The boxing club’s head coach, Joe, is standing in my opponent’s corner. He’s giving instructions as much in hand gestures as he is verbal. I study every movement making note to avoid the particular combinations he’s demonstrating. If I can, I’ll avoid getting hit completely. My opponent is a heavyweight making him at least forty pounds and four weight classes heavier than I am. I’ll need to strike fast and get the hell out. Stick and move. Breathe. Stick and move. I hate this part. The time between squeezing into the headgear, jock, and biting the mouthguard and the fight starting. It’s quiet in the club tonight but I can still see a few people watching. I start questioning why I’m here at all. What the hell am I doing? I remind myself that we’re just sparring but it doesn’t help. Sparring is for all intents and purposes still fighting we just don’t keep score. I know that my opponent will be coming at me hard. He’s tuning up for a big tournament and I’m preparing for my first sanctioned amateur bout. The bell rings.
Inhaling deeply through my nose, I step forward. Jitters fall away onto the canvas. My hands are up, my chin is down. My feet are moving like I’ve trained them to move, shuffling. My opponent launches a jab. It’s too far away. He leaps at me closing the distance between us but he’s much slower than I am. He tries again and this time I throw a darting jab that lands on his temple. I spin away like a matador. He’s slower than I expected. He may be pretending that he’s slower to lure me in. I’m not falling for it. I stay out of reach and only get close to throw another quick jab. Even though I’m at a safe distance my chin is down, my hands are up.
I’m gliding through the ring fluidly, confidently. I’m countering (hitting him after he tries to hit me), parrying (dodging his punches off course preventing them from connecting to their target i.e. my head), slipping (ducking and leaning out of the way of his shots), and spinning out (pivoting out of his direct path so he doesn’t walk me into a corner or onto the ropes). I can pull off an Ali Shuffle if I want to. I don’t dare. It’d be disrespectful not to mention if I trip up I’ll look like a fool. My opponent is already flustered. He can’t catch me but I can catch him. I land a left hook to his body without being caught by my nemesis, the overhand right. An endorphin party pulses through my body. I feel cocky. I calm myself back down and remind myself of humbler times.
The first time I set foot in the boxing club the thwacking of leather gloves pounding heavy bags thumped my chest. Fighters in elevated boxing rings danced around then viciously pummelled each other. An ear-piercing siren pulsated throughout the club every two minutes signifying the beginning or end of the round. The air sat dense with an aroma of damp socks, dried blood and the worst kind of body odor. It was the smell of hard work. I signed up.
After several months of classes, learning how to hit a heavy bag and enduring enough cardio to comfortably sprint a marathon, I worked up the courage to step into the ring and spar. My first opponent, Mike, was a national champion and very patient. He knew I was a rookie and that I’d forget everything I was taught. My stomach filled with caffeine-addled butterflies as I struggled to fit my shoes through the jock belt. My hands and entire body trembled as I stumbled up the stairs towards the ring. My mind raced to recall what I’d learned in the months prior. Keep my hands up, my chin down. Breathe. Can I see my opponent with this headgear on? How does a jab work again? What the hell am I doing? I was given the best piece of advice right before the bell rang: to forget everything and relax. Luckily, I’d already forgotten everything. My job now was to not tense up. I was in there to learn and not compete. The bell rang.
My head snapped back as Mike’s glove thumped me with jabs. My eyes watered. The impact flashed me back to times of schoolyard fights. By fights, I mean getting punched by kids much bigger than I was. Mike continued to strike my forehead and what felt like bolts of electricity began to wake me up. My hands were up but my head was still absorbing the impact. I pushed out a slow-motion jab afraid that it would land. I didn’t want to piss Mike off. Fortunately, the speed at which I was throwing assured Mike that he was in no danger. The bell rang signifying the end of the round and I returned to my corner. I was given instructions but I was too tired to hear them. It had something to do with trying to not get hit so often and to throw more punches. The bell rang again and for some reason, I ran at Mike. I threw what felt like dozens, but was probably three, wild flailing shots. None of them landed but Mike leveled up his attack. He delivered a package filled with trauma to my skull followed by another filled with anguish to my ribs. An involuntary moan escaped passed my mouthguard, echoing for what seemed like minutes. I heard gasps from onlookers.
In those moments I heard a click as if someone snapped their fingers inside my eardrum. I suddenly remembered the movements I was taught. Especially, thankfully, defensive ones. From my very first boxing class I was told to keep my chin down, tucked into my left shoulder. I was instructed to keep my right hand glued to my right cheek at all times including breaks when I’d lean over the fountain to slurp in some water. Failure to do so meant pushups, burpees or another torment de jour. Failure to do so in the ring meant that I was exposed, vulnerable.
Mike came at me again and I parried his shots. It was out of fear to be sure and the technique more resembled a Three Stooges routine but I wasn’t getting hit cleanly anymore. Mike attacked again but fatigue set in. I’d forgotten the one piece of advice I received. I wasn’t calm and this cost me my energy. My hands felt like fifty-pound dumbbells and they fell. Although Mike didn’t take advantage I knew I was done. The month-long two-minute round ended and all I wanted was out. I spit out my mouthguard and gasped in as much air as I could. I couldn’t deliver the amount of oxygen my heart demanded. My head and ribs took turns throbbing for attention. Sparring rounds always ended with a gloved fist bump the equivalent to a high five, a show of respect. Mike nodded his head in approval as our gloves touched. My body in shock I felt discouraged. I’d been training a long time but my performance served as evidence that boxing wasn’t for me.
As I struggled to get out of the ring, coaches and other fighters went out of their way to tell me how well I did. “Really?” I asked.
“You kept moving, didn’t quit when you got hit and you got better in the second round because you started moving really well. It looked like you were so comfortable.” A coach said as he unlaced my gloves. I scanned his voice for sarcasm.
“I mostly wanted to get into the fetal position and hope he’d go away.” I was only half-joking. I decided to stick with boxing and here I am two years later in the ring with a heavyweight getting ready for my first fight.
The bell rings and my opponent and I walk back to our respective corners. I’m barely breathing hard. I’ve been training almost every day both in the gym and on the road. I perch on my stool and watch my opponent do the same. Another fighter is my working my corner and he pulls out my mouthguard. I take a deep breath through my nose and relax my shoulders as I exhale.
“Man, just keep doing exactly what you’re doing.” He squeezes some water into my mouth and rubs a towel across my forehead. “Maybe double up the jab.” He adds. I stand up. The bell rings again. I can barely step forward to avoid being tackled. My opponent ran over in an effort to trap me in the corner. I barely spin away and he catches the side of my temple as I do. He rushes me again but I have room to move now. I take a calming breath reminding myself not to panic. Flashes of Floyd Mayweather and Roy Jones Jr. project in my head. They were eye-deceivingly fast and they were calm. Preserving energy seemed to be the single most important element of fighting. I spin away again and throw a one-two. Both land. The sound of my right hand finding my opponent echoes off the walls. “Nice!” I can hear an onlooker whisper. I am in control. The feeling I’ve been longing for, ever since I first walked through the front door. The reason I learned how to fight. I itched to reach back in time to high school where bullies held me down until my arm popped out of its socket. I wanted to show them what they were dealing with now. I have to calm down. Breathe, Rob, breathe. Right hand up, move, dance. I smack down another attempt with my left hand then snap it up to my opponent’s chin. I’m too fast for him.
I was in my late twenties when I started boxing and was instantly addicted to the coppery taste of blood and sweat. I’d be first in line if there was a punching cardio class where an instructor screamed instructions at me at glass-shattering decibel levels. His rules included that classes weren’t over until somebody vomited. Sometimes that person was me, but after I did, I got back in line for more. I wanted the punishment. I needed the punishment. I knew I was getting work done, I just didn’t know what kind. For some reason, I felt I deserved the pain. I felt I was not good enough. Undeserving of happiness. I felt this way because I was told it was true. I was told it was true through the action and inaction of the adults in my life when I was a child. I was told in the violent abuse as an eight-year-old. I was told when my parents were not there to stop it. I was told in every schoolyard beating. I knew no different so I believed it. I was questioning it though. I questioned it in the back corner of a dilapidated auto garage in the middle of summer with no air conditioning as I hit a heavy bag a thousand times. Two thousand. Barely able to lift my arms. Three thousand. I only felt pain when the glove landed on the dented black leather bag that held the answers. I didn’t find them. I’m not asking the right question.
The bell sounds ending the second round. I can see Joe yelling at my opponent and then turns to me. Joe motions for me come to the center of the ring. My cornerman pushed my mouthguard back in quickly and I walk over confused. “You can’t win if you keep running. It’s not a dance competition.” I’m more confused. My corner told me to keep doing what I was doing. I say nothing. “This round will be a pivot drill.” A pivot drill is when our lead foot must remain in the same spot only allowed to swivel on as if our forefoot was bolted through the floor. We’ve done this drill before but not in the middle of sparring. My ego eagerly nods my head in acknowledgment. The bell rings.
My gloves cover my face and I tuck in my elbows. It’s not enough. I prepare for my opponent’s left hook and even though my glove is in the right place I feel the power of his shot to the bottom of my heels. His left-hand sneaks in between my gloves delivering a jab that pops my head back like a Pez dispenser. I cover up some more and I counter with a pathetic jab but he sees it coming and offers in return an overhand right hand to my left temple. A 1950’s Batman “Bazzang!” Flashes before my eyes. My hand finds it’s way back to my face to cover up. I feel an earthquake localized to where I’m standing when his left-hand lands clean on my bottom two ribs. I hear a crack. I throw as many shots as I can before the pain sets in but none of them land. I breathe. I calm down. I don’t feel any more punches but I hear a ringing. Joe stopped the fight. I didn’t hear him. I can’t hear anything. I see his hands on my forearms. I look up and he’s asking me something. “We’re done.” He says and he walks me to my corner.
“My head hurts,” I can only hear vowels in my voice. My eyes squinted in an attempt to soften the sonorous pinging. I look around to see where it’s coming from but no one else can hear it. I look down and act normal. I say nothing. My opponent doesn’t come over and we don’t exchange high-fives. I skip taking a shower and I go home.
The next day I go to work in a haze. A colleague of mine answers a question I asked concerning a specific project. He tells me to go to the hospital immediately. I asked him the same question several times in a matter of minutes. I was able to see my family doctor who told me I had lost my short term memory after suffering a concussion and subsequently swelling my brain. My doctor tells me he would no longer authorize me to compete thus ending my boxing career. I’m too dizzy to argue or maybe I did argue and just can’t remember.
I befriended many people at the boxing club over the years. We’d assemble at a local pub to watch the latest pay-per-view bout. In the gym, we pushed each other to our limits, sweating together, bleeding together. When you push yourself and each other passed the point of exhaustion week after week a camaraderie emerges. You’ve taken your body, yourself, to a place you didn’t know existed. “I didn’t know I could be that strong” is a common meme among fighters. And although boxing is an individual sport many of us overcome the invisible limitations we once believed existed together and we return stronger, better. Sometimes we punch each other in the face sparring and more often than not we became more connected. The challenge is that sometimes one of us can’t go on.
After my concussion, I seldom return to the gym. I made some appearances to a few more fight nights but then faded into the ether. I was a fallen comrade and didn’t need to remind them how dangerous the sport is.
The question I should have asked in the painful depths of those painful nights wasn’t why I wasn’t good enough. It was how far can I go after I’ve been knocked down. It wasn’t about boxing. It wasn’t about abuse or bullying or my parents. It was about who I wanted to be. I was fighting to be someone worthy. I was fighting to figure out how to let myself be loved. I was fighting to accept the fact that I was all of these things already. All I needed to do was take my glove off my cheek, and lift my chin up. Be exposed, vulnerable. Breathe, Rob, breathe.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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