I had my first fight with my Second Round team in Wilmington.
It’s always a toss-up, fighting Masters, as to whether I’ll actually get an opponent. I weighed in at an event last month and my opponent didn’t show. Women over the age of 35 who want to compete in the ring are few and far between, then there is the further narrowing of the field because of weight class, experience level, geography, and the random unexpected injuries, family demands and other contingencies.
Because it’s so difficult to get opponents, my goal has become to get one fight every year. Last year got checked off with my October fight. (The December fight was classified “exhibition” and doesn’t count toward my goal.) This year got checked off with my fight in March. I’m feeling a little gleeful to have met and exceeded my goal for this year now!
My opponent got connected for this match through a coach in Wilmington about 3 weeks ago. He had let my coach know she was light and we’d have to get our weights closer in order to get the match. I got down from 142 to 135 and I think she came up from 125 to 132. And she drove 6 hours from Virginia to be at the event; I only had to drive two hours.
We both arrived just before weigh-ins were scheduled to begin. There were only 6 women out of the 44 total boxers fighting at this event, and only one Masters bout; I picked her out immediately. She was really beautiful, and just a bit shorter than me. I smiled and spoke to her. Not everyone wants to chat with their opponent in advance of a match, but she was entirely polite. We made weight, turned in our passbooks, and parted ways to wait out the endless, miserable hours of the day until we could get our fight.
I love pretty much everything about boxing except the day of a fight.
Well, and cutting or gaining weight; those both suck, but they are at least bearable. The endless hours of waiting for a tiny, six minute test of your skill and power are excruciating.
Everyone has different tricks and coping mechanisms, but there’s no escaping the endless circus of weigh-ins, passbooks, medicals, getting your food/liquid intake right and timed, sitting for hours in metal folding chairs, finding a bathroom (this one didn’t have toilet paper), constantly tamping down your anxiety, keeping an eye on the time, meeting your opponent, staying limber, and maintaining sanity in the loud din of the crowd.
Every time I go through it I take a paperback to read, but this never helps. There are too many things you must pay attention to during the long hours of waiting. Even having my Shuffle (finally got the playlist right — the quiet stuff from my exhibition fight had failed at fight #2 in Atlanta, so I went back to hard rock) didn’t help much, because I constantly had to take out my earbuds to answer questions, find out what I was expected to do next, help someone find scissors, etc., etc., etc.
Finally I dressed out and sat for my coach to wrap my hands. I normally love this ritual, but in this case, I was wracked with anxiety because my fight got moved up at the last minute so I felt late, after all that damn waiting. I straddled my metal chair, draped my arms over the back where Coach Massey could reach them, and spent the next 15 minutes staring at the bright silver dog tag on his chest. It says “One Bad Jab.” It was his ring name, from his pro fighting days.
“Do you miss fighting?” I asked him.
“Hell, no,” he responded, laughing and flashing his gold tooth. For just a moment I felt entirely aligned with his sentiment. Why would anyone want to go through this misery on a regular basis?
“I miss sparring though,” he continued, and I nodded in understanding. All the guts and joy of boxing without the hellish hours of a fight day.
Once you’re wrapped and gloved, you become entirely dependent on your coaches. I had to ask Coach Mandy to find my headband and put it on me for the short period before my match. She gave me a drink of water. She found my mouthpiece (in my sock — this is a great place to keep it in the hour before you fight, btw) and checked my laces.
I made my usual joke: “I need to go to the bathroom,” I said as I stretched out and began to move. The big gloves make this impossible, unless you have a reeeeeallly close friend.
“Can’t help you there,” she said quickly, and we both laughed a little.
I continued to chatter nervously, almost mindlessly: what I should remember, how I should move; combos, tactics, offenses and defenses.
At some point she stopped me quietly with a hand over my gloves.
“You’ve already trained for this,” she reminded me. “You’re overthinking it. Just let your body perform.”
She was absolutely right, and it was the perfect advice, the best possible thing I could have heard.
The match before mine was finishing. I stood ringside amid the din of screaming onlookers as the two fighters ahead of me battled. I couldn’t hear Coach Massey’s advice anymore. He held pads for me but I couldn’t hear the combos. I shuffled like an anxious racehorse, frustration rising in me.
Finally, the closing bell.
Massey held one pad. “Gimme the power,” he said, “Jab, right.”
I sighed in deep relief. If there is one thing I can do, this is it. My jab was fierce, and the right was at full-scale knockout level. It was like a pistol shot: bip-BAM.
Bip-BAM. Bip-BAM! I could hear it echo in the rafters.
Six more combos in a row I gave him, every one as perfect and loud and solid. He grinned and shook his head, and his gaze did a slow circle of the crowd around us; all eyes were now on us.
Later I realized that the eyes of my opponent were probably also on us. Massey knew what he was doing, letting me show my power like that. Letting me go in confident in my own strength.
Outside of the actual fight, it was the best moment of my entire night.
I rolled under the ropes and felt the deep satisfaction of the ring settle around me. Time to do what I do.
My opponent surged out with a flurry. I tapped out measuring jabs and began to circle, assessing what I was up against. It’s probably better to go ahead and claim the early part of the first round, but I wasn’t really expecting such a long, light string of flurries. She had punches in bunches, no doubt.
It didn’t take me long to see what I would be doing. Her hands were busy, but she was staying squared up a bit, giving me a sweet little pipeline down the center to her face. An invitation to my power right.
Bip-BAM, bip-BAM, bip-BAM. Yep, those were actually gonna work.
My jabs weren’t connecting every time, but my rights were absolutely solid, and every single one was on target. I suppressed my glee and put my brain back in gear. She was not bringing pain, but she might be scoring with the sheer number of shots she was throwing.
In the amateurs it doesn’t matter if you can throw a bomb; a hard hit scores the same as a medium hit, so long as it connects. Bombs are intimidating, but they aren’t 3-pointers.
I had to shut down her scoring machine. I clinched, got my arm around the back of her head and squeezed and leaned, hard. The ref nearly decked me himself, breaking the clinch and yelling at me for my patently illegal move. But it broke the onslaught and didn’t cost me. They’ll warn you before they take a point.
I glanced over to see how my opponent was taking it. Her face was flushed from the power rights already. I absolutely had to keep her on the end of my jab and prevent her inside game.
She rushed back out and we worked hard to the end of the round.
At the break both of my coaches told me I was ahead, but I wasn’t confident about it. I knew I wasn’t moving my feet and I thought the judges might be counting her shots higher, even though they were coming mostly from the sides. I felt like I’d only taken one or two solid shots to my head — nearly everything else was on my arms and shoulders, which meant my guard was good, but I wasn’t moving around enough.
The second round was where I began to rely on Coach Massey’s strategy. Once you’re in and have tried your game, it’s unbelievably helpful to have someone calling your shots and guiding you through the hard mental work while you do the physical work.
My attempts at longer combos were not scoring all the way through; my hooks often missed because I wasn’t getting in position and getting them off before she moved. She was fast, and seemed to throw four and five shots at a time.
Massey 86’d my hooks. “Straighten it out,” he called from my corner. “Give me the straight right….Thank you.”
The right was scoring and I still had all bars in my power meter. I wasn’t gassed. My feet were not moving, but my one-two continued to hold the fort.
She was slowing and starting to pant. The left side of her face was beginning to swell. I felt like a robot, an automatron, an idiot on repeat. Surely I could do something besides this, surely. Lord I wanted finesse, grace! I wanted to move less like a wooden toy; I wanted to show beauty as well as power. Why can’t I be pretty in the ring??
“Go to the body,” Massey called from the corner.
I sent up a mental thank you, and suddenly had something new to do.
“Double the jab,” he called, and I did. I did lots of things, but there was one thing that worked every time…
At the round break, I had the feeling we were going change gears. I don’t remember what either of my coaches said (other than their reassurance that I was still ahead), I mostly only recall going back out, still feeling slow but strong.
Massey held me back, over and over again, with a steady call of “Wait for her…” She was struggling now, and I could stand and deliver. If I could time it just right each time, she would come forward into my shots.
“Don’t advance,” he warned, “Hold…”
It was hard, because I felt I had to advance to score, but he was right, she was coming and with a surge of joy I realized I was beginning to see her shots arriving. Midway through the third I ducked a spectacular all-in jab-right, and she went sailing past me; the crowd roared. Belatedly I realized I should have come up with a quick left hook.
I sighed inwardly. Someday I may finally put all the pieces of this game together, but not today. Today I was a particularly skilled kindergartener, and my rights would have to carry the day.
And they did.
My opponent was wonderful. She never quit, she barreled forward and burned energy at a ferocious rate. She threw far more combos than I did. She didn’t let the hard power put her out. She gave game to the very last bell.
I deeply respect that. ANY woman — or man, for that matter — willing to go through what a competitive boxer goes through deserves the title Bad Ass. Sara (I never heard her last name), I salute you. You were awesome.
I was happy to be handed the gold medal, and once again I was stunned at my instant “I want to do this again” response, even though I’d spent the 24 hours before my glorious 6 minutes in pure anguish.
There’s no rational explanation.
Only the challenge to be better. Only the relentless push to master my body and make it perform in concert with my brain in the complex intricacies of this sweet science.
And the sheer, brutal pleasure of a fight.
Image: Coach Willie “One Bad Jab” Massey with me after the win. Thanks to Cathy Linkous for the photo!