Tag Archives: Boxing

Getting battered at the Half Moon

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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

 

 

 

 

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Sportscapes of London

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The Oasis swimming pool in Covent Garden in 1946

I’ve spent the past week immersed in Played In London, a book that is about as ambitious as any you are likely to see published about London this year. Written by Simon Inglis (author of the seminal book on British football grounds) for English Heritage, it attempts to tell the story of every sport that has ever been played in any venue in the capital – that’s everything from lost Tudor skittle alleys to skateboard parks, including all the major football and cricket grounds as well as lost lidos and billiards halls, archery grounds and greyhound tracks, relocated diving boards and blue plaques. There’s even space to mention rugby netball, a sport created in 1907 by soldiers on Clapham Common and which is still played there every Tuesday and nowhere else.

It’s a breathtaking accomplishment, full of terrific nuggets of information – did you know there were Eton Fives courts under the Westway, or that the BBC’s Maida Vale studio was built in an old rollerskating rink? – but also attempting to tell the story of how a city and its people indulge in play, how that play is shaped by the culture and topography of the city, and how it develops over time, often wittingly reinventing itself as a ‘heritage’ sport rather than die out.

This is social history as much as anything, but goes much deeper than any other book I’ve seen on the subject, like the marvellous Pleasures Of London. One fascinating section looks at the history of company sports grounds. There were once dozens of these in south-east and south-west London – Catford had several – where civil servants or bankers could take part in regular games of rugby or football, or enjoy the annual sports day. Knowing more about these events, Inglis says, would let us learn so much about the culture of work, belonging and inter-office bonding in 19th and 20th century London.

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Bushel basket race for Borough Market sports day at Herne Hill, 1931

Given the scale of the project, the navigation of the book can be a little complex, but the layout makes sense over time. Inglis begins with an overview of the history of sport in London and of London parks and open spaces, before examining several areas in greater detail to see what they tell us about sport and London, and how certain spaces have been used repeatedly over time. He uses the phrase sportscapes and essentially is intending to show that sport, play and leisure require greater understanding of history than simply observing the architecture and listing club records (although the architectural chapters on Pavilions and Grandstands are genuine delights). It requires a knowledge of how space was utilised and developed, and what accidents of personality, business, culture and geography in the wider world outside sport allowed some sports and grounds to thrive while others died. It also shows how some spaces are defined by sport, but also how sports, clubs and associations are defined by the space they occupy.

The river is an obvious candidate for this treatment (and I never knew there were so many boathouses), but he also looks at length at such intriguing places as Wembley Park, Crystal Palace Park, Lea Valley, Dulwich and the Westway – all of which have long, complex relationships with myriad sports – to uncover stories that may otherwise only be known to local historians, or single-sport specialists. This approach repeats itself throughout the book, allowing ‘found spaces’ such as the South Bank skatepark to be included alongside manicured golf greens and expensive new all-seater stadia.

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Office workers play netball in Lincoln’s Inn Field, 1950s.

Oh, and if this isn’t enough the whole thing is illustrated lavishly throughout – indeed, they may have tried to cram in one or two photographs too many – with some spectacular mapping also included.

It makes a fine accompaniment to another book I read recently, on a more modest scale but still of some importance to London’s sporting heritage. Fighting Men Of London by Alex Daley is essentially an oral history – although the author occasionally makes his presence felt – of London’s boxing history between the 1930s and 1960s, told through seven former fighters. It puts some flesh on the bones of Inglis’s research: the boxers describe the lost boxing rings of London such as the shambolic Mile End Arena or the refined Stadium Club in Holborn, where inter-war gentlemen would dine ringside, ignoring the blood that splashed into their supper. They also talk about the old Central London gyms like Bill Klein’s in a basement in Fitzroy Street or Jack Solomon’s near the Windmill Theatre with an eye for detail that makes you think of Gerald Kersh.

The appetite for boxing in this age was vast, and many of the fighters interviewed built up large followings as they fought as frequently as once a month. None of them really made it into the big money though, and it’s notable that upon retiring several became involved in crime – The Krays, former boxers themselves, have walk-on roles in several of the stories. As a history of East End culture, it’s illuminating.