Pugilism

A few vignettes on my unconvincing dabbling in the “sweet science”.

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I’m strangely calm. The beer-clutching crowd looks like a sea of churning tattoos. My entry song is playing. I slap my face four or five times in fast succession. Louts lumber aside as I make my way through to the ring. I’m ready. Life is happening in slow motion. And when the bell goes I’m not scared, but surprised by how much he wants to hit me. It’s a storm for 40 seconds; fists flailing at me. I clench my hands to the side of my head and tuck my elbows into my waist. I hunch down because my corner have told me that stretched ribs break and set about taking evasive action. I’m sticking the odd jab out, more to keep him at bay. After the chaos has taken order and I see a rangy but tense man standing in front of me I come back at him: one – one – one-two. The two connects hard and I’ve got him on the run, on the ropes, covering up his face whilst I pick punches and throw them at him as fast and hard as I can: Straight left, right hook, left hook, straight right, uppercut, left body shot, straight right. He’s off. He’s hurt but has slipped away. The quarry is ferocious and comes back bleeding, baying, game for the kill. The bell goes. I’m in my corner standing up, big hands pull my gumshield out and thrust chilled water in my mouth. It’s ice on my gums and I can’t swallow. I can’t breath deeply enough. The cornerman looks me in the eye and holds it until I’m listening. “Breath”. A deep breath. “Take some water”. I take some water. “You’re winning. Keep following the game plan.” I’m following the game plan. Bell. Touch gloves. Go. A straight left slips by his head and he counters with a slick uppercut. I’m in trouble. I slip inside and lock up, pushing him against the ropes. I punch his kidneys but he’s covering up well. It’s a haze, a blur, we’re hitting each other hard. I can hear the cornerman telling me to cover up. Time stands still for a second and I can see a friend standing 10 rows back, grinning and filming on his mobile hand. He looks at me and gives me a thumbs up. Someone is punching me all the while. Somehow everything is very still. The bell goes. Cold water. Cold looks. “Cover up. Don’t fight his fight. Last round. You’ve got this. Don’t brawl.” The bell. We brawl. He’s come out frantic. His corner have told him to dig deep. “You’re losing. Pull something out of the bag.” He’s pulling. Ferocious punches. The side of my head. My ribs. My knees start to go. I can’t get out the way. I can’t evade. I can’t buy time. I’m going down under a hammer of blows. I can’t lose. No way. Not like this. I summon up one punch, a right from deep down. I must be bent double. The punch comes up straight at him. It’s the weakest punch in Christendom but it backs him up. I breathe deep. Two left jabs. Both miss. He’s slippery. A straight right, my best punch; right at his face. He’s backpeddling again. He almost had me. The bell. Ladies and Gentlemen. The winner in the red corner, by two rounds to one. I raise my fist. A rivulet of blood runs down my nose.

“Birthday Boxing”

(Written after my first fight. 2011. Just found in my drafts…)

Out beyond the nicer areas of the town, where the houses shrink and the gardens fly tattered shirts as flags in the front gardens is where you’ll find the gym. A left at the petrol station, then a right before the pub, where barbed wire twists, tense but aimless in a jagged dance along the top of a brick wall.

It’s there that a small path opens up between the crumbling bricks. At first glance it leads nowhere, just petering out into the green that tickles the sides of the decrepit tarmac. Turn again and you’ll find it: the gym sitting squat at the end of this track; a garage with no cars, or a shed with no pots. Unprepossessing and with nothing to say.

Two doors open to this den and at first the blackness swallows your sight like the gloves swallow your hands — sweaty insides spitting clotted balls of fuzzed lining onto your thumbs and fingers — only the familiar reek of sweat and the staccato tap of skipping ropes ricocheting off the tired floor reminding you where you have come.

Your eyes adjust fast enough though when the time comes. Fast enough to know when you step in the ring that he wants to hurt you, he’s got something to prove. It’s more than just a game to this kid with his hard, hurt face and it’s clear when the coach tells him — sotto voce in a broad Black Country accent — to go easy on you because you’re a novice, that he’s hearing “easy prey”.

Nobody’s listening and nobody’s overly concerned: the Lithuanian kid with the mullet is shadow boxing in front of the mirror and the bags are swaying in their cumbersome dance; unfeeling and unconcerned by the wild hooks of angry lean teenagers punishing them for their failure to respond. It’s your birthday and nobody’s home so you’ve come to the club and been sucked into the ring, but at the first sizzling jab that rocks your head back you know nobody’s going to sing to you, though someone might blow out your candles.

You take it as well as anyone does a straight left in the face on their birthday, stutter back two paces, raise your shoulder over your jaw, tighten your guard and feint; he’s sloppy and overconfident and when he comes in swinging again you drop fast and slam a straight right into his midriff. You might as well hit a tree.

The two of you are back dancing the strange tango of lonely men before you know it; legs skipping, stepping, circling, a flurry of punches failing to connect and the lactic acid slowly sapping your survival instincts of their edge. Two quick lefts jolt your face again and the bell goes. Your nose dribbles salty blood across your lips.

“Well done son, well done”, the coach says dismissively, spraying your fractured face with the kind of thing middle-aged women use to keep their ferns green. You smile unconvincingly and the ropes snatch at your legs as you slip out of the ring – his lip is split and he fails to respond to an outstretched fist – pack your bag nonchantly, nod at the whole motley bunch and head to the car park.

You haven’t untaped your hands and you stretch them out the window unwinding, to catch the wind  as the car starts; sweat drying cold and calm on your palms. Passing the chippy, the evening sun catches your windscreen and the smudges of grease, the small smears wiped by the wind on your cockpit catch the light and for a moment, the car is full of gold.

***


“A Wet Stinky Jam”

"I fix you strong blow" Kazakhstan's Oleg Maskaev hits Turkey's Sinan Samil Sam during their WBC heavyweight fight in 2005.

It’s Wednesday night down the boxing gym. The coach is out having dinner. Miscellaneous old men shout garbled instructions at their charges shadow boxing in front of the long scratched mirror.

The door slides open. A blast of cold air.  Two men, one tall, one short stand there looking around for someone in charge. No one’s in charge, no one even looks at them. I’m taping up my hands. I nod to them and they come to me.

They’re from Kazakhstan. The small one is dapper and ebullient, all charm, mangled English and nice suit. He works in the embassy and his friend wants to box.

His friend is tall and hard looking. He glances dead-eyed at the people training. He grimaces a half smile of solid gold teeth  and shakes my hand with a paw like a brick. Stands back, inscrutable behind his beetlebrow. Dapper man gushes:

“Oh, so yes! My friend here! He very like boxing. He want box. He come Korea. Does no speak Korean no English. He want to spar. Yes. Very good. You spar here?”

I don’t have time usually. Sparring’s in the mornings and  I train late. Besides, this guy looks like he’d chew me up and spit me out with 18 carrot gold gnasher marks in me. Thanks but no thanks. I’ll pass.

We shake hands again and exchange business cards anyway. The coach is back and I introduce dapper man and gold gnasher. I tape up my hands and start hitting the heavy bags.

My knuckles are raw again. Gold tooth is half-watching.

The next morning I get the following email.

“Hello J. My name is ***** from Kazakhstan we met at the sports hall. Having not too much time I didn’t indroduce you the friend of mine, he is a boxing coach with a huge experience was a yunior champion of our country…He asked me -why there is no a coach who will be able to teach you. My friend mentioned that you did a lots of crude mistakes while punching the sack And nobody even shows you the proper way, he also said that it is not necessary to practice misstakes ,doing that you are improoving in a wrong way.

“J, my friend said that there is an ethicall moment that if a person so much interesting in boxing a coach should not ignore that.my friend has got a suggestion, offering you lessons of boxing for some English from your side, he also said that the boxing is not a punching a sack in a wet stinky jam but more a philosophy wich could be practice at nature, there are many parks, river sides in Seoul ,and nowerdays whether is good for that , my friend do not need any money, he wants to have practice and a partner, wishing have an English teacher and a friend ,he stongly asked me to suggest you to try his offer:)

“He also said that in a month he will fix a strong blow ,just let you try You will fill it. You might know that Kazakhstan is good in boxing. I hope to recive an answer.”

So I can’t box for shit. The gym is wet and stinky and my coach is a lazy bastard who doesn’t give his students enough attention. Tell me something I don’t already know, yunior champ.

But Gold Teeth is right: boxing should be more than punching a sack. The offer’s tempting. One-to-one tuition from a former national champion sounds good. And I guess I’d like to have my “blow fixed strong so I can fill it”.

On the other hand I’m not sure if I fancy teaching English in a riverside park while a Kazakh thug with a penchant for “ethicall moments” but none of his own teeth left beats the shit out of me in the name of philosophy…

Given the offer is so attractively phrased, however, I’m inclined to take up the invitation. Life is strange.
***


“God and the Boxer”

Neon crosses litter the night sky in Seoul. Picture by Dan Himes

You can’t escape God in South Korea. He’s even nestling like a strange foetus or pacemaker in the chest of professional boxers.

And if I had a W1000 note for every time someone approached me on the tube asking if I knew their friend Jesus, I’d make George Soros look like a pauper.

But my formerly laconic boxing coach  didn’t seem the type. Now I know:

“Do you believe in god J?” He corners me menacingly in the changing room.

I don’t know what ignostic is in Korean and I don’t want to brush him off with a yes or no answer, either of which would be a lie. I opt for deflection…

“I think god means different things to different people…”

“But do you believe in Jesus?”

(As a historical figure, likely; as a spiritual leader, probably; as the son of god: um, metaphorically? But I’m cornered by a pro-boxer not given to semantics or hair-splitting nonsense. “Yes” I mumble, pathetically.)

“When I fight, god is in me; that’s why I win. My mother prays 24-hours continuously before I fight; that’s why I win… God is in here!” (Gestures expansively with bruised hands at his chest…)

“That’s great… I can see, yes…” I mutter again, wondering what God thinks about people being beaten to a pulp because he has shrunk to Lilliputian size and made his home in the left atrium of a Korean pugilist.

“Go to church regularly J!” he barks into the chill air of the gym.

I return to skipping in the thin morning sun.

***

“Raging Cow”
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South Korean welterweight champion Kwak Kyung-seok is dog-tired and in a foul mood. He’s exhausted because he’s been training all day for an upcoming titleship bout with a Thai fighter and he’s in a foul mood because I can’t get a rhythm on the mitts and my left hook looks like shit.

“Thwack, thwack-thwack” go the pads and with each final “thwack” his sigh gets louder and language saltier. After trying to correct my footwork for the upteenth time and demonstrating the tightness of the move with his own heavy hands – circular mitts flying like black, sweat-slick UFOs in front of my eyes — the stocky 31-year-old can’t take it anymore:

“For fuck’s sake” he says deliberately in Korean. “Are you a cow?”

I stop, sweat burning my eyes, tired, pissed-off and now completely fucking confused too:

“A cow?”

“Yes, a cow. For fuck’s sake, I said are you a cow?

“Cow?” I try and draw the mental connection: Ponderous? Four-stomachs? Given to excessive mastication? Flatulent? I don’t get it, perhaps I’ve misheard…

“A cow?”

By now his frustration is palpable.

“Yes a fucking cow; you know, steak, burgers, bulgogi… Moo! A cow! Are you a cow? Why aren’t you damn listening to what I say? It’s like reading sutras to a cow!”

I get it suddenly; this must be the Korean equivalent to casting pearls before swine. I’m the swine. Dammit. First I can’t get a basic punch right and now I’m being called a cow. I just want to punch something after a shitty day at the office and now his mumblings have become sutras and I’m a cow.

“Shit!” I finally snap, losing the veneer of detachment cultivated assiduously over the past six months in the decrepit 5th floor boxing gym.

“I’ll just do the goddam bags, ok?” I bellow frustratedly  in a no-doubt bovine manner (but perturbed the way a cow could never be) and slam my gloves into the wall in frustration.

My loss of temper raises his spirits no-end.

“Oh come on!” He laughs, tickled at the effect he’s had. “Come oorrnn.”

He makes his way to the old sofa in the admin corner of the room and slumps down, putting on an old fight video with a lazy flick of the remote control, still chuckling to himself.

“Sutras to a fucking cow.”

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