Here’s what happened when I made my boxing comeback at 52 – Jim Duffy

Jim Duffy starts training at his local boxing gym, bringing back memories of being a teenage amateur with an ‘okay’ record at Bellahouston boxing club.

Sugar Ray Leonard, facing camera, defeats Marvin Hagler during a bout at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada (Picture: Allsport/Getty)
Sugar Ray Leonard, facing camera, defeats Marvin Hagler during a bout at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada (Picture: Allsport/Getty)

Jab. Double Jab. Left right left. Jab, uppercut, left hook. I recall my amateur boxing coach shout these commands in my left ear as he schooled me on a heavy punch bag.

I was only 17 years old and had just started training at Bellahouston amateur boxing club. Two nights every week and a Sunday morning saw me skipping, shadow boxing, hitting the big bag, sparring and finishing with a circuit. It was an intense 90 minutes of cardio and endurance. I’m convinced it set me up for life, building great resilience into my heart muscles. But, at 52 years of age, could I do it again?

There is something about boxing training that remains with you for life. My trainer, Billy Ward, who has since passed away, always told me I had very fast hands. In short, this meant I could put boxing combinations together with lightning speed. And I could.

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But, the issue was not my speed. The issue was I absolutely hated being hit as we sparred and was a bit of a scaredy-cat when it came to actual boxing matches, albeit my amateur record was okay. But, today as I pretend to be 17 again, I still have fairly fast hands. So, what good would these be as I made the decision to come out of retirement and lose a few pounds?

A not unpleasant smell

As I entered my new local boxing club, I was excited, but apprehensive. It felt like going to secondary school again on my first day there. I knew I could cope with maths, English and science, but there was always that niggling doubt.

I walked down the steps from the pavement to the basement where this gym was located. I could hear the pounding of leather bags. This was punctuated by a speedball being worked on by someone who obviously knew what to do. Speedballs ain’t easy to get right. And of course as I got nearer, I could smell the gym. Not an unpleasant smell, but one of sweat, leather and men. Time to man up and enter the arena.

Boxing gyms are the same the world over. There is an overwhelming sense of camaraderie mixed with that individual pugilist standing on his own ready to make his mark. Big red-and-black punch bags hang from the ceilings via iron hooks that strain at the weight. There is a skipping area where folks compete to be the quickest or the fanciest. The best I ever saw was Sugar Ray Leonard.

It’s a great place to burn off calories. There is a circuit area with mats, light weights and kettle bells where strength is built. Alongside this there are speedballs and irregular punch bags designed to develop eye-hand coordination. And of course there is a sparring area or boxing ring, where it all comes to fruition. So, on entering my new gym, I was not surprised at all. Well just a little.

I ducked and weaved

When I trained at Bellahouston, the gym was 100 per cent male. But, as I gazed around my new gym, it was 50:50 male to female. Times have changed for the better and it made me feel a bit more relaxed, while even more nervous at the thought of looking like a divvy as I tried to keep up.

A few eyes looked my way, wondering what the old guy with the grey beard was doing. The guys and gals there obviously felt no threat as I looked way past my best and just like that older guy in every gym around the world who’s trying to relive his youth. Time to work up a sweat.

I had looked around as I entered the gym and picked out a punch bag that was not in the middle of the gym. It was what one might refer to as the weirdos’ bag, the loner boxer bag. Yes, that was me and that bag was mine.

Mind you, as I squared up to it, I could feel a few eyes on me. With my old coach shouting out his commands in my head, I started my comeback. Slowly I began to jab and move around the bag. Not as sprightly as 35 years ago as my Achilles’ tendons and knees don’t work so well.

Before I knew it, I was putting together combinations as I ducked and weaved – gently – around my new found plaything. As I said, it never leaves you.

Next up was some shadow-boxing. The skipping was not for me as, at this age, it just jars one’s back. As I bobbed away, throwing punches at imaginary opponents I could see a few glances at me in the mirror.

They knew I had boxed before – I could tell. Probably a wee bit of acceptance. Nice.

Punches making square contact

But, as I ran out of steam after about 45 minutes in total in the gym, my attention became focused on what’s was going in in the ring.

No imaginary opponents here. Just big lads – middleweights I guessed – throwing some heavy leather. Punches were flying and a few making square contact. Ouch. And it was at this point that I remembered why my amateur boxing career was short-lived.

Hitting a bag or shadow boxing to get fit is all fine and good. But, making it real with another human being, ready to defend himself while attacking you with right-hand crosses, is another matter.

There and then the fear kicked in, just as it did when I was 17. Blows were exchanged as each jabbed at the head and fired hooks to the body.

I’m so glad I am now an old man who doesn’t have to jump into that ring.

My comeback was a success. I’ll be back to my new gym once a week. But, only this time a lot happier that I don’t have to wear a gum shield and a headguard.