In an attempt to lever myself out of my post-fight funk I’ve been listening to lots of hair metal, so that’s the post title and you can laugh all you want. But while hair metal might address the out-of-the-ring blues, it can’t cure it. There’s only one cure, and that’s to get back in.
I had been lamenting via email to my fight sister in Ireland, Niamh, and she reminded me that down time is good and necessary after a big fight, and she recommended wine and chocolate cake (don’t tell your coach, she said) for the depression. Her gym mate calls the week or two after a fight “fat time” for obvious reasons. But I still seem to be losing weight and my appetite for chocolate cake is minimal, although I did have a drink when I went to see a favorite band perform live over the weekend.
So it felt pretty good to get an email from one of the owners of a gym nearby me last week, while I was stewing in my misery. She has two women training at her gym (Two! Can you believe it?) and she invited me to come spar with them.
As we exchanged emails and set up the date, I could feel myself perking up a little.
When the night approached I started to feel the normal anxiety of going to spar with strangers. Boxing can be dangerous, and it’s just smart to approach an unknown fighter with caution. However, my first trainer Bonnie had been unreserved in her favorable opinion of this particular gym and had told me I could trust the coaches there, and that counts for a lot with me.
Still, I found myself dialing Jay’s number that afternoon for reassurance. I knew he had to be at work soon. He didn’t answer, so I told myself to buck up and I drove through downtown and out to the warehouse district where the gym is housed. About the time I got there my phone rang. It was Fury.
“Talk to me,” I told him. “I’m parked across the street from the gym and I’m not ready to go in yet.”
“Hey, this is what you want,” he reminded me. “You are completely capable of handling anything you find there.”
I took a deep breath. (Jay was supposed to tell me to breathe, but somehow I remembered this time.) “Yeah. I am.”
“You just need to keep a jab out there. Keep your feet and head moving, that’s all. Basics. If you find yourself badly outmatched or getting injured, roll out. There’s no point in getting your ass kicked.” He paused, and let me have a moment to digest that. It’s always the biggest fear in boxing, getting slaughtered in the ring. And it does happen. All of us have been through it at one time or another.
“And let me remind you that you’re not there to kick anybody’s ass, either,” he continued.
I can’t tell you how good it feels to hear this. I’m capable of kicking someone’s ass. It’s true, and it’s exactly what I’ve worked for. But you save that for a fight. Which is where his speech – which I was shamelessly luxuriating in – would go next, I knew. I closed my eyes, propped my feet on the dashboard, and focused on his voice.
“This is sparring, and you want to get work and give it. Lower your punch count and power if your partner isn’t as good as you are. Match what you find. And remember, if you tee off on someone you’re gonna get it back, so make a smart decision on that.”
I know all these things. But it’s the second-greatest gift of boxing to have a trainer who knows what’s in your head and can help you win the mental battle of boxing as well as the physical game.
The greatest gift of boxing is doing well in the ring.
I signed off with Jay, drove across the street to the gym, and hauled my gear into the warehouse.
NBS Gym is gloomy, cavernous, and cluttered with the detritus of three sports. There are a dozen or more wooden fencing strips down the center of the gym, a regulation boxing ring, a kickboxing ring, heavy bags in all stages of repair, a small free weight pit, some tractor tires with sledgehammers nearby, and shelves and stacks and piles of epee swords, jackets, masks, boxing gloves, kickboxing pads, and headgear. It smells like concrete and canvas and sweat; wonderful.
I had hardly wandered in before I saw an arm raised and waving; they were watching for me. I tried to smile, remembered to relax my shoulders, and walked over to get the lay of the land.
My sparring partners were obvious – outside of the coaches, they were the only two women in the gym. I picked them out of the milling group of athletes quickly, and we exchanged nods and waves. I was vibrating with nerves, but was reassured that neither of them weighed significantly more than me, so I would probably be fine.
There are at least two kinds of scary boxers. New fighters are tough because they’re scared as shit, and throwing shots wild and hard. They can be unpredictable, and you can easily get caught if you don’t stay on your toes. But even worse are the heavyweights. No matter what they land, you’re gonna feel it. Twenty, thirty, forty extra pounds is huge in the ring, huge. And if they don’t control their power you are going to suffer, and the next day you’ll have a solid boxing headache, and maybe more than a few aches and bruises. Part of the deal.
But these two women were closer to my weight, thankfully. The first, Amber, was my height (I’m 5’8? or so) and I think pretty close to my weight, which is currently hovering at 143. Amber, I found out, had good reach, too. Maybe better than mine.
The second, Amy, was shorter than me and also light. This would be okay.
I took out my jump rope and found an empty patch of concrete between two fencing strips and their accompanying cables. I shut my eyes and tried to let the varying rhythms of my rope warm-up soothe me. I shadow-boxed a couple of rounds, worked the heavy bags. The trainers periodically glanced my way, but otherwise gave me space and let me find my own pace and timing. Amy and Amber both smiled generously when our eyes met or our work patterns intersected. I pretended Jay was lounging ringside, watching with his usual calm demeanor.
When I was ready to gear up and spar, Amber was waiting. We touched gloves, and began to sound each other out.
The first round was a little spooky – two women not sure what their fight plan is going to be, trying to determine how this would go. I felt stiff and nervous. I know I was leaving my guard down even though I was fresh, because her jabs were tapping my headgear with regularity. She had some combos in her, too. Body shots, yep. We were a reasonable match. This is going to be interesting! I thought, feeling my heart rise.
On the bell I was intensely pleased to have one of the trainers walk over to my corner. Good coaching is so incredibly valuable, and sometimes ridiculously hard to get.
“Your guard’s down,” she mentioned, without belaboring the point.
Gotta fix that or risk embarrassing myself, I thought.
“Get your jab out there more,” she continued. What, did Jay phone her?
“Don’t worry if it doesn’t drive home, just keep it out there and make her think. You’re moving nicely underneath her shots, keeping your head going, that’s good. Try some body shots.” She was calm, professional, helpful.
The second round was more intense. I was still shedding the last of my anxiety and boxing a little woodenly. I found myself impressed with her ferocity, and waited for my body to start operating in a better fashion. This wasn’t a match so I knew we could have as many rounds as we wanted, and I wanted. I took my time.
My right hook came out before I could stop it. On Amber, it had no chance because we were both fighting outside. It was pure slop, wide and ugly. I gritted my teeth, and sure enough I heard a ringside comment, coach to coach, but not to me. But I knew anyway. I will straighten that damn thing out, I vowed.
“Try a right cross instead,” was the only comment made about it during the interval. And it was perfect advice, of course.
The third round finally started to feel good. I started to tap down her jabs and return an overhand right. We had that precise exchange about six times in a row before she determined how to stop it. I felt myself grinning. My brain was starting to operate, and hers was too. She landed a smart solid right to my chin and I nodded. “Nice,” I commented, both of us appreciating the beauty of a punch perfectly timed and weighted. And we both laughed when she tossed out a wide and ridiculous right hook. Just us women, being crazy, loving our work.
“You can hit harder, you know,” one of the trainers mentioned from below the ring after the third round. “She’s doing fine and you are too. Go ahead and box.” I was starting to feel a little weary but also quite happy. “Also try a few uppercuts. She’s coming in low for those body shots.”
Uppercuts are so hard to land, but I thought it was worth working toward.
She also told me to try punching off my retreats. Jay had been working on that with me too. It’s awkward, moving backward and throwing a jab at the same time, it takes a shift of balance and the exact right timing. I suck at it so far.
She was still fast on her feet during the fourth round and incredibly game, but her punch count was dropping precipitously. I started waiting on them, and worked to redeem the tired final round from my last fight in Atlanta, where I wanted badly to return at least one more shot than was thrown by my opponent in every exchange. I did okay on that this time.
It was good, it was all very good work. We rolled out after four and took a short break. I sat on the apron of the ring, leaned against the ropes, and relaxed into the pleasure of a warehouse filled with working fighters and waited for the next session. This is so much better to me than many things life has to offer, so much more encompassing.
I wish I had discovered boxing years ago. I hope more women will find it early on, too.
Amy, like Amber, was instantly likeable. She has such an open smile, and freely chatted with me both before and after I sparred with Amber. In fact, she cornered a bit for me, and had very well-reasoned, calmly delivered, and effective advice. I was looking forward to our session.
And I wasn’t disappointed. She brought game, even though she had a difficult time landing a lot of her shots. I have height and reach on her, and was still able to fade off most of her punches. If she had been a better boxer I would have had trouble for all that damned fading. It’s a bad habit of mine, and I need to slip to the sides more, rather than fade backward. If you’re in with an aggressive boxer, they can surge forward as you fade and set you on your ass right quick.
After the first couple of rounds I could feel her frustration rising. She was having trouble getting inside on me, and I’m quite sure she experiences the same thing when she spars Amber. She shook her head a few times but relentlessly pushed her attack. I stayed primarily on defense and threw mostly jabs. Miraculously, my guard stayed high and tight. Now why couldn’t I have done that in the earlier session? I felt comfortable, and coasted far more than was appropriate. But I was relishing my joy at being back in the ring, being pressed by fighters so full of game, coached by trainers so confident and at ease.
Amy and I did three or four rounds, I can’t remember. But I do remember how happy I felt leaving the warehouse. Driving home, singing songs by Warrant and AC/DC and King Kobra. I have it all, don’t I?
I have it all.
Image by BinaryApe on Flickr.