The first week in December I got a little overzealous about increasing my number of unassisted chin-ups and wrecked my shoulder. It’s an old injury and I’ve been through the re-healing process before, but this time one of the pro boxers in my gym suggested I come see her to help get it taken care of. I looked at her, baffled.
“I’m a physical therapist, you know,” she laughed.
Sometimes I forget that the boxers at the gym have jobs, families, lives. But the thought of a trained medical person who wouldn’t berate me for boxing and who might actually speed the healing process had tremendous appeal, and I found myself booking the appointment.
So for two months I stayed out of the ring and off the heavy bag and worked through an intense physical therapy program to heal my shoulder up as much as I could. I missed boxing horribly, and consoled myself with running the shame line at the “normal” gym and becoming fiercely competitve in everything cardio. Slightly depressed, I ate garbage and became nostalgic about push-ups, but by God, I ran. And threw sprints on the jump rope, and cranked up the elliptical machine.
By the time I could move my shoulder again without spikes of pain I felt like I had forgotten the ways of moving in the ring. I started standing in front of the mirror and sending out slow-motion jabs: is this how it works? Is this still right? Jabs seem like such a simple punch, but they are stunningly complex and there is a galaxy of difference between a good jab and a crap one. A good jab can save your ass in the ring, warding off your opponent’s punches or breaking up her combinations. They can measure distance, letting you know whether you’re in range or not. They deliver most of your messages, front your bombs, secure territory, and with power they can beat a tattoo of pain into someone’s face. You can’t think about your jab in the ring, it just has to be there, ready to fire. Boxing without a good jab is like swimming without arms and legs.
You gotta have a good jab, and I feared my body was forgetting mine.
My feet were forgetting, too. I stood balanced in my stance in the middle of the bedroom floor, and tried to recall how it felt to train on the tractor tire that sat on the loading dock behind the gym: rocking my weight quickly, lightly, back and forth between my feet to allow me to move with balance and speed.
I stood in the bedroom and looked down at my forgetful feet and sighed.
When I finally began to shadowbox again I knew my form – which is still a novice’s, even after nearly two years – had grown blurry, but there’s really no simple cure. There’s only the long, repetitive road of work ahead.
Last week I finally got back in the ring again. It was after team training – my first in more than two months. I had substituted legwork for all the training that directly hits the shoulders (mountain climbers, push-ups, burpees, etc.) and with that and the fact that I’d maintained my cardio, I realized I still had some energy left. Our trainer closed down the session and I looked around at my drenched and winded teammates. My shoulder felt okay: no spikes of pain. It wasn’t strong, but it didn’t feel injured any more.
“Anybody want to give me a couple of light, easy rounds in the ring?” I asked. “I’d really like to test out my shoulder. Nothing serious, though,” I added, knowing everyone else had worked much harder in training than I had.
A couple of them groaned and declined, heading for the showers. But one of the newer guys offered to stay. Because he’s new and doesn’t have much experience in the ring, I got permission from our trainer to spar, and we both geared up.
The gym had cleared out and it was late; the headlights on the cars headed out of the parking lot flashed through the windows. Someone had turned down the volume on the ever-present thump of hip-hop, making the bell that starts the rounds sound incredibly loud. I moved out to the center of the ring, shivering with anticipation and nerves. I was more flat-footed than light and balanced, but I was in the ring.
We had a satisfying five rounds. No one cornered, no one watched. He was too inexperienced to know how sloppy my form was, and my jab wasn’t so out of practice that he didn’t feel it. Like most newbies, he apologized once he began to land some power punches. They felt great. I was remembering. He kept his gloves in front of his face against my jab so I repeatedly hooked to his head: around the guard, straight to the ear. Connection. My shoulder held up. I began to feel exultant.
The next day I had a slight headache and my neck and shoulders were sore from the tension I’d carried in the ring. It sounds counter-intuitive, but you absolutely must relax when you box, just like you relax on the landing of a long fall, in order to transfer the shock through more of your body and allow the impact to flow on through without breaking anything. My body was reminding me of the patterns and necessities of boxing.
I pressed my fingers to the slightly bruised and tender bridge of my nose; I ate a healthy serving of punches from the newbie. Dude was quite promising, much better than I was when I began boxing. He had some power, too, as my nose was telling me. There was a tender spot on the underside of my jaw as well. I laughed; he’d fired quite a few uppercuts and at least one of them connected. Uppercuts! From a newbie.
I smiled, remembering.