Monday, February 11, 2008

The Gloves

People often ask me if I'll ever get into the boxing ring, but at this point in my life, what's the point? True, if you want a complete boxing experience, you need to spar, as learning how to move and get hit is just as important as hitting. On the other hand, getting hit on a regular basis by a trained boxer, unless you're training to be a professional or amateur boxer, is senseless. Hard body shots have the potential for causing long- or short-term damage to internal organs. Head shots? Do some reading on the subject. One concussion could have lingering after-effects for years. Most boxers, whether they're aware of it or not, receive numerous concussions, ranging from mild to severe. Even with head gear, the strong possibility for receiving a concussion is very real. It just aint worth it.

Getting hit is not as painful as most people are led to believe. I'd wager that most guys who get mild concussions shake them off and are back in the ring in a matter of minutes, or the next day at the latest. Damaged kidneys? Urine turns a strange color, but you keep going. These are boxing injuries that most likely wouldn't occur in a street fight. One thing you learn about boxing is that the fear associated with getting hit is worse than getting hit. Kids who get their ass kicked on a regular basis by bullies understand this. Bruises heal. Somebody pops you in the face, sure, it hurts, you might even bleed, but life doesn't end. In fact, you go right on moving. It's that fear of anticipation leading up to physical contact that gets to most people, as if getting punched in the face will be some cataclysmic event involving oxygen tents and last rites.

Of course, this doesn't hold true for professionals or well-trained amateurs. Those martial arts exhibitions with guys punching through cinder blocks and such? For real. Even a guy like me who doesn't train anywhere near that level, I can hit very hard, harder than guys much stronger than I am via weight training who aren't trained in any way to fight. Do it long enough, and this just happens. Your body "learns" the motion associated with throwing a punch, your coordination increases. Guys in a gym flexing in a mirror have it wrong, or don’t understand real power. If so, they’d be showing off their thighs and lower back, where the real power comes from when you attack someone in any fashion. Bulging biceps are window dressing.

But I promise not to turn this into another “weightlifters are assholes” digression. The real reason for this post is to describe a night I had last week going to see a fellow boxer from one of my classes fight in his first Golden Gloves match, trained by our instructor, Kid Avila. The match took place in Harlem, a Police Athletic League gym on Manhattan Avenue and 118th Street. I went for a boxing match, and what I got was an eerie homecoming of sorts based on my decade in the Bronx.

Back in the late 90s, Kid had a class in the oddly run-down NY Sports Club gym on 46th between Madison and Fifth. “Oddly” because that’s swanky midtown, but that’s the mangiest Sports Club I’ve ever been in. I caught athlete’s foot there twice – the only times I’ve contracted this malady. The gym there was boxy and cramped. As I noted earlier, I got turned onto the class after taking a six-week “boxing camp” the gym provided at extra charge (which was a great intro to the sport), and later spying Kid teaching a class at the 46th Street gym that looked like a try-out for Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. (Roughly 10 years later, I’m still doing it three times a week.)

One of the regulars there was Ron, a lawyer with a hobbit-like vibe – on the short side, friendly, open. Unusual for an attorney in his unforced geniality. The key word there is “unforced” – you’ll find plenty of lawyers who are very charming, but pricks underneath. Ron seemed like he was a nice guy all the time. After awhile, he started bringing his kid, Ben, who was your average suburban teenager. I gather Ben was probably like me as a teenager. I recall very much wanting to learn how to box, but back in that part of Pennsylvania in the 70s, despite Muhammad Ali having a training camp near-by in Deer Lake, boxing was a non-entity as a local sport. Wrestling was king in my high school (we provided a few state champs in their weight classes annually at the time), and I’ve already noted how uncomfortably close to prison shower sex wrestling seems to me. A, I don’t want guys touching me while we both wear tights; B, I don’t want them touching me like that ever.

The classes would find us merrily beating out our frustrations on the heavy bags. A large part of my relaxation process is boxing, a great physical release for emotional and mental stress. Sometimes I’ll walk into a class with a headache, and it will be gone by class end, whisked away by extreme physical exertion. Ron’s kid was like the rest of us: awkward at first, but after awhile, you could see development, the learning of the combinations, the body intuitively sensing how to move. I don’t recall being overly impressed with his skills, or any of ours, for that matter. We could hit hard and fast -- how this compared to other boxers, I still have no idea. I do know Kid’s stepped up the cardio portion of his sessions in the last few years, but the boxing stuff is so fundamental to me now, I have no idea how good or bad I am (which would be easy enough to find out).

Ben went off to college in Pennsylvania, and Ron faded out of the class after some vague health issues. Kid had kept in touch with Ron, so I’d get these occasional updates on what was going on, the best news being that Ben had joined the boxing team at his small college and was doing well. I didn’t see him for a few years there in any of Kid’s classes.

Eventually, Ben came back, although not full-on. He started taking Kid’s classes occasionally, but was taking more training sessions at the Kingsway boxing gym in Manhattan where Kid did full-on training with sparring. When Ben came back, you could see how vastly improved he was as a boxer. His punches were faster and harder, his movements more accurate. You can generally tell how much boxing experience someone has by how he moves – I have very little, but know how to move, always keeping the head in motion, pulling away after a combination, pivoting after a hook. Most of these things come naturally when someone’s trying to hit you.

So, this fall, Ben makes it clear he’s going to try for the Golden Gloves, under Kid’s tutelage, and he wants to do it at 165 lbs. – with him weighing just over 180 lbs. I gather he thought he might be too thin for 175 lbs. and surely not bulky enough for heavyweight. (He’s a taller guy, a little over six feet.) So it was his idea to drop way down, if possible, and kick some much smaller ass.

The problem is, it looked like a lot of guys had the same idea this year. There were 40 some boxers who signed on for that novice weight division this year in the Gloves, meaning at least five matches if you want to win the whole shebang. That leaves a lot of margin for error: five fights in roughly two months time, with the level of competition probably rising steeply with each match.

On top of which, the guy has to drop around 15 lbs. in a few months, and hope he can maintain that weight for two months and manage to stay strong. Ben did make it, but I gather he worked his ass off with Kid, training and dieting the whole time, which seems a lot easier to do in your early 20s! I can recall having the ability to drop or gain five pounds in a weekend back then. Now I just have the ability to gain that much, but am smart enough not to do that.

So, Ben signs on for the Gloves, all systems go, the first match is assigned at this PAL gym in Harlem. Great, I thought, at least I can attend this one, as that implies a straight shot on the 1 Train up to 116th, and a short walk over to the gym on 119th. I’ve read the schedule, and the matches are often held in far-flung places in the NYC area (Jamaica, Queens, or Yonkers, or Staten Island, etc.) that would be hard to attend simply in terms of travel. I don't give a rat's ass about the neighborhood -- there are few places I won't go in New York. But I don't see myself taking a damned ferry to see a boxing match.

The night came last week, and off I went on the 1 Train, getting off at 116th, the Columbia University stop, grabbing some pizza at a small place by a huge medical center. I walk over to Morningside Avenue and am surprised to find on the other side a long wooded park on the side of a very steep hill: call it the other side of the tracks. Top of the hill is the affluent Columbia area, the bottom is Harlem. Period. Even at night, you can grasp this from the top of the hill, the cheesy yellow bodega fronts, the gritty, no-frills look of the streets flowing out from the park.

And I flashbacked to being about 25, and realized that was the last time I was on Morningside Avenue, riding my bike down from the Bronx, purposely getting myself lost so I could find my way out and learn about the city. I’m sure with Morningside, I simply came straight over from Broadway to see where it lead, ran into this beautiful avenue, and gazed in wonder at this valley-like park that spread out underneath it. I knew some people who lived around here, but back when I visited, the gist was to head west to Riverside, the concept being the farther east you went across Broadway, the more ragged it got.

Well, here I was again, about 15 years on, looking down this empty park on a dark winter night, thinking, shit, I have to walk through this to get to Manhattan Avenue. I don’t like walking in any park at night – too many shitheads out. I’m thinking mostly kids in gangs, people either buying or using drugs, the idea being hanging out in the woods at night, much as in the country, is not kosher.

The good thing is the park is long and thin – I could run the width of it in under a minute if necessary. I could see a lot of convenient hiding places along the walking path, large patches of bush and underbrush. As I started walking down the steps, something else started occurring to me: I liked this. I liked being alone in the middle of a major city, no one in sight, we’re talking 7:00 pm, not exactly three in the morning. It reminded me of the Bronx, how I’d walk along desolate Bailey Avenue that rose over the Harlem River instead of the more populous Sedgwick Avenue, mainly because I was of a mind that less human contact was a better policy, even if it meant risking getting jumped while walking alone (which never happened). So it was more dangerous in a sense. So I’d be on my own if shit happened. It still worked for me. I firmly believe that when I lived in the Bronx, I was often spared any weird shit because I could pass for a cop, and most trouble-seeking goons, when they saw me, either thought that, or, “Christ … what’s a white guy doing here?” Either way, they probably reasoned it was a better idea to leave me alone.

I made it down fine. Actually, towards the end, I saw two teenage hispanic girls walking towards me, both stopped when they saw me, and went back in the direction they came. Great! I was scaring people! What’s this freaky-looking white guy doing walking in the park after dark? It felt re-assuring to intimidate people.

The streets around there were just like back in the Bronx. A little beat-up. Think strip malls. Pit bulls. Merengue blasting from gypsy cabs. C-Town supermarkets with Pampers stacked against the grimey front window. Telltale yellow CafĂ© Bustelo coffee cans in bodega windows. The theme from Welcome Back, Kotter may as well have been playing in my head. This was all familiar terrain to me from a decade in the Bronx. There surely weren’t smiling black and brown faces appearing in windows and yelling, “Welcome back, Billy!” I’d think “up yours, whitey” would have made me more nostalgic. I had only been back to the Bronx once or twice after leaving in the spring of 1997, both within months of leaving, despite my claims that I’d constantly go back. For one thing, it was a hard slog from Astoria, just not an easy trip subway-train wise; for another, when you leave a borderline ghetto neighborhood, you don’t have much of an urge or impetus to go back. For what?

I got to the gym, which was around the side of the main entrance, paid my $20, and got a P.C. Richard & Sons gift certificate along with my ticket. I’ll say this over and over, as it bears repeating: living in New York and coming from a small town, I crave people and places that show me there’s a direct, human connection between each, that hard-to-find “common ground” that comes up in so many canned speeches regarding racial harmony.

Well, here it was again, standing in front of a fold-out table as I took my ticket and coupon, looking in on a gym that could have been anywhere in rural America: the panhandle of Texas, a Montana cattle town, a Coal Region town in northeast Pennsylvania. The lighting was off, a little too dim. There was a 10-row set of fold-out wooden bleachers along one wall, a curtained stage on the other that had probably seen many dance recitals. There was a no-frills electronic scoreboard on the far wall, basketball backboards on each end. The only difference between this gym and many others I’ve seen in rural Pennsylvania was a large, well-lit boxing ring in the center and five rows of fold-out metal chairs on each side.

There were a few other small differences. For one, there was a master of ceremonies/DJ working the crowd with a microphone, wearing a cape and a silver metal breast plate, clearly some type of local celebrity with a larger-than-life personality. There were a bunch of girls doing some strange line dance to a hip-hop tune with him by the side of the ring when I walked in, with the girls surrounding him like a star. Give him a cowboy hat, turn him white and make the song “Achy Breaky Heart,” and this could have been rural Arkansas.

(Later on, when he took up his announcer’s seat by the DJ booth on the stage, he’d have impromptu contests for even more P.C. Richard & Sons coupons, with promotions like giving coupons to anyone who could present an out-of-state license [I could have, but fuck it], or asking people in the crowd to name various 80s pop songs like “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “Hip to Be Square.” It’s a strange thing to be in a gym in Harlem with a black guy dressed like a trojan doing the mashed potato to Toni Basil’s “Mickey.”)

There was also a large video screen on the stage that seemed to be showing an odd loop of a Barack Obama speech interspersed with the DJ at a previous boxing event charming pretty black girls to get them to dance. Between rounds, the blasting music never let-up: the main reason I'm never comfortable at any sporting event, the loss of silence, like we'll all burst into flames if we actually speak to each other in a normal tone of voice instead of yelling to be heard.

I don't know who it was who sang "The National Anthem." He looked like a janitor who had just dropped his mop and picked-up a microphone, but I suspect he was one of the fighter's managers. He did a beautiful job, and that song always gets to me at sporting events. I recall going back to Pennsylvania shortly after 9/11, and going to a high-school football game with my brother, nearly breaking down to be back in my hometown, listening to this song, just glad to be alive after that awful day. This night in Harlem, it was just a nice feeling to see such a mixed crowd of people stand at atttention and listen to the song. It gets no better than that in terms of pure American moments, a bunch of people gathered in a small gym in a ragged neighborhood to watch a bunch of guys fight their way out of something, maybe get their asses kicked, but willing to take that chance.

After the first match, the “concession stand” opened up just behind the ticket table. It looked like local women who had either volunteered their services or made the food themselves: turkey and ham sandwiches and such, potato salad in tin-foil trays, fried chicken, cans of warm Coke poured into styrofoam cups. If I’d known there’d be food, I would have blown off the pizza and got a sandwich. The thing is, I had never been to a Golden Gloves boxing match and had no idea what to expect. It was more like attending a high-school basketball game in a small town than some official/intimidating environment. I should have known this – fuck’s sake, a PAL gym in Harlem – but the whole concept of the Gloves seemed so intimidating to me that I was expecting something much more elaborate.

The crowd was an odd and comforting mix. That night, there was, to me at least, a disproportionate number of white fighters, i.e., they were in the majority. (I can guarantee the pictures of the finalists in the paper will show few white faces.) Thus, there was a healthy number of white folks in the stands, most probably as freaked out as I was. A lot of coworkers, family and friends. They came to sit together and cheer on their guy. There were some boxers who didn’t hear the announcement that they were to dress/prepare in the lower level of the gym, so you had a few guys wrapping their hands in ratty boxing robes and taking stern instructions from their trainers. The Marines were sponsoring the event, and they had a chin up bar in the corner where they invited anyone who wanted to do 50 chin-ups and get a free t-shirt. (Many tried, but very few came away with a t-shirt.) Most of the crowd was black and hispanic, again, people there to cheer on their guy. You’d know whose guy was whose once a match started, with the cheering and shouted encouragements.

What was most comforting, and something I’ve never experienced before, was looking around the room and recognizing other boxers simply by their looks. It’s hard to explain. Physically, I guess you could point to guys with larger shoulders and backs. Boxers tend not to be profoundly muscled, unless they’re born that way. All I can say is there’s a certain looseness about them, they look relaxed, not feeling any need to intimidate anyone with the self assurance of knowing how to defend themselves. I guess if you got a roomful of dancers, they’d recognize each other, too. Most good boxers I’ve seen, a key component no one ever seems to notice is how loose and relaxed they are. I see in classes, newcomers are always uptight and constricted in how they throw punches. Part of that is not knowing the routines or instructor's habits, but part is not having that sense of looseness. Boxing presents a strange dichotomy in that you have to keep your hands and arms in tight (otherwise your body and face are going to get pummeled), but aside from that positioning, the key is to stay as relaxed as possible.

I looked around and saw guys like this all over the gym, in every color. The hispanic kid next to me, I could tell by looking at him, boxed. He must have seen the same thing in me, too. He left his coat by my feet to get a sandwich when the concession stand opened. All I could think was, shit, buddy, you’re more trusting than I am. But I could feel that distant sort of camaraderie, too. The guys in front of me had been boxers and were there to see one of the guy’s kids box. They just had that look.

You have to understand, as someone into music, I’ve gone to many concerts where I thought there’d be a shared sense of community with hundreds or thousands of other fans … only to find an arena or club filled with stoned pricks who didn’t seem to derive the same kind of pleasure and insight I did from the music. Music is often trumpeted as the great unifier, but that’s rarely been my experience.

Here I was in a small gym in Harlem, and I felt a greater sense of belonging with a bunch of other fans and fighters who were there for a sport no one thinks of when a loaded word like “unity” is kicked around. It was nice. Of course, this was a good night. I’d hate to think what would happen if a fight broke out in the crowd – it probably would end up like a bar-room brawl in an old Western movie. There were also no traces of racism. A few times, a black and white fighter would square off, with their retinue of cheering fans. But nothing strange happened. I’d hardly call this a monumental evening – it was probably just another night in the Gloves competition. But to me, there were so many underlying and not obvious things going radically right that night, that it left me with a good feeling. I guess this derived from the whole point of the matches: you fight your ass off, and you win or lose, doesn't matter what color you are.

As for the matches, they ranged from very bad to well fought. Some of the guys were clearly not well-trained, losing steam by the end of the second (of three) rounds. A three-round fight, if you can’t train yourself to have energy to burn after six minutes in a ring, you’ve done something wrong. Sure, you’re going to get tired, you’re going to feel beat after any kind of intense physical confrontation like that. But we’re talking what should be months of training that includes both serious road work (about five miles a day, if you’re smart) and more accurately timed three-minute intensity workouts to mimic the time period in each round. It’s doable – I could do it, and you could, too. It would be a lot of work, but you better believe if you're going to climb in a ring in public and face someone looking to knock you out, you'd want to be in the best physical condition of your life.

The thing is, especially with the well-trained fighters, they’re thinking how little time they have to make shit happen. Thus, these things often become high-speed brawls more than well-planned matches. Amateur scoring focuses more on how many punches are landed. So, technically, you could nearly knock someone out and still lose if your opponent keeps peppering you with punches throughout the fight and dominates you in punch count.

This was Ben’s fight. Apparently, the guy he faced, he had met before in an unofficial intra-gym match (I think this guy trained at Church Street, another popular Manhattan boxing gym), and Ben had won on a TKO in the third round, ringing the guy’s bell. So, there was some bad blood to begin with. They went at each other like wolverines, a flurry of arms and pushes. Both were well trained, and I had a hard time telling who was coming out on top in each round. In the first round, Ben got belted hard in the face but managed to recover. The next two rounds, I thought he edged ahead of his opponent.

As it turned out, he won all three rounds, but each round was very close. Too close for comfort. Kid and Ron were in his corner, and I didn’t even say anything to them leading up to the fight. They had been in the far corner of the gym warming up as they waited their turn in line, but I thought, leave them alone, whatever head they’re in, they don’t want anyone outside stepping in and throwing off their game plan. Ron must have been out of his head watching his kid both getting beat around the ring and doing some serious beating himself.

I was sitting with Kid’s girlfriend, a small Indian girl who’d be a monster if she was a male heavyweight boxer. She saw the same things I did with Ben’s fight, and we both held our breath until the referee raised Ben’s hand at the end. Afterwards, Kid came around to hang out with us and watch a few more matches before clearing out. It was amazing how many people knew him. He had won the Gloves years ago, fought professionally and helped train people in a few Manhattan gyms, so a lot of people came to pay their respects. I picked up through his conversations that a lot of aging boxers who were once champs were there that night. Again, no crowns, no gold belts, no attitudes. Just guys who looked like they were going to go home afterwards and read bedtime stories to their kids in cramped two-bedroom apartments.

It was easier getting out, this time with Kid and his girl. She had said some lone pervert had spied her walking through the park, so she ran most of the way to the gym. She worked in the medical center on the hill and never once walked in the park. This time we found a path around 120th Street that was a straight shot up the hill to Morningside, you could see the path all the way, no hiding places ... will have to remember this if I come back again.

A wild night. Ben's chances? Who knows. He's well trained and received a huge ego boost by winning his first match. I imagine there are a few ass-kickers waiting in the wings, guys with the potential to make an Olympic team. We'll see, and it would be a tremendous kick to see him fight in the finals at Madison Square Garden. I'll say this about boxing: it has a very strong connection to a boxer's emotional state. There's a good reason you'll find so many black and hispanic fighters dominating the sport: they're hungry in some sense. Not just for money, but for things like self respect and a sense of belonging. A lot of them come from raw circumstances, little opportunity in life, nothing to lose in many senses. Boxing itself has that direct emotional release -- you literally punch the darkness and anger out of your system, at least for awhile. As anyone who understands anger knows, it's a well that will never run dry for most of us.

I don' t think I'd ever be a great or even good boxer for that reason alone. While I can get as angry as the next asshole, my parents raised me pretty well, all things considered, I don't feel any elemental need to dominate people, physically or otherwise. At times I do, surely, but it's not a driving force in my life. As hard as it may sound, a dark impulse like that must drive a boxer to a higher level on a routine basis. Ultimately, it's a dark sport. Beating the shit out of another human being is serious business.

Picture Mike Tyson's early fights, where he'd pulverize opponents in a matter of seconds or minutes. Part of that was training and his physical gifts. But I'd wager part was who he was and some unnatural force he could conjure when entering a ring. I believe every fighter understands that sort of darkness, whether he can verbalize it or not, no matter how he was raised or how nice a guy he is outside the ring. What he does with that force, how he uses it, is another story. Skills and training get you so far, luck helps, but I have to believe there's this X Factor -- how bad you want it, and how hard you're willing to beat someone to get it -- that drives most boxers. A boxer needs to face that sort of self realization more than he needs to face another boxer. Of course, we all have some kind of darkness. We'll see how far he can tap into that elemental force. Sorry if this sounds like mystical bullshit. But anyone who's ever been in a fight knows there's something to this.

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