Burning up the calories: Heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali, right, hits Floyd Patterson during a bout in 1965. Ali went on to win the fight. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ LAWRENCE SCHILLER
Burning up the calories: Heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali, right, hits Floyd Patterson during a bout in 1965. Ali went on to win the fight. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ LAWRENCE SCHILLER

If you fancy learning to "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee", a new fitness craze could be just up your alley. Virgin Active launched a boxing routine at its 70 gyms across SA in March.

Virgin’s home-grown fitness routine is titled Rumble, Bring The Thunder. It appears to be a knockout with fans, figuratively speaking. The name takes inspiration from the iconic Rumble in the Jungle boxing match in Kinshasa, Zaire, as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was known then, on October 30 1974. That event pitted US undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman against challenger and former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

Ali is the source of the famous "float like a butterfly" quote he used to describe the efficacy of his fighting skills. No one gave him much chance of winning against the 25-year-old Foreman. Ali was 35, no longer floating. But the man known as the Louisville Lip for his way with words – not only when taunting opponents – beat the odds and won by a knockout in the eighth round.

Virgin developed Rumble after noticing that many of its club members were going to boxing classes elsewhere, says trainer Ceri Hannan.

"We wanted to bring our unique boxing experience to them to create a more inclusive gyming experience."

Virgin developed Rumble in conjunction with kickboxing coach and undefeated former SA professional bantam and featherweight kickboxing champ Josh Cassius Cloete.

Hannan is fulsome in praise of Cloete’s vision. Rumble is "not your average fitness class", he says. Cloete created it to consist of nine rounds of group boxing-inspired high-intensity interval training over 69 minutes. A workout includes skipping, jabbing and punching with bag work.

Sessions include the fitness instructor’s movement of the day. That may be "high-knees", a high-intensity cardiovascular exercise that gets the blood pumping, activates the core and strengthens legs.

Or it might be a burpee, a squat thrust, full-body exercise used in strength and aerobic training. Burpees have a reputation as the most efficient exercise known to humankind.

Whatever the movement, it’s the most intense part of a Rumble class and requires a sweat towel at the ready.

A DJ and a specially selected music playlist sets Rumble apart from the rest. It becomes an added, energetic draw card to "bring the thunder" to your training, Hannan says. In effect, Rumble allows participants to train like boxers without taking any contact, he adds.

The no-contact rule is important. It can be intimidating to people to think of voluntarily exposing themselves to an exercise routine that involves dodging punches.

Boxing-based exercise routines are growing in popularity globally, but experts say there are differences between boxing as a sport and as exercise. As a sport, boxing requires athletic prowess and specific skills. These include strength, speed, agility, endurance, concentration and sheer nerve. The source of that nerve can be raw courage or rank stupidity.

A report in the UK Independent in 2016 notes that boxers know they risk injury in the ring. However, there’s a more insidious danger that boxers don’t often talk about: the long-term brain damage that repeated blows to the head can cause.

Experts have debated for years whether the multiple blows Ali sustained to his head contributed to him developing Parkinson’s in 1984. That was three years after he retired and his doctors did not connect the neurological disease to his head injuries from boxing at the time. He died in 2016, reportedly from septic shock, nothing to do with Parkinson’s.

Yet evidence shows that a traumatic brain injury can increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s later in life.

Some experts say the research is not conclusive as other factors — including environment and genetics — also play a role. Others say there’s enough evidence to support the hypothesis that brain trauma increases the risk of Parkinson’s. They say that boxing can lead to Parkinson’s.

Boxing for fitness is, fortunately, a whole different game. It allows you to acquire and hone athletic skills without also having to be a punch bag.

As with any training, there is always an injury risk. Hannan says Virgin has personal trainers available at all times to supervise Rumble sessions and to ensure members’ safety.

The zero-contact rule, in effect, means little to no risk of cuts, bumps and bruises, or a worst-case scenario of a brain-bashing knockout.

There’s also no experience required. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know your jab from your cross, hook or uppercut.

Like all boxing-based exercise routines, Rumble benefits are legion, Hannan claims. A session can increase strength, speed, coordination, agility and confidence. It builds lean muscle, improves cardiovascular fitness and releases feel-good hormones known as endorphins. It also kills calories to give you a knockout body, he says.

Some research suggests that high-octane, boxing-inspired workouts can work off about 700 calories. Victoria’s Secrets supermodels such as Adriana Lima and Kelly Gale are said to be ardent fans. A Rumble can leave men feeling fitter and stronger, just like Conor McGregor minus the bruises, Hannan says. McGregor is the Irish mixed martial artist, boxer and Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight champion and former featherweight champion.

Would Ali have approved of Rumble? Who knows. He might have approved of the mindfulness training, the learning to live in the moment boxing-related training brings. That lies at the heart of one of Ali’s quotes: "Live every day like it’s your last because someday you’re going to be right."

• Sboros is founder, publisher and editor of Foodmed.net.