through my head, thumping music unable to settle or drown them out, on the two hour drive back to Glasgow.  Walking into the hospital – past the smokers out front, the porters transporting people on wheels, and into the busy wards, confronted by the unimaginable – I knew I was entering a new, bitter reality.

The following weeks were spent in turmoil. The brave façade painted on during visits vanished when I returned home. Anger, which was barely concealed in public, resurfaced and was accompanied by drinking, binge eating and sleepless nights. I needed an escape.

I don’t believe in fate and certainly not in the digital age where our interests, actions and seemingly thoughts are monitored by business. But as I mindlessly scrolled through Facebook an advert for Ultra White Collar Boxing appeared, a video played automatically, and seemed to offer that promise of escape.

The trusted, rational voice inside that would usually dismiss that type of thing was gone. In its place was a frenetic enthusiasm, clutching on to its promise of distraction, and I signed up without much prompting or consideration.

Training

I wasn’t nervous climbing the steps of Glasgow’s Griphouse gym a few weeks later. I’d usually find these type of environments slightly alien. I had never trained in any combat sports before, and – despite visiting several gyms to interview fighters – I found them daunting. But there was excitement as I queued to enter with dozens of other hopefuls. We shared pleasantries as we changed into our gear, respecting the house rules of no shoes, relieved to remove my kicked trainers and odd socks.

The coach was what you would hope for – calm, experienced and a good communicator. He, like the gym itself, had a mixed martial arts background, but appeared to be a knowledgeable boxer too. It became apparent quite quickly, though, that there would be no one-to-one coaching. Instead, we tried to absorb the group instructions, find a patch of room in the busy hall and master the basics.

The other contenders were a mixed bunch but united in their positivity and eagerness. Both men and women, some experienced, others complete beginners, some were jovial and having fun, and a few more serious with ambitions – or fantasies – of being a real boxer.

Training progressed from shadow boxing to pad-work to sparring over the weeks. We completed our first sparring session on week three. I had imagined it would be in a ring with a coach observing and guiding, like you see in boxing gyms or on video footage, but that was naïve. It was two minute rounds with an opponent of a similar build, sharing the mats with twenty other partners, vying for some space as you traded the basic moves you’d learnt. The coach was vigilant to spot when a more skilled or experienced fighter was going too hard on a beginner.

Sparring was a rush; exciting and challenging. I’d been in my share of street fights as a kid in Glasgow, where you explode with anger and instinct, hoping your adrenaline-fuelled tirade was stronger than your foe. This was different, there was no anger, and instinct was traded for thinking, considering your move as you tried to block the advances of the opponent. It didn’t take long to appreciate that boxing is a highly skilled sport, and we could only hope to grasp the very basics. Some realised, as later displayed on fight night, that this was futile, and would revert to anger and instincts, like a street fight.

Nevertheless I was enjoying the sparring sessions. Sometimes you’d take a beating and confidence would drop. Other times you’d do well, slip shots and counter, leaving you buoyant and adding to the fantasy that you could box. On week four, I had completed around six rounds with different partners. I had done well in a few spars and felt confident. We noticed there was still a few minutes left of the session and so I agreed to another quick spar. The other guy was more aggressive than previous ones, and I thought I’d keep a high guard and ride with it, unwittingly exposing my ribs, which he powerfully exploited. Fuck. I’d never felt pain like it. Instant, breath-taking shooting pain. I finished the session but spent the next few weeks struggling to stand out of bed or get off the couch without yelping like an old dug.

I wasn’t able to spar for the rest of the training. The eight weeks allotted to mastering the noble art, already ridiculously ambitious, had reduced by half. But that strangely didn’t matter. The motivation to fight, the need to escape, drove me on. Plus, I had already told my friends and colleagues and didn’t want to disappoint or look weak.

Thankfully, a well known Scottish boxer sacrificed his time for a few hours each week to take me on pads and offer some guidance in his own gym. This was a completely different game. You could spend an hour in the group training, doing pads with the other guys, sharing a joke, getting out of breath and sweating, but you walked out quite easily. I almost had to crawl out of Ross Murray’s gym after each visit.

What was probably a warm up session for Murray was, for me, like climbing Everest. Take shadow boxing, for example. We’d previously fumble about the hall, throwing our newly-learnt moves clumsily without really breaking a sweat. But under Murray’s guidance, every step and every shot had a purpose, you thought about every move, and you repeated it, again and again, until you demonstrated at least some competence.

Similarly, the pad work was meaningful. It wasn’t two lads holding pieces of leather near their heads, taking turns to mindlessly pound them, laughing as they missed. Every drill had a purpose, refined and repeated until it resembled a fight scenario. Mistakes were punished by a looping hook to wake you up. I learnt more in a few hours with Murray than I had in a lifetime of watching boxing and weeks of group training.

Murray is a friend of Gloves Red and spoke openly. We shared the opinion that there were only two forms of boxing, amateur and professional, and white collar boxing was a fantasy, and a potentially dangerous one. But he respected the reasons why I was doing it, dealing with my family issues and hoping to raise money for Cancer Research. I found that inspiring and rare, a busy professional sacrificing his own time, even with reservations, to help another man in need.

Murray was wise enough to know that no amount of training, regardless of quality, could prepare a newcomer to perform competently in a boxing ring in eight weeks or less. He instructed me to jab and move, but also accept and prepare that the opponent may just want an old fashioned tear up. I wish I had listened.

Fight night

It’s every boxing fan’s dream to get off the couch, put on gloves and fight in front of hundreds of fans. Growing up, I had countless visions of walking out to a classic hip hop song as people cheered me on. And, for a brief moment, that dream seemed real.

I’ve been to many small hall or hotel shows and few have had the atmosphere of Ultra White Collar Boxing. Over forty tables each with at least ten people were surrounded by another 50 or so punters standing. The bright lights, the ring walk music and the MC; it was exhilarating.

Well, a part from the waiting around. I arrived at the venue at around 1pm, and was informed soon after that my fight wouldn’t be until around 9.30pm. I changed into my gear for a group photo then spent the next eight hours welcoming friends, watching some bouts and imagining the fight ahead. Some of the lads killed time by smoking outside, a brief reminder that this wasn’t exactly professional boxing at hand.

I had learned of my opponent a few days earlier. And when I shared the face-off photographs with friends they were shocked at his size. ‘He looks like a right hard bastard, good luck’ one message read. But I didn’t care. I was doing this for me and had little concern for what would happen in the ring. There was, paradoxically, a reckless calm; this was about dealing with what was going on in my life, I couldn’t really care if I lost, and so the nerves that I thought I would feel never emerged.

Twenty minutes before the fight, a trainer – who we’d never met before – warmed up the opponent and me backstage. There was no real tension, but we kept an eye on each other, sizing up our abilities. I was sharper, hit the pads well and moved better. I fuckin’ knew it would be fine, I thought to myself with relief.

But as the MC called our names and the referee gave final instructions, a painful lesson awaited – looking decent on pads is meaningless in the ring. My opponent ignored the customary touch of gloves and came out charging, swinging relentless left and right haymakers with some of them landing. If I was watching it as a spectator, I would be screaming for the victim to move. We had drilled it in the gym – blocking, pivoting and retreating to the side. But in there with hundreds of people watching, and facing someone much stronger than me or anyone I’d encountered in sparring, it was useless. I froze; caught between my original strategy, or fantasy, of trying to ‘box’ and the increasingly painful reality that I should fight. I weathered the storm, just, and went to my corner as the bell sounded.

The cornerman was probably an experienced man, but it was strange dealing with someone I’d only met a few minutes before. I needed a Murray left hook to focus, tell me to jab and move. But the instruction was to stand and trade right hands, seemingly we were both useless and open. I followed the guidance without thinking, but it was futile. I’m basically a skinny guy with slim arms and chicken legs and a massive beer belly that unfortunately puts me in with heavyweights. The opponent was naturally a big, hard bastard, as my friends had previously identified. He landed more often and harder in the trade off. And a further few thumps to the forehead and some behind the head and the referee called it. Not quite the Rocky moment I had envisaged.

I thought losing, and especially being stopped, in front of friends and a large audience would be humiliating. But again I was calm. A part of me was relieved it was over and I could finally have a pint after waiting for so many hours. And regardless of the outcome I was proud that I had challenged myself and given it a go.

Another strange thing was my feeling towards the opponent. Usually in a fight you’re filled with anger and adrenaline. You inflict as much damage as possible and flee. But in the ring there was respect. I admired his courage and relentlessness and genuinely congratulated him, as dozens of his friends and family cheered on.

Reflections

Despite the beating, the injured ribs, and the dented ego, I have no regrets for signing up to Ultra White Collar Boxing. It gave me an outlet at a desperate time. I probably would have been a stone or two heavier, angry, drunk and generally unpleasant to be around without it. Instead I used those eight weeks to lose weight, learn some new skills (allegedly) and challenge myself. I’m usually the guy that starts jogging and within ten minutes negotiates with himself that if he make it to the next lamp-post he’s done well, and should be rewarded with a pizza. I was able to overcome that negative voice in my head that says give up. For the first time in years I pushed myself and achieved things that I didn’t think were possible for me, bringing physical and mental benefits.

My family noticed I was looking and feeling better, which in itself was a victory. And we collectively raised a hell of a lot for charity – over £15,000 in total – and a cause that was close to our hearts.

We had a taste of what life would be like for a boxer and for a moment experienced the dream: the cheering crowd, the lights, the music and the fight. There was excitement, elation and camaraderie throughout. It was easy to get carried away and feel like a real boxer. But, of course, it was fantasy.

Boxing is one of the most skilled and gruelling sports. It takes a lifetime of dedication and sacrifice. Fighters endure tremendous pain to hone their skills, morning after morning, injury and after injury, they persevere and grow. It’s also a sport that is abused. Its integrity stretched to capacity for other people to make money, as the recent pay-per-view bout between two YouTube bloggers illustrates. And white collar boxing uncomfortably straddles the line between charitable cause and profitable circus. Boxing needs to be respected and its credibility preserved.

I wouldn’t put anyone who wanted to try white collar boxing off. It can be a great way to meet new folk, lose weight and pick up some technique. It’s topped off with an exciting event that replicates a real boxing experience. The vast majority of participants, I’m sure, gathered some unforgettable memories, snatching a piece of boxing’s dream. But it’s not real. It wasn’t real boxing and we weren’t real fighters. If that is remembered, and participants go into it for the right reasons, then it can be a rewarding experience. Even if you do get a beating, like I did!

Written by Jamie Sokolowski