My trainer is getting ready for her next pro boxing fight.
The fight event, prosaically called “Mama Said Knock You Out,” will be held at the Raleigh Convention Center on May 8th, 2010 and is sponsored by Rapid Fitness and Jawbreaker Promotions. I was stoked when I heard she had secured a spot on the card, had begun training, and had an opponent lined up. I pressed for details when she headed into the tight schedule of training with her coach, the famed Anthony Bradley, three-time USA Olympic Men’s Boxing coach.
“What’s it like?” I demanded to know. “What does he have you do?” One day Bonnie dragged into the gym looking like dog meat. She had two words for me.
“Thirty. Rounds.” she said, with a grim sort of smile.
I was scandalized and thrilled. This is the kind of training that separates the weekend warriors from the Real Deal. “Some time you gotta let me come watch,” I told her, with same kind of rabid interest massive highway wreckage and Nascar flameouts draw from onlookers.
Me and my big mouth.
The next week I got a text message. “Can you spar on Saturday at Rapid Fitness?”
I didn’t remember her official training regimen including Saturdays, so at first I thought this might just be the two of us. But it wasn’t at our regular gym, so I suspected it was something more than usual. My heart began to pound. I sent three letters and three exclamation points via text: “Yes!!!”
I woke up Saturday with my heart pounding. I double-checked my gear bag and found my way to the gym. Bonnie and I started our regular warm-up routines in silence amidst the gym regulars. I held back as much as possible, but my heart rate was still through the roof.
Her coach’s assistant Rick arrived and watched us closely through the ropes as we stretched. Simple introductions were made, we kept warming up. It was oppressively hot. Rick began to coat our gloves and head protectors with a special lubricant that is designed to help minimize abrasions and enable punches to slip off the gear. Be sure to give me a double dose of that, I thought crazily; I could be in trouble here. I was about as relaxed as a sheet of plate glass.
A couple of other trainers and a boxer or two settled into the corners of the tiny room, which was hardly large enough to house the ring, four punching bags and a few metal folding chairs. I tried to pretend they weren’t there while my brain produced nightmarish statements like, “They think you’re an imposter.” My own worst enemy.
Then Coach Bradley walked in. This man is serious boxing royalty, and the fact that he lives and works and coaches boxers — including my trainer — here in North Carolina is pretty cool. Bonnie introduced us and I tried to smile. “Howya feeling?” he asked.
I didn’t even consider faking it. “Very anxious,” I replied, bumping my fist over my heart as if that might convince it to quit hammering so hard. He smiled and said wonderful lovely soothing things (I assume) but my brain was having none of it. I really, really needed to start boxing before my nerves drained every last ounce of energy I had and I shamed myself by falling down on the canvas in a dead faint before the first bell rang.
Bonnie and I worked through four rounds of shadowboxing when yet another boxing great crowded into the tiny room: Paul “The Italian Hit Man” Maranaccio had arrived with a small entourage to begin warming up for his own training session, which would start after ours ended. Bradley is training Maranaccio for the May 8 fight as well.
“Bonnie, look who’s here,” I whispered, hating the way my voice squeaked. She grinned.
“Hey Paul,” she called. “You got a fan in here.” He laughed kindly, bumped my fist through the ring, and I thought about how I was about to utterly humiliate myself in front of witnesses.
But thank God the bell rang and Bonnie and I went to work.
The ring there sucks. The padding has started to buckle in the center, making footwork in the middle of the ring utterly treacherous. Bonnie saw me looking at it, knew it was throwing me off, and mostly kept us working the edges of the ring, which is not the greatest idea in the world. You don’t want to get pinned in the corner or on the ropes by a better boxer.
I found myself panting by the end of the first round. Too many people watching, too much pressure. But Rick was kind, pouring a sip of water into my mouth and gently talking me through the basics. “Don’t go in unless you go in behind a jab,” he said, “and stop chasing her. Dart in and cut her off. Don’t just throw one punch, double them up. Get a combination and get out.”
This is all stuff I know, but there’s something wonderful about hearing it when your brain is in crisis mode and refuses to let you think clearly. He talked until the bell rang and we were at it again.
I found that Bonnie and I were closing regularly for in-fighting, and I began to hear Coach Bradley’s voice now and then. “Uppercut,” he called, communicating with one word the single punch that would get her off me and possibly convince her to stop tying me up and tiring me out with her weight advantage. I tried for a couple, but nothing landed; she was effectively pinning my left glove every time. So I worked for a right hook to end the clinch and was mostly able to avoid her answering hooks by leaping out quickly. I was spending huge amounts of energy to do it, though, and moving backwards rather than to the side. Sometimes the flight reflex is unstoppable.
By the fourth round I was out of gas but not out of pride. I wanted two more, desperately. I’d expected to be able to last at least six rounds (which I’ve easily done before) but anxiety and nerves had taken a heavy toll. Coach Bradley looked at me. “Can you do one more?” he asked. I nodded yes.
“I’ll stay covered up,” I promised him. And I did. There were far fewer punches thrown in that round, and I kicked myself for not keeping my punch count lower early on to reserve my energy. But I wanted so much to box well that I threw everything I had into every round, not allowing for my overtaxed system.
We boxed five rounds. I took one straight right to the face (walked into it, ouch) and felt two pretty solid body shots (this is why I wear a belt). I was thrilled to get a second “mouse,” a minor black eye caused by a pinching of the skin between the eye and my headgear. I know for a fact that Bonnie felt a few of my punches as well, including one particularly satisfactory left hook. I doled out plenty of shots even though I didn’t have the energy to stay the distance.
Best of all, I was in a room full of boxing royalty; everyone in that room understood exactly what I’d just gone through. Paul Maranaccio clapped me on the shoulder with a sincere “Nice work,” and Coach Bradley gave me some pointers on form and was incredibly encouraging. One of the older men who had been watching came over to give me tips on breathing and side-pivots; he was 90 years old and had come up in the old school ways of training. He pointed out something all the other trainers had completely missed: I was breathing out on my shots but not in afterward. Duh. No wonder I had no air.
I finished out with five rounds on the heavy bags, cooled down, watched Maranaccio and his sparring partner shadowbox for a few rounds, then packed up my gear. Despite my nerves, it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in my life. It was the equivalent of getting to ride with Lance Armstrong, run with Florence Griffith-Joyner, or sit in on a recording session with Madonna. It was unforgettable.
And the best part of the entire experience was being told as I headed out, “See you next Saturday.”