Monday, March 20, 2006


My boxing workout remains a mystery to most people in my life, save those in my classes, which I take three times a week, all with the same instructor, Kid Avila, at various locations of the New York Sports Club. I’ve been doing this now for close to a decade. I should be turning pro by now, but the truth is I’m happy just to get in the workouts every week.

This goes back to my teen years, when I can recall asking my parents if I could get a speed-bag one Christmas. They said no, sensing what I didn’t, that the noise level would be hideous, and the constant vibrations would most likely tear down a wall or a post over time. I do remember getting those assholic gravity boots that became such a hit after Richard Gere was shown using them in American Gigolo. Actually, those boots were a great workout, but I must have looked like a total putz hanging upside down like a bat in the basement.

In gyms, I tend not to understand weightlifters, i.e., about 90% of the guys in the gym. Throughout history, weightlifting has been a part of other workouts – not the sole workout. Some time in the 70s, weightlifting really caught on, and gyms geared themselves almost completely to this sport. There’s just a dingus mentality that goes along with too many hard-core lifters. Some sort of misguided machismo where large muscles are associated with male toughness. Never mind that most of the greatest athletes in history have not been muscle-bound and vein-popping. There’s a reason for all the mirrors in gyms: so these guys can admire themselves. It’s over-blown vanity, hijacking what is essentially a good, healthy practice. (For the record, I lift weights twice a week, simply going through the circuit machines, which is the equivalent of miming to a Liza Minelli record to true lifters.)

I always wanted to try boxing, and one day I noticed a poster in the New York Sports Club for a boxing camp that would run six weeks, where gym members could learn how to box. I signed up, took the camp, run by a hard-assed little Puerto Rican lady with a military background who had won her division of the NY State Golden Gloves twice, and I loved it. I went down to G&S Sporting Goods on the Lower East Side, bought my first pair of bag gloves and hand wraps, and had that same giddy feeling Little Leaguers have putting on their new uniforms.

Shortly after the camp ended, while I was using the now-defunct Madison and 46th branch of the Sports Club (where I twice got athlete’s foot), I saw a boxing class going on Tuesday nights at 5:30. The first thing I noticed was the class was mostly women, and they were beautiful – all of them in great shape. I kept watching the class out of the corner of my eye while using the adjacent stairmasters. Half checking out the ass, half interested to see that a boxing class was going on. It looked good all around, so the next week, I joined.

And that’s where I met Kid Avila, another former Golden Gloves winner who was still fighting professionally (since retired). He’s maybe the best athlete I’ve ever known – in top shape, weighs around 150 lbs., tireless and strong as an ox. The key though was his friendliness – just a nice guy with a calm demeanor. (I’ve since learned that many boxing instructors favor a strange boot-camp drill instructor mentality with their classes, which sucks. I don’t need to be yelled at – that stuff stops working after a certain age. I’m not a masochist, or a steer/queer from Texas.)

I learned fast that the keys to boxing were speed and stamina, before strength. It was no accident that all these women in great shape were taking boxing classes – the work-out is more aerobic than a test of strength. In every class, there’d be big guys who’d come in and slap at the heavy bag. They hit hard – usually pushing the bag, too, which is the mark of a novice. And would be gasping through the randomly-placed bouts of push-ups and other calisthenics, designed to wear us all down as quickly as possible.

Naturally, I was no different at first. There comes a point with boxing classes where the student learns how to “pop” the bag as opposed to “pushing” it. You can hear it – when he hits the bag, it pops. A pleasing sound, especially to the person throwing the punch. And it’s simply a matter of speed and coordination growing over time. The student learns the basic combinations, builds up his stamina with the insane number of push-ups and stomach exercises, and after a few months, the door opens.

I’ve seen this breakthrough a few times with other classmates, and that’s always fun. I’d say for every person like that over the past decade, I’ve seen a few hundred people take the class once or a handful of times and never come back. Physically, it’s just hard. Like any other instructor, the Kid’s goal is to wear down everyone in the class, in effect building up strength and stamina over time. Some people take it as a personal affront and get discouraged. In effect, we all face our physical limitations, and fail in some sense. There have been times when I’ve almost shit myself due to exhaustion. And I’ve found it’s a humbling and worthwhile experience to know just how far you can go before your body stops.

After a few years, I know the faces of those who stay. Like Gene, this big, hairy Irish bastard from the Bronx who has the hardest punch that Kid has ever felt. The guy’s an animal, grunting and moaning, his weird orange pelt dripping in sweat as he pops the bag. He played college football for a Division I-A school, so he knows what it means to be in extraordinary physical condition. If I ever had to box him, the logic would be wear him down by moving and don’t let him hit me. Because if he ever connected the way I’ve felt him do on a bag countless times, I’d curl up in a ball on the floor and start crying.

Most of those who stay are women – in a class of 10, roughly seven will be women, three will be men. And the women will be hard asses. In any given class, there’ll be all-male weightlifters peering into the gym while we box, leering or smirking, thinking this is just a glorified aerobics class. The few times these great gods have descended from Olympus to take the class, they’ve either left early due to physical exhaustion or thrown fat, lazy roundhouse punches that a blind man could duck. They never come back.

Simply put, it’s the best workout I’ve ever had. I’ve never felt a release of pent-up frustration like I have by hitting a heavy bag. The real fun comes when Kid puts on the hand mitts and lets the class work on combinations. This is where coordination and speed are built. You could blind-fold me, and I could tell you who the best boxers in the room are by the sound of the punches hitting the mitts.

Do I have any urge to fight, in or out of a ring? Hell, no. At this point in my life, I want to get paid if I’m going to get my ass kicked. A small handful of Kid’s students have taken the next step, joining a boxing gym and getting into sparring. Which looks good on paper, but sparring is a gray area where the mentality of your partner comes into play, which is to say you may end up brawling with someone who has serious issues. Getting my nose broken by an angry 19-year-old doesn’t seem like a good proposition. I could understand if I was in my mid-20s and looking to compete, as an amateur or professional, but not anymore. Some cursory reading on how easy it is to get a concussion, and the long-term effects from just one, was enough to convince me to draw the line.

As for out of the ring, forget it. How would I fare in a street fight? Unless I was facing a professional, pretty good. I can hit fast and hard, and I know how to move. But there are all these X factors that go along with informal fights that wouldn’t occur in a boxing ring, like getting hit after falling down, wrestling, biting, weapons of varying sorts, etc. Or simply coming up against a psychopath who enjoys pain: check out Ultimate Fighting matches on TV for reference. Lord only knows how many deranged, extremely hard guys like that there are in the world. And I hope to hell to avoid them like the plague. Besides, life isn’t like the movies. You kick somebody’s ass in public, if there’s a witness, chances are good that you may get an aggravated assault charge.

Ultimately, there’s just as much posturing with boxing as there is with weightlifting. But it makes more sense to me to acquire a usable skill than to bench press X hundreds of pounds. I’ve found that with weightlifting, the relationship with the real world is tenuous, which is to say you take a guy out of his rigidly-defined exercises, and he’s often not all that strong. You’ll find many pot-bellied mechanics with no muscle tone heaving engine blocks, and I’ve always had respect for that sort of informal strength. And I think there’s something of that informality in boxing. Because if you saw Kid Avila walking down the street, you’d think, look at that scrawny little runt. And I can tell you right now, if he ever squared off against me, I’d start running.

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