The rewards that come from gaining a new skill, or achieving a goal in any sphere of human endeavour, are often multi-layered in nature and variable in their differing satisfactions, depending both on the nature of the achievement and the nature of the person. Sometimes these rewards are able to be measured financially and sometimes the reward is just from the feeling of personal satisfaction that comes from being able to do something that perhaps many others cannot, and so an emotional rather than material reward is often enough to make us feel that the sweat that we have invested in gaining our objective has been worthwhile. Indeed, it may well be that an appropriate value emotional reward is the only reward that will do at all if we are not to remain in a permanent state of frustration within ourselves.
The acknowledgement of our abilities by others is usually more than welcome to most people and I believe it is a very rare person who is content that only he or she should be privately aware of what has been attained through discipline and effort. In my own case the acknowledgement of my abilities was really what I most craved, even though I was certainly not consciously aware of this need when I started boxing and probably didn’t really work it out until way past the point that I no longer boxed competitively. Enlightenment isn’t always a light bulb moment and I have proved time and again that I can be a slow learner when I set my mind to it.
When I was sent to the boxing club after blotting my copybook once too often for fighting at school I thought that the idea was merely to teach me to control my short-fuse temper, and, on the surface of it, that was true enough in itself. The real reason that I was sent there was because I had the great good fortune of having a really terrific headmaster who understood teenage boys really well, and he realised that the true nature of my problem with aggressive behaviour was that I was living in the shadow of my younger but much bigger brother, and that I needed to find a hook to hang my own self of self upon.
My one year younger brother was so much larger than I was and he really was much larger than normal. He had been a 12lb 8oz baby and was already 6ft tall and strong as hell with it at the age of eleven. That’s right, eleven, so you know what I’m talking about here and it was inevitable that there was a constant flow of comment as to how big he was. ‘’Hang on, is he actually younger than you? Oh, I thought HE was the older one. What happened to you then, why aren’t you as big as he is?’’ became the endless refrain that came my way and, drip fed to me a thousand times and more, I became truly sick of it. Nobody likes to be the butt of unfavourable comparisons and made to feel unworthy, and I was getting that in spades.
Of course, people were mostly just pretty unthinking about it and I doubt that there was ever much intent to leave me feeling bad. I was, after all, a bigger than average boy, just not a waaay bigger than average boy. But there is often a real difference between intent and result and the result for me was that I felt displaced, disrespected, disenfranchised, and had come to believe that I had been unfairly dislodged from my rightful place. I felt a terrible need to make my mark if I was not to be utterly disregarded.
Lacking those words at that time in my life to accurately describe how I felt, I only knew that I felt like shit. A compensation mechanism naturally became essential and fighting anyone over the slightest thing, real or merely perceived, became mine. I was what is often referred to as a holy terror. Such a well worn expression doesn’t really begin to tell what I was like and, in truth, I had become quite ferocious and completely uncaring about wounds that I might inflict on others or suffer myself. Fighting wasn’t all of it by any means and there were some notable incidents involving shooting the fat lady who lived across the street in the ass from my bedroom window with an air rifle, stealing the coalman’s horse and cart from the street where the poor guy was delivering heavy hundredweight sacks, and putting a dead grass snake on the neighbouring lady’s kitchen table while she was out shopping that also landed me in hot water, but my craving for attention was out of control and consequences didn’t worry me much.
Entirely unknown to me I was searching for an identity that I subconsciously believed had been stolen away from me, and so I needed something of my own so that I could be recognised, acknowledged, praised, and to be found worthy. Naturally, I had no words then, nor the wherewithal to logically process things, to explain how I felt, and two uneducated but very hard-working parents with five children had not the remotest possibility of understanding that I felt so terribly displaced and they were often at a loss to understand why I was constantly in trouble.
Certainly, it worried my poor mother enormously although I think my father was more concerned with the potential for legal trouble and financial cost as he had come from a rough background and, I think, had become somewhat desensitized to fighting generally. The idea of kids fighting and knocking lumps off each other was pretty normal to him and I’m sure I picked up on this attitude too.
Of course, there was no thought by anyone in those days that kids might need help with what today are usually referred to as ‘issues’ and the focus then was on earning money, paying bills and getting by. If you had the chance at a bit of education and a ‘’good job’’ [i.e. Bank, Post Office, Railway, Civil Service] you should be glad of it, make the most of it and, meanwhile, behave yourself and keep out of trouble. Right? If only it had been that easy.
As it happened, I had every chance of those things and more besides, and I was in no way a kid who was deprived of material comforts or educational opportunity, but I do truly believe that had that wonderful headmaster not had the insight to see what was happening inside my head then my future would certainly have included a violence related jail sentence and whatever else there is that comes with that particular pathway.
And so it was that I came to boxing and to gaining something that did indeed give me, at least in part, what I had so desperately needed. The self respect that came from acknowledgement of me for myself rather than as being my oversized brother’s unfortunately ‘’undersized’’ sibling was the start of it and boxing unquestionably diverted me from the path to the jailhouse that I had begun to tread.
But this isn’t a fairy story where all is sweetness and light and I have to confess that, along with the satisfaction of achievement and new-found sense of identity which helped me to avoid the worst of what would have been a less than happy future, I did sometimes use my skills for my own ego’s ends and that this was something that was not always limited to my immature teenage years where indiscretions might have been a little more forgivable.
I had many other emotional battles to fight along the way and the feeling of powerlessness over my life sometimes rose up within me to the point that my need to prove that I could be captain of my own universe manifested itself in the form of violence towards other men and so there were occasions where I abused the skills I had acquired to the detriment of others. Booze came into my life at a very early stage when I somehow came to confuse the capacity to consume large amounts of alcohol with manliness, and so there were moments when I returned to being the lost and lonely kid who needed to be acknowledged. Having grown big and strong myself some damage was done to others when it was undeserved and so, at that level, and even though my occasional violence never got me before the courts, it may be that having boxing skills had done me some harm as well as having lifted some burdens earlier on.
Nevertheless, I certainly credit boxing with having at least put the brakes on the worst of my wildness at the time when it was most critical and, despite some serious lapses in judgement later on down the track, I do believe that boxing’s benefits have far outweighed its detriments. The terrible culture of comparison from which I suffered so badly as kid is still alive and well today [all the worse for the anonymity of the internet and cyber-bullying I believe] and I think that there is many a kid out there who would be better served by achieving something in a physically demanding sport by being at a boxing gym than spending time on a computer keyboard.
Footnote: To any young person who might now read this and identify with the feelings that I have tried to describe I would simply say try to understand that our heights, the colour of our hair and eyes, our general body type are predetermined things and that we are destined to be who we are destined to be. We are dealt a hand of cards at birth that we cannot change but we do get to decide how we pay those cards and part of that is in learning self acceptance. Love yourself and be kind to yourself rather than trying to live up to notions that others would like to impose on you.
To anyone else, I would say please try to be careful in what you say to children and young teenagers. Words so often have unintended effects and so much damage can be done by an unthinking comment.