On Thursday I received a two-sentence email that made me shriek and caused at least one co-worker to check in on me. In two days, some women from Wilmington and Fayetteville were going to be getting some informal matches at a Raleigh gym, and I was invited. I was invited!
I emailed my trainer, who gave me the thumbs-up for the event, and instructed me to get in touch with Tim, to see if he could go as my corner. During team training the next night I was distracted and couldn’t concentrate. I finally reached Tim by phone around 9 pm, and he agreed to help me out, even though he was moving into a new apartment that next morning. I was set, except for trying to get some sleep that night, at which I failed miserably.
Oh, and except for the “get there on time” part, too. I was so wound up that I got up Saturday morning, called my corner to check in, got in the car and drove to the wrong gym.
Whereupon I called my corner, admitted I was an idiot, and drove to the correct gym, arriving 20 minutes late. Arrgh.
Tim was waiting on me and we walked in together. I immediately saw a woman already in the ring whom I’d seen fight in Fayetteville. I knew I would be okay if I had to get in with her. But she was working with another boxer who was even better: this woman was fast, light, and throwing multiple flurries that snapped and popped and echoed in the otherwise empty gym. “Crap,” I said. “I hope they don’t put me in with that girl. She’s good.”
“She has a lot more experience than you do,” Tim noted smoothly, adding, “But you’re fine. You’re ready for this.”
Corners are always like this. They tell you stuff that initially appears to be an outright lie: take for example “You’re fine.” On the face of it, this is a pure-dee falsehood. I was not fine, I was triple-knotted and soaked with anxiety and terrified out of my wits. But somehow when they say “You’re fine,” you are so conditioned to listen and obey that it begins to be true. Your anxiety level immediately dips and you begin the journey toward fine. Actually, it’s somewhat miraculous. Doctors should get in on this act, but they never will because it won’t make them any money.
Once he had me listening, Tim followed by telling me in the quietest, calmest, you-better-listen-to-me-or-I’ll-personally-kick-your-ass voice, his top most important instruction for the match. “I’m going to be in your corner, I’ll be giving you instruction and you are going to listen to my voice without turning to look at me. Ever. Are you with me on this? You are not going to stop, you are going to keep boxing and I’m going to corner for you. But you are not going to turn or look at me. Right?”
I hope I had the grace to blush. It’s a hard impulse to overcome, and I’ve screwed this up numerous times. Part of it is that the headgear blocks out so much hearing, and part of it is 43 years of cultural conditioning that says you look at someone when they talk to you. Periodically I do this when I’m in the ring and I risk getting clobbered. “I’m not going to look at you,” I promised, watching the women in the ring dance around each other.
“Right,” he affirmed, then repeated himself a few more times for good measure.
When we got ringside the two women climbed out of the ring for a break. Their trainers watched me with eagle eyes as I warmed up on jump rope, sizing me up ten ways from Sunday. I pretended to be impassive and tried to relax into my rope work, which I frequently find soothing anyway. My rope whizzed and clipped the concrete and sent quick, staccato echoes ricocheting off the cinderblocks. I broke a sweat pretty quickly; it was an oven in there. No one spoke. Or maybe it just seemed that way.
By some silent signal, two fighters took the ring for a match. I skipped rope and watched, carefully evaluating the performance of each boxer and deciding in my mind what tactics I would take in response. This is a constant mental exercise for boxers: you view everyone as your potential opponent, and make lists of the strengths and weaknesses of each match-up. Already I had the first list in my head: the boxer whom I’d seen fight in Fayetteville? She was tall like me, but slower; I would beat her on punch count. She was slightly heavier than me; I would prepare myself to take harder hits and try to move and slip punches more. The young woman currently in the ring with her was a complete beginner, but a good bit heavier than me. I would stay away from her wild loaded punches, wait until she tired, then overwhelm her with simple combinations. The scary fast woman with experience? Employ my reach to keep her away from the inside game, and tighten my defense. And throw a boatload more punches. Ugh, the thought of that particular opponent was making my stomach flip and it didn’t bear thinking more on.
I coiled up my rope and walked back over to the ring, where Tim picked up his quiet stream of instructions as if we’d never been interrupted. I gloved up and he fastened my headgear and smeared my cheeks, forehead, and chin with Vaseline, which prevents minor cuts and helps gloves slide off the face. There’s something humbling and intimate about accepting these small services from your corner or trainer; it makes me intensely grateful to not be alone in facing an opponent.
One of the other trainers put the fast and experienced boxer in the ring, caught my eye, and lifted his chin toward where she was waiting. My heart skittered off like a covey of birds exploding into flight. I turned to face Tim. “What?? They’re putting me in with her? She’s the best fighter here!”
“You’re fine,” he reminded me (see above). “This is why you came here today. And you’re not going to stop or turn when you listen to me.”
He paused, then added, “I want you to do one thing today. I want you to keep your right up.” He eyed my opponent and turned back to me. I thought of her flurries popping like buckshot on plywood and nodded, banging my gloves together for emphasis. “Right up. You got it,” I mumbled over my mouthpiece.
I climbed between the ropes, Tim climbed up to my corner, and I tried not to think. The ref called “Box!” and we bumped gloves, circled, and settled in to work.
I almost always throw the first combination; it’s a testament to my nerves but it also happens to be a smart way to start scoring, especially with a boxer who excels at flurries. My opponent danced out of reach and waited. In what was to become our pattern for the next four rounds I advanced and threw a combination, whereupon she darted inside and unloaded as many body shots as she could.
After the first two rounds of body shots, I felt the dawning of a glorious revelation: she wasn’t hitting me as hard as all the guys at my gym! I suddenly realized I was in the ring with someone close to my weight who was a woman. Most of my sparring partners, with the sole exception of Tim (my corner), are heavier than I am, which makes a big difference in the power of a punch. And almost all of my sparring partners are men, who often have better upper body power. Even though Tim and I are actually in the same weight category, his punches make my head buzz. Her punches weren’t nearly so hard to take!
But I still needed to stop the inside game. My typical fallback is a double right hook to the head and body, although it isn’t the most powerful response in a close-in situation. Later that night I replayed the scene over and over again as I tried to fall asleep: I should have stepped out and thrown an overhand right. I should have tried some uppercuts. Uppercuts are incredibly hard to time and land right, but they are by far the most effective punch on someone whose head is butting toward your chest. If you can get in. This woman’s defense was pretty tight, and truthfully, I was keeping two points of contact (elbow to ribs and gloves to chin) pretty well, which kept many of her shots from meeting my midsection. She was also pretty good at jabbing out when she had to get out of the clench, but I was doing my best to lean on her, pin her gloves when they slipped under, and jab out myself when we separated. Amazingly, I was holding my own. Revelation number two.
After the first round I returned to my corner sucking for air (anxiety is a massive energy killer) but thrilled. “You’re not tired,” Tim informed me, and I felt my battery charge immediately reverse direction and begin creeping back into the green. “And now you know what she has. This is good. This is all good.” I listened while keeping my eyes glued to my opponent in the opposite corner. Her trainer was talking calmly to her, too. About me! I remember thinking, This is so cool. They have to figure out what to do about me. Heh. I tried on some swagger. Tim told me dryly, “Lean back against the ropes and rest.” I did. “And keep your right up. Do you hear me telling you that? You’re dropping your right. She’s gonna catch you clean if you don’t keep your right up.” I nodded, and the ref called “Box!”
We worked. We mostly worked in the same pattern the entire time; she continued to allow me to lead (I even became aware of her corner counseling her to wait for my lead) and she would power in with her body shots. I would hook to her head and body, lean on her, capture her gloves, and make her break out or shove me off. Over and over again we worked on that, neither of us able to make a major change in how it was being played. We didn’t care, we were too intensely focused and powerfully engaged to care. Three rounds went by in an eyeblink.
Tim had been saying over and over again from the corner “Keep your right up, Lisa.” And while I heard with my ears, my body had ideas of it’s own. So in the middle of the third round she caught me clean (as predicted), in one of the most perfectly timed, beautifully executed straight rights to the face as I’ve ever taken. It had pop, it had sting, and it was gorgeous.
I was so impressed by it that I broke ranks — just for a heartbeat — to exclaim, “Damn! Nice shot!” And for the first time I saw her grin, the white of her teeth gleaming behind the clear double mouthguard she was wearing. I did not stop, we did not even pause in our work, but there was a moment in there where I just really appreciated the beauty of that one punch, even though I was on the receiving end of it. And I tried, I really did, to get my right up to block future beauties like it. I’m sure Tim audibly cursed and sighed, and he was justified.
But I caught her a few times too, and those shots felt equally exhilirating. Once I popped her a good one as she straightened her headgear, and inwardly did cartwheels of glee that I had not been the one to make that mistake this time, like I have so many times in the ring before.
At the end of three rounds (typically the length of an amateur bout) the ref looked at us and raised her eyebrows. “You wanna go another round?” she asked us, and my heart sang. We both jumped at the chance. It was a beautiful thing, to find a match that feels that good, that solid, where you’re learning so much and working so hard you don’t want it to end just yet. Tim gave me another tiny sip of water, I dribbled it out (now I get that part — never did understand before how the anxiety makes you not want to drink any water), and he sent me back in.
My opponent threw more shots than I did; if it had been an official bout she would have won. But we would never have been able to fight for points, since she is in her 20’s and I’m 43. We also would never have gotten that fourth round. So I came out thrilled about the experience and utterly unconcerned about the score. We had given each other a match, and we both came away richer. It could not have been better, as far as I was concerned.
Once I geared down I went over to where she was resting and thanked her for the match. “I’m Lisa,” I said, and she stared at me, surprised perhaps, for just a moment, before saying, “I’m Latiesha.” I’ll be watching for her next fight, and if I ever get a chance, you can bet I’ll cheer for her.
As Tim and I left the gym I was happily surprised one more time: my opponent’s trainer came over to us and shook hands. We had not spoken before, and I didn’t even know his name. “When you get back and see Bonnie,” he said, smiling, “you tell her Coach Andre said hello.” I was stunned that he knew who we were. When I told my trainer about it later, she just shook her head and laughed.
“I told you before,” she grinned. “It’s a small circle of people in the boxing world. We all know each other.” That’s kind of cool, don’t you think?