little boxer in a big ring

Today ended my 4-week-long streak of not crying in the ring. I imagine one of those accident-free signs in industry hanging above the ring: 28 days tear-free. Well folks, you can turn it back to zero. All this time, I thought maybe I’d gotten tougher and learned how to take a hit, but no, it turns out that I just haven’t gotten hit that hard in the last month. Today, the women who don’t usually make me cry weren’t at the gym, so I went five rounds with the most experienced female boxer who comes to my trainer’s classes—the same one who has punished me a few times in the past. At the end of the third round, she got me with a solid left hook to the jaw that knocked me against the ropes and made all the lights seem very bright for a split second. A flood of tears welled up, threatening to overflow onto my face, and I spent the last two rounds fighting to hold them back and subdue the feelings attempting to strangle me.

I usually like to think of myself as pretty much a tough-y (even though, on occasion I have been caught crying during a touching commercial). For example, I crashed my bike on the way to play Ultimate Frisbee with some classmates in high school (barefoot Frisbee was the only “sport” at my school). I was tossed over the handlebars when I hit something in the bike path, and I busted open my chin and lip on the pavement. I sat on the side of the path to catch my breath, and a stream of blood from my face collected in a dark stain on the asphalt, but did I cry? No, I brushed the gravel off my hands, walked to the nearest building and got a wad of paper towels from the bathroom to hold against my chin. Then I went back to play Frisbee. I would have played too if my French teacher, Monsieur M., hadn’t walked over and told me in French and in no uncertain terms that I needed to go the hospital. Honestly, where is that toughness now? How is getting beat up by another person so different from taking a nose-dive into the bike path? Have I just become a pansy?

 As painful and disheartening as it can be, I learn a ton when I’m boxing with an experienced boxer. One of the things I learned today was how to move out of the way instead of just standing there while someone wails on me (you’d think this would be sort of intuitive, but for me, evidently, it’s not). In fact, after a couple hard blows to the head, my trainer said he’d never seen me move so fast. Positive reinforcement is all well and good, but really there’s nothing like the threat of bodily injury to make you pick up on something real fast. When we were finished sparring, as I was wearily unwinding the soggy wraps from my hands, my trainer told me that I did what he wanted me to do today—I relaxed and I moved out of the way with my hands up to protect my head. It’s just a difference in skill level, he said: she did what he wanted her to do and so did I. He told me I could walk out of there with my head up. I don’t think you ever feel like holding your head high when someone’s just beaten you up though.

I always worry that I’m not enough of a challenge for the more advanced boxers with whom I spar (i.e., basically everyone at the gym). I’m convinced that when they’re told to spar with me, they must secretly roll their eyes in irritation and boredom. I know that everyone who is a boxer today was once a baby boxer—no one went from novice to Mayweather overnight. Still, I am always so grateful to these people for boxing with me, and I’m typically battling the desire to apologize to them for not being a better boxer. These days, however, I’ve been on the other end a couple times, and I’m finding that one can always learn from boxing with someone, regardless of his or her skill level.

This was especially apparent yesterday when I sparred with a little boy. Really—in the ring, I fought a kid of around 9 or 10 years old, a good head shorter than I am and probably about half my weight. I was paired with him for drills first, and we were working on the basics. While some 10-year-olds probably could actually beat me up, this guy was still pretty new to boxing, so I focused on my technique and cut back on the power of my shots. My trainer walked up to us at one point and said to me, “this is how relaxed I want you to be when you’re fighting with adults.” I hadn’t even noticed how relaxed I was. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone and I wasn’t worried about getting hit hard, so my arms and shoulders were loose. My legs were free to move how they wanted. Eventually, I abandoned my friend to practice his hook on the bag, and I climbed into the ring with a more advanced fighter. I tried to carry with me that feeling of ease and composure that I felt during drills. I tried to let my legs go and relax my upper body so I could respond quickly to the shots coming at me. It helped that the full-grown fighter was going easy on me (the guys tend to be more gentle than the girls I box with), but still, I felt it was an improvement. Apparently, this kid was watching us spar because afterwards, he asked my trainer if he could spar with me. That’s how I came to be standing in the blue corner across from my pre-teen opponent in the ring. The round started slowly enough with a few poorly directed jabs, but the kid actually got in a reasonably solid blow when he charged at me 20 seconds into the round brandishing his little fists enveloped by over-sized gloves. These periodic onslaughts brought particular excitement, but the bout was never boring. I spent the three minutes working hard—dancing around the ring, parrying his shots, throwing a gentle jab here and there and working on staying loose. When the bell rang and we climbed out of the ring, he said to me with genuine concern on his face, “I’m sorry—did I hurt you?”

I could not hold back the smile when I assured him that I was OK and that he did a great job. The truth is, though his fervent punches didn’t hurt me, what I learned from boxing with this fledgling fighter I took into the ring with me today. When my trainer told me to relax and move out of the way, I called back the feeling of boxing with him, and I breathed deep and moved my feet. Thanks to him, I’m a better boxer today.

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