Joe Calzaghe, Gennady Golovkin, Carl Froch and myself have something in common: we have all stepped between the ropes into a boxing ring and, over the top of our gloves, faced down a former middleweight champion of the world.
That is the situation I found myself in last week in the East End of London — fists raised, toes bouncing and former IBF title-holder Darren Barker, 35, marching towards me.
Yes, Barker was holding pads up and yelling at me to hit them. Yes, he may well have been strenuously stifling a giggle at my frankfurter arms’ flailing attempts to generate any semblance of force.
Still, here I was sharing a ring with a former world champion and 2002 Commonwealth Games gold medallist — people have fought Floyd Mayweather with as much experience.
Instead of the sweaty, spit-and-sawdust gyms more commonly associated with boxing in east London, I met Darren at 12x3, his new state-of-the-art boxing gym in Aldgate.
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Just as trendy restaurants in the capital have traded on serving a small repertoire of dishes better than anyone else — think Burger & Lobster, Duck & Waffle, Sticks 'n' Sushi — so too has a flourishing fitness industry embraced niche gyms that specialise in a single sport.
Alongside yoga clubs and spinning centres have emerged boutique boxing gyms such as the plush BXR in Marylebone — a venture backed by heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua — and Barker’s 12x3.
The former prizefighter and co-founder Ryan Pickard, himself a former amateur England captain, are graduates of the world champion assembly line a mile down the road in Bethnal Green otherwise known as Repton Boxing Club.
Repton’s motto is “Non Viscara, Non Gloria” and the inspiration of Barker’s old stomping ground on 12x3 is demonstrated by a huge imprint of the slogan’s English translation that dominates one of the new gym’s walls: “No Guts, No Glory”.
When, sweat-drenched, I face off against Barker for pad work halfway through the club’s signature 47-minute workout, I get a pretty good sense.
After all, while the decor and interior designed by New York brand agency Studio Xoo is an unmistakable nod to classic boxing ephemera, its Swedish ladders, white tiles, stripped-bare walls and sleek steel lockers are in keeping with a voguish simplicity replicated in many of the shiny haunts that surround it in the City.
Yet don’t be fooled into thinking the swish surrounds equate to an easy ride.
The workout menu is fashionably bare too. Choose from either a group five-on-one session for £25-a-head or a one-on-one session for £75 with one of the gym’s illustrious array of coaches. Barker and Pickard are joined by former British and Commonwealth super-featherweight champion Kevin Mitchell, England international Lisa Moore and others.
“Elite-level coaching for all comers, ” is how Barker sums up the concept to City A.M. “It has got that Shoreditch House feel to it, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like we’re pretending. We’re real and this is a real boxing gym.”
Inside 47 minutes — 12 three minute rounds with a minute’s rest in between — I’m put through an array of classic boxing routines: skipping, shadow boxing, pad work, bag work and a circuit of burpees, press-ups, jump squats and sit-ups.
“When I retired from boxing I knew I wanted to stay involved with the sport but I had a real passion for teaching people who were curious about boxing, those who wanted to try it or those who were already passionate about the sport,” Barker tells me while I catch my breath.
“The training methods are old school, traditional boxing sessions that we used to have at Repton.
“We have a real mixture of people coming here to train: students, doctors, middle aged women, City workers and white-collar fighters. It’s 60 per cent women down here. I think for many of them to step in a boxing gym for the first time is a very daunting thing – anyone’s going to be nervous – but they come out of it proud of themselves, confident.”
Barker has plans to open a second gym in London later this year while the iron is hot — a confluence of increasing mainstream interest in boxing and a booming fitness industry that has opened up a demand for high-end coaching when supply is lacking.
“British boxing is absolutely flying, we’ve got Anthony Joshua flying the flag across the world as heavyweight champion,” says Barker.
“Boxing is right at the forefront of the fitness industry. Boxercise has been a big thing. I’m all for it if it’s putting the sport at the forefront of the industry but I saw there was a gap in the market — I hate using that phrase because I saw it is a passion more than business — for a place to teach the masses how to box correctly.”