As Olympian Michael Carruth prepares to fight for charity, Deirdre Reynolds looks at the growing appeal of boxing
Right-hooked on boxing? Now’s your chance to go toe-to-toe with an Olympic gold medalist.
More than a quarter of a century after making history at the Summer Games in Barcelona, boxing legend Michael Carruth is set to step back into the ring for charity next month.
Together with silver medalist Kenny Egan and bronze medalist Paddy Barnes, the Dubliner is preparing for Michael Carruth’s Help Us Fight CF Challenge, inviting fans to donate €50 for the chance to spar with one of their heroes for one minute.
Chatting to Feelgood ahead of the second annual event taking place at the National Stadium on June 28, Michael said it’s further proof of just how mainstream the once marginalised sport has become in Ireland.
“Last year, it was just me on my own,” says the sports star, who famously secured Ireland’s first Olympic gold medal for boxing in Barcelona in 1992. “Now there’s three of us, so I’ve got backup. I’m hoping that they don’t all pick on the gold again.
“Last year we had everything from 18-year-olds up to about 50-year-olds. Some of them did try to get in and mill you, but in general, it was a good bit of craic.
“As a boxer, you know who you can, I’m not saying go in and try bash, but you know how to handle yourself and you know, ‘OK, this fella is going to give me a little bit of a go here’.
“There’s fitness, and there’s boxing fitness, and that might sound daft to you,” adds Michael, who’s an ambassador for Cystic Fibrosis Ireland.
“Even this conversation we are having now, we’ve had to breathe all the way through this conversation, and we just take it so much for granted that we’re lucky in our health.”
With more than 360 clubs currently affiliated to the Irish Athletic Boxing Association throughout the island of Ireland, there’s sure to be no shortage of contenders lining up to channel their inner Muhammad Ali.
Given a study published in medical journal The Lancet projected Ireland will become the most obese country in Europe by 2025, that’s no bad thing.
Sports scientist Dr Martin O’Reilly points out that, at 800 an hour, boxing burns more calories than any other sport.
“As a sport, it’s a very good holistic workout, [offering] very strong high-intensity cardiovascular exercise, in addition to building up really good muscular endurance,” says the lecturer in health and performance science at UCD.
“Coordination would be the other huge thing that it builds up for people.
“Certainly a high-intensity bag workout or pads workout over the course of an hour would be a lot higher-intensity than the average cardiovascular exercise. It would be kind of the equivalent of high-intensity interval training, which is certainly very high-calorie burning.
The main thing is about ensuring that it’s done at a progression that doesn’t put you at risk of injury, he says.
“In particular, with regard to sparring, you’d want to ensure you join a club that teaches you the fundamental movements and fundamental punches and gets you to a decent base level of fitness before you start engaging in sparring.”
It’s important at all times to be aware of the risk of concussion. “But if you go through with a club that doesn’t get you sparring until you’re ready to, and they ensure you wear the appropriate safety gear, it tends to not be an issue,” says O’Reilly.
“Irish boxing in particular is very professional.”
Far from its bare-knuckle roots, in fact, many of today’s boxing fanatics are choosing an opponent that doesn’t punch back, with non-contact boxfit or boxercise classes.
At Beat Box in Dublin, where drubbing meets clubbing, founder James Murphy said he’s witnessed first-hand “the Katie Taylor effect” since the Bray woman won Olympic gold in 2012, before turning pro and becoming lightweight champion of the world.
Priced €17 per class or €99 for one month’s unlimited classes, the latest twist on the boxfit trend is proving especially popular with professional women in their 20s and 30s here.
“I tried doing a boxing class about four years ago and it was very hard to sell,” recalls the fitness instructor, who practises K-1 kickboxing away from work.
“Women especially didn’t want to do boxing because they didn’t want to get hurt, or they didn’t want to hurt their hands, whereas now, because it’s so mainstream, people have no problem booking in to try it out.
“Pretty much I would say the catalyst would be the likes of Conor McGregor or Katie Taylor, who made that kind of sport mainstream in Ireland, and then it just kicked off from there.”
Murphy divides his boxing classes into two, punching bags on one side, weights and dumbbells on the other.
“Half the people are doing boxing on a boxing bag and half are doing a HIIT [High-Intensity Interval Training]-style workout. It’s a really dark room lit by LEDs and strobe lights and all the workouts — [which] change every 45 seconds - are projected onto the wall.
Offering a literal emotional punching bag, Angie Butler, who teaches boxfit at Esker Amateur Boxing Club in Lucan, reveals how the mental health benefits of the activity can pack just as much of a punch.
“I would be more involved with the 30s/40s age group, both men and women, and they just love it,” she says.
“Aside from physically being good for them, mentally they find the stress relief of belting a bag or being paired up with somebody on a set of pads brilliant.
“There’s nothing like the stress release they get from that.
“From the point of view of general fitness for all age groups, you’re working every muscle [in] every part of your body. It’s one of the sports where you really, really do have to put in the effort in training — you step into that ring and it’s only you.”
In the run-up to Tokyo 2020, however, the ubiquitousness of boxing goes well beyond the ring. Most recently, it got the big screen treatment in Float Like a Butterfly, the story of a teenage girl from the Travelling community who dreams of emulating The Greatest.
Even the latest Irish Life Health billboard campaign features a young girl proudly sporting a red boxing glove, although parents might be slightly disconcerted to see her other arm in a cast.
Mum-of-four-girls Angie Butler from Leixlip had no such qualms when her daughter, Amy, followed in the footsteps of world champion Kellie Harrington aged just 10.
Six years on, the teenager is one of around 400 girls from around the world poised to take part in the Esker All Female BoxCup 2019 taking place from October 11 -13 at the Christian Brothers Sports Hall in Lucan.
“People forget that boxing is a sport where it’s your job to defend yourself,” says Angie. “If she can manage to lash out and land a hit, yes, she’s going to score the points to win that fight, but ultimately she has to protect herself in the ring.
Back at Drimnagh Boxing Club, celebrity southpaw Michael predicted the sport is only going to get bigger and bigger in coming years.
“Boxing is one of those sports you have to choose it yourself,” says the coach. “It can’t be chosen for you.”
He’s hopeful about the future of Irish boxing. “I know we didn’t medal at the last Olympics, but we will fix that next time round, and I firmly believe [after] Tokyo we are going to come back with medals again, and put ourselves back where we belong on the podium.”
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