Dancing with Shadows: On Boxing
Boxing is a lot of things to me— weirdly enough, boxing is how I thread the needle.
The long, late rounds of a boxing match draw fighters into deep water; there’s a reason that commentators use the phrase as a common adage. More often, a fighter wins not against his opponent; but against an aquatic-like hypoxia. The boxer lives like a scuttling crab; wading slow motion against all will.
Boxing requires a focus; like threading a needle, one must be set in a patterned trance, yet entirely focused, both in soft and hard focus. The unity of the two seams me together. I need boxing, personally— boxing is many things to many people, but boxing is how I bring myself to center. Boxing is how I thread the needle.
I always attempt to strike through the bag, exhaling with a puncturing hiss. A solid punch doesn’t retract at contact, it slices through, as if the bag doesn’t exist, a figment of the mind.
Each round of training earns you and your partners one minute; a minute to greedily gulp in air and shake off insurmountable fatigue for another round, for your heart rate to reach stasis and to shake out the amino acids rushing through blood-swollen arms.
I try to center my focus only on inhaling and exhaling, filling my stomach like the bellows, and coolly funneling the air out through the higher conch of my skull, trying to calm my pistoning heart rate during the shrinking sixty seconds. I shake my arms out, always keeping them low, to prevent blood flow from the hands back into the body.
My father coaches me relax my shoulders. One’s body naturally shrugs with stress, and a boxer practices fighting the natural response, keeping cool under pressure. My father was an amateur boxer, and I think he sees the world through the lens of a fighter.
Many of my life lessons and acquired life tools have come through fighting. for instance, keeping your muscles elastic and malleable drops fatigue— challenging a naturalized to stress comes in handy in any office, knowing how to weather the storm to find it’s eye is an invaluable tool for longevity. It is both physical and mental; a boxer recognizes the body’s cues and leverages his physicality to achieve an outcome, sure, but it begins with an inner peacex
I used to raise my arms above my head in between rounds to open my chest up for breath, like the old time-tested custom in football. I learned very harshly that the hands-above-head style of resting would not work in the ring, that first day I felt my face flush and I nearly passed out cold. I pushed too hard that workout with the assumption that I could rest on my laurels between the round— like football, a hyperkinetic action and long, drawn out pauses. All I remember is being flat on my back on the cold mat staring up at the crusted ceiling, and between me and the ceiling, my training partners above with towels and water and ice. One walks the fine line between ordered pace and frenzied chaos in order, and I had give myself a selfl-taught lesson in where that line was for me.
My gym is underground; stairs leading like a cellar deep into the earth; bags row the cellar in columns; swaying slow and reverent amongst the fast-action-blur of training. Colored print snapshots of old fights between boxing greats are splayed high on the walls like frescoes. One of my favorites contained Muhammed Ali and George Foreman mid exchange. The fight, as everyone knows it, is called, “Rumble in the Jungle.” I remember watching the fight after one particularly fiery session on a saved tape with my father and a few friends from the gym.
The aging Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman, a bulldozer who would pull down guards and toss heavy shots, finishing fights within minutes. Few pundits and critics believed Ali had anything left in his career— the fight was to be a passing of the guard. Many counted him out. Ali could never be counted out.
For the first rounds it was the Foreman show. He kept his jab outstretched to paw at Ali’s guard like he did in all of his fights, but even in his slightly older age, Ali danced his way out on the first round. George got smart in the middle of a later round and slung him against the ropes. George threw blows, blows which would spin my head half way around the world. I gritted my teeth while watching, seeing the god of boxing himself get bludgeoned with haymakers for the good part of five rounds. To my young eyes, I thought all was lost, that the fight had to be over, but my dad just grinned, pausing the tape. He walked forward, finger stabbing at Ali’s mouth, open in the paused frame at the video.
Do you know what he says here?
I shake my head curiously.
This whole time you have Foreman swinging his best shots. Ali laying on the ropes. And at the turn of this round, Ali yells, ‘is that all you got, George?’ That’s when George realized all of his best blows were for naught. At least, that’s what Ali wanted George to think.
I couldn’t believe it. George couldn’t either, you could see fatigue in his form, body slackening. Ali went in actively in the next two rounds, laying on George, controlling his hands, sticking George with off-beat one-twos, and slapped around the tired George Foreman to finish the fight with a knockdown in the eighth. The final moments of the fight, you can see Foreman swing half-heartedly, recognizing he had beat himself. As he went down, Ali held a fist ready, ready to strike again, but rather than drive Foreman into the canvas, he simply held his fist in position, showing majestic control over impulse.
Ali passed out on his feet after the fight. Never forget, my father intimated, a feinting, a slip, and a fake matter as much as the blows landed in a fight. Pace and discipline. Play the mind game. More importantly, you have to believe in yourself —keen self-perception and self-actualization is everything.
Most training sessions round up with light sparring, cooling off with shadow boxing and jump rope. Shadow boxing is a form of art in and of itself, facing a phantom fighter parallel to you in the mirror, dancing with your shadow. I throw combinations and circle out, giving the shadow me the Philly shoulder-roll and a feint to bite on, all the time focusing on exhaling with each strike, working slowly to feel the flow of leverage; the funny thing is that you can never seem to get ahead of yourself. I coach myself and troubleshoot each minute detail, noting the flaws in my footwork, head and hand placement. I tuck my chin and elbows in tight and get to it.
I love the smokers, too, unofficial sparring bouts with the intention of improving yourself and your opponent, iron sharpening iron. A few rounds and it’s all or nothing. I force my body into an instinctual trance despite immediate danger. I calm my breathing and loosen up, relaxing aching shoulders, bouncing on my toes.
Boxing is a weird Cartesian blend of reptilian response, and pattern recognition and partner programming. It is a sport for the thinking man and the brute. So many think it only comes down to power, and there’s a thousand Worldstar videos which can attest to this mindset, two intoxicated men swinging fists in a haze of anger for a matter of minutes until they tire themselves out, like a drowning man struggling against a riptide.
But boxing is about the flow of kinetic energy. Power comes with speed, speed comes from technique. Each motion starts from the rooting placement of the feet, the footwork leads to a torque within the twist of a hip, hip driving accordingly to the extension of the shoulder, which whips the arm, the punch is a lever and a load up for the next motion. The body is a mapwork of transferable energy, the art of boxing is a never-ending flow like the tides, delivering the most damage with maximum efficiency while receiving the least amount of damage.
Boxing is pacing. You keep your chin low and core tight. You switch stances, always exhaling with each strike. You prepare every day for the common set of strikes akin to a chess player who prepares for all possible moves throughout a game, each strike leading to the next, parrying their advances while in the same breath analyzing their patterns and countering.
Boxing is endurance. Sometimes you just have to hold your breath and tell yourself, “time to take you deep. Let’s hit the bottom.”
I find rhythm in clarity and hard work, a pulse. The whipping of the jump rope, the thudding of the bag, the darting shuffle of shoes on pavement.
I’m so lucky to have found boxing. It’s almost a spiritual experience I tell the newcomers, and even though it cracks them up, I sort of believe it. I have a family at my gym, a monastic community dedicated to the betterment of one another. I think that is what boxing does; it makes blood.
Boxing is many things to many people; patterned but chaotic, kinetic, patient, frenetic, strategic, boxing is winning, boxing is losing, boxing is cut-throat, hot-blooded, boxing brings attunement, it is carnal, it is spiritual, boxing is senseless, boxing is epiphanic, boxing is fleeting. But for me, boxing is our storied history and hopeful future together, boxing is family. Boxing is how I grow. Boxing is how I thread the needle.