SPORT

Chessboxing On The Global Stage, Starring…Klitschko And Putin?

SPORT
Nov 21, 2014 at 9:03 AM ET

This post was updated to reflect the results of the Nov. 21 fight in Berlin, and the WCBO general assembly meeting on Nov. 23. 

Two bare-chested men in boxing trunks place headphones over their ears and sit down to a chessboard set in the middle of a boxing ring. A packed crowd follows the giant vertical chessboard on the wall as the intellectual fight night unfolds. Four minutes of speed chess later, ring girls denote Round 2 on signs held alluringly aloft, and the fighters glove up for three minutes of boxing. Chess, boxing, chess, boxing until checkmate, KO, or judge’s decision if kings and boxers remain standing at the end of 11 rounds.

Yes, chessboxing exists. When people hear about it, they first think “gimmick,” or perhaps “ridiculous,” but after witnessing a fight themselves, they often end up deeming the creature a curiously awesome hybrid sport.

“Chessboxing challenges people’s stereotypes,” says David Bitton, director of the upcoming documentary Chessboxing: The King’s Discipline (expected release, mid-2015). “A chess player is an unhealthy weakling nerd who sits in his basement all day and never does any physical activity. A boxer is a dumb meathead, a big burly idiot. All he thinks about is beating people up all day. When you mix them up, it makes your brain do acrobatics. Either people get it, or they laugh it off. But fundamentally it’s an idea that affects your subconscious and sticks with you, especially if you see it live.”

Andrew “The Fightin’ Philanthropist” McGregor, a 6-foot-10, 290-pound heavyweight chessboxer and founder of the Los Angeles Chessboxing Club, agrees: “Chess does have a bit of a stigma in America as being a thing for nerds and Russians and effete people. But if you make chess violent, people will watch.”

In fact, look no further than a recent Friday night in Berlin. Berliners packed the house to watch Chess Boxing Global middleweight champion Sven Rooch, coached by Arik Braun—the first chess grandmaster to chessbox competitively in 2012—defend his belt in the title bout at Columbiahalle, a former U.S. Air Force sports hall. The grudge match pitted Berlin fireman and hometown hero Rooch against the Spaniard he fought to win the belt a year ago, Jonathan Rodriguez-Vega. Last year, it ended in chess when Rooch checkmated Vega in Round 7, and this year, Rooch repeated the feat in 7—now officially Vega’s least-favorite number. (About two-thirds of matches now end with chess, as opposed to a more 50-50 split in the sport’s beginnings.) Vega, the 2009 Spanish Amateur Boxing Championship silver medalist, had built up a time clock advantage in the early rounds of chess, but increasingly made mistakes as Rooch’s punches scrambled his chess brain. Still, with chessboxing, there’s no one variable.

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As a sport, chessboxing has simple roots complicated by mystery. So to dispel misinformation without further ado, neither the Wu-Tang Clan track “Da Mystery of Chessboxin'” off the group’s debut 1992 album, nor the 1979 kung fu movie that inspired the title (no “Da,” no apostrophe) have anything to do with chessboxing. Neither even involves boxing, and in the case of the latter, the chess is actually go, a completely different game from China.

But RZA, the Wu-Tang production mastermind, has deep connections with chess. He serves as director of outreach for the Hip Hop Chess Federation and won the February 2014 Chess Kings Invitational (a title defense, actually) against other hip-hop luminaries, actor Emilio Rivera from Sons of Anarchy, MMA fighter Ralek Gracie and L.A. chessboxer McGregor, who took second.

“He’s really skilled,” McGregor says of RZA’s chess game. As to whether he could compete on the chess front in chessboxing, McGregor says, “You’re getting punched in the face. He’s a really strong chess player. I think he’d do really well, but how much damage you get affects your chess game and your decision-making.”

Boxing and chess go back about as far as sports and games go; “checkmate,” “knockout blow” and other entries from the separate lexicons intermix. And in 2003 Dutch performance artist Iepe “The Joker” Rubingh breathed life into Enki Bilal’s dystopian 1992 graphic novel, Froid Équateur (Cold Equator), which describes a fictional futuristic blood sport where two boxers duel blindfolded on a black-and-white chessboard floor. Yet where Bilal’s version has fighters boxing for 12 rounds, then playing five hours of chess, Rubingh flipped it into a mash-up all his own.

The combination seems absurd until it alternately appears genius, and to Rubingh the performance artist, the contradictions of the sport’s oddity appealed immensely. But now, 11 years later, he states his message point-blank: “We are on the quest for the smartest, toughest man on the planet.”

The quest, too, has also been for legitimacy. Two days after the Nov. 23 Berlin fight, the World Chess Boxing Organization (WCBO) held its first general assembly of eight member nations at the Soho House in Berlin—come for the title bout, stay for the meeting!—to set standards, a commission for rule books and a commission for training, “like 100 years ago when FIFA first came together in a little back room in Paris,” likens Rubingh.

Member nations include Germany, India, the United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, the United States, China and Iran. Former WCBO member London Chessboxing splintered off and formed the World Chessboxing Association in 2013 when it felt the WCBO (president, Rubingh) allowed Chess Boxing Global (owner, Rubingh) to form a monopoly. Tim Woolgar, former U.K. heavyweight chessboxing champ and founder of London Chessboxing, met with select members of the WCBO congress in Berlin but decided against attending the assembly itself, despite having received an invitation.

“The problem I have is that the first line of the WCBO affiliate contract is a declaration of support for the Chess Boxing Global monopoly,” says Woolgar. “It does baffle me somewhat why anyone would sign up to it—unless they have no ambitions to actually promote in their own countries.”

Rubingh’s sentiments outline a radically different perspective.

“This is truly a dream coming true,” says Rubingh. “Having all the first-generation founders of chessboxing from all over the world in one room feels like stunde null—zero hour—of this sport. This general assembly will lay the foundation of what chessboxing will be in the future.”

Yet while a united governing body and rulebook won’t magically vault chessboxing from a fringe sport to an international sensation—(“No one at Hooters wants to watch chess for four minutes,” jokes McGregor.)—the mere fact that it’s encouraging imitators speaks volumes to the public’s appetite for something new. In Los Angeles on Jan. 17 at the Systems Training Center martial arts school, McGregor will chessbox in an event that will also unveil a new sport: chess jujitsu—a new hybrid he created with Adisa Banjoko, founder of the Hip Hop Chess Federation.

Chess jujitsu doesn’t rip off chessboxing by simply subbing out boxing for jujitsu with a formula of 4-minute chess rounds and 3-minute rounds of jujitsu. Rather, fighters earn a point for each checkmate and each submission (i.e., arm bar) in three five-minute rounds of blitz chess that alternate with two five-minute rounds of jujitsu, with multiple points possible per round. Instead of one continuing chess game, chess games blaze by. In the event of a points tie, a “sudden submission” jujitsu round decides the victor.

So chessboxing continues to scrap and survive. Spawn, even. But what matchup most captures the public imagination? For those who know of the chess skills of two former heavyweight champions, it’s a no-brainer.

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“The last really interesting fight in the heavyweight division of boxing was Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko at the Staples Center in 2003,” says Rubingh. “Lennox Lewis versus Vitali Klitschko, World Championship of Chessboxing, who’s smartest, toughest—that would be the sports event of the century. They still have something to settle. It would go to the next evolutionary stage. The whole planet wants to see that.”

Klitschko and Lewis both excel at chess—Vitali once lasted 30 moves with friend and former chess world champion Garry Kasparov—and rank as two of the best heavyweights in recent memory. (Younger brother Wladimir Klitschko, current five-belt heavyweight champion and undefeated since 2004, has a horse in that race.) And their history is indeed contested. Lewis trailed on the judge’s scorecards in the that epic 2003 fight in Los Angeles, but he crucially inflicted a nasty cut over Klitschko’s left eye and, declaring Klitschko’s vision impaired, the ref called the fight for Lewis by TKO. Klitschko protested; Lewis ducked calls for a rematch and then abruptly retired.

Bitton filmed Rubingh extensively for The King’s Discipline and knows the inventor of chessboxing’s thoughts on the sport’s ultimate matchup: “That’s Iepe’s dream. If he could get $20 million to pay them, he would do it in a second.”

In 2002, when Vitali’s brother Wladimir tried to goad Lewis into the ring, he challenged him not only to fight, but also to a chess match before the fight. Lewis declined both, but the incident attests to Klitschko brother priors in the arena of mind games and chessboxing challenges.

Lewis spoke openly of a potential chessboxing match with Vitali in a 2007 ESPN video interview, but by that time he had no heavyweight belt and nothing to lose, no longer the rematch-evading champion. Then he tweeted a Bitton chessboxing clip in late 2012 and wrote, “Great vid on chess boxing. I’m still undefeated in chess boxing to this day.”

“Never say never,” says London Chessboxing’s Woolgar, who coaxed late-’80s light welterweight IBF world champ Terry Marsh into risking his undefeated boxing legacy on December 13 at The Scala. “But in reality the chances are vanishingly slim. Lewis and Klitschko know what would be required from them in sacrifice of time and effort to fight each other again. It’s a massive commitment, and it would carry significant risk to both parties. That’s why they are used to getting paid in tens of millions of dollars.”

Chessboxing purses fetch figures a few orders of magnitude less. “You can earn a few pounds spending money, but that’s it. No millions. Not yet, anyway,” says Woolgar. “Perhaps the best we can hope for is a Klitschko versus Lewis chess match as a curtain-raiser to a night of chessboxing. We’d be very happy to stage that right here in London!”

Klitschko, current mayor of Kiev, would require a truly compelling reason to enter the chessboxing fray. For example, to confront not just any heavyweight but the head of an aggressor nation actively meddling in eastern Ukraine. One such as Vladimir Putin.

(Fortuitously, Chess Boxing Global even has an event in Moscow on March 21.)

In December 2013, Klitschko vacated his WBC heavyweight belt to run as an opposition candidate for president and join the protesters on the Independence Square in Kiev against the increasingly authoritarian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Riot police and paid plainclothes thugs attacked protesters in deadly clashes, but in early 2014 the opposition movement turned the tide and ousted Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. Russia promptly swooped in, annexed Crimea, retaking a chunk of former Russia (now former Ukraine) in a blink, then backed but denied a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that continues.

Suffice it to say, Klitschko, like many Ukrainians, wouldn’t mind delivering the line, “Punks jump up to get beat down.” (Prematch trash talk can employ clever wordplay or just plain facts. Klitschko, at 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, towers over the 5-foot-7 Russian despot.)

The Russian could cry foul on weight class difference, but that runs completely counter to everything his propaganda machine seeks to achieve by churning out photos of Putin riding horseback shirtless, or Putin in full military gear, or Putin flanked by bears or tigers—all in an effort to promote and preserve an image of his virility and supremacy. As such, it doesn’t look great playing the featherweight card.

Also, Putin holds a black belt in judo. (In fact, he released a DVD in 2008 on his 56th birthday, Let’s Learn Judo With Vladimir Putin.) Dealing with size and weight differences is exactly what judo is designed for—to use an opponent’s force against them—and why straight-up boxers don’t just dominate MMA. (Former Ukrainian presidential candidate Valeriy Konovalyuk challenged Putin to a judo match in May 2014, but lacking Klitschko’s star power, he was easily brushed off.)

If Putin engages in any form, checkmate. Even if Putin didn’t acknowledge him, Klitschko could say the dictator was always going to weasel out and use the publicity as a platform for whatever he wanted to speak about. It’s a win-win. Klitschko could hound him in a relentless, emasculating smear campaign for wimping out, or crush him in person and land some of the most satisfying punches of his career.

Ukraine has serious issues and no time for jokey propositions, but chessboxing does present a few options for Klitschko should he choose to suit up. Challenge Putin and make the Russian run for his life. Sign up for the sports event of the century with Lennox Lewis and give the whole planet what it wants. Or the most popular third option: Do both and give us two spectacles we hadn’t realized we’ve been dying to see.