On my post-it note for Atlanta Corporate Fight Night I had written: Go Breathe Fight Party. I really tried to use all single-syllable words for simplicity’s sake but it just wasn’t worth giving up that last one.
And the hardest one of the four? Coming in at number two, over and over again: breathe.
It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? And yet it’s so easy in the strenuous work of boxing to forget to do this one simple thing. I can still hear my corner — the well-known fighter-turned-boxing trainer Xavier Biggs — standing over me like a giant shield as I panted on my stool between rounds, saying in his quiet but dead serious way, “Breathe. Breathe.”
It was an amazing first official fight, all told.
I hated the nearly endless waiting, which was followed by a “we’re behind!” last-minute rush of hand-wrapping and gloving up, all of which was briskly and meticulously overseen by a series of intense and polite officials.
Once wrapped, signed (one of the officials signs your wraps to show it was done within regulation, and also so that you can’t change it after) and gloved I began to panic. I was stone cold, the first match had already begun, and my bout was up next. I was in a small, carpeted waiting room with several other fighters and their posses, and I was about to fight with no prep. I paced and banged my gloves together over and over again; I couldn’t seem to shadowbox, and I was frozen with uncertainty.
One of the men slouching nearby in low-slung, crystal-studded jeans uncrossed his arms and tipped his chin up at me. “Want me to give you some pad work?” he asked.
I felt intensely grateful. I nodded my head in a quick affirmative, not trusting myself to words, and watched his muscles ripple as he slowly unfolded himself from the chair, dug a pair of mitts out of his gear bag, and loped over to my corner of the room.
Working those mitts was the real turning point of the night for me. You look at that white dot on the center of the pad and hear the echo of your shots smacking against the leather with a deeply satisfactory pop, and everything beyond those staccato bursts simply fades back, and you’re where you wanted to be all along.
He called the standard jabs, but also gave me body shot after body shot, and I leaned into them with pleasure, power flowing up through my body. He started to nod and smile. “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about,” he grinned, stepping away and circling out. I barely held myself in check, stalking after him with my arms coiled and loaded.
I later learned that he was a well-known boxer in his own right: Darnell Boone, a super middleweight with 36 fights under his belt. He was there with a friend who was on the Atlanta Corporate Fight Night card, and I’ll never forget how he turned on the power for me.
The call came, and I trotted down the hall behind Biggs, entered the ballroom, climbed between the ropes. I assume the ring announcer was talking, but nothing registered. I bounced restlessly and gazed around the ring as the dull roar of hip-hop and shouting washed past me. People in tuxedos and ball gowns made eye contact with me in the ring, but I didn’t feel like I was about to perform for them; something was coming but it had little to do with this sparkling, crystalline crowd.
My opponent came down in her silk robe with her entourage; I was vaguely aware of her husband, whom I had met at weigh-ins the night before, standing just beyond her corner with a video camera raised in the air.
Only a tiny handful of details were noted and filed in my head; my body and brain were consumed with the coming work. My corner told me quietly, “Open the fight with a strong statement. Show the judges you are here to dominate. Make a statement to open the fight, and one to close it. In just a minute I want you to go do that.” I nodded and banged my gloves. My trainer, Bonnie Mann, had texted me the same advice earlier in the day.
The ref put us through the pre-fight routine (the particulars of which I cannot recall), held out her arms like a ballerina, and gave us the signal to box.
That sign I registered.
And we fought.
I don’t know if I threw the first shot. It was my intent, and I hope the tape shows that I did. I know I felt power in my body; the peculiar exhaustion of adrenaline drain mixed with the undeniable force of training, habit, and strength. I had power, and I could feel it at my disposal.
I had no grace.
While my arms remembered their job, my feet seemed to forget. My opponent came at me with plenty of punches, but I couldn’t feel them, and I can’t tell if I blocked or slipped any. I only remember landing punches, over and over again with power. I remember stalking her, walking her down, demanding the ring.
Partway through the first round I landed a bomb of a right cross. At least I think it was a right cross; my memories seem to be encoded in physical experience, and I’m missing many of the other normal details. Whatever the shot was, it felt like a tidal wave and my opponent stumbled and nearly went down. I went after her, all restraint forgotten. Instantly the ref was in my face, directing me away to the neutral corner while she gave the eight-count.
All feelings were still barred from entry to my mind, so I bounced in the neutral corner and waited to fight again. My opponent recovered and we finished the round.
In the corner, Biggs leaned over me. “All right,” he murmured. “All right.” He poured water in my mouth, making me splutter. “Spit,” he said, and I nearly did so all over the ring judge below me on my right before he said “On your left! On your left!” and I looked left, saw a red bucket thrust through the ropes, and spit. Water dribbled everywhere. He poured another mouthful, although I shook my head no. “Drink,” he commanded, and I did.
“That round was all yours,” he commented wryly, not bothering to brush off the droplets of water I’d spattered all over both of us. Then he probably told me other things, but I can’t recall them any more. The bell came amazingly quickly and I was on my feet and fighting again.
The second round was slower; I still refused to move, but the ring, though it was the largest of the standard sizes and had felt enormous when I saw it being set up earlier in the day, wasn’t nearly as large as I had thought it would be.
In fact, I thought with satisfaction, it was just about perfect. It was a good fit. I liked this ring. I would take it home with me. I started seeing right hooks, and knowing that my coach wouldn’t like it, I decided to throw some. The connections were satisfying, even though at least one was all air. Woops. I may have been taking a few shots onboard, too – I remember a few to the body, anyway. I know I was about as graceful as a plate of spaghetti dumped on the ground. I was slop, moving through glue. And not moving much, at that. But power was in my hands and I was not holding back.
At the bell I sat and went through the water torture again. “Hmp,” Biggs said, as he towered over me. “That wasn’t as decisive as the first one. It’s time for you to go out and make another statement. Go win the fight.”
I nodded, thinking, Well, of course. I got up, and got on with it.
Again the ref shot between us to give my opponent another eight count, and this time I wasn’t sure why. I had landed a punch on her, but it wasn’t the same kind of power shot like the tidal wave had been at the beginning. I crinkled my forehead and banged my gloves again in the white corner.
When we came back together, I tried to ask the question with my eyes – Shall we finish? – and she gave me a nod and a sweet little slug down the pipeline to my jaw. Heh! This was good, this was all good.
We mixed it up. We fought like demons. We threw bombs and nobody flinched, or looked away, or backed off. I walked her down and she pummeled me and I refused to give up territory. Even though it was messy – my nerves having drained any grace I might have had – it was beautiful. It felt like music. And it was over too quickly.
We finished, and I headed back to my corner, thanking God that I wasn’t going to have to take another damn drink of water. There were no words from Biggs. He stripped off my headgear and gloves, tossed them to his assistant, and directed me back to the center of the ring with his chin. All my energy was back. I briefly considered running back to NC, rather than flying AirTran.
It’s a strange feeling, having the ref lift your fist as the ring man announces the win. I was almost too overwhelmed to look up, and instead I gazed at the canvas and privately exulted. This canvas, these ropes, this beautiful, stark 22-foot square space was mine. This was what I’d worked for. And I’d won.
I want to close with a word about the amazing woman who gave me such a great match in the ring. Her name is Trecia “The Nail” Neal (“The Hammer” might have been a better ring name, given what she did to my face), and she went above and beyond, all behind the scenes, to make my trip the incredible experience it was.
Meeting your opponent in advance of the fight is awkward at best. But Trecia (like several of the other women boxers) understood that I was the only one there with no family, no corner, no posse or support system. When we were introduced at the weigh-ins she greeted me with a smile and a kind word. She introduced me to her husband, who was also incredibly gracious.
But more than that, Trecia rescued me from sheer terror when I learned belatedly that the boxing commission would not allow me to weigh in wearing my jeans. I was already standing by the scale, and there was no way on God’s green earth that I was going to strip to my underwear in front of that crowd and the photographers. I would call off the match first. It was Trecia who stepped up and offered to let me change into her shorts (not kidding here!), weigh in, then she would do her weigh-in. Amazing, right? That’s not all.
I also didn’t know there was a black-tie after party. I only brought jeans and fight clothes. When I learned of the party for all the boxers, I tendered my regrets and she heard of it. That night before the fight she came to the hotel and brought me a lovely dress and a beautiful matching scarf to wear. It was a perfect fit.
An hour before the matches began we were asked to turn in our “going in” song. It was yet another detail I didn’t know about. Trecia brought me her iPod, and told me to pick a song (she had Ozzy, so I was all good). To her credit, she grimaced a bit after this exchange; “That’s all I’m doing for you,” she promised as she left to get wrapped for our fight. I had to grin. She could take out her irritation in the ring. And damn, did she ever.
After the fights that night I walked in (wearing her dress) to the after-party – a ritzy affair in the Marriot Century Center bar and restaurant. Every boxer sat ensconced within a clutch of friends. She had lost the fight to me; I felt she surely wasn’t interested in speaking to me now, so I carefully walked among other tables first, speaking words of congratulations and condolence to the boxers I had met. She met my eye and I walked over. Instantly they made room for me at the table and told me to sit. Her husband even bought me a drink.
Does this happen in America anymore? I’m here to tell you it does. And it’s what makes our lives unbelievably good. Trecia, I salute you, and hope to see you in the ring again. Fight on, friend.
Are you ready for my award speech? Here it comes.
An incredible “Thank You” goes out to the woman with more contained energy than a powder keg with a lit fuse, Terri “The Boss” Moss, who organized and put on this phenomenal event, shuttled me around Atlanta, fed me pancakes, coached fighters, and probably wrestled alligators afterward in order to relax a bit. She also rightly chastized me for the right hooks — which are not for beginners — that I threw during my fight, which Bonnie will also do later. I’m also grateful to Xavier “Bad Pads” Biggs for his quiet, effective cornering, to first-time fighter and Biggs’ Blue Corner woman Laura Messier, who also went out of her way to become a friend to me, and to women’s boxing publicist Amy Green, who texted my win to my coach for me, got one of my all-time boxing heroes Chevelle Hallback on the phone to congratulate me on my win, and who tactfully will not tell anyone how ridiculous I got over celebratory Pina Coladas at Trader Vic’s in downtown Atlanta the night after. And of course, my trainer Bonnie Mann, who inspired all this craziness in the first place.
I am honored to have encountered you all.