x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Boxing: The workout with a wallop

The Corporate Contender programme, an intensive boxing course at Haddins Gym, shows average desk jockeys just how rigorous the sport is.

Hugo Berger, left, learns boxing from Ricky Miller, a former instructor for the Royal Marines. Sarah Dea / The National
Hugo Berger, left, learns boxing from Ricky Miller, a former instructor for the Royal Marines. Sarah Dea / The National

As anyone who's watched any of the Rocky movies will know, boxing is ridiculously simple. So easy, in fact, that any old knucklehead can don a pair of gloves and swing their fists wildly before toppling their opponent with a head-crunching blow.

But, as anyone who's actually tried boxing will tell you, that last statement was absolute nonsense. Boxing is actually a sport that requires as much mental adroitness as it does physical might. So, before stepping anywhere near a boxing ring, one needs to enlist some expert help.

For those in Abu Dhabi keen to learn such skills, Haddins Gym has run its Corporate Contender programme for the past three years. Based on similar white-collar boxing courses elsewhere in the world, it aims to transform paunchy, desk-bound weaklings into hardened fighting machines over nine weeks. Then it culminates in the main event, in which the contenders face off in a proper refereed, three-round bout.

Despite a morbid fear of getting hurt and an equally palpable concern about inflicting pain on someone else, I decided to sign up.

Overseeing our training is Ricky Miller, a former physical instructor with the Royal Marines in the UK who now works with the UAE military. As someone with 64 boxing bouts under his belt, he's clearly qualified to impart to us the fundamentals of the sport.

In total, 14 of us office types have committed to Miller's tuition. These include the 26-year-old Adam Buck, a teacher from Britain who was motivated to join by his love of the Rocky movies, and Kelly Kasperczyk, a 32-year-old environmental consultant who attended a similar programme in her native Ireland.

The first thing Miller stresses to us is that we should be under no illusions about the amount of hard slog ahead of us. While Rocky may have had a musical montage to summarise his training regimen, in the real world, we must endure punishing sessions of intensive cardio exercise, swinging at punch bags and sparring in the ring.

He also tells us to leave behind any preconceptions about boxing we may have acquired from admiring Sylvester Stallone's on-screen haymakers.

"I tell people to ignore what they've seen in movies or in professional boxing," he says before the course begins.

"Amateur boxing is totally different from professional boxing. It's all about point scoring rather than knocking someone out.

"Secondly," he says, "anyone can fight and throw some punches and hope for the best. But to box takes skill, practice and hard work. That's what I teach them."

But can we really learn all we need to know about the sport with in our thrice-weekly, nine-week-long course? Miller says yes.

"I've proved you can with the previous Corporate Contenders," he says.

"People have said to me when watching the finals: 'They're so good. They must have been boxing more than nine weeks.'

"I get a feeling of great pride and satisfaction when I remember what they were like when they started [compared] to how they are when they've finished the course."

To allay another common concern, Miller insists that none of his charges have ever ended up punch drunk with permanently disfigured faces.

"There is a risk of getting hurt in any combat sport, but safety is a massive aspect in everything we do," he says. "I do make sure they all have listened and learnt everything they need to know about defending themselves before I let them in the ring."

And so far, no one has come to serious harm. "We've had no injuries through boxing on previous courses," he claims.

"People have injured themselves when training by not warming up properly and that kind of thing. But no one has hurt themselves through getting punched, touch wood."

A few sessions down, with my knuckles swollen from punching pads and legs leaden by continually trudging up flights of stairs, I know firsthand that the notoriously rigorous training that boxers must undergo is no myth. But Miller insists it will all be worth it in the end.

"People get a massive feeling of self-worth out of the course," he says. "If they could compare themselves between the first day and last day, they would see vast improvements in determination, courage and the will to win.

"Everyone feels better in themselves and more confident in their own ability. Not only as a boxer, but also in their own persona as well."

Time will tell whether I can conquer my fears, but already I've realised the fist-flying free-for-all that boxing purports to be on the movie screen couldn't be further from the truth.

For more information about the Corporate Contender programme visit www.haddins.com or call 02 403 4233