Although the popularity of boxing has increased in recent years, there are still many prejudices and stereotypes with the sport. We interviewed Mat García, who has been in the boxing world for a couple of decades to learn about his experience first-hand.
How was your first contact with boxing? I’ve been a boxing fan as long as I can remember. My earliest memories are being mesmerised by Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler in the US or Eubank and Benn in the UK.
Despite being active in my youth, competing nationally in athletics, playing rugby for Saracens Colts, training extensively in Krav Maga, I never considered boxing an option. It just seemed like another level of ability I didn’t think was accessible to me. These guys seemed superhuman to me, with extraordinary levels of skill and durability.
Nevertheless, I was looking for a new discipline, so when a friend suggested we check out our local boxing club, I decided to give it a go. It was too late for any sort of boxing career, I was already in my mid-20s and busy in business, but the thought of training in a real-life boxing club was exciting.
Was it love at first sight or was it growing on you? It was love at first spar. I couldn’t have been in the club for more than 20 minutes, cluelessly hitting away at a heavy bag while imagining myself as a Tyson or Roy Jones Jr, when a younger guy asked me if I wanted to spar. I’d never been in a ring before, let alone spar, but I’d had my share of street fights as a teenager so felt I could handle myself and besides, what an opportunity – sparring in a real boxing ring!
What happened in the first 60 seconds probably changed my life, if not certainly the next 20+ years of it. This ‘kid’ absolutely picked me off. Using footwork, head movement and jabs at different angles and timing that I couldn’t get anywhere near him. It was dazzling and I loved it. It felt like being in the ring with Sugar Ray himself. Of course, I wasn’t. But, compared to me, I may as well have been.
From that moment on, I was addicted. I wanted to learn these skills, even if it would take a lifetime. First in, last out at the club, four or five days a week. I loved every aspect of the training. I was always in awe of boxing skill, so I was like a sponge, learning everything I could and appreciating the technicalities and committing myself to the fitness required.
Did you ever think that you would make a living from it? Never.
What would you say to someone who still thinks that boxing is not a sport and that it is just a violent activity of brute people? There is no denying boxing is violent, and dangerous. I’m a passionate advocate of the incredible benefits of non-contact boxing and why I introduced the Get FIT Not HIT® boxing format in the UK at Total Boxer® in 2012.
However, to say that boxing is not a sport and only practiced by brute people is factually incorrect. Boxing, more than any other discipline, requires the controlled combination of supreme physical, mental, emotional and intellectual fitness while under threat of said violence. This control is essential to out strategise your opponent and visit your own violence upon them.
If you fail at any element you are at real risk of a competitive loss or worse. At the highest levels of the sport, when all these essential ingredients are at their sharpest, it often comes down to the sheer determination and desire of the boxer. Their fortitude and ability to keep on fighting and outwitting their opponent, despite extreme levels of exhaustion.
As The Greatest of them all, Muhammad Ali - a man I don’t think anyone would call ‘a brute’ – famously said of boxers, “They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
You are a seasoned entrepreneur with more than 10 years of experience running a boxing club, have you seen a shift in people's attitude towards the sport? Is boxing trendy? I can’t speak to a difference in attitude to the sport of boxing. I don’t know if boxing itself is more or less watched than before. But without doubt training itself is more popular than ever. Whether it’s ‘trendy’ as in likely to not be in trend, I don’t know about that. I believe it’s here to stay, and for good reasons.
It wasn’t that long ago, if you wanted to experience boxing training, the only options available to you were at two extremes.
You either had to be prepared to train - and most likely spar - at a ‘spit and sawdust’ amateur boxing club, where you’d find focussed and hardworking, but often pretty serious, boxers and coaches.
These were, and remain to this day, places of hard work, and rightly so. Boxing is a tough and dangerous sport that requires skill, fitness and fortitude. As the saying goes, ‘you play football, you don’t play boxing’. Amateur boxing clubs are environments in which those who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way are prepared mentally, physically and emotionally, by expert and experienced amateur boxing coaches who understand the risks involved, and who take the well-being of their boxers extremely seriously. It is no surprising these are serious environments.
If you’re a boxing fan, or have a confident disposition, you might have found this same environment pretty fun and exciting. Especially if you were determined to experience what real boxing training is like.
To most, however, they were places far too intimidating to even consider entering, let alone put gloves on and get in the ring. Boxing training simply wasn’t an option most would consider available to them, even though it was clear you’d get in very good shape while doing it.
The other option was Boxercise. Undeniably the original and most successful boxing fitness training system at the time that to many, and even today, is synonymous when thinking of a generic ‘boxing fitness class’. It was the way to experience boxing-style training and enjoy many of the benefits it can provide in a fun, music-filled, coach-driven fitness environment, without the risk of getting punched in the face.
However, it you wanted to learn real boxing skills, this was not the class for you. Boxercise was heavy on the fun and fitness but light on the skills and technicality of boxing.
I wanted to create an environment where anyone could come and experience the amazing benefits and genuine thrill of real boxing training, in a fun, friendly and positive environment, so in 2012 I established Total Boxer® in North London.
We were one of the very first in the UK to create such a space, maybe even the world. It was a slow start. No one needed convincing of the benefits of boxing training but we had to overcome peoples fears that they didn’t need to spar and our environment was in fact designed to support the complete beginner.
Suffice to say our positive message got out on the club grew year-on-year. By the second year we’d have 20 people on a waiting list and had more than outgrown our original ‘boutique’ venue.
The industry grew around us, yet in the first two or three years people would be telling me that boxing was ‘having its moment’ and would surely fade away. I was convinced boxing training was important and useful training system for everyone and 10 years later we can all see how boxing training has become a lifestyle fitness choice for many around the globe.
Even closer to home many of the coaches I trained in our methodology and systems have gone on to create their own versions, whether dodging the rain coaching in parks or running their own industrial-sized facilities, with partners and have financial backing. All of which point to boxing as a mainstream, permanent, training style for the masses.
Why so many people in the boxing world say that the sport had such an impact (no pun intended) in their lives? What are the benefits of boxing? There are fewer disciplines that deliver so many improvements in health, both mentally and physically, than boxing training. You can either simply work through the wide variety of boxing-centric fitness exercises and improve cardio function and lose weight. Or, you can also learn genuine boxing skills which, like most skills learned correctly, improve over time, providing an enormous sense of well-being, leading to a more confident and positive disposition.
Boxing training is not without its risk of injury though. It’s a rigorous method, where most of the body is subjected to sharp movements and impact to one extent or another, whether from light skipping to heavy bag work. It’s one of the reasons I developed BoxingYoga™ - the world’s first yoga-based training system designed to help anyone training in any of the fighting arts. It’s supports prevention or recovery from injury, as a well as dramatically improving core strength, body power and all over flexibility. Today BoxingYoga™ has certified coaches in more than 25 countries around the world through our comprehensive online coaching course.
One of the mottos of your club is "This is not a leisure center, this is a boxing club". I love it, but what it means to you? Ah thanks! The final bit of that is ‘you gotta fight!’. I’ll often come up with these motivational statements during class as a way to push everyone. What I meant I guess is that we are not a place where you’ll receive spa treatments or get to chill in a hot tub. Ours is a boxing club and you are here for a reason – dig in and lets get to work!
My personal favourite is, “You reap what you throw!”.
You have recently been in the polar region, how was that experience? Incredible. I took on a challenge of sledding with Huskies in the Arctic to raise money for Multiple Sclerosis, a cause close to my heart and important to my family. I was out there for a week in temperatures of -20 degrees and found the whole experience incredibly profound and loved every minute of it. It was a wonderful opportunity to be explore an alien environment and ultimately raise over £7000.
What new projects do you have at the moment I recently completed the online teacher training course for one of our most popular class formats, HIIB® - the original HIIT boxing format – and am currently planning a UK and Europe tour of clubs and venues, so other fans of boxing fitness training can experience it first hand and coaches have the opportunity to learn how to coach it themselves.