The building trembles as another train rattles past, mere inches from the window. Peering out, I can see commuters piling off onto the platform at West Hampstead station, escaping the rain. Inside, sepia-toned photos line the exposed red-brick walls, and the dull sound of leather pounding leather echoes under the high-vaulted beamed ceiling.
If not for the bass-heavy music being pumped out of the stereo system, and the familiarity of the North London tube station outside, I could easily be in an old New York boxing hall, circa 1950.
My nostalgia is cut short by the arrival of our trainer, Matt. “This may be a gym,” he tells us, “but we’re here to learn how to box, not to watch TV. If you want that, you can go over the road to Esporta.” This may be a class for first-timers, but Matt won’t be going easy on us.
After the warm-up – five minutes of non-stop skipping during which my body makes time for breathers by hurling itself in the way of the swinging rope – we strap up. Hand injuries are common in boxing because of the constant strain the many small bones are put under, so we wrap our knuckles and wrists in elastic tape to avoid bruising them while hitting the punchbags.
With our gloves on, we start to look like real boxers. In some clubs, this is enough to get you into the ring with another person. “Traditional boxing clubs,” says Matt, “follow the model of, ‘let’s see how hard you are, and if you can handle it we’ll let you join.’ But we’re not a competition club, training kids to be fighters; we’re a fitness club, and boxing is the best kind of fitness you can do.”
So here at Gloves, the focus is on movement. Matt has us bouncing on the spot, shifting our weight between our front and back feet. Once we’re comfortable with the timing, we start throwing a left jab. In time, keeping our rhythm, we add a right-hand punch into the routine. Our synchronized movement is dance-like, and the focus required to execute the routine distracts from the exhaustion of performing it.
Once we’re familiar with the steps, we move onto circuits. Those who sign up for membership at Gloves will eventually have the opportunity to get into the ring and spar with a human being. Our opponents tonight, however, for two minutes at a time each, are the punchbags of various shapes and sizes that hang from the gym’s walls.
Matt, the squarest person I have ever come across, chest and shoulders bulging out from underneath his grey hoody, shows us how to tackle them. An ex-soldier who trained as a boxer in the Marines, he has the look of someone you would not ever want to get into a fight with.
As big as he is, he remains incredibly light on his feet, and skips around the apparatus, landing his blows on the punchbags with unexpected grace. “You’re going to find this difficult,” he warns us. Watching him demonstrate, I simply don’t believe him.
My mistake. Landing a blow on the heavy, cylindrical punchbag is not a problem. Doing it at full strength, and for two minutes at a time is. My instinct is to slow down and lighten my punches, but Matt soon appears over my shoulder. “Come on, punch the s**t out of that bag,” he bellows.
This is the first and only expression of the kind of language that you might expect in a boxing club. As much of a hard-man as Matt undoubtedly is, the atmosphere in the gym is far from macho. Two out of the eight in our class are women, as are roughly half of the regulars training around us.
I start attacking the bag with renewed efforts, but the bell rings again and it’s time to move onto another piece of equipment – the floor-to-ceiling bag – seemingly designed with the express purpose of humiliating me. The aim is to hit a round leather ball on an elastic rope suspended between floor and ceiling. Timing my punches is a near impossibility, and I spend the two minute period swinging at air, while the punchbag jerks violently past me.
The bell sounds and the hour-long session is over. I can’t wait to get my gloves off and use my newly freed hands to wipe away the streams of sweat flooding into my eyes. Unwinding the strapping reveals painfully swollen purple knuckles.
I collapse against a wall and gulp down the complimentary orange juice as fast as my lungs, gasping for breath, will allow. I had feared coming home from boxing a bloody, broken mess, but I survived unscathed, suffering only minor bruises to my ego.
Gloves Boxing Club (198a Broadhurst Gardens, NW6 3AY) offers free introductory sessions for beginners, Wednesday evenings from 6.30 – 7.30. If you want to return after your second session, you must become a member. Membership costs £99 per month and includes unlimited use of the gym’s facilities, as well as classes every weekday evening. (glovesboxingclub.com, 0207 624 5850)