We were training hard and had each had several rounds of sparring already. I had just finished a round in the ring and was tired, slow, and at the end of my strength when the coach called someone else’s name and I rolled under the ropes and out of the ring with a sigh of relief.
“Wait,” the trainer called in my direction, as he ducked into the ring. I turned and peered up at him. “Where you going?” he asked, grinning broadly.
“Toward the shower quickly?” I asked hopefully, sweat dripping off my headgear onto the canvas.
“I didn’t send you out,” he continued, “Get in here.” The two guys in the ring with him looked at each other and stared at me.
One of them began to smile; he was the freshest of all of us. “Three-way death match!” he hollered, and I laughed.
“The three of us against you, Coach?” I inquired politely, like a lady at tea. One lump or three?
“You better hope not,” he said, shaking his head, “You people would get hurt. Just get in here and stick close.” He held down the ropes and I rolled back in, riding on fumes and now, a spurt of interest.
Our trainer Nas promptly turned toward the other two guys and set them to work sparring each other. But this time he was in the ring, right in their space, calling combinations, barking commands, and critiquing form as they went. We both worked to stay out of the way, but I found my excitement rising. You don’t often stand right in the ring with a trainer and two men boxing; it’s rather like watching a basketball game from the center of the paint during a furious scramble for the shot.
He pushed them on while I watched and paced them, trying to match footwork and throwing a few shadow combinations as Nas called them. The bell rang to mark the end of the round but no one received permission to stop. The boys circled, blocked, and threw punches on command. Nas kept a constant stream of instruction running, adding a periodic shove to tilt someone back into form, or a nudge to remind someone to keep their elbow in tight to the ribcage.
Mid-round he pulled one of the guys back and pressed me forward and I was suddenly at the center of our tight, quickly moving knot. “One, one, left hook,” he called, “Two, three, two.” And I threw them, doing my best to fire my shots as soon as the words left his mouth.
My opponent was tired, but still moving lightly on his feet. I quit registering the sound of the ring bells; I only heard our trainer’s voice as he put us through our paces. Everything became a blur of shots thrown and feet shuffling across the canvas. I circled out to let someone else work, then circled back in. Exhaustion became the baseline; we boxed anyway.
I began to sense Nas’s irritation with my performance; only about half my punches were landing. Then less than half. My young partner of the moment was doing incredibly well at blocking everything I threw.
“Snap ’em off,” Nas called to me. “You’re gonna have to throw them faster.”
No, I thought irritably, You’re gonna have to send your requests in by telegraph, Joker; my partner here can translate your offensive calls into his defensive movements. Dammit, I added mentally, grinding my teeth against my mouthguard and throwing the hook to the head, hook to the body, both blocked.
For some boxers it takes years to be able to translate an opponent’s offense into your own defense faster than the speed of a punch. With deep fatigue and – I hate to admit it – age, it grows even more difficult. My two death-match partners were 21 and 26 years old. Once in a while I envy them their youth, speed, and power.
But most times I don’t care. I don’t care than my punches that night were blocked, slipped, evaded. I don’t care that the next day I had a bruise or three over my ribs because I failed to keep my elbows in tight. When you’re past the end of your strength and you’re still in the ring swinging, punching, and sweating, there’s a deep satisfaction that can’t be found any other way.
Oh, and regarding the next three-way death match at the end of a long boxing training session? Count me in.
Image by Stefan on Flickr