For three minutes, the world shrank to the face of former World Boxing Council super-lightweight champion Lonnie Smith and a single thought: Don't hit like a girl. Just beyond the reach of my tan boxing gloves, Smith's voice urged: "Harder. Work harder." It was jab, jab, right hook, duck, then spring up and throw my body into a last right hook. When the bell rang to end one round, I folded from exhaustion. The fight had really been a one-sided match against two large pads Smith held up while I flailed away. But I felt euphoric. And I did not even like the Rocky movies.
Tired of leg lifts and endless stair climbing to nowhere, more exercise buffs are experiencing their own version of my little drama. Boxing for fitness may be the hottest thing to hit the gym since step aerobics. "It helps people work out frustrations, and it burns more calories than other workouts," says Lesley Howes, owner of Manhattan's Crosby Street Studio.
Some enthusiasts like boxing's aggressive, competitive edge, and they have created a market for executive gyms, such as Wall Street Boxing Fitness in Manhattan, and for modified classes at traditional boxer hangouts, such as Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn. Others also feel a new sense of power. Bodies In Motion in Los Angeles claims 1,600 women and 900 men in its Executive Boxing program. Generally, single workouts range from $12 to $20, while club memberships run $40 to $75 a month. Gyms will provide hand wraps and gloves, or you can buy your own for $50 to $100.
Some boxing workouts are essentially aerobics sessions that incorporate shadow-boxing moves, as shown in exercise maven Kathy Smith's soon-to-be-released Aerobox Workout video ($19.95, A-Vision Entertainment). But the recent growth has been in workouts that resemble the conditioning routine of a boxer, la former champion Sugar Ray Leonard's new video, Boxout ($19.95, Polygram).
PAD WORK. A typical session might include a warm-up and stretch, instruction in basic techniques, and 12 three-minute rounds of shadow-boxing, jump rope, heavy-bag punching, weights, and speed-bag work. Last comes a half-hour of calisthenics and a cool-down. Many classes involve the "pad work" that got me so charged up, and some allow controlled sparring with an instructor. But some gyms consider one-on-one punching too dangerous for novices.
In the end, you may not be ready to take on Riddick Bowe. But you're likely to be tired--boxing workouts burn about 900 calories in 90 minutes, vs. 450 for aerobics--and smiling. After my bout, I left humming the theme from Rocky in spite of myself.