October got off to a great start with the completion of another challenge. Officially, task no.2 was to “train with a professional boxer”, but unfortunately my friend Imran Naeem, who coaches the highly-rated unbeaten welterweight prospect Josh Leather decided to change “train” to “spar”!
Even though I didn’t know what Imran had in mind, I was already slightly apprehensive when I arrived at Natural Progression Boxing Academy in Stockton-on-Tees. Imran was putting a very impressive group of youngsters through their paces and, not for the first time during these challenges, I felt every single one of my fifty years.
Josh arrived, taped up his hands (I couldn’t possibly tell you what he uses for padding) and started to warm up for his “proper” training session, whilst Imran laced up my gloves, before taking the pads and giving me my first ever boxing lesson. Despite being slow of movement, with the weakest right hand jab in history, the old “Kirby left” managed to connect a couple of times; but after about five minutes Imran’s declaration that I was “ready” was the very definition of misplaced confidence!
There were two main reasons why the original task was simply based around training. Firstly I would never have insulted a professional athlete (or the other youngsters at the gym for that matter) by suggesting that a total novice like me could – or should – climb into a boxing ring. Secondly (and probably more importantly if the truth be told) I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of getting hurt!
That said, there was no way I was going to back out: I was fitted with a headguard and clambered rather clumsily into the ring (which was smaller than I imagined, and didn’t seem to have an emergency exit).
Was I nervous? You bet I was. I was in a boxing ring with one of the best young fighters of his weight in the country... about to attempt to spar for three one-minute rounds. And much as I realised Josh wasn’t going unleash his hardest shots, he wasn’t going to simply move around the ring and let me try and hit him either. I wasn’t wearing a gumshield, so at least I knew he wouldn’t punch me in the mouth.
Towards the end of the first minute, I attempted a pretty feeble combination, and the next thing I knew my upper lip was stinging and Imran was laughing. I thought my gloves were up... evidently they weren’t, and I honestly never saw the punch coming. I got tagged a few more times over the next couple of minutes, a second one in the mouth, one in the right eye and another to the side of the head... I quickly realised I needed to watch for Josh’s right hand... so I did... but it didn’t make any difference!
I dread to think how hard Josh can actually punch, but his hand speed is incredible. His sixth professional fight is scheduled for the end of November and judging by his training regime, he’ll be in fantastic shape when that opening bell rings. For me however, retirement is the only option!
I know I was rubbish, but that doesn’t matter. Not taking on this challenge would have been a whole lot easier than actually going through with it... and I’m actually quite proud of myself for having a go. So, with just five of my forty tasks remaining, I will close by offering my thanks to Imran - and also to Josh, not only for letting me keep all my teeth, but also for giving me an experience on which I fully intend to dine out when he hits the big time!