First Day of School
By Henry Dyck (July 24, 2004)
Speak with anyone involved in boxing and they’ll tell you that it’s like a drug. Once it settles into your system there’s little chance that it will leave. The great 'Marvelous' Marvin Hagler needed an entire body of water to keep the seductive lure of the sweet science from calling him back. My story is no different.
In the fall of ‘98 I enrolled in a local community college. Like most students I had an abundance of free time. While most of my colleagues were busy filling theirs with studying, dating and partying I decided to partition mine with an itch that hadn’t yet been scratched. I had been bitten by the boxing bug in my early teens and the infection is still in my blood.
So, with a new scholastic horizon before me, I decided to take my first step towards pugilistic greatness and enroll in a nearby gym. I was sure that when given the chance to show my many impressive skills (which I harnessed for years in front of my bedroom mirror) the manager of this establishment would be calling Emanuel Stewart telling him of a hot young prospect who was sure to be champ.
Like most arm chair boxers, I would scream and taunt the combatants that I watched on ESPN. “Why isn’t he throwing more combos?” “Move your head idiot!” “Oh, I would have followed up with a right uppercut. Who trains this guy?” It wouldn’t be long before I discovered just how hard this game could be.
My first day I got to experience what I had always read about; the living, breathing, boxing gym. This wasn’t the pleasant, cheerful family fitness centre I was accustomed to, where painfully cheery trainers, dressed in their neon uniforms, asked if you wanted a wholesome, banana protein shake. Where kind old people slowly march on machines that take them nowhere while discussing the thrilling Matlock episode they viewed the night before. No, this gym was hot, crowded and hard. The thermostat was, I thought, set higher than the current temperature of this hot summer day. The dress code appeared to consist of old t-shirts (adorned with slogans that suggested that if you don’t give it your all you might as well die), shorts, hand wraps and a scowl.
I worked my way over to what looked liked the main office. It was a small room no bigger than a midget’s closet. Here is where I met Bob. Bob was an older gentleman who had boxed as an amateur in his younger days. His hair was gray now and the lines that time steadily draws across all of our faces were evident. But his sturdy frame and quick movements belied his age, making one think a comeback would not be unquestionable.
Bob decided to start me off slow. He showed me the basic warm ups that would get my body ready for the hard physical tasks at hand. I hadn’t skipped rope since I was in elementary school and it made me laugh to see that my skills hadn’t gotten any better. After tripping over the cord for three rounds Bob introduced me to the speed bag. I was always fascinated by this training device. I was captivated by the way trained fighters could make it bounce and whirl like a bloated pendulum on speed. This too would prove to be a lesson in humility. I was to start with one hand for several repetitions and then switch to the other. “Over time you’ll get better at it”, Bob assured me.
Next was shadowboxing. This was something I had done many times in my bedroom. In there, I had defeated Ali, Tyson, Roy Jones and many other contemporary and past legends. My new trainer explained that this is a great learning tool. Here, you will see exactly what you are doing right and wrong and can make the corrections necessary for proper form. I enjoyed shadowboxing. Not only was I perfecting my craft but I also got to look at myself. Oh yeah.
Finally, I was led over towards the heavy bag. Bob had me throw countless hooks, straights and jabs until my arms refused to move.
By the time I was finished with my Everlast sparring partner, sweat was pouring from every orifice. My legs were drained, my arms ached and my shoulders were screaming for an ice pack. “Good job kid. We’re done with warm-ups”. What! That was the warm up! Bob only laughed and then proceeded to drag my lifeless body into the ring. Putting on a pair of training mitts, he showed me some basic punches. I learned my one’s from my two’s and through some diligence I even managed to get them right occasionally. What amazed me was how exhausted I became after throwing only a handful of punches. Here I was, simply circling around my stationary trainer, flicking out instructed punches, and I was on the verge of collapse. Now, I’m not saying I’m Mr. Olympia, but I had invested my share of hours on various exercise machines and weights. Certainly I would be in good enough shape to go three or four rounds, right? Wrong. From the moment I stepped foot into that house of pain I quickly learned what true physical and mental exhaustion was.
Seeing how physically drained I was, Bob decided now was a good time to explain what was necessary to be successful at this horrifyingly beautiful sport. “Wind”, he said. “Wind is the fuel that powers your engine. Without it, you’ll sputter out fast and you’ll find out quickly what that heavy bag feels like.” “Make sure you do your running. Start off light but eventually you’ll want to get up to ten miles.” “Ten miles!” I thought. I can’t even drive ten miles let alone run it! “Once you’ve got wind in your belly”, Bob continued “you’ll work right through those mitts.”
With that, I gathered my things and slowly walked back home. Despite being thoroughly and utterly fatigued a wide smile managed to stretch across my face. I had completed my first day as a boxer.
Over the next several weeks I worked hard on the schedule that boxing demanded. I got my running done early in the morning, went to school, home for a quick bite and then back to the gym. And if my body could manage it, I would sneak in some weights before bed. Needless to say, I was exhausted most of the time. I barely saw my friends and my social life was down for the count. But this was something I needed to do.
Eventually, Bob decided that I was ready to get some ‘light work’ in. I was placed in the ring with a seasoned amateur fighter by the name of Kevin. He was a wiry middleweight with an impressive record of 23-6. “Don’t worry”, he told me “we’ll just move a little”.
Little did I know that by “moving a little”, he meant, punch me repeatedly in the face.
But Kevin turned out to be an excellent teacher himself. He never tried to really hurt me (although his right hand argued that point several times) and always offered up words of encouragement or advice. Through these sparring sessions my footwork improved as did my defense and combinations. I learned the subtle movements that fighters make to fake and draw in their opponents. Kevin was impressed on one occasion where I feigned a right hand only to see him duck right into a left hook. However, most of my small achievements were met with a three or four punch combination. Kevin’s subtle way of telling me he could kill me whenever he wanted.
This was my life for almost four months.
Just before the Christmas break Bob approached me with the idea of scheduling an actual bout. I was both excited and extremely scared. He assured me that I would be fighting someone with the same experience and that with the improvements I had made I should be fine.
With that, I packed up my things and moved back home for the winter break. Little did I know that this was the beginning of the end of my boxing career.
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