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Men's Boxing ‘Sometimes insanity is all a man has left’

This is an abridged extract from John’s book This Boxing Game: A Journey in Beautiful Brutality , now available online at Pitch Publishing and all major booksellers.

THE circumstances in which I found myself in the ring for the first time were strange to say the least. 

It was the summer of 1994 and I was working in Brussels. Out for a stroll with a colleague one particularly hot evening, we happened upon a funfair spread out almost the entire length of a large park. 

The place was crowded and with nothing better to do, we decided to take a look. At the far end of the fair we came to a boxing booth. 

At one time boxing booths were obligatory attractions at fairgrounds the length and breadth of Britain. By this point though they were long extinct. 

With no medical supervision or checks, headguards, mouthpieces or hand wraps involved, it wasn’t hard to understand why. 

Clearly, though, they were still a popular attraction in parts of Europe, with this one in Brussels the first I’d ever encountered.

So there I was, standing in the middle of the crowd watching a guy on a makeshift stage with a microphone in his hand. Behind him a line of fighters of all shapes and sizes were lined up, replete with the flat noses, cauliflower ears and scar tissue synonymous with years of taking punches. 

They were ready for action in shorts and vests and their hands wrapped, staring impassively at the crowd that was gathered in front of them.

The guy with the mic was addressing the crowd in French, a language I neither spoke nor understood. But you didn’t need to understand the lingo to realise he was challenging the men to step up and take on one of the fighters behind him. 

Without thinking about it, and on the back of sudden rush of blood to the head, my hand shot up. The crowd seemed to turn as one in my direction when the guy on the platform pointed me out. He then invited me to pick my opponent from the fighters lined up behind him. 

I looked along the row of pug faces and muscled torsos until I came to the guy standing on the extreme right. He looked around my height, though leaner and lighter, and not as fierce as the others. I pointed. 

Moments later some guy appeared from nowhere and invited me to follow him up to the platform. From up there the crowd looked significantly bigger than it had seemed while standing among it. 

Introductions over, I was led through an old curtain into a corrugated iron shed, where thick ropes had been set up in a square to demarcate a ring. It was dingy and stank of damp and stale sweat. 

It was here in this place that I was about to find out if I was the same person after the accident as before.

This, for me you see, was more than just about experiencing what it was like to go toe-to-toe in a boxing ring. It was motivated far more by the desire to prove something to myself after sustaining a broken neck in a car accident eighteen months before. 

Though by now the bones had healed, the psychological wounds had not. The façade I’d presented to the world after being declared fit after a long period of convalescence was at odds with how I truly felt inside. 

Inside I felt weak and vulnerable. Subjecting myself to this test in the ring, therefore, was as important as anything I had ever done or would likely ever do. I knew it the second we happened upon the place.

Within minutes the space around the makeshift ring was filled with spectators, each paying the equivalent of a couple of quid for the privilege. My legs were shaking and I was swimming in a sea of adrenalin. 

Though not a boxer, I possessed a weight-trained physique, which I hoped would stand me in stead. I was about to learn otherwise. Muscles count for nothing in the ring unless accompanied by skill. This was to be my very first and perhaps most important lesson in the noble art.

The guy placed an old and worn pair of boxing gloves over my hands. Keith, my work colleague, was standing beside me throughout. He didn’t have to say anything; the expression on his face from the second I thrust my hand up in the crowd said it all. 

He thought I was out of my mind. It didn’t matter. Sometimes insanity is all a man has left.

As I was getting ready my opponent was across the other side of the ring shadowboxing, throwing combinations with the impressive speed and the kind of technique and rhythm that takes years to attain. Watching him, any confidence I may have retained drained away like water down a drain. I was about to pay a hard price for daring to point him out.

Through the ropes and into the ring we climbed, where the referee (if you could call him that) brought us together in the centre. He jabbered a few words in French, spitting them out like a man with something bitter-tasting in his mouth. 

I was hardly listening. Here was the point of no return and by now I couldn’t hear or see anything apart from my opponent, standing mere inches away studying me with a knowing grin. He’d been here countless times and could no doubt smell the fear that was emanating from me. I was a complete novice and he knew it.

We boxed three rounds and I’ve never experienced chaos like it. The combination of fear and adrenalin drained me of energy and strength within half a round. 

From then on it was all about trying to survive, though how to do that when leather is coming your way in rapid-fire sequence, I had no idea. 

One thing you learn quickly is that the anticipation of being punched is worse than the reality. After receiving two or three it ceases to hurt as much as you think it will. The biggest shock is just how much boxing takes out of you. 

Your cardio is literally sent through the roof — and this after just one round. The fitness required to go the full 12 must be phenomenal, it occurred to me later, though as I was to learn over the following years, the ability to relax in the ring counts for a lot in this regard.

Each time my opponent came near me, moving with the grace and rhythm of a trained athlete, I lashed out with a wild one-two in an attempt to keep him at bay. I was lucky if I connected with a handful of punches over the entire three rounds, and most of those he caught on his arms. 

Never have I felt so naked and alone, standing there in that makeshift ring being picked apart in front of a crowd of spectators, baying for blood.

With that said, my euphoria when it was over was near elemental. The applause and back slapping which greeted me as I left the ring I hoped meant that I had given a better account of myself than I thought. 

Still, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that it was an act of kindness rather than respect. Someone tried to thrust a plate in my hand. 

With this I was expected to go around the audience inviting people to show their appreciation with money. I waved him away. This wasn’t about money, and anyway my heart and head were thumping, emotions were running through me like water, and I just wanted to get out of there.

Walking away I tasted blood for the first time. It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that I was still me.

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