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 inch and a half wide and twelve feet long that are wound around the wrist, across the palm, and through the fingers in an elaborate pattern.
No sport is more physically demanding than boxing. Each spring a covey of fraternity boys from UT shows up at the gym to train for the traditional charity fight night. They arrive cocky and full of themselves, making jokes and cutting up as Richard makes them jump rope. Then they start to hit a bag, and after only thirty seconds they are so out of breath they cannot go on. It took me at least a year before I could hit a heavy bag for three minutes without gasping for breath.
But throwing punches, however important, is only a part of the whole. You have to move back and forth around the ring, throwing punches as you move. Simply shadow boxing for three rounds is a supremely demanding exercise. But that is easier than working with the focus mitts. They are flat one-inch pads, slightly larger than a dessert plate, that fit over a trainer’s hands. The trainer calls for a combination of punches—one-two-two-one, for example, one being the left and two the right—in an ever more complex and demanding series. The more fatigued you get, the more difficult it is to remember what you are supposed to do, much less to do it.
Boxing is unlike most other sports in that there is no follow-through. A punch is supposed to end at its target and be light and quick, as if you were grabbing a salt shaker off a table. A punch that hits its target and then follows through transforms from a punch to a shove and loses power in the transformation. A punch that misses its target and follows through carries the boxer forward, off balance and out of position, and leaves him unprotected. Nor should punches be the long, swooping hay-makers you see in movies. Those are easy to see coming, and they seldom connect. Instead punches should be short, thrown from the chin with no windup or pulling back. The greatest fighters can generate withering power while moving their hands only twelve to eighteen inches. And then there are hand speed, foot speed, agility, balance, head movement, ringsmanship, cunning, experience, and—there can be no other word—courage. Evander Holyfield’s comeback against Riddick Bowe in the tenth round of their first championship fight is the most thrilling example in recent years, but I’ve seen it plenty of times in our little gym when two fighters match up and neither will bend to the other.
In the ring it turns out that it is harder to hit someone than you would think. It is especially hard, if you are right-handed, to hit someone with a right. That’s because you stand at an angle to your opponent so as not to present a broad target with your stomach and chest. Your left arm and shoulder are closer, so in this basic position the effective range of your left hand is four or five inches longer than your right. Throwing any punch exposes you to a counter punch, but throwing a right exposes you more because you must either move closer or turn your body more square to your opponent or both. But if you land a right, generally speaking it will be a more powerful punch, not because it is your right as opposed to your left but because with your left your body trails behind the punch and with your right it comes before it. In other words, your weight gets into it.
After years of sweat and effort, I can spar three straight rounds against an equally matched opponent without fading to nothing as the minutes wear on. Getting there wasn’t easy and I’m proud I did. I’ve been hit and from time to time hit harder than I would like. From that I have learned that being hit is not the end of the world. Most often things are just as they were before, except for a heated throbbing on your chin or chest or forehead. I think that’s a valuable lesson, and as I go on I guess I’ll have the opportunity to study it more. I’ve also hit. Sometimes in the heat of things you don’t know what really happened, which blows landed and which were parried. But I can remember several clean shots and see them in my mind as clearly as if they were photographs in an album. They are like the souvenirs of an exotic trip, out of my life, out of time. Norman Mailer has written that there are two fears to conquer in boxing—the fear of being hit and the fear of hitting back. Neither fear can be completely conquered, although the second one is the more difficult to confront. It is the more mysterious and, to my comfort and surprise, the more naturally human.