Boxing has, rightly or wrongly, always been perceived as a means for those from tough backgrounds with plentiful supplies of aggression to find a purpose in life. The stories of the sport saving those who would have otherwise supposedly sunk into a life of crime are legion.
Look around your local gym though and you’ll see boxing gloves donned by those who wouldn’t dream of climbing into the squared circle to fight for a living. The high intensity world of boxing training has entered the lives of accountants, social workers and solicitors in the form of Boxercise.
Techniques honed over the generations by the likes of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Calzaghe and Lennox Lewis are now being performed by professionals who earn their crusts behind desks and mums in between school runs.
Boxercise is a trademarked brand that began in the UK in 1992 and has developed workouts based on traditional boxing training principles suitable for all ages and levels of ability. It involves hitting pads worn on the hands of a partner. No bodily contact is made, it’s a resistance workout, is reckoned to burn around 800 calories per session and improves hand-eye coordination. What has been created is a fun, stress-busting activity.
Trainers can only use the term Boxercise if they are registered with the eponymous company. Would-be instructors are taught proper punching techniques and how to structure a Boxercise session for a class or personal training session.
Former professional footballer Bill Stag runs a Boxercise class at a gym in West London. Stag is steeped in pugilism - his dad was a professional boxer who became a trainer and his brother boxed for his country as an amateur - but he found his own sporting success as a footballer.
He played for Brentford as a teenager before joining the North American Soccer League in the 1970s, where he performed for the Pennsylvania Stoners against, among others, Portugal legend Eusebio.
Stag also turned out in the hugely successful Major Indoor Soccer League and went on to Sweden and Denmark before finishing up playing part-time in this country. He now gets his kicks teaching a wide cross section of society how to get fit by punching.
“I’ve got policemen, doctors, company directors, electricians, plumbers - it’s quite a range and they’re all lovely people,” he says. “I try to make the classes fun and intensive. They last for 45 minutes and I like to keep them on the go all the time, they get fit and they get muscle tone.
“The other day a young lad, who is an estate agent, came along for the first time. He said he had been looking through the window thinking: ‘I must give that a go’. He came along and was soon punching on a pair of pads - he loved it.
“We have experienced people and pure beginners. In these classes everyone gets to know each other and they all leave with a smile on their faces. That’s what it’s all about. You go down to the gym and see people working out, but no one talks to anyone. That can’t be right.”
In a nation striving to get those not naturally driven by sport more active, Boxercise has been a roaring success, claiming that 2.1 million of us take part in classes each year. Stag has become one of its disciples.
“Through my sporting career I understood different training methods, so after I joined a gym and started going to Boxercise classes I thought I could become an instructor,” he recalls. “I did the course 15 years ago and got my accreditation. When I joined my current gym as a member, I was chatting to them about my Boxercise qualification and they asked me if I would like to put on a class.”
Stag, who combines his punching masterclasses with doing the knowledge as he strives to become a licensed London black cab driver, has encouraged men from various backgrounds to pound away on the pads in the name of getting fit. Sometimes the testosterone levels get the better of them.
“Some guys who come along really go for it and occasionally I have to say: ‘Not quite so wild’,” Stag admits. “But that’s what they’re in there for. I rein them in a little bit, but not too much. These fellas are absolute gentlemen, kind of Etonian types.
“Then there’s a local builder, who’s in his 60s. He’s fantastic, really fit. I saw him in the gym working on the machines and suggested he came along to the classes. There’s an entrepreneur who dabbles in antiques and there’s a young lad who has asked me about local boxing clubs. It’s an entirely different game. He can punch correctly, he has all the ingredients, but I wouldn’t know if that’s the right thing for him.”
Time to adapt
Stag says it’s often the teenagers and twentysomethings who take longer to adapt: “Some younger people struggle with it. They find it tough initially, but you learn to recover while doing the class. It’s a bit like a full-back in football who runs up the wing. On the way back into defence they recover and when they get back to their defensive position they’re fine.
“I see a big avenue for schools. We used to have boxing classes in schools in the old days and with Boxercise there is no contact - you do pad work and learn different skills. I can see a scenario where there is a kid who is a bit of a nuisance, get them in a Boxercise class at school and take that aggression out.”
The female instructor: Zahra Shah
Women’s boxing became an Olympic sport in 2012, but the popularity of Boxercise among females as a fitness activity cannot be apportioned to a wannabe Nicola Adams effect. The fitness and social aspect appears to be the stronger pull.
Zahra Shah is as passionate about the concept as anyone you could meet: “I’m not from a boxing background, I have no connection with the sport, but I had been doing boxing training myself and decided to do the Boxercise course.
“I train lots of ladies, both in terms of my classes and one-to-one clients. There are a few guys who come along, but it’s mostly mums aged in their late 30s and early 40s.
“It’s a whole body approach - legs, upper body and arms. It’s a cardio workout helping you to burn fat. It tones the arms and I include other exercises, such as skipping and sit-ups. It’s not just about hitting - it works the core, increases the heart rate and it’s very sociable.
“Some in my classes have done a little bit of boxing training and others are interested in developing a new skill. I’m so passionate about Boxercise and I think they enjoy that. I don’t get many who are scared. They learn how to box properly, how to hold the pads and I show them how to move. It’s a good stress-buster.”
The Boxercise mantra is move, step and punch, which is a handy technique should you be put in a position where you have to fight back. So can going to the gym empower you to defend yourself?
Shah says: “It’s a by-product, in terms of it giving them confidence, so that if they should find themselves in a situation they have a level of self-confidence, which I hope would help them.”
The activities are cut from the same cloth and, curiously, one old boxing saying rings true to Shah in Boxercise - you can’t beat a good southpaw.
“Left-handed people tend to be more natural,” she says. I have never met a left-hander who can’t box. There are so many more people who can come. You get those who are sceptical, wary of the aggression, but it’s so much fun. More people should give it a go.”