In the dead of this past winter, I ran into a friend in Cihangir who seemed uncharacteristically ecstatic. I told him as much and he was all too happy to share with me the new change in his life — The Last Round. He had begun boxing in the few short months since I’d last seen him and it definitely showed. His friend just so happened to be a trainer at the gym, where they also offer self defense lessons for women. I instantly became interested.
So as soon as the weather started to get better, I grabbed a friend on a Sunday morning and headed to Balat, where the gym is located. She regularly kick-boxes, while I had zero experience, thus making us an unlikely pair. Regardless, the unrealistic but ever hopeful goal of being able to take out a bad guy and throw him to the ground after just one lesson was motivation enough to attend.
After a high impact cardio warm-up of three minute jump-rope intervals, we were quite sweaty and ready to begin. At this point, there were four women at the gym, one male student and our instructor, Egemen Baranok. For an introductory boxing lesson, you mainly work on your footing stance and preparing your balance when attacking and retreating. This took me the entire lesson to grasp. The next day, my thighs had never known such a soreness.
During our lesson, I got to chatting with Egemen and learned that he is not only the founder of the sports club, The Last Round, but that he has spent a significant amount of time in the US competing. In the middle of pursuing my own personal detox health purification goal, I had a million questions to ask about his diet and habits, but it turns out when you’re spending your entire day training, you’re encouraged to eat 7,000 calories a day.
Egemen began practicing martial arts in 2001, then a few years later started to learn kickboxing and Wing Chun. After fourteen years of practice, he can also add wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu to his CV.
Most of us yabancılar probably weren’t roaming the streets of Taksim in the early 2000s, but I think we can all imagine that the scene must have been a lot dicier back in the day. As a young university student who was routinely coming home late after band practice, Egeman made a proactive decision to learn martial arts for self-protection.
“The more I did it, the more I felt I was supposed to do it. As I was getting good at it, I turned more to the competitive side of martial arts,” says Egemen.
On the Last Round site, you can read all about Egemen and the gym’s long list of athletic excellence. Since the Last Round is a professional sports club. Their grappling team actively competes at the international level, often travelling to Denmark and Sweden. Their team is gaining recognition in the grappling jiu-jitsu scene.
Fun fact, a boxer usually has 40 to 50 fights in a 15 year span while a grappler has twice that much in just a year.
To recap, I’m in a boxing gym in Balat having a conversation in perfect English and feeling totally comfortable and not at all out of place. No judgment or pretentiousness in sight. That’s in large part because Egemen has worked hard to make his sports club inclusive to women and fosters a welcoming, encouraging atmosphere towards beginners. That’s more than can be said of most yoga studios in the city.
“The environment has to have a comfortable vibe, students shouldn’t pursue nor should they accept anything less than that,” says Egemen.
Egemen tells me that, there are several gyms in the city that don’t even have women’s locker rooms. He’s been passionate about bringing women into mixed martial arts since the beginning. In 2008, alongside two other athletes, Women’s Self Defense Initiative was launched. Today, Egemen and Elif Ural spearhead the program which has been renamed, Fight like a Girl.
The workshops for women are ongoing, working around Egemen’s competition schedule. For example, he is headed to Spain, Sweden and Denmark all in the next seven weeks. Their pop-up tendency means that the best way to find out when they’re happening is to follow The Last Round.
Luckily for us yabancılar, all of the trainers speak English and classes are bilingual and open to anyone that wants to learn. You can literally walk in and start training that day.
For incoming students, trainers will assess their goals, decide together what would be a good match and how much training is needed. The only rule in the gym is no outdoor shoes. As you walk up the stairs to the locker rooms, you will see quotes by the greats in Martial Arts and photos of the sports club at competitions.
To gauge interest at a cultural level, I ask about martial arts in Turkey. In the last decade, professional gyms have taken off. But, I learn that in the past it was more a lower socio-economic activity, wheres now it’s becoming more broadly practiced.
On the weekends classes start at 10:00 AM with Escrima, or Arnis, the traditional Filipino martial arts that emphasize improvised weapons. During weekdays, the last class of the day begins at 19:30, and depending on the day, either Wing Chun, a Chinese martial arts and self defense or Brazilian jiu-jitsu,a martial arts combat sport that focuses on grappling and ground fighting, class will be taking place. Boxing starts at 18:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 13:00 on weekends.
A typical day for Egemen has him up at six in the morning, teaching and training until the gym closes at ten at night. His training is a mix of martial arts, striking, and grappling holds.
In a competition the way to win is to figure out a way to get someone into a submission with either a stranglehold or a joint lock. “It’s pretty safe to apply them in competition since a trained athlete will recognize when bodily harm (a joint break) is imminent and thus will tap out (quit) to end the match,” Egemen says.
In boxing on the other hand, knocking someone out means inflicting head trauma.
How does he keep fueled throughout such long, physically demanding days? Oatmeal pancakes with peanut butter and coconut oil in coffee. Sounds tasty to me.
What about the days when motivation isn’t knocking on your door? Egemen says, those are the days that will make the difference later on. “You have to have self-discipline and push beyond your comfort zone.”
The gym also teaches kids and has its own sponsored athletes. The Last Round trains its young students to excel at life with hard work and self-determination.
The Last Round’s uniqueness extends in that social responsibility is built into their mission as a sports club. Each trainer/athlete is expected to actively participate in charity work that helps people and animals. In the past, the club has organized book and clothing donations to underprivileged students in the East.
Routinely, the club takes in dogs and cats, and provides them with necessary veterinary and nutritional needs, while searching for their forever home. The dogs, are mainly bigger animals like purebred Rottweilers and Dobermans, coming from places where greedy previous “owners” wanted to make a buck from them either through breeding or fighting.
On the day of this interview, Egemen had spent the morning chasing after a Dogo Argentino, who had previously been chained to a post and fed raw meat. Sadly, those conditions have destroyed her digestive health and left her severely underweight. She will be at the vet until next week, then Egemen will start looking for a home for her. All necessary expenses are covered by Egemen and The Last Round.
The club screens each potential new home to make sure that new parents are responsible people that are able to take care of the animals, so they don’t end up back in the streets.
“We act as a regular governmental agency that would ensure a safe home for kids. We stay in touch with most of the people that adopt our animals,” says Egemen.
Via their social media, you can find posts for dogs and cats looking for their forever homes, in addition to boxing matches, and routine tips on how to train more effectively and eat healthier. Currently, you can find pictures of a Dogo Argentino puppy, Arya, dressed in pink and playing and napping with her foster brother, a grown up Dogo Argentino.
“We are trying to change the stereotype of the macho fighter. We still compete harder than anyone out there, but at the same time we’re bringing women’s classes to Istanbul and helping animals any chance we get,” says Egemen. For Egemen that includes being on constant lookout for any dog that might be in distress.
Bottom line, The Last Round is a professional and serious sports club, but that doesn’t stop it from being a friendly and welcoming place, where you can work up a sweat and work on your self-improvement.
All images courtesy of Elif Ural.
Yavuz Sultan Selim Mahallesi – Fodlaci Sokak 10/A – Fatih