FOR THE PAST SIX YEARS OR SO I have been training at a local boxing gym. I have always wanted to know how to box. My reason has never been for self-defense, or at least not exactly. Criminals today tend to be armed, and fists aren’t much use against a 9mm Glock. If someone took a swing at me, I guess I’d be ready for him, but even that situation isn’t as clear as it might seem. Boxing gives you confidence, but only at the cost of also teaching you that confidence isn’t enough. After I’d been at it for a year or so, I used to think that with the training I was doing I could last one round with anyone by moving, dodging, blocking, and so on. Now I know that there are thousands of fighters who could dispatch me in one round without much trouble. I also know that there are thousands of untrained hotheads who, if they are in reasonable shape and weigh thirty or so more pounds than I, could also do me in, especially outside a ring and its rules and formalities. Nor did I want to learn to box to become the aggressor. I think I had a scuffle in the first grade, and I definitely hit Bill Mann during the seventh grade for stealing my bicycle. Those are the only times I’ve ever hit anyone in anger in my life. Some improbable circumstance may yet come about where a little boxing skill would be important or even crucial, but I will be very happy if it never does. Fights don’t find me and I don’t go looking.
Nevertheless, hitting and the exposure to being hit have always been at the center of boxing’s allure for me. Danger makes the sport mysterious and, perhaps unfortunately, quite naturally human. That’s why boxing, a sport in the ancient Olympics, survives in the modern games as well. I wondered what it was really about. What would it be like to step into a ring and fight someone?
And then there were romantic and impractical reasons, too, that were really more literary than athletic. Boxing was a remote and even forbidden world that, growing up, I had no idea how to enter. Apparently it was dominated by hoodlums and thugs, but it was glorified in spite of that on the sports pages and in literature. Hemingway boxed. Norman Mailer boxed. But how could you start boxing? I didn’t know, and I never really tried to find out.
Then one night six or seven years ago, a friend mentioned offhandedly that he was working out at a boxing gym, and that was how I found Richard Lord and his gym on Lamar in Austin. Born in Dallas, Richard had a reasonably successful career as a professional boxer fighting mostly around Texas. He won a lot and lost a few, eventually becoming the eighth-ranked junior lightweight by the United States Boxing Association. He is 41 now but still has the taut, wiry body he had while he was fighting. He has a natural authority in the gym. In all the time I’ve been going there, I’ve heard him raise his voice only once. Everyone in the gym instantly froze, and an eerie silence descended. Then Richard continued in his normal voice and we all picked up where we had left off, although passing a few smiles back and forth. For a year or so a former semipro basketball player, who is now a professor at Harvard University but was then at the University of Texas, came regularly. He described Richard as “the most democratic person I have ever known.” There could not be a more diverse group of people than those who show up at the gym. There have been several other college professors and any number of high school dropouts. There have been ministers and one smiling, friendly, funny, handsome man whom I liked immensely and who is now in prison for armed robbery. There have always been women who trained there. In the past there were just a few, but now there are many. Often when I’ve been working out there are more women than men.
And there is a group of serious boxers in training for the Golden Gloves, Olympic trials, or professional bouts. Their counsel to us flailing amateurs is invaluable, and their presence gives the gym an underlying purpose and validity. I should mention two in particular. Anissa “The Assassin” Zamarron is a tiny (108 pounds) but explosive and extremely charismatic fighter who has pleased audiences in Texas, New York, and Germany. On March 31 in Brownsville, Jesus “El Matador” Chavez became the World Boxing Council Continental Americas featherweight champion by winning a twelve-round decision. That victory should propel him into the international rankings and perhaps give him the chance to fight for a world title. Jesus is the first fighter trained by Richard to win a professional championship.
Our basic workout has been the same since I started. It begins with five rounds of skipping rope. There is a particular way that boxers jump rope that is unmistakable once you have seen it. It’s very rapid without any skip step between jumps over the rope. I once saw a man jumping boxer style in Central Park in New York and struck up a long conversation about his career in the ring. Then we do a series of calisthenics with particular concentration on the abdominal muscles. After that, we wrap our hands and work out on a variety of bags. Hands, not the chin, are a boxer’s weak point. There are many small bones in the hand that can break and lots of knuckles and joints that can get painfully bruised. During a workout or a bout, the hands take a worse beating than any other part of the body. Mine sometimes get sore enough that I dream of plunging them into hot water until the warmth penetrates deep into my fingers. The wraps are strips of cloth an