It’s an MMA cliché to describe Brazilian jiu-jitsu as “human chess,” but the combat sports world doesn’t need the metaphor. It already has chessboxing.
Chessboxing is just what it sounds like: a sport where fighters alternate between playing chess and boxing. Fights consist of six four-minute rounds of chess and five three minute-rounds of boxing. And if at the end of those 11 rounds, there’s been no checkmate, knockout, or time penalty (when one of the rival’s allotted chess time has run out), the winner is the man who has earned the most points while boxing. Chessboxing was originally conceived by French artist Enki Bilal in his 1992 comic book Froid Équateur. He probably didn’t expect anything to come of it, but 10 years later Dutch artist Iepe Rubingh organised the first ever chessboxing event. Now there are fights all over the world. Wu-Tang Clan producer RZA is a fan.
Upon hearing about London’s flourishing chessboxing scene, I made my way to Scala, a venue next door to Kings Cross Station, to see an event for myself. There was a big part of me that expected the event to be kind of, well, nerdy, but it wasn’t. Instead, the place felt like a real fight night, with a vocal crowd and a rather attractive brunette ring card girl named Kelly. In between fights there were cabaret acts, including a performance by a flexible lady skilled in the art of the hula hoop.
The beer was flowing and the event was just as tongue-in-cheek as it needed to be. When the competitors were boxing, all you could hear was “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” filling the arena. During the slow-paced chess rounds, there were choruses of “CHESS! CHESS! CHESS!” The competitors wore sound-cancelling headphones during the chess rounds to prevent being put off by the noise of the crowd.
The first contest, between Matt “Crazy Arms” Read and Nick “Showstopper” Cornish, ended with a knockout. According to the live broadcast commentary, which was essential for the game’s noobs like myself, Read was having the better of his foe on the chessboard. After a few rounds of chess and some feel-out boxing, however, Read’s custom flailing-arm defence was finally infiltrated by a series of unanswered punches from Cornish, which led the referee, former top amateur boxer Reinaldo Dominguez, to call an end to the fight.
The second bout saw Englishman Mike "The Bedfordshire Bull" Botteley face off against Andre Glenzer. Glenzer is a native of Germany, the age-old sporting (and historical) foe of the English, but my thinking was that a room full of chessboxing fans wouldn’t possibly greet Glenzer with the kind of hostility English fans of other sports usually greet German competitors. I was wrong: The Essen-born chessboxer’s entrance was met with boos. Still, though Botteley got the better of his foe in the boxing rounds, nearly knocking Glenzer out on multiple occasions, the German, whose head must have been spinning after three rounds of boxing, somehow managed to regain his focus and finish the bout with a checkmate. I can’t even achieve such a feat in a regular game of chess; I’m sure it’s bloody impossible after nearly getting your head knocked off.
The main event, a World Chessboxing Association heavyweight title eliminator between Italy’s Sergio Leveque and the Brit Mark Pilkington, was won by the Italian giant. The two boxing segments of the match were fairly even, but Sergio was having the better of the chess contest. He kept his his composure through six minutes of brutal punches before delivering chess’ equivalent to a knockout blow. “Checkmate!” cried the crowd.
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