There’s a loud thud as Will Holland’s black boxing glove smashes into my upturned hand. My shoulder shoots back and there’s a sharp, needle-like pain as my humerus rotates in my shoulder blade.
Ludlow’s celebrity chef continues pounding away at my red hand guards. His trainer, Andy Hackney, issues commands. “Jab, cross,” he shouts.
“Jab, cross. Quicker, come on. Jab, cross. Jab, cross.” My arm springs back and I get into position for the next blow. “Jab, cross, left hook. Jab, cross, left hook.” Beads of sweat start to form on the top of Will’s shaven head as the punches fall down like rain.
“Okay boys, that’s it,” says Andy, and our hands fall to our sides. I’ve simply been standing in an upright position, bent slightly forward, while Will has been doing all of the work. And yet I feel exhausted. Will, in contrast, is jumping on the spot, as though skipping without a rope. His eyes are looking at the floor, as though he’s somewhere far away: he’s relaxed, focused and utterly composed.
On Thursday, Will will be among two dozen of the nation’s best chefs at Rumble In The Kitchen, an all-star celebrity boxing match featuring some of the UK’s best-known chefs.
It will take place at The Royal Automobile Club, a prestigious century-old private members’ club off Pall Mall, in London, where 400 guests will each pay £250 a head to watch chefs fight.
It will generate tens of thousands of pounds for the charity Galvin’s Chance, an inspirational ‘into work’ programme targeted at creating jobs, appenticeships, college programmes and sustainable employment for people aged 18-24.
TV star Marcus Wareing, the one-time protégé of Gordon Ramsay and twin Michelin-starred London restaurateur from The Berkley and The Gilbert Scott, will be another celebrity boxing. So will Monica Galetti, the fiercesome female chef who appears as Michel Roux Jr’s right-hand woman on MasterChef The Professionals: apparently, she her right hook is as painful as her withering remarks to aspirant cooks.
Will, however, is likely to be among the favourites. He’s one of the biggest, fittest, strongest boxers taking part. He said: “I was volunteered for this about four months ago by my boss, Alan Murchison, the Michelin-starred restaurateur.
“Alan’s a seriously fit guy and he was asked if he’d take part in a charity boxing match. He told them ‘no way’, and volunteered me instead. When I came to Andy’s gym I couldn’t do ten push-ups. Now, I’ve lost 10kg, I’m out running to the theme tune from Rocky at 7am every morning and I’m doing suicidal workouts.”
Andy Hackney, his trainer, adds: “The difference in four months is extraordinary. Will was squash fit before, but now he’s match fit. He’s lean and hungry. I expect him to do well.”
Will has been receiving additional coaching from Clinton McKenzie, who fought America’s ‘Sugar Ray’ Leonard in the quarter-finals of the 1976 Montreal Olympics before turning professional and becoming British and then European Champion.
Will says: “Clinton and Andy have both been amazing. They’ve turned me into a boxer. The thing is, when you step into the ring for a full contact bout, you know that you’re going to get hit and you know that you’re going to get hurt. Psychologically, that’s really tough. You have to get into the frame of mind where you know you’re going into a hostile environment where the other guy is going to try and kill you.
“Being punched in the face hurts, being punched in the stomach hurts, but that’s all part of it. You have to put your body on the line and trust yourself. When I step into the ring on Thursday, part of me will be afraid. But you have to over-ride that fear and trust yourself, you have to rely on your training, your speed, your tactics and the work you’ve done in the gym.”
Will is better known to people in Shropshire as the county’s youngest ever Michelin Star holder, as the man who features regularly on James Martin’s Saturday Kitchen, the chef who starred on BBC TV’s Great British Menu and the energetic chef who leads one of the demonstration stages at Ludlow Food Festival.
Despite his training, he’s continued to work every day at La Becasse, his multi-award-winning restaurant in Ludlow’s Corve Street, where he clocks up up to 100 hours each week.
“It’s been a tough schedule,” he says. “But I feel absolutely amazing. The guys in the kitchen think I’m mad. My sous chef, James Walshaw, has been doing shuttle runs with me, which kill us both.”
Will travelled to London last week for his weigh-in, tipping the scales at 80kg. His opponent on Thursday will be Matt Wilkin, Australia’s first Master Sommelier and Will has a distinct height and reach advantage, at 6ft 2ins, he will tower over his 5ft 8in opponent. However, he is likely to concede around 8kgs.
“It’s going to be tough,” says Will, and with that, he rasps another right hook into my upturned hand. If I were a betting man, I’d have a fiver on him to win.
All proceeds from Will’s bout will go to Galvin’s Chance and donations can be made at www.justgiving.com/kitchen-rumble-will-holland while people can also text a £5 donation to 70070 with the characters: RKWH79