Boxing clever

It is the ultimate sporting merger of brain and brawn. Simon Lewis investigates the strange new world of Chessboxing.

WHY didn’t Don King think of this before? It could be the answer to the lacklustre heavyweight division’s prayers and surely the only way to get former world champion Lennox Lewis to end his self-imposed exile from boxing and get back in the ring.

All the legendary fight promoter has to do is put a chess board in the ring and wait for the champ to come running out of retirement. Even before Lewis quit the fight game at the top of his profession, the boxer had gained a reputation as a cerebral fighter and was a well-known devotee of chess.

So enamoured was Lewis with kingside as well as ringside attacks that his trainer Emanuel Steward used to complain about his affinity for the game, and particularly for playing it just before bouts.

“I honestly don’t like him playing chess,” Steward grumbled in 2001. “I mean I see him sitting there for 10 minutes thinking four moves ahead before he makes one. And he actually does the same thing in the ring — he thinks too much.”

Iepe Rubingh would empathise with Lewis and the retired boxer would no doubt approve of the Dutchman’s creativity in finding a way to combine chess with boxing and stage them as an integrated contest.

Rubingh is the founder and leading light in the World Chessboxing Organisation, which has just staged its first European championships and is looking to stage its first fights in the boxing mecca of New York City early next year.

And having Lewis on board would be a dream come true for the chessboxing guru, especially if he could get him together with the punching professor himself, the also-retired Vitali Klitschko.

Vitali and his brother Wladimir, the current WBO heavyweight champion, are also big chess fans, with the older Vitali having even taken on Garry Kasparov in an exhibition match and pulled off a draw against world chess champion Vladimir Kramnik.

Lewis is once rumoured to have challenged Vitali to a chess match followed by a boxing match, thereby possibly beating chessboxing inventor Rubingh to the first punch.

It never happened but it remains the WCBO chief’s main mission in life to match the two former champions in the ultimate chessboxing encounter.

“I’d love to get them together,” says Rubingh, whose nickname is the ‘Joker’.

“What do you think they want — $30 million?”

Whatever the figure, it is beyond the Joker’s means presently. For now, Rubingh has to build his sport from the bottom up.

Despite Steward’s protests, the parallels between chess and boxing are fairly transparent. Both require the forward planning that the legendary Kronk trainer so disparaged. Both are strategic, tactical encounters requiring mental agility and the ability to deliver the knockout blow.

In fact, it really is amazing Don King never thought of it.

Rubingh did, though, and for chessboxing he came up with a contest in which opponents battle over six four-minute rounds of chess alternating with five two-minute rounds of boxing. Victory can come in both disciplines, via checkmate or a knockout, or if the contest goes the distance by the boxing referee’s decision or if a chess player oversteps his 12-minute time allotment at the board.

The WCBO’s motto reads: “Fighting is done in the ring and wars are waged on the board”, and it makes for a strange viewing experience as sweating fighters end their rounds and wait for the chess board to enter the ring before sitting down to rejoin battle with rook rather than hook.

After the noise and aggression of boxing, a strange hush falls on a chessboxing arena as the brawny athletes go brain to brain with the tiny, indistinguishable chess pieces before the loud music returns, officials remove the board and the fighting begins again.

“Chessboxing makes you fit for life,” Berlin-based Rubingh, 32, said. “It polishes you.”

In Cologne, he brought together Zoran Mijatovic and Frank Stoldt for the European championship of chessboxing.

The Joker watched them work out in a boxing gym before doing some chess-sparring with his fighters just outside the ropes. Mijatovic, a 28-year-old shipyard worker from Croatia, is a devoted trainer.

“No drinking, no women,” he said between heavy breaths.

“It’s very, very difficult. When I finish, I will be very happy. I need some beautiful experience.”

The chances of that happening are a lot slimmer than Mijatovic’s waistline, however. The Croatian has not boxed seriously for more than a decade and the gym’s trainer is blunt in his assessment: “He has a powerful punch and that’s it.”

Mijatovic accentuates the positive and the thought of facing Stoldt, a Berlin riot police chief, does not concern him outwardly in the slightest.

“I am so strong in all of my punches,” Mijatovic said. “I, myself, am scared of my right hand. I am more afraid of the ring girls than Frank.”

The sentiments are a far cry from the apocalyptic vision which inspired Rubingh. The Joker got his idea for chessboxing from a Serbian graphic novel, set in 2034, in which the world is a very dark and violent place.

The direct influence comes from a section of the comic in which two men box on a giant chessboard floor, with the match ending when one of them knocks out the other with his queen.

Rubingh’s take has slightly more altruistic ambitions. He sees chessboxing as a means to produce the complete man, an ideal combination of grandmaster and professional boxer rather than geek and thug.

“Chessboxing could even solve the problem in the Middle East,” Rubingh added. “I want to hold a chessboxing match between an Israeli and a Palestinian, and the winner will get to decide what happens to Israel.”

The hyperbole may be King-like but Rubingh goes further with his promotional zeal. He actually fought as well as staged the first World Championship of Chessboxing in Amsterdam in 2003 and won the title, defeating the not very renowned Luis the Lawyer.

He then staged an exhibition in Tokyo, taking on Yoichiro the Wicked, but by the time he staged the first European chessboxing championship in Berlin last September the Joker’s work had moved on and he stood aside to let a German take on a Bulgarian.

The WCBO now operates the world’s first all-chessboxing gym in Berlin, and has more than 40 members, including the 36-year-old riot cop Stoldt.

More Judge Dredd than Serbian comic book hero, Stoldt has all the credentials for chessboxing success. A long-time chess player he is also a former kickboxing champion. Oh yes, and a riot police commander.

“Very straight, very sober, that’s my style,” Stoldt said. “I am a policeman and I stand for right. I believe in a divine plan and divine order. I plan on winning this fight, and I will let the cosmic order take care of the rest.”

It is enough to wipe a smile off the Joker.

When Stoldt and Mijatovic meet in the ring, it is clear that the cop is a man of his word.

After an even first round of chess in which the combatants muddy the waters further by wearing headphones to screen out all distractions and coaching, they reach stalemate in the first exchange of fists that follows. Some thrusting moves back on the chessboard come from each man but are cancelled out before Stoldt takes control in the fourth, the second round of boxing.

The German punishes Mijatovic with a long, stiff right and the blow perhaps epitomises where chessboxing could come into its own. Because when the two return to the board for their third round of chess, Stoldt is far more composed than his opponent and quickly follows up his boxing advantage after the gloves are slipped off and play resumes in the chess.

By the end of this encounter, Mijatovic is reeling mentally as well as physically as Stoldt rises just a few moves away from checkmate.

Again this carries over into the next phase, with Stoldt boxing within himself and leaving nothing to chance while Mijatovic attempts to punch his way back into contention.

The ploy backfires, though, as the Croatian’s energy is sapped by the policeman’s superior fitness, defensive work and resolve.

It is a giddying combination for Mijatovic whose own resolve crumbles during the fourth round of chess. Already on the verge of checkmate, he knocks over his king, conceding the match.

“One mistake in chess, and it’s over,” Stoldt said in the aftermath, quickly returning to his “I am the law” script as Mijatovic unwittingly assumes the role of vanquished and outwitted criminal.

Asked why he folded so quickly in the chess when holding out could have bought him more time in the ring, he fired back: “You really think I could have won in the boxing? Me, no.”

For Rubingh, though, the event has been an unqualified success and bodes well for his plans to take chessboxing to a higher level.

He already has 15 applicants for his US debut, having contacted boxing gyms in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, and he is confident the American people will submit to the charms of this strange hybrid.

“I don’t like having borders between things,” he says of his concept.

“People are too focused on classifying sport in only one way. Life is much broader than that.”

Messrs Lewis and Klitschko, having comfortably swapped the fight game in pursuit of wider interests, would no doubt heartily endorse the sentiment.

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