Learning To Take A Punch

athleticI stepped inside the ropes for the first time with Big Lon. I was nineteen, six foot three, and tipped the Toledo at a buck ninety. Lon had come down from 360 to 280 on his six-foot frame. A semipro football career and a three-year bid at Lorton Pen behind him, he’d settled into life as a gym rat in Washington, D. C. “Yo, you wanna move around a little?” Big Lon shouted to me. I felt like James Dean being called chicken at a drag race.

The gloves felt tight and heavy, the headgear fit like a Pop Warner helmet, and the support straps on the leather cup had me showing too much leg. Lon leaned on the turnbuckle, almost reclining, his arms on the top rope. The green light on the round timer buzzed like a cheap alarm clock, and someone yelled, “Time,” as if I didn’t know.

I managed a tentative jab before Big Lon dropped his head straight down, pulled his left arm south to about Georgia, and — Bloouwwhhh! I looked for the source of the din but could see only black with purple spots. My flight reflex wanted me out of the trading trenches, but my legs had filled with soupy cement. My back found the ropes, where Big Lon propelled me, playing the congas on my ribs like Olatunji, beating them as if I’d stolen from him.

Ten years later, I wanted to throw Big Lon’s hook, not eat it.

I contacted Gerry Cooney at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York. He was a converted southpaw with a left hook that flowed as a matter of course. I’d seen his fifty-four-second annihilation of Ken Norton and remembered him giving a primed Larry Holmes thirteen rounds before succumbing to the heat back in 1982. His soothing demeanor dulled the jagged memories of the beating Lon threw me.

I worked out at my local gym, tattooing the heavy bag and always punctuating my combos with hooks. I did this for four weeks, developing endurance and learning my body’s kinesiology. My style was half disciplined, half schoolyard. My arm formed an L and stayed parallel to the ground. I would swing freely and swivel my hips upon impact for power and follow-through. I would also step, slip, or dip a little left to create an angle for the hook.

Then Gerry stepped in. “Right shoulder down, brotherman, and lean back.” There’s a paradox in leaning back a bit and stepping in to strike. You commit without committing. The story of my life — and an uncomfortable stance. Gerry saw that I couldn’t fathom it, so he illustrated on the speed bag. Right shoulder down, left hand high, he. pulled like an arm wrestler going over the top of his opponent. “You land that one and light up a Cuban,” he said after he nearly took the light bag off the platform.

“Cover the temples, right shoulder down, step left, turn it over, and gotcha!” I did this by leaning left and pushing strongly off my back leg (the right) in the same direction. It had snap but no thud.

“Don’t juke so much, Dave. Pull it with your body weight, no arm punching, elbows tight.” Less is more, I soon learned. Limiting the movement disguises the punch and keeps your stance together. Keeping elbows in holds your center, allowing the body to generate the power while your arm conducts it. I worked on one-two-threes (left jab, right cross, left hook) and had some trouble with the footwork and weight transfer. The one-two was there, but the right cross took all my power and left me leftless for the hook. I would also be vulnerable to counters.

That’s why the jab is paramount. Gerry explained that the lead jab is both defensive and offensive, allowing you to get inside your opponent’s power and set up the right. Leaning in a bit with the right and stepping left, you sidestep the counter and gain an angle for the hook. The instinct at this point is to clinch or cover, not throw.

I overcame this on the bag, finding a sweet spot and forming a hole in it, like the pocket of a well-oiled outfielder’s glove. Gerry honed it over a couple of weeks, usually by shortening the punch in an effort to create explosiveness while maximizing efficiency. My homework was done in front of a mirror in my apartment. I acclimated to the stance and its key elements: hands high, covering the temples, chin tucked, right shoulder down, elbows in, knees bent, leaning back and slightly on my toes at all times. It was Time again.

Gerry stood taller now after stretching out a bum knee. “I feel good today, Dave. No messing around — you’re taking it on the chin.” He talked about “lowering the boom” on my “exposed nose.” Funny stuff. Then I looked at him and saw a flattened bridge that would’ve made Brando jealous. My thoughts of slicing and dicing for a round or two were reduced to any ref’s prefight mantra: Protect yourself at all times.

We did the “No, thank you” routine, touching gloves twice in center ring. Gerry’s first left landed at half speed and less power. I’d seen him launch it, and once it left my field of vision, it was out of mind until it reached my right cheekbone. I realized then that I’d seen too many fights and been in too few.

I felt panicky and porous. My defense had sprung a leak. “I understand your whole body language, Dave,” Gerry said clearly through his mouthpiece. Although he seemed out of range, his fists, poised high, were growing closer. He stepped in fluidly and dropped a hook to the kidney. “That one straightened you right up, didn’t it?” He was talking casually, breathing comfortably, hitting me occasionally I don’t think I disturbed his reading, either. Where was the hook? I’d like to say I left it in the ring, but I didn’t.

I landed a few counterpunches and a couple of jabs, and after we traded shots, Gerry responded by drawling, “Gooood, gooood.” His teachings were a defensive blessing, however, as my elbows deflected most body blows, and leaning back gave me extra time to pick up on the incoming. Unfortunately, in the end, an old boxing adage remained unchanged: Whether it’s Big Lon or Gerry Cooney, you don’t hook with a hooker.

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  1. Paulie


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