Around the time that Muhammad Ali was coming to the end of his first reign as the world’s heavyweight champion, I was sent to the local boxing club in my backwater hometown in the U.K as a consequence of one too many fights at school, with the idea being that I might learn to control a streak of aggression that appeared to be fast-tracking me for a visit to the courthouse, or worse, if preventative measures were not soon taken. A fairly serious set-to with an older boy who was in a position of some authority at our school had left him unable to participate in a forthcoming school rugby match and this had been enough to see me suspended from the school for a few days. Of course, I was pretty much unrepentant about the whole deal and was more than happy to wear the downside of the suspension for the reputation boost it got me with my schoolmates, but phone calls to my parents from the school’s Headmaster, and further phone calls between my father and the guy who ran the local amateur boxing club, eventuated in the agreement that I would attend the club each Wednesday and Friday evening in the gym of a local school. Thus it came to pass that one September Wednesday evening in 1969 an almost six-foot, 150lb or so, fifteen year old very cocky schoolboy who thought he was hot-shit with his fists, walked into the gym with the feeling that the evening would likely be lots of fun. A little over an hour and a half later that same heretofore cocky school-kid would leave the gym with a mightily altered perspective on just how hot his shit really was, now not feeling the slightest bit cocky, and with no intention of ever setting foot in the place again. To say that I thought things had not gone too well would not even begin to convey my feelings of confusion and shock at what I had just experienced. The early part of the evening had been good and the time went quickly. The exercise routines were enjoyable and I was pleased that I was mostly able to keep up with the guys who were already regular members. The opportunity to hit the bags, shadow box, and do the punching drills called out to us by the trainer was something that quickly gave me a buzz that was a new and exciting feeling.
The smell of leather and wintergreen liniment that I’ve always associated ever since with boxing gyms lent a special feeling to the otherwise mundane school-hall location and seemed to transform the place in my imagination into the rough, tough, type of place that ‘real men’ would frequent. Frankly, I was thrilled to be there.
I knew, too, that coming up after the workout part of the evening would be where the real action would happen and I was excited at the prospect of getting a chance to do some sparring. If I had had the brains to understand what awaited me, what had been arranged for me by my father and Bill the trainer, I’m sure now that I would have skipped the sparring session altogether and gone home early. But, sitting on the bench and gloved up [no wraps, no mouthpiece] with pillow like 16 ouncers, waiting my turn to be partnered up and called into the squared off floor area that was our makeshift ring, I still had no idea that I was about to receive a major lesson in humility.
The signs seemed to be good at first and when I saw the skinny little bantamweight guy whom I was to spar with, I truly believed that I had been gifted an easy mark because it was my first night there. My belief that I was in a place where I would quickly show the other guys that I had the right stuff now became set in concrete and I also knew for sure that I was about to spatter this first target that I had been given.
How easy it is for us to delude ourselves into believing what we want to believe –especially when adrenaline and testosterone have displaced any semblance of intelligence that we may normally possess and caused our brains to shut out commonsense and rationality for a while. Americans have a great expression for this obliviousness, it’s ‘’my dumb ass’.
The next couple of minutes didn’t go according to the way I had scripted them in my head in any way, shape, or form. Instead of being able to demonstrate what I fondly believed to be a considerable natural talent, I displayed instead a much greater talent as a human punch-bag. The truth is that I got absolutely hammered; hit from every angle, no holding back because I was a beginner as would be usual, and I truly doubt that I actually landed a single shot on the human buzz-saw that was moving so fast, and hitting me so much, that it felt like I was fighting two or three guys. It seemed like forever too, although I doubt that it even went for the full two minutes that Bill used to allow for the novices
Pats on the back, ‘well done for the first time son’, all came and went in a blur and I resumed my seat on the benches with my head spinning, ears ringing, hollow stomached, heart pounding, and my thoughts reeling at how I had just been absolutely mauled.
And not just mauled. It was not like I had never lost a fight before, but having been put to the sword by one scrawny little guy who was only just about half my size! I could hardly believe it.
As soon as the evening was over and I was on the bus home, I made a firm decision that I wouldn’t be going back there again for anything. It didn’t take me long to convince myself that boxing was really only for sissies and that if only the guy had stood still and fought ‘properly’ then the outcome would indeed have been very different. Despite that I was a devoted Ali fan who loved his hit and don't be hit style I wasn't above a little hypocrisy when I was on the wrong end of it.
I didn’t see my father that evening or the next, and my mother made no enquiry as to how the evening had transpired, but early on the Friday morning I saw my father in the kitchen before he set out for the day and he asked me how things had gone. No way would I tell him that this half-pint little guy had beaten the crap out of me so, naturally, I told him that it had been good.
‘’Great’’, says he, ‘’I’m not working tonight so you don’t have to take the bus and I’ll take you there myself.’’ Oh shit! I had been putting a lot of thought into working out a good excuse to give the whole thing a big miss but my father’s tone and my own stupid denial of what had actually happened ensured that there was no way to avoid going to the boxing club again.
Things were a bit different the second time, most notably my demeanour and the attitude I took to the whole thing, and I had definitely left my cockiness at home. The enthusiasm I had shown the first time was much less in evidence now and I made a real effort to be as invisible as possible.
As the evening drew towards the time when sparring would begin I began to sweat on the idea that I would have to face the same little demon who had cleaned my clock just a couple of nights before. Still, the power of denial is a force to be reckoned with and I managed to convince myself that Bill the trainer would certainly wish me to spar with a different guy this time. Yeah, right......
Getting into that squared off area again I was like a man walking to the gallows. The condemned man’s reluctant last steps towards his fate.
Very respectful, very cautious about every move, and no sense within me at all that I was about to spatter the guy – maybe, despite myself, I had actually learned something from the first experience – and, to my enormous relief, I was not battered and beaten up as I was the first time. The little guy moved around me, tapped me frequently to show me how open I was, made me miss him all the time. He may have allowed me to connect just enough for me to save face in front of my father.
The depth of my relief when it was over drained me to the point where I was barely a blob of jelly but, somehow, it felt really great and despite my feelings on the bus home after the first night, I knew that I wanted to be there. Quite simply, it felt like I was home and I was hooked and the memory of the moment has stayed with just as powerfully as the memory of my first woman has. Not that the two experiences were in any way similar you understand..........
So how did it go on from there? Did I have a stellar career in boxing and become a successful and well known fighter because of that early experience? Of course not, that sort of thing is just for the select few and I was not destined for it. My talent was quite modest and, in any case, despite my love of boxing, I never had the kind of discipline and dedication required for real success.
But I did have a moderately successful amateur career and even managed to earn a little money for sparring work when I was a Uni student, earning some strange and enquiring looks from my tutors and fellow students as well as some very welcome cash. I got to meet all sorts of people who were well known in the boxing game over the years and I have many fond memories of the characters I have met.
Despite the corruption that has riddled the business side of the game from its very inception, and despite the manifold disappointments and sadnesses that have been intrinsic to it too, I fell in love with boxing from the very first moment, even if I couldn’t recognize it on that first evening, and it is something that has seemed to have entered my bloodstream the way that a virus does.
Sometimes the virus breaks out and I curse myself for remaining hooked into something that is often so destructive and leaves its victims in hospitals, permanently impaired, destitute, or psychologically shattered. Even dead sometimes.
Other times, the pure beauty of it catches me, captivates me, and sucks me back in again until the dark side rears its head again, but even then I know that I’ll soon be watching another fight, whatever I might say to the contrary, and I will have to get a boxing fix just as any addict needs his drug of choice. No day passes without me avidly reading every scrap of boxing information I can glean from the internet. There was, too, a time that I was a contributor to a couple of websites but commitments over recent times have put a stop to that.
I still workout on a regular basis and, of course, it is boxing based with lots of bag work, skipping, shadow boxing, and pad-work with a buddy of mine who can’t seem to get the bug out of his system either. I haven’t sparred for a few years now as I do believe that shots to the head, even with good head-guards, are not a great idea when you’re past forty years of age and I am just a tad past that now. Still, it’s great to smell the leather and hit the mitts and let what’s in the blood have its way.