When untried boxers get in the ring for the first time, it’s often a mess.
At some gyms, little care is taken to see new people nurtured; they throw you in the deep end and see if you can swim. If you talk to many boxers you will hear trial-by-fire stories over and over again. An inattentive trainer allowed his bruisers to treat newcomers like tin cans, or worse, the trainer himself got in the ring with a fresh recruit to show off his superior strength and skills. It’s a backwards kind of tactic that actually seems to work sometimes: “See, if you take it like a man and keep coming back for more, eventually you too will get a turn to bully people in the ring.” And the unfortunate belief that boxing is all about brutality gets yet another toehold.
Add to this the fact that when you are new to the ring, you simply don’t know what to expect. Typically you think you’re there to beat up or get beaten up, kill or be killed. Terror and determination combine like ammonia and bleach and the result is toxic. New fighters are known for wildly throwing every ounce of power they can scrape together as soon as they come out of the corner in the first round they ever spar. Add to this the fact that they usually don’t have jack for wind, and 30 seconds in they are gasping for air and looking around for a baseball bat to even up the odds. That isn’t always the case, of course. Sometimes they come in with a fury and the power to fuel it for a short burst of time.
There is a stark dividing line for those who decide to try out the ring. If they are shepherded carefully through this first critical experience they may stick with it. But more fall away than stick, and much of that has to do with who is in charge at the gym.
Our trainer is very good at bringing new boxers into the ring. Frequently she will get in with someone and allow them to box while she simply practices evasive maneuvers, letting them see how it feels to throw a punch before they learn what it feels like to take one. This actually often has the interesting side effect of bringing some humor into the ring. It’s like standing three feet from a basketball goal and throwing airball after airball; eventually you just laugh at how bad you are. She also runs most everyone who comes through the doors through rigorous conditioning for a few weeks before allowing them in the ring; this way they have at least a small start on the ability to breathe while under fire. And if it’s clear a newcomer has power and speed but just no experience, she will allow them in with a boxer from the team and let us to begin to school the new person as she coaches from the sidelines.
Once in a while, it doesn’t go smoothly. Every boxer has a story, and most bring their issues into the ring with them. It can be a bumpy ride for a team who is regularly bringing in new people.
We recently had a young man with tremendous promise and power but inconsistent performance roll in and quickly bust up our steady working routines like a bowling ball on the ninepins. In the few times he’s been here, I’ve seen him bring garbage into the ring, but I’ve also seen him box beautifully and with control once. He is not heavy but he is extremely strong and fast. We hadn’t seen him in weeks, and he sauntered in late and didn’t warm up with the team. Normally this means you don’t get to spar with the team, but sometimes our trainer tries to give the younger ones a break.
The kid went in with a solid sparring partner who had a few pounds on him, a thought that should have kept him in check. But he barreled out of the corner and started slinging punches like sledgehammers, arms swinging wide and high but still somehow dropping in with shattering force. Our guy called him quietly to pull his power and settle in. Everybody heard but the kid, and suddenly a loaded jab popped the team member’s nose and we had blood. Our boxer shrugged it off, and our trainer called the kid down. No response. Blood dripped steadily and splattered all over the kid’s gloves as he punched. The experienced team boxer worked steadily, keeping his emotions and his power mostly in check, but the kid threw wildly, attacking with abandon. A heavy right cross hit above our man’s eye like a rock. Immediately a blood blister the size of a grape rose, and the third call-down went out. Nothing. By the end of the round the team member’s eye was dark purple and nearly swollen shut. The kid bounced crazily on his toes, and the next team member went in.
This one is tall and has both reach and ability, but he had been feeling ill all day, and didn’t have the power in him to settle the kid. He made it through his round, ducked between the ropes, and strode quickly for the bathrooms to puke. He came back looking pale but less shaky.
The third round was assigned to the best boxer on our team, and we all tightened against the ring like fish on a chum bucket. Bonnie gave our guy the nod and we knew he had permission to take the kid to school. The newbie looked a little warily at him, but then came those same punches. Our guy gave one warning. Then, in one of his favorite moves, he let the kid put him on the ropes and tire himself out with a flurry, then snap! — out came the hook like a cobra. The kid seemed a little surprised, but it didn’t put an end to the brawl. Our boxer calmly matched him hit for hit, snapping the kid’s head back a few times. It seemed to let a little air out of his tires, and I saw that tired look creep in. The rest of his round was sloppy, but a little less out of control.
After that third round the kid came out of the ring and the rest of the team steadfastly ignored him as we worked through the rest of our sparring. I noticed that no one spoke to him or even looked in his direction until we’d run through our abdominal work-out and even wiped down the heavy bags. At the end of practice, all of the men on the team went over to talk with the kid (and not necessarily gently) about how the sparring went. He worked hard to claim that he had done nothing inappropriate, but they were having none of it and made it clear that he still had some work to do when it came to controlling himself in the ring. Our best boxer summed it up for him: “If you had been here to work, we would have worked with you,” he said. “You were warned several times. If you throw heat, you’re going to get heat back. Save your all-out for an actual fight.” He turned and walked off.
Sparring with new boxers is always difficult. Some think that sparring is a time to bring all your power to every punch and show everyone how macho you are (girls do it too). Some just don’t know how strong they are until they inadvertently give their partner a black eye or a bloody nose. And all of them are new. They don’t have the experience or the training to be able to control their punches very well, even if they try. Injuries happen more frequently in connection with newcomers than anyone else, and a team — as well as a newcomer — has to be resigned to that. It’s a part of boxing and always will be.