Only when his jab connects with my left cheek do I start to understand boxing. Until that moment it has been like a dream: wrapping my fists in tape, donning huge red gloves, ducking under the ropes and facing my opponent across the ring. I’ve boxed only once before. And yet here I am aiming punches at the Olympic middleweight champion James DeGale, who since turning professional last year has won seven fights and lost none. Everything I throw at him, he blocks with ease. I keep trying, following his instructions to twist my hand when I jab, bend the knee for the uppercut and punch straighter. And then he hits me. I’m shocked, affronted even, before a smile spreads across my face. “You got me!” I blurt out stupidly, elated to find I’ve passed into the fraternity of the punched. But today isn’t just about what Frank Bruno once described as “show business with blood”. I am here to try a new sport that demands brains as well as brawn – chessboxing. As the name suggests, this improbable hybrid alternates rounds of speed chess and boxing until there’s a knockout, checkmate or someone runs out of time. DeGale – nicknamed Chunky – is here to inject a bit of boxing finesse and give his opinion on how the two disciplines match up. With us are members of the London Chessboxing Club, founded last year by Tim Woolgar, a TV game show producer for Endemol. The impeccably post-modern concept was devised in the early 1990s by a French cartoonist before being modified and marketed by the Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh, who now runs the World Chess Boxing Organisation in Berlin. It was there that Woolgar saw his first match and became hooked. “I asked the organisers where I could do it in London. They said ‘Nowhere – go and start a club’. Fat chance, I thought.” But he couldn’t let go of the idea and today is British Heavyweight Chessboxing Champion. His club, supported by Islington Council and Deutsche Bank, also has a youth work arm which runs chessboxing sessions for teenagers on the tough housing estate of Ring Cross. The adult club meets at 10am every Saturday in the charmingly gritty Islington Boxing Club. Numbers are still small but Woolgar is unperturbed. They’ve had sellout shows and he senses interest growing beyond the hardcore of chess geeks and white collar boxers who make up the sport’s natural audience. “It always starts off small,” he says. “Look at triathlon. The concept of combining disciplines is well established. Who’d have thought mixing skiing and target shooting would work?” Chess is taxing enough in a quiet room with full concentration but when you’re out of breath with sweat dripping on to the board and a clock counting down beside you it becomes “neural hijacking”, in the words of the club’s chess master Rajko Vujatovic. You move your pawns. Then get the knights and bishops out. Now what? The clock starts running down. And as the rounds progress, with my opponent and me repeatedly in check, I realise I’ve only six seconds left. Another two moves and I’m out of time. Game over. Vujatovic, who works as a model risk auditor at Deutsche Bank, says the sport works because chess and boxing are essentially about the same thing. “Nobody can conceive that chess players are like boxers. But chess and boxing are two disciplines that can be ended by a knockout blow – checkmate or a physical knockout. And there’s dynamic tension. If someone is behind on the chess, he knows he’s got to go for a knockout on the boxing and vice versa.” Up close there’s little to beat boxing as a spectacle. When DeGale starts sparring with Jim McDonnell, his small, wily trainer, the whole gym stops to admire the grace and controlled aggression. “I’ve never heard that sound in this gym before,” marvels Matt “Crazy Arms” Read of the rattatattatt of fist on sparring pad. When it’s over we move to the chessboard to watch Vujatovic take on Woolgar. The pieces are slammed down, both players punching the clock, Vujatovic making a move a second, Woolgar perhaps every three or four. With 19 seconds gone Vujatovic has already got his opponent in check. Woolgar hangs in there but the pieces keep falling around him. In less than a minute the chess master cries “checkmate” and it’s all over, like a brutal Mike Tyson mugging in round one. DeGale has been watching closely, by turns bewildered, fascinated and amused. Has the sport got any chance? “It’s a bit of a nuts one,” he says grinning. “But yeah. It’s similar to boxing – it makes your mind think quick.” He shakes his head remembering Vujatovic’s blitzkrieg display. “The speed of the geezer … I don’t know who he was … but he was very, very good! I couldn’t get the hang of it. I need a couple more sessions.”

This piece appeared in the FT magazine on September 18 2010

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