“A mathematician steps into the boxing ring” sounds like the start of a very poor joke. But for Yian ‘Zinger’ Zeng it is a prospect that is getting realer by the minute as she counts down to Student Fight Night London.
On the 9th March around 100 students (most of whom have never boxed previously) will enter the ring in front of a 1000-strong crowd at the Clapham Grand. The black-tie event aims to raise funds for testicular cancer charity The OddBalls Foundation.
Fighters are given seven weeks of boxing training, with sessions running four times a week. When Imperial Rugby were contacted about the chance to feature in Fight Night, Zinger “grabbed the opportunity”.
It sounds like a gruelling programme, so how does she stay motivated? It’s simple: “I don’t want to get clarted.”
“I’m enjoying the training,” the young fighter tells me, “a lot of it is just: keep drilling the basics because in a fight, you're not going to remember ‘duck, hook, jab’; you’ve just got to remember to punch straight and protect your face in the fight.”
The unforgiving schedule has inevitably made her fitter than ever; “I’m cycling to uni so fast,” she brags. Moreover, it’s remoulded the way she views exercise and physical fitness. Admitting that she previously prioritised her gym routine around aesthetic goals, Yian tells me “I've learned how nice it is to be aerobically fit… I can now do more press ups than I used to and not die as much.” A keen member of the Women’s Rugby Club, it sounds like she’s running circles round the other rugby girls: “To be that fast person, even on a warm up lap, is really nice.”
I'm cycling to uni so fast.
She will, however, have to make sure she looks after herself, citing the thought of being injured on the night as one of her biggest worries.
Recently, the training sessions have moved beyond drills and attendees have started sparring. Yian has been struggling with this transition, telling me “I hate it.” It seems that the biggest challenge to Yian may not so much be the fitness of her body, but more of her mind. The hardest thing she has had to learn so far is “taking a punch and not being upset at that person because it’s hard going.” In the words of Rocky “It ain’t about how hard you're hit, it's about how you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Yet this “moving forward” isn’t something Yian is used to; she explains “It’s not like in rugby when you can whistle the ref. My opponent can hit me however she likes.” A skilled basketball and netball player as well, the dramatic difference in discipline struck her, as she explains “I feel like I’m so used to doing things properly. Even if I miss a tackle, I try to do it properly. But now in boxing, all bets are off.”
But now...all bets are off.
Having spent so much time training alongside her potential opponents, Yian finds it hard to throw herself into the fight. She hopes that this will change as time goes on, explaining “the more I’ve been training, the more I really want to win.” However, she’s still not sure that she will be able to fully throw herself into it until the big night: “I’m just hoping the atmosphere will just slap me in the face.”
Initially, it seemed like she was rather unbothered by the whole idea of Fight Night. When I ask why she signed up, expecting some [insert boxing film here]-style monologue, she rather anti-climatically responds “I thought this would be really funny.” However, with less than three weeks to go until the big bout, this is beginning to change. “The more I’ve been doing it, the more I really want to win,” she tells me.
When she explains “I plan to start going to the gym for strength training because I don’t punch very hard”, I query whether this is a purely physical issue, or linked to her mindset. My question must have thrown her off, and I watch it dawn on her that perhaps it is time to start swinging, “My big fear is [on the night] getting so scared that I don’t punch,” she tells me, “but I don’t know how to train mentally”. She thinks aloud “I’m not going to start punching people [outside training]. Maybe I should.”
As for what she’s most looking forward to, her eyes light up at “the idea of winning in front of all my friends, or even just being cheered on.” This is the first time Yian is competing in an individual sport, and she finds the idea of all eyes being on her exciting too. “I just want to put on a show and entertain my friends. It’s like the Olympics.” She knows that, win or lose, a performance she will put on. Even if she does “get clarted”, she still feels fortunate to have had the experience of learning to box.
Yet no matter how glorious the olympics-level attention and chance at stardom may be, the idea that it soon will all be over seems to bring relief to the ringster, as she tells me “I wouldn’t say I enjoy boxing that much. I prefer team sports.” With her heightened physical and mental resilience, she will be a bigger asset to her rugby team than ever before.
Until the final fight, Yian clearly has a long way to go. She evidently doubts her own ability to throw herself into the fight, but is hoping that doing so will not just make for an entertaining spectacle for her friends, but strengthen her in the long run. “I really don’t think I have that fighter’s instinct in me,” she concedes, “I think that’s such an important part of boxing and I don’t quite have it. But I feel that if I can train and I can do it, then it will be of huge benefit to my self confidence.”
As she battles the physical and mental demands of white-collar boxing, she is driven by an inspiring mantra: “It’s clart or get clarted”.
It’s clart or get clarted.