With the Half Moon in the news so much these days – and about to feature in its own book – I thought I’d reprint this article I wrote in 2002 for Time Out when I went sparring in the gym above the pub. I’ve included a couple of grainy photographs of me flailing wildly, sweating ringlets asunder, but cannot be responsible for any harm these may cause the viewer.
He comes at you again, all padding and muscle like a Michelin man filled with concrete. The ropes dig into your back as he bellows in your air – “Hit me! Give me what you’ve got!” – but even if you could raise your tortured arms there’s no room to swing a punch. Sweat spills down your face and your longs flip-flop as they grab for air. Then suddenly there’s space. “Jab!” he shouts. And you do, smacking his raised glove at full pelt. “Cross, jab, cross!” One, two, three! Bam, bam, bam! Then he’s down your throat again, pushing you back and forcing a clinch. You can’t see, you can’t move, you can barely breathe. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating.
The setting is a rough-and-ready gym above a nondescript pub in Herne Hill. This is where Clinton McKenzie, former British and Commonwealth light-welterweight champion, runs a “boxercise” class that he boasts “is the closest thing to getting in the professional ring”. McKenzie, the brother of former world champion Duke and father of footballer Leon, has been here for seven years, ever since he found something that satisfied after the messy couple of years that followed his retirement from the game. The place was derelict when he began. Now, he says, the demand is such that he may need to close the membership for a couple of months.
You can see the appeal. First, the gym is one of the least threatening you’re ever likely to walk into. For a venue in which so much energy is devoted to hitting things, there’s a surprising lack of testosterone in the air. Such is the unintimidating atmosphere that a fair number of women take part, as partial to a workout and punch-up as anybody else. When you’re in the ring, fellow boxercisers yell encouragement. They help tape up your knuckles. They don’t laugh when you trip over the skipping rope.
As affable outside the ring as he is dominant inside, McKenzie tailors the sessions to individual needs and interests. Mine went thus: 15 minutes on the exercise bike; 12 minutes on the punchbag; one minute failing to skip; an eternity in the ring; 20 minutes trying not to throw up; 10 minutes warm down. Make no mistake, this is tough work. The punchbag is hard and heavy, and pummelling it for four rounds of three minutes is punishing. Our arms aren’t used to that kind of treatment, the shudder of connection as you wallop and counter-wallop the swaying sack. First time out, boosted by McKenzie’s encouragement and ignoring his warnings, chances are you’ll overdo it and punch yourself out. With the adrenalin pumping, it’s difficult not to.
It’s in the ring that the real stuff happens. You feel like a champ as you tighten your bandages, pull on the gloves and step into the ring. McKenzie waits. He’s in padding that covers his chest and stomach and wears sparring gloves but has not intention of simply making himself a target. For the first minute or so he shouts instructions – jab, cross, work the body, switch stance, put together combinations – but every now and then you get a cuff round the head, a reminder of where you are. Then he starts forcing you back, into corners, against the ropes, using sheer mass and presence to push you into tight spots where you have to gather all your wit and strength to stay mobile. There’s just enough pressure to make you understand what it means to enter a ring for real.
“I like to give people a feel of what it’s like for a pro, the hard work you’ve got to put in to survive,” he says. Trying to punch, move and think at the same time takes considerable effort and – the occasional tap on the top of the head notwithstanding – here you don’t even have to worry about defence. By the end you’re reeling, vision blurred, stomach hollow, knuckles raw, arms leaden. The bell is blessed relief. And that was just one round.
“Most gyms are just machines,” says McKenzie. “Don’t get me wrong, machines are great for exercise. But there’s something special about pitting yourself against somebody else, doing it one-on-one. It makes people try that bit harder. That’s what the regulars love about this place. And the fact they are getting in the ring with a champion gives them a buzz.”
And a buzz there undeniably is. Even those of a non-violent persuasion will relish the safe, healthy environment that offers just enough whiff of danger to get the heart pumping. “If boxing ever goes under, this is what people will be turning to so they can find out what it used to be like,” says McKenzie. Sure, he’s exaggerating, but as you pound the bag or jink through the ropes, you’ll have to bite your lip to stop humming the theme from Rocky. It might not be the real thing but it’ll do champ, it’ll do.
Clinton is still running boxercise classes from a new venue in Tulse Hill. Details here.