The Purity of Boxing
Who would have thought you could hang out at a place where people of all colors, genders, and ages would pay money to have you punch them in the face? Well, there I was, a card-carrying member of Griffins Boxing Gym. Now as a 65 year-old guy with a history of migraines, there is no way I am letting anyone rattle my gray matter with a jab or punch, and only a small percentage of club members even practice contact boxing. However, I know how to kick my own ass with a few minutes of jumping rope, a little light weights work, some rope-a-dope moves on the shadow box wall, and a grueling punch out with the speed and heavy bags. Those 10-oz practice gloves start to feel like they are packed with sand.
My first week there I felt a bit out of place. I haven’t thrown a punch in anger or sport in decades but the memory is still there. I did try to teach my daughters how to jab and parry, counter, keep their defenses up and to throw a straight punch, often through the newspaper I was reading. Newspapers, remember them? I wonder what the poor folks insulate their houses with these days . . . digital data?
Anyway, I was greeted warmly at the front desk of Griffin’s Boxing Club by Natalie — the most effusive boxing proponent imaginable and Nolan the well-tatted and big-haired greeter, yet despite paying my dues, I still felt like an imposter- I mean, I am not a boxer! So I channeled my dad’s boxing instructions given to his pre-teen boys; I can hear him to this day “Keep your guard up, lead with your left, straight punches, keep moving, don’t telegraph your punches, feint, throw your combos . . .! “ Then, ‘tap’ he would lightly touch my forehead by easily snaking his gray-haired arm through my scattered defenses. Sometimes when we released a flurry he would clinch us close, let us know we were really killing him and call “Break” and in those moments of fatherly closeness, I can remember his scent — part pipe tobacco, faint ammonia-like perspiration and the smell of his bleached tee shirt. He would laugh, shake his head and say “Wow! Lee Marciano!” He taught us that boxing is not anger or aggression but skill and elegance, closeness and mind-work, fitness and patience, technique and timing, speed and pace, predictability and surprise. There were lessons there that went far beyond boxing. To every thing there is a season.
He really wished at least one of his six boys would have been drawn to the sweet science; my sister however got a pass in the pre-feminism 1970's. Dad had been a fairly accomplished boxer in high school I guess (lettered) and represented his division in the Marines — a real man’s man, but he had started much younger when the family cook taught him to fight at the tender age of seven. He claims his older brother taught him footwork by stuffing his shoelaces with bread crusts and throwing him in the chicken coop where they tried to peck his feet (great story of questionable truth!).
He was never a violent man but his service in the US Marine Corps during WWII on Iwo Jima, Bougainville and Guadalcanal were steeped in the fog of wartime violence. He returned a gentle loving guy who never punched anyone again but still taught us a bit of boxing skill. Still, none of us were drawn to the ring and especially the younger three boys; we had three older brothers all too happy to pummel us. We learned to dread the statement “If you are going to argue, get out the gloves and settle it like men” then the big brown leather gloves were strapped on and the makeshift ring created in the den while my mom keened around ringside saying “Don’t hurt your father!” all the while we were doing our frustrated best to do just that — what a childhood catharsis!
Tellingly, most of the brothers became lawyers using words, motions and briefings to deliver their punches. I wondered if our brotherly boxing actually inoculated us AGAINST pugilism? Still, I recalled the exhaustion and the whole body workout in that home ring so I finally had the time in retirement to revisit this childhood activity.
Most of the gyms I looked at were basically aerobic classes with gloves on and well-led by lycra-clad women yelling at their students like some demented drill sergeant. Those places also have a ferocious business failure rate taking the membership till into bankruptcy when they shuttered. I finally found a gritty decades-old gym on the North Side of Vancouver. They actually have a regulation ring and they hold matches regularly. The walls are papered with posters of famous boxers, they have rows of hanging bags and the music is predictably 1970–1990’s rock and roll going loud. I was looking for Angelo Dundee.
It was all good until I overlapped with some classes and lo and behold, there were a bunch of lycra-clad housewives, muscular biker dudes, and college students out hitting the bags and skipping rope. Another class was 7-year olds learning their skills more effectively than I ever did. I guess that is the clientele these days. There were some clearly accomplished boxers too as they effortlessly skipped rope alternating feet and gliding slippery around the ring. As they sparred with their coach the pads popped like popcorn and they ran lighting fast combos of hooks, punches, and clinches. I watched them and thought to myself “Would not fight”.
Still, I sequestered myself over on the equipment I understood after erroneously jabbing at the dodge bags designed only to swing and let you move to avoid them, not hit them Doh! I also let the hit-and-move pivoting device get a good whack on my temple when I hit but didn’t move. Lesson learned.
I do know rhythm and have a little speed on the speed bag and any damn fool can lay leather into a heavy bag — yet it still felt good, familiar!
Then last week, I was half hour into a hard punch up with sweat pouring down my face when I realized it was mixing with tears. I hadn’t been hit, I wasn’t sad, but the image of my deceased father smiling that one of his boys was actually boxing had come to me. He has been gone about nine years now. He died over a 3-day period of heart failure at the generous age of 93. Just long enough to say his goodbyes. I never really grieved his death as it was painless and age-appropriate, but here I was a child with tears streaming down my face and I didn’t even stop punching; I was missing my father. I wanted him back as his 50-year old self giving instructions “Keep your guard up, uppercut! Surprise combo!” as he let us hit his bunched gloves, chest and chin as hard as our skinny 10-year-old arms could muster. Occasionally he would say “Good punch!” yet he never returned a blow besides those instructive taps. That was my dad. I finally have found that connection again, but I had to let my guard down to find him.