One day, I decided to try boxing.
It wasn’t as random as it sounds. I was inspired by watching an Amateur Boxing event that took place in a bar where my friends and I would often gather. I had never before considered being a boxer. However, when I saw my first amateur bout, something clicked. It is a particularly masculine thing to do; to see a guy doing something and think, “That doesn’t look so hard.” So, I thought about it (not very long, mind you) and got information from the promoter on how to become an amateur boxer.
I had to join the amateur boxing association (for a fee, of course) and I had to sign a waiver of liability (of course) but that was pretty much it. Fighting in their ring did not require that you were a trained boxer, that you had ever fought before in your life, nor that you were in any sort of fighting shape (which I was not).
One of my close friends is a mixed martial arts enthusiast and he agreed to help me get in shape. Of all the terrific advice he gave me, I took perhaps five percent of it to heart. I listened to him talk. I nodded. But the only thing I really wanted to hear was how to punch. How do I get my fist to land on my opponent and hurt him? Advice on breath control, foot movement, blocking… none of that really sank into my brain. I was determined to fight and I thought I could do it.
The date of my bout was scheduled and I passed the time beating up my punching bag a few minutes a day but doing no real training. On the night of my fight, quite a few of my friends came to watch. My good friend with the terrific advice was my corner man. My girlfriend was there. I should have been nervous. I should have had some kind of concern, if not for my physical well-being at least I should have been worried that I would make a complete fool of myself. I was not concerned. I did not fear for my face. I did not fear for losing face. I knew… KNEW that I could do this.
In the minutes leading up to my fight, we wrapped my hands. I drank some water. I went to the bathroom. Then, it was time to get into the ring and don the gloves provided by the event. It was then that I saw my opponent for the first time. A guy, who I had never seen before, was in the ring with me, putting gloves over his fists. Fists, which he will be soon be attempting to smash into me, to hurt me, to win. The association has weight classes and rankings, which meant that fighters were like-sized and would have relatively the same amount of fighting experience. This guy didn’t scare me. He was not bigger, he didn’t look stronger. My shorts were cooler-looking than his. Because, you know, that matters.
I noticed something after my corner man put on my gloves and the referee checked them for proper lacing and to make sure we didn’t adulterate them (I heard later that some guys have rubbed ground glass on them when nobody is looking to make them more dangerous). I noticed that these gloves were rather heavy. I had been training at home with the punching bag I bought at the sporting goods store. This punching bag came with gloves. I had no idea that the gloves I would wear in my fight would be any heavier than the ones I had been using at home. They were a LOT heavier. I’m getting ahead of my narrative by saying this, but a few minutes of swinging my fists around, clad as they were in these gloves, was going to make holding my hands up very difficult.
The referee called for the corner men to step out and my opponent and I faced each other. We touched gloves. The bell rang. The referee stepped back. And, for the first time in my life, I was about to try and punch someone. I was about to try and hurt another human being. Sure, it’s a sport. Sure, I had hit other people before but it had always been something sporadic. Someone was in my face. Someone was out of hand and required a shove. Never before had I actually, premeditatedly, set forth to do harm to another person. My mind was too flooded with testosterone and a will to win to think of it at the time. I was playing a game and it wasn’t until later that I actually analyzed what happened in that ring.
The first couple of punches we threw were easily blocked. Neither of us had boxed before. However, I soon noticed that the other guy kind of knew what he was doing. It’s possible, I suppose, that he had actually practiced. He might have actually listened to the advice of someone that knew what they were talking about. His feet moved in the way my corner man had tried to teach me. He exhaled when he threw a punch. He never let his other hand drop guard when the offensive hand went out. Me? I did all the things I wasn’t supposed to.
The rounds were only ninety seconds, which sounds like nothing. It’s half a goddamn pop song. It’s not even a full commercial break. But those first ninety seconds was enough time for my opponent and I to throw ten or eleven punches each. I didn’t keep the scorecard and I can’t remember for sure but when the bell rang, we were pretty even. Neither of us had really hurt each other and the next round was sure to be more of the same.
The problem, for me anyways, was that I was not in very good shape. I have never been a health fanatic. I ate fast food, I drank beer, and I smoked cigarettes. Those ninety seconds were enough to make me out of breath. Those ninety seconds were enough to make it difficult to hold my hands up. Those ninety seconds were enough to slow me down.
There is a thirty second break between rounds. I think there might have been a ring girl, carrying a card around with a number two. I know my corner man had words for me. His words did not matter. I was beyond them. My corner man was wiping sweat off of my brow and yet it seemed like he was far away. The sounds of the bar, the people yelling, laughing, ordering drinks, it all became a cacophony. The sounds blended together, like trees on the side of the road when you drive by really fast. The sounds blended into a consistent murmur until my ears ignored them. The noise became silence, against which I could hear the only sound my ears were seeking. I heard the bell.
My opponent and I approached each other, touched our gloves again, and the bell sounded the beginning of the second round. I’ve already said I was tired. Man, I was tired. But I could tell the other guy was too. His feet didn’t move as quickly as they had earlier. His hands were not held as high. We traded glancing punches and blocked a few more until my opportunity arrived.
He threw a jab, which I stepped inside of. I hooked and got him in the ribs. He was thrown off balance and lost is breath for a split second. Somehow, a little of the training from my corner man came into play and I remembered a combination. I planted my rear foot and followed my hook with a cross from my right hand, using the muscles in my torso to turn my upper body. This allowed the power of my legs, my rotators, my shoulders, and my arms to come into play. The punch was perfect. Well, it was nearly perfect. I had timed it well and aimed for a spot a little behind his head. I hit him in the inner corner of his left eye.
There is a special, expanded time reserved for near-death experiences and other adrenaline-fueled events. If you’ve been in a car accident you know what I mean. The human perception of time is altered. You are allowed to see things as they happen in slow-motion. You notice things that would normally have gone by much too fast.
It was in that kind of bizarre time warp that I watched my glove as it hit the man’s face. It was very much like a slow-mo shot from a movie. I saw my glove come into contact. I saw it compress his nose, his cheekbone, and his eye. I saw his head snap back. I saw sweat fly in little droplets from his hair. I saw the light from one of the spotlights above us refract in the flying perspiration, like a rainbow you make when spraying a garden hose into the air on a summer afternoon.
Had I actually trained for fighting, had I actually heeded the advice of my friend and corner man, I wouldn’t have stopped. I would have followed up with another jab from my left and then another power punch from the right. I probably would have knocked the other guy out. I would have at least had him on the mat for the rest of round two.
Sadly, I was the most amateur of the amateur boxers in the ring that night. I nearly fell when the follow-through of my big punch took my center of gravity away from the safe spot above my feet. I took a few quick steps and regained my balance, which gave the other guy time to get his bearings and regain his breath. He came at me, driven, I’m sure, by pain and rage. He got a decent hit on my shoulder, but his guard was low and I hit him in the face again. I could see the anger and frustration on his face. He tried to jab, then hook but I deflected and hit him in the face a third time. My hands were moving slow and my opponent (despite having been hit in the face three times, bleeding from the nose, and having one eye swollen nearly shut) landed a hook on the side of my head.
The wall of sounds that had blended into a sort of silence before became an actual silence. It was like listening to a song on the radio, turned up really loud, and the power going out. Everything around me dimmed a little. Not only was the volume of the crowd muted, but the stage lights seemed to dim. I didn’t know what was happening for a moment and in that moment, my lizard brain took over. I dropped my hands. I turned, and I started to walk away. I was not in control of my body. I was inside my ringing head, screaming at myself to turn around and put up a guard before I get knocked out! Then I heard the bell.
My fight had turned to flight and my brainstem somehow brought me to my corner. My corner man was tapping me on the forehead and the sound of the bar came back up to full volume. I was again in control of my body. I was horrified at the memory of running away from my opponent. But I was also exhausted.
After three puny minutes of swinging my fists at this guy, I was as tired as if I had swam across ten swimming pools. I was as out of breath as if I had run up twenty flights of stairs. I was breathing so hard, I had to open my mouth and breathe around my mouth guard, my nose no longer having the throughput to feed my aching lungs. I was pathetic. It was then that a few words my corner man said broke through my skull and sank into my mind, “Quit trying to kill that guy and just try to hit him!” With those words, the bell sounded the end of the break and I met my opponent for the third and final time at the center of the ring. For the third time, the bell rang to start the round. For the third time, we faced each other.
We were both tired. It was obvious. Neither one of us put as much force into the punches we threw. Neither one of us even moved that much. We could have been glued to the floor for all the dancing we were doing. My head was buzzing from the solid hit I took in the last round and his face was bleeding form the three I gave him. We jabbed, blocked, hooked, and blocked. Eventually, the bell rang again and we went to our corners to await the decision of the judges.
The first round went to my opponent by 4 points. The second round was mine, but only by a point. The third round went also to the other guy. The decision from the judges was that he had won and I had lost. I was dumbstruck. Not in the way I had been when my opponent landed his punch on the side of my skull. I was astounded that I had lost. I was so sure that I would win. I was so certain that I would not lose.
As my corner man removed my gloves, I noticed they were smeared with blood. They looked like I had used them to make tomato juice. I looked over my shoulder to the opposite corner. My opponent could not open his left eye and his nose would not stop bleeding. He was being propped up by a friend and was not able to stand to accept the decision of the judges.
I furiously made my way to the bathroom. In the mirror, I looked like the killer in a gory movie. My eyes were wild, my hair was matted and sweaty. I was splattered with another man’s blood. As I stared at my face in the mirror, framed by stickers and graffiti, I began to come down from the excitement of the fight. The adrenaline was running down and the disappointment of losing was kicking in.
I spent the rest of the night getting play-by-play recall from friends that watched. A few of my friends noted that the other guy didn’t look like the winner. A few (perhaps in consolation) said I should’ve won. A few more said I’d do better next time. But I knew they were trying to make me feel better. I knew I had lost fair and square. I knew that I didn’t win because I wasn’t playing the sport. I went into the ring cocky and tried to take the other guy out. I should have been trying to earn points and block punches, not take my opponent’s head off. As I thought more about it, I became more ashamed of my performance and even more so of my behavior.
Fifteen years later, I think about that night and I am disgusted. I have dreams of my fight. I dream I’m in the ring, throwing punches as hard as I can to no effect. Sometimes I dream of that slow motion moment when my glove pounded into my opponent’s face. Sometimes it pops into my head when I’m awake. It always leaves me feeling disappointed in myself. Sometimes I feel the visceral squish of my fist hitting his face, as if the glove isn’t there and I’m physically sickened. The elation I felt when I saw my opponent bleeding and swollen makes me feel guilty. Typing this brings it to mind and I’m squeamish and ashamed again.
That night will forever haunt me. It will always be there to remind me what happens when I am too sure of myself. It will remind me what happens when I don’t listen to advice. Best of all, it will remind me of what I am capable of doing when I forget my humanity. All the negative connections I have with that night serve to guide me. I’d like to think I learned from my mistakes, that I am a better person because of it. But I am constantly afraid that I am still that same angry, headstrong boy… punching as hard as he can against the world but losing the fight anyway.