As the country approaches step 2 of its ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown, an important landmark for fitness and boxing enthusiasts arrived with the official re-opening of gyms two days ago.
It’s a date that two-time Lonsdale Belt winner Clinton McKenzie admits he had been relishing and looking forward to since he was – once again – forced to put up the shutters at McKenzie’s Boxing Fitness – his gym facility at Champion Hill stadium in Dulwich, southeast London – when the UK entered its third Covid-19 enforced lockdown in January.
“I’m very excited about getting back in the gym – not only for my own peace of mind but also for all those people who’ve gone so long without the chance to do any real exercise at the gym,” the 65-year-old former British and European super-lightweight champion tells Boxing Social. “I’m desperate to get back and I know everyone else is too. After the year everyone has had, getting people active and fit again is essential.”
McKenzie’s upbeat tone is typical of a man who once explained to me how he sees the peaks and troughs of a boxing match as a metaphor for life. “The determination to survive until the end – that’s what boxing’s about and that’s life as well,” he told me a few years back. “You get rough times and sometimes you want to give up, but you have to go on until you get where you want to get.”
Such words are particularly apt when it comes to considering the effect that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the mental and physical well-being of so many people over the last year or so.
“I think a lot of anxiety has built up for a lot of us,” McKenzie says. “That’s not good for people mentally or physically. Everyone needs to keep their minds and bodies occupied.”
The battle surrounding mental health issues is one that McKenzie and his family know only too well. Clinton’s 42-year-old son Leon made his mark as a professional sportsman in both football and boxing, but at the same time had to overcome a well-publicised battle with depression.
Leon has now established an organisation named Mind Reposition, which seeks to raise awareness and broaden understanding of mental health issues.
“He’s a very discerning young man,” McKenzie says of Leon, who is one of his six children. “I’m very proud of him, he’s been to some dark places but he’s come out of it. Definitely boxing helped him focus and find himself again. It has been a big help for him in that sense.
“Now he teaches people, tells them about his anxiety and his feelings. He feels he can help a lot of people by doing that. He’s always had that fighting spirit, I think that’s why he did so well in football. He’s a very determined young man.”
For Clinton, exercise and involvement in boxing has always been key to keeping himself physically and mentally ticking over. During lockdown – for example – he hosted Zoom fitness classes which won rave reviews from clients.
Lockdown may be easing, but he emphasises that these classes will continue, as he appreciates some people may not yet have the confidence to venture back into the gym.
“I’ll be having classes in the mornings at 10am and the evenings at 7pm. Lots of the classes will be in the gym and also on Zoom,” he says. “We’ll kill two birds with one stone! Obviously at home it’s harder to do a boxing fitness class because you don’t always have the equipment to hand. So if people get fed up with that it’s great that they can now come back to the gym.”
McKenzie is an expert tutor. I’ve participated in many of his classes myself and can attest to how exhilarating they are. Celebrity clients such as ‘First Dates’ host Fred Sirieix and BBC newsreader Huw Edwards have also attested to Clinton’s expertise and motivational brilliance.
It’s an expertise that stems from decades immersed in boxing. Born in Jamaica, McKenzie came to England when he was just nine, fought at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 – squaring off against Sugar Ray Leonard no less – and enjoyed multiple reigns as British champion, as well as securing the European title in an extraordinarily toughly matched and intense 36-14 pro career, which ended in 1989.
Remarkably, McKenzie fought for the entirety of this career at 140lbs (10 stone) – a testament to his incredible self-discipline and self-control.
“I was never really tempted to move up,” he says. “That was my weight and that was it. It wasn’t difficult to stay at the weight, I was very disciplined – even walking around I was only about 10 stone and as soon as I got in the gym the weight came off.
“I had a lot of long, tough fights. But I was so fit, so superbly fit. I always trained. I did loads of roadwork, I was always in the gym. I didn’t drink and I always kept myself to myself. Boxing was all I lived for. That’s what kept me going for all those years.
“I was never like Ricky Hatton or someone going up to 13 stone or something crazy in between fights. In fact, I could still make the weight today if I put my mind to it!”
After hanging up the gloves in ’89, McKenzie ran a gym in Herne Hill from 1994 until 2008, before moving his business first to Tulse Hill and now Dulwich, where he has been based since 2015. Along the way he also co-authored the influential and popular 2011 book ‘Boxing Fitness: Safe and Fun Workouts To Get You Fighting Fit’.
“Boxing is what I know, what I’ve been brought up with. It’s what I do,” McKenzie emphasises. “If you come to me you can expect a really good workout. And you don’t need to know anything beforehand about boxing.
“The important thing is that you come along and have a good time and then you’ll soon pick it all up. Don’t worry if you think you can’t box – it’s about fitness, learning and having a good time. And if you keep your hands moving for three minutes that’s good – you’ll soon feel the benefits!
“People also shouldn’t be self-conscious about what they can or can’t do. No one will be watching or judging you – everyone is too busy focusing on doing their own thing and pushing themselves. It’s all about enjoyment and feeling good about yourself. People always say to me after my work-outs: ‘I feel great!’ That’s what it’s about.”
Even though he is now in his seventh decade, McKenzie’s passion for boxing, and imparting his wisdom and knowledge about the sport, is undimmed.
“Being involved with boxing and fitness just makes me feel so good,” he enthuses. “I love being fit and tuned in with my body and my mind.
“Boxing has taught me a lot of things. It’s been a great education. It’s given me confidence, it’s given me knowledge – it gave me everything I could ever ask for and I love to share that with people.”
More details about Clinton, his gym and classes can be found at www.clintonmckenzie.com
Clinton McKenzie is one of an exclusive group of just six British boxers who have won two Lonsdale belts outright (while Henry Cooper, of course, famously won three). How many of these other two-belt Lonsdale winners could you have named?
Nel Tarleton: Liverpudlian featherweight who was British champion on three occasions in the 1930s and 40s, despite fighting his whole career with just one lung.
Ronnie Clayton: Blackpool-born feather who reigned as British title-holder from 1947-1954. Also won the Empire and European titles.
Peter Keenan: Scottish bantamweight from Glasgow who won British, Empire and European honours and came close to a world title in 1952, losing on points against South African Vic Toweel.
Howard Winstone: Welsh featherweight wizard from Merthyr Tydfil who won Commonwealth gold as an amateur and later won British, European and WBC world titles as a pro.
Brian Curvis: British and Commonwealth welterweight champion from Swansea who was bested by Emile Griffith for the WBA and WBC world titles in 1964. Never lost to another Brit in his 41-fight career.
Main image and all photos: Clinton McKenzie.