The Sweet Science Returns

I punched a girl the other day. But it’s okay – she liked it. I’ve actually punched two different girls in the space of a week. It’s been that kind of week.

Simmer down, guys. I’ve been boxing, and starting to do a little bit of very light-contact sparring, in preparation for hopefully getting into some not-so-light-contact sparring later in the year. I didn’t really “punch” either girl, to be fair. I mean, I did, but lightly, and quite carefully. And both girls punched back, effectively. In fact it would be more accurate to admit that most of what I did was try to hit them, without a whole lot of success. I would also be doing better to drop the girl thing entirely and describe them both as grown-ass women, which they very much are, and each with many years of experience under their (in one case black) belts.  To be clear, this is the only kind of person, of any gender variant, that one hits, and only with their explicit permission and only in a safe sparring environment. I don’t really feel like I should have to say that at this point, but there it is, if you needed it. I also used the singular they deliberately because I was being inclusive, so bite me. It’s 2019, people.

Now I’ve boxed for a long time, and been a fan much longer. I love mixed martial arts too, and I’ve done my share of kickboxing and a bit (just a bit) of jiu jitsu. I more or less know my way around a tussle, but I’m not a tough guy. If real training teaches you anything, it’s exactly how not to be a tough guy. Your average, putative tough guy is anything but. It’s generally understood in the fight world that your actual prowess is in inverse proportion to how much you talk about it. And that guy in the garish American Fighter tee shirt? Yeah.

No, my take on my own ability is defined by a well-informed humility; I suffer no Dunning Kruger effect when it comes to pugilistic self-assessment. The list of people who could kick my ass is long and not particularly distinguished. My cardio is, frankly, crap. My knees are shot, my shoulders are fragile, and the clock is ticking on both of my elbows (holding mitts for powerful hitters, which I’ve done a lot of, takes a rude toll on the old tendons). The hand speed has fallen off too; I can see the opportunity, but getting my glove there in time is a different matter. And there’s the little matter of me being on the downslope of my forties. What this means is that all I’ve got left is craft, and my craft is okay. It’s perfectly adequate to the sort of shenanigans I’ve been up to lately, but there are limits. I’ve got work to do if I’m going to put all this to use again with the big guys, but that’s pretty much my plan.

But this is worth pausing on for a minute. Because that work itself? It’s awful. Just the training, just the work, is some of the most intense misery you can hope to experience, even if you’re young. I’ve been getting back into that sort of training and conditioning lately and it’s brutal. I get nervous before going to conditioning class, even knowing that nobody’s going to lay a hand on me in anger. I know what I’m in for, and it sucks. And I’m doing this, sucking it up and enduring it, in hopes of earning the dubious privilege of getting the living shit kicked out of me by someone who knows how. So why?

You know what? I don’t know. Fuck it.

People have started to spill ink on this subject and I guess it’s interesting. Jonathan Gottschall covered this about as well as it needs to be covered. His book is worth a read, at least from the standpoint of background cultural analysis. He did a decent job of describing his relationship with fight competition, but that’s his deal. I got what he was saying but my deal isn’t quite the same. The urge to violent expression, particularly among men, is one of behavioral biology’s great, unending jazz riffs, on which male primates are forever improvising in their own, highly personal ways. For myself, what can I tell you? I have my reasons for my interpretation, but I’d add nothing novel to the canon by dredging them up. It’s enough for me to know and acknowledge two things: I like to fight, and more importantly, I deeply love the grind of hard training.

Now personally, I like to fight in controlled, reasonably safe environments. I’m not running around the street trying to start nonsense. I generally like the people I end up fighting, and I tend to like them more when we’re done. I don’t like taking crazy risks. To plenty of guys, these preferences are ridiculous and soft, bereft of honor. Which is okay with me. Those aren’t usually guys that I’m trying very hard to impress. They don’t train at my gym. Like I said above, they tend not to train at all.

But truthfully, sparring has always been secondary for me. It’s important in its own weird way but not fundamental. It’s the training for the fight that matters much more. Training has never been a means to an end for me. It’s the end in itself, and it has been from very early on. That faint tightening of nausea, the dropping of sweat, the magic that happens when a coach calls out ten more seconds of an exercise and I think, there is no way I can possibly last that long. And then I do. And then I do more.

Who knows how long I’ve really got with all of this. Some catastrophic injury is out there lurking, and there’s little I can do but accept that and try to train as intelligently as I can. Eventually I’ll have to rethink all of this. But there’s a quote attributed to Jack Dempsey, great heavyweight champion and native son of Colorado, which says, “A champion is somebody who gets up when he can’t.” And that’s basically it. We’re not talking about somebody who gets up when it’s hard, or when she doesn’t feel like it. We’re talking about somebody who gets up when she can’t. I end up sharing that quote a lot but I don’t know how often it hits home. At a certain point it becomes the same for all of this, a case of the old, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” You get it or you don’t, and if you don’t get it, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not missing anything that you wouldn’t want to miss anyway.

But you are definitely, definitely missing it.

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