Stepping into a boxing ring for the first time can feel really scary. Especially when your sparring partner is chef Michael Solomonov, who somehow managed to become a pretty good boxer between all those evenings spent perfecting hummus at Zahav.
"Give me your hardest jab," he said to me as we circled each other in the boxing ring at Joe Hand Boxing Gym.
I aimed for his right glove with my left hand, landing a jab with a respectably loud thwack. Solomonov didn't even blink. Hey, I'm no Michael B. Jordan, but everyone has to start somewhere, right?
Most of us associate boxing rings with muscled men punching each other in the face repeatedly until one is knocked out under the obnoxious glare of stage lights. But the truth is that boxing is frequently championed as a highly effective full-body workout, once you move past the mentality that it's only for testosterone-fueled men. It burns calories quickly as both a strength and cardio workout, sculpts pretty much every muscle, and improves balance and hand-eye coordination.
So I decided that if I could learn how to box, as someone who weighs 110 pounds soaking wet, anyone can.
Philadelphia has a wealth of boxing gyms, not surprising given that the city has given rise to some of the greatest boxers in the world, including Joe Frazier and Jeff Chandler. And even if you don't follow boxing, Rocky is practically an ambassador for the city. You may have heard that Sylvester Stallone has been hanging around Philly — even stopping by the Rocky statue at the Philadelphia Museum of Art — while filming the spinoff Creed II. Boxing is so embedded in Philadelphia culture, I saw a link between the underdog reputation Philadelphians embrace and the "never give up" mentality of the sport. I thought I could gain insight into the city through boxing.
I visited two gyms for lessons — Joe Hand Boxing Gym in Northern Liberties, which has been open for more than 23 years, training everyone from young kids in need of an after-school activity to amateur boxers, and Fuel Cycle Fitness in Ardmore, which is trying to make boxing more accessible as an everyday workout.
On a recent Monday morning, I strolled into Joe Hand with trepidation. The gym immediately overwhelmed me with its two rings and wealth of boxing equipment. It was also mostly empty, except for two teenage girls working out with trainer Maleek Jackson, who has trained with some of the city's most famous figures, including Solomonov, Meek Mill, and Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters.
I was relieved when Jackson told me to start off with a jump-rope workout, something I actually knew how to do. After I had warmed up sufficiently, he showed me how to wrap my hands — hand wraps keep your wrists straight in the gloves, preventing them from being injured upon impact — and we got to work.
Jackson taught me how to throw basic combinations with jabs and hooks. "Keep your dominant foot in front," he reminded me more than once. "If you're ever off balance, your opponent can easily knock you out with one punch."
Boxing demands great discipline. I had taken self-defense classes before, so I knew how to throw unpolished versions of the punches Jackson taught. But in boxing, you have to constantly move your feet, stay balanced, and protect your face all at the same time. After throwing a jab or a hook, boxers also retract their arms quickly, keeping their elbows tucked next to their hips. Between rounds of sparring, Jackson had Solomonov and me do other exercises, like planks, wall sits, and toe touches.
Though Joe Hand is a gym where most people work individually with trainers, sometimes in order to compete in the ring, I knew there were other gyms that incorporate boxing techniques into workout classes. So a few days later, I joined a group boxing class at Fuel Cycle, a boxing and cycling studio owned by Jen and Jeff Crompton. Whereas Joe Hand has the distinct feeling of an old-school Philly boxing gym with its exposed brick walls and fluorescent lighting, Fuel resembles an airy Pilates studio that's been outfitted with boxing gear.
Though there was no ring, Fuel had everything else needed for a complete boxing workout, including heavy bags and speed bags. About nine other people attended the class, mostly women who had never boxed competitively. They were simply looking to work out in a fun, empowering way without feeling judged about not knowing how to throw a perfect left hook.
"Boxing is a pretty aggressive sport, so walking into a gym and not knowing anything can be really intimidating for most people," Jeff Crompton said. "It can be a hostile environment, so we wanted to create a space where people could feel comfortable trying something new."
During the class, the participants split into pairs and rotated through various stations for two- or three-minute sessions for drills. The drills included heavy bag work, learning new combinations with Crompton, working the speed bags, and honing uppercut punches and footwork. This time, I didn't wind up sparring with any of my fellow classmates. Not all the drills involved punching, and both trainers kept a close eye on the newbies to make sure they felt comfortable doing the exercises.
Even if you don't plan on stepping into a boxing ring anytime soon, you'll get a full-body workout at Fuel Cycle. The studio keeps face towels, much appreciated after the workout because I don't think I ever stopped moving during the class.
For those who want to learn how to box as a sport, Joe Hand is perfect. You can feel out what it's like to be in a ring and work at your own pace with a personal trainer alongside experienced boxers. But for those who just want an accessible yet intense workout without the intimidation factor of stepping into a grimy gym and spending money on a trainer to learn the moves, Fuel is your place. I certainly felt the effects of the workout the next day, but I also had fun beating up a heavy bag while Cardi B blasted from the speakers.
"The No. 1 thing I see from my work is that boxing builds confidence," Jen Crompton said. "You can immediately see people go from being a little bit uneasy to having the confidence to throw punches. That's what keeps people coming back."