Thoughts From Inside The Ring

On Being Hit. And Hit Again.

phisicalpainThe more you sweat, the less you bleed. If that’s true, I should be immune to bodily harm, because I’ve sweated more since joining this boxing gym than ever before in my life. But as I stare at a Mr. Potatohead doll perched atop the drinking fountain–a tribute to gym members who have suffered broken noses–the perspiration trickling into my eyes stinks of fear rather than exertion. I try clumsily to wipe my face, but in padded gloves, my hands are good for one thing only: a fight.

And that’s exactly what I’ve gotten myself into. “Anyone want to spar?” my coach asked a the end of practice. My arm shot up like a champ claiming victory. “I do,” I said.

I do?

I’ve never thrown a punch at anyone in my life. I joined the gym purely for the rigorous workout; I never planned to smack anything other than a punching bag. But in a moment of delusional enthusiasm, I’ve volunteered for combat. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror–my face distorted by a mouthpiece (and not the usual kind), hair sticking out of protective headgear, enormous gloves dangling from toothpick arms. My opponent is likewise unrecognizable, though she sports solid biceps and an unnerving sangfroid demeanor.

We begin. She circles around me, and I throw a tentative jab, which she steps away from neatly before floating a right hook in my direction. It smacks the side of my head, and I drop my hands in sudden confusion. She wasters no time. Thwack thwack thwack. My cheek my rib cage my temple. The coach jumps in, separates us. It has all taken maybe 15 seconds.

I fight back tears. Not because the punches caused me physical pain–the only sensation penetrating the headgear is an odd dislocation, an uncomfortable jarring–but because someone has hit me. I feel vaguely insulted, humiliated. For a brief moment, I imagine a brilliantly improbable comeback, but that dream dies as fear whispers in my ear.

And because of fear, I am utter concentration when we begin again. I am careful not to look her in the eye. When I get hit, disregard it. It dodge a left jab; I duck a straight right. The punches keep coming, and they are fast, so very fast. Nothing has ever been this fast. I hear nothing except the thwack of gloves. My entire being is focused on my opponent so that I can predict her punch and get out of the way. I have forgotten who she is.

I begin to see openings. Her rib cage when she throws a straight right, her cheek, when she doesn’t protect her face. Suddenly, I’ve landed a thwack of my own–a first step toward fluency in this dangerous language. I’m so startled that I leave myself wide open for a quick tap to the gut. That one I feel.

And then it’s over. Coach blows the whistle; we spit out our mouthpieces. My opponent smiles at me, and I recognize her again. We have returned.

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  1. Paulie


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