Heart of Portsmouth (HOP).
Rarely has a club’s name defined itself so aptly.
Located in the centre of the city, a three-minute walk from Portsmouth & Southsea train station, HOP is ideally placed for what it was set up for seven years ago – keeping the youth off the streets and engaged in physical activity.
One look at the Charter Academy-based outfit’s website tells you it prides itself on ‘being a place where people of all genders, abilities, age and fitness can attend and have a feeling of achievement and self worth’.
I must admit, as a man with zero boxing experience whatsoever, that made for heartening reading – pardon the pun – as I prepared to be put through my paces for the latest edition of my often-embarrassing Mission to Marsh column.
Rather less comforting, however, was the thought of sparring with golden girl Ebonie Jones – an agreed finale to my experience, set up by sports desk colleague Jordan Cross and HOP head coach Q Shillingford.
If ever there was a mismatch in terms of a boxing bout, it was this one.
Jones is 16 years of age and stands at 5ft 1in, I am eight years her senior and a foot taller.
Craziness, you may think on her behalf!
Well, you would be wrong.
What Jones lacks in height and age she more than makes up for in skill, tenacity and power.
The poster girl of the gym – her face adorns a large canvas on top of a wall covered in The News’ cuttings of herself – made the step up to England boxing when she was 15.
And in the past 18 months Jones has won gold at the European Championships, European Union Championships, Nations Cup (twice) – and also claimed a bronze medal on the world stage.
To say I was apprehensive would be the understatement of the century.
Here I am in a lose-lose situation, fully aware that in all likelihood, Jones is going to embarrass, wound and concuss me in the ring.
Or, on the off chance I am somehow able to summon a punch from the gods and stop her in her tracks, I become a 24-year-old man who has hurt a girl eight years his junior.
As you will come to read, I had no need to concern myself with the latter thought!
Having arrived at the gym bright and early to join in with a junior session – the adult class was rightly ruled beyond my rookie remit – I was met by Shillingford, who was awarded an MBE for services to boxing and young people last year.
With an estimated 500 members on HOP’s books, the head coach was quickly called into action as the minnows (five to nine years old) left for the evening.
Concerns from gym manager Ricky Jeffery that some kids had stayed behind or used the turnover to sneak in without following protocol were to be well founded as Shillingford called a halt to proceedings to ask those who hadn’t signed in properly to return to reception.
Expecting one or two sheepish kids to head back to the door, I had to laugh when 20 or so beat a hasty retreat as the respect for the main man was there for all to see.
Having taken care of business, Shillingford was able to welcome me into the gym before providing a little detail about the club and its history.
He then introduced me to Jeffery, who would put me through my paces with an introduction to boxing.
It was at this point the experience became real to me.
No sooner had I struggled to get myself into the gloves provided – before learning the basics of the jab and hook (it’s all in the hips) – I was summoned in front of the group for class warm-up.
‘Shall we make Jeff run the block?’ asked Shillingford.
An overwhelming ‘yes’ was the response from the gathered young fighters.
I was hoping this would mean a lap of the sports hall.
Instead, the group was led outside and I soon found myself running through the neighbouring streets in pursuit of several energetic youngsters.
Considering myself a good runner, I was able to make the ground up on most of the group over what I later learned to be a one-mile distance.
And the one boxer I couldn’t catch? Jones.
It was the first of her victories over me.
Struggling for breath, I sought a water break as we returned to the sports hall to up the ante.
Buoyed by my half-decent showing on the run, I was quick to learn my fitness was not as first thought.
With the boxers returning to the ring and Jeffery happy I had understood the basics, Shillingford gave me a one-on-one tutorial on the pads.
Barking out orders for punch combinations comprising jabs, back-hands and hooks, I was soon drenched in my own sweat.
Still the orders came: ‘Throw four, throw six, throw eight, throw 10’.
My arms grew weary and my punches weaker.
But as soon as I dropped my guard, I was then on the defensive.
The hunter had become the hunted as I was told to tuck my elbows in and cover my face with my gloves.
It was important advice I was to rely on moments later.
Having survived a number of playful body blows and head shots from Shillingford’s pads, I was considered ready for my date with destiny.
Jones awaited as a packed room came to a standstill for our heavily-anticipated bout.
Final words of wisdom from corner-man Shillingford to keep my guard up set the tone.
I was stepping into a survival mission.
And when the bell went, the pain duly began.
Half-expecting Jones to go easy on me and for us to play out something resembling a shadow fight, I was rocked by an early blow to the body as I questioned what I had gotten myself into.
‘Keep the guard up,’ ordered Shillingford, as the barrage continued.
Evasive action was required if I was to stay on two feet.
Abandoning all principles I had learned to never lay hands on a woman, I flailed my arms forward in a hopeless bid to stop Jones in her tracks.
Keeping her at arms length seemed my best bet but she was too quick for me.
Beating my pathetic defence, she rocked me with shots to the head and chest as I prayed for the bell to end my misery.
Knowing I would never live it down if I was knocked to the canvas, I charged forward and landed my first telling blow of the contest.
The problem for me was that, in landing that one solitary jab, I received a head-spinning response, including three stinging, landed punches.
At least the youngsters watching were getting their entertainment, not least from my rather unorthodox offensive style that comprised of throwing both arms out in an ineffectual fashion.
The two-armed punch does not appear in any boxing manuals for good reason, though.
And with my newly-learned defensive mechanism of covering up the only thing keeping me from the canvas, I could only marvel at the runaround I was being given by Jones.
Her speed and movement were simply too much for me to comprehend and the punches she did land, rather too routinely for my liking, were certainly felt.
When the bell eventually sounded I was sure I had been in the ring for half an hour or so.
To my bemusement, I was told I had held out for two minutes.
‘You got beaten up by a girl’ I was swiftly told by an unimpressed young male onlooker.
That mattered little to me, though, as I walked away from my first boxing experience with body – if not pride – intact.
Jones, meanwhile, is plotting her own journey to bigger and better things.