An interesting mix of people showed up: fighters, trainers, a promoter, and a few girlfriends, moms, and children. Some fighter from a reality boxing show was there, too. Other than my trainer Bonnie, I was the only white girl — and we were certainly the only female boxers — in the place.
Originally I had plans to get a few rounds in with a couple of the guys on my team; a warm-up for them, work for me. We knew the visiting gym wouldn’t have anyone for me to fight; this was mostly about letting some of our men get sparring experience with new fighters.
They got that, but what I got was an education.
Our visitors were an hour late and huge. Men bared acres of scarred and inked flesh, flexed, and gleamed. Bonnie pulled on rubber gloves and set out spit buckets in the corners; I’d never seen either in our ring before. Yeah, we get blood, but not much blood. And we just drink water from our water bottles between rounds; nobody actually spits it back out. Everyone was guardedly polite, but it was clear that this was going to be a showdown.
As soon as the crowd arrived, I shelled off my gear and quietly told my trainer that I’d get my rounds another time. I could see this was going to be way out of my league.
It was promotion politics, egos, and the inevitable pound out. I saw one fighter whose duct-taped hand wraps looked like he’d secured gauze-covered baseballs to the backs of his hands. I had no idea how he’d manage to get his hands into gloves. Nobody warmed up, they ducked between the ropes stone-cold.
The first round brought first blood and for me it was downhill from there. No one was calling down their boys; nobody was pulling punches. Every throw was loaded and every round was a beat-down. There were a few questionable hits and tactics, but mostly it was a monsoon’s worth of testosterone and I didn’t belong there.
One of our pro boxers was dogged in the ring by a faster, heavier, amateur slugger whose fists sounded like stacatto bursts of small arms fire. Two heavyweights squared off, barely moving, and tore each other down with one bomb after another. Both of them had shirts covered with blood smears at the end of the second round.
The men crowded around the ring and the wives and girlfriends stayed off to the side, tending children and chatting, or looking on dispassionately from the outer edge. It was hot and loud, my head was buzzing, and I was pale as milk. I had forgotten to eat lunch, and my blood sugar was plummeting. After seeing one of our boxers take a hit behind the ear that took his legs right out from under him, and seeing another go to his knees twice from the power of the punches he was taking, I was pretty sure I was in the wrong sport. I packed up my gear and bailed.
The next morning I arrived in the gym severely rattled.
I found my trainer cheerfully putting two other laughing, sweating women through a training routine. Bonnie called me in and made me follow every set they did. By the time we finished the session I was feeling better. I joined in the group class that was just starting as the personal training ended, and sweated out my fears, enjoying the mock groans and real grunts of effort all around me.
I felt strong; I was soaring through the workout with energy to spare. My team mates drifted in and I tentatively asked them how they were feeling.
One had a minor black eye, but none seemed any worse for the wear. For them, it was just part of the ebb and flow of boxing. Yes, they took a beating, but they weren’t troubled. One was already going over his weaknesses in the ring and laying out plans for improvement. I told them how caught off guard I had been. They listened attentively and calmly began rebuilding my confidence. You’re going to do just fine, they promised me, and we’re going to help you. It’s all about time and experience; you’ll get where you need to be.
After an hour and a half of training, Bonnie put me in the ring for a couple of rounds with my teammates. They were fast, serious, and made me work hard. Then Bonnie got in with me. “For the next two rounds,” she told me, “I’m not going to say a word; you and I are going to box. You listen to your teammates, they are going to coach you.”
And they did. Tim took the lead. To the rhythm of his instruction I drove out my shots, took my hits, and worked a little bit of strategy. I ducked, cut angles, and pieced together short combinations. I blocked some hooks and got rocked by others. I left the gym that Sunday on wings.
That night I dreamed my teammate’s voice, shouting constant direction and encouragement from my corner. I am in love with boxing again. Let the journey begin.