For the past two weeks I’ve been toiling with members of USF’s boxing club in their lonely little gym, sequestered, as it is, at the very end of the hall on the very bottom level of Koret. The thrust of my incursion into this obscure athletic realm was not to be one of vain glory, personal aggrandizement or frivolous journalistic hope; I sought to put my finger on the pulse of the boxing program. Or, better yet, to embody that pulse: to intuit the heartbeat of the boxer.
Two Mondays ago, on the 1st of October, I began this grievous journey by entering the awe-inspiring Koret Health and Recreation Center, a foreign place to me that I had frequented, in the course of my still-young academic career at USF, for the sole purpose of accessing its delectable sandwich-crafting deli. But this would no longer be so; as a boxer, I would have to consider Koret my second home.
Descending the flights of gray-tiled steps whilst gripping the green hand rails leading down to the main level of the Center, I see students galloping on treadmills, tugging on ergometer handles, ceaselessly stepping on StairMasters®, and I’m struck with the scene’s eerie similarity to Dante’s descent into hell. If the world outside Koret, with its flowing availability of freedom and pleasure, is Paradise, the ground level with all these individual exercise machines might be Purgatory, each person cleansing him-or-herself of the day’s sin (perhaps a cheeseburger which proved blasphemous to one’s diet, or other transgressions of that ilk) here.
But if this pattern has any validity at all, it bodes most ominously for what’s in store for me as I plunge down the final stairwell to the lowest stratum of the Koret Center…
The sight of persons pumping iron on either side of the narrow base-level hallway, which I must pass before reaching the boxing program’s secluded training locale, seems vaguely reminiscent of the Second Circle within Mr. Alghieri’s Inferno, Lust: men and women gratuitously sculpting their bodies, lusting after some illusive ideal body image, instead of respecting their natural body types. So maybe that last door on the right, the entrance to the boxing gym, is really the entrance to the Circle of Violence, where aggression-addicted brutes are condemned to punish each other for their belligerent tendencies… I gulp down my anxiety and plod on to my fate.
Wait a minute — I see calm young women clad in spandex tights performing intricate breathing exercises and graceful body stretches, and my fear fades. There’s no yoga in hell. Thus, my cynical suspicions might indeed be misplaced. This might actually be a good place after all.
Through the double doors of the boxing gym is an establishment familiar to anyone who has seen Rocky or any other hackneyed Hollywood rendition of a fighter’s struggle: body-sized leather punching bags swinging on chains from the ceiling and big-shouldered individuals jump-roping, pounding bags with padded gloves, and cautiously sparring inside of the gym’s centerpiece, the elevated square-shaped platform, bound by elastic ropes, known as the ring. There’s a subtle stench of sweat, and the percussion of punches goes along with the deliberately intense hip-hop beat blasting from an antiquated stereo system.
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
At the sound of this alarm, whose source was a red metal box next to the ring with three lights on top of it, everyone uniformly stops what they’re doing to take a break.
The tough, resolute visage of Head Coach Angelo Marino, who is teaching one of his boxing and social justice classes, yields to a (relatively) friendly grin as we recognize each other. As I would soon find out, this commanding red box is the round timer; reminiscent of the color scheme found in traffic lights, green means that the round is starting, yellow that there’s only thirty seconds left in the round, and red is stop. The fighters of true dedication do not anticipate the red: they can’t wait for the green.
The first step of my initiation into the world of boxing was learning to “wrap my hands,” that is, reinforcing my hands with two five-foot-long strips of cloth, one for each hand. Easy enough, I assumed. But one can’t just swaddle his or her hands any old way; there’s a precision to this process which ensures a person’s wrists, knuckles, and metacarpals are appropriately padded and supported, so as to best support the frail anatomy of the hand during a punch.
My first day of practice was nothing more than an awkward reality check. After the deceptively complex application of my hand wraps, I started off, as per the instruction of my friend Trenton Stonerock, a sophomore with a year of experience on the team, with jump rope. Three three-minute rounds of jump rope… I hadn’t jumped rope since 6th grade. I did the task dutifully, watching my reflection in the full-wall mirror in the gym fade into a flustered, exasperated image of its former self. Each round, I begged the timer to beep orange when it was green and for it to beep red when it was orange. By the third round, I began to curse the impetuous adolescent instinct which compelled me to start smoking in high school.
Next came the real instruction: learning the form of the particular punches. For this my teacher put on “mitts,” leather pads worn on both hands, which function like a baseball mitt for boxing gloves, and I wore the gloves. The teacher would extend the mitts to distinct positions, each corresponding to a specific punch. Under the supervision of Coach Marino’s experienced eyes, I started out with the two most basic ones: the jab and the straight cross.
These are merely straight punches, the jab using the left arm and the straight cross the right (“south paws,” individuals whose dominant fighting hand is their left, do this oppositely). Despite my pride in having prevailed in a number of teenage scraps during my more rebellious years, my first punches were gawky and impotent. In boxing, as in every other life skill, the difficulty comes from trying to blend the technical mechanics of the punch with one’s energy.
The hooks and uppercuts came into play after I seemed to grasp the technique of the simpler punches. The left hook is an especially powerful lateral blow, which can have devastating consequences on one’s opponent if delivered properly. As Emiliano Alizoti, an assistant boxing club coach, put it: “If you can land a left hook early on, the other guy won’t forget it.”
Contrary to the beliefs and practices of many boxers with whom I worked, as well as whatever wisdom informed EA Games’ “Fight Night,” Coach Marino adamantly insisted that there’s no such thing as a right hook — or there ought not to be, at least.
“The mechanics of it are all wrong, you leave yourself completely unprotected with a right hook,” Marino averred, much to the bemusement of my instructor, Stonerock, who until now had considered the taboo punch fair game.
For the peculiar technique of uppercuts, Coach Marino suggested, “act like you’re scooping ice cream up with your fist.” Despite the appetizing imagery this advice provided me, translating it into a muscular intuition still proved puzzling.
Throughout the rest of my training sessions, I practiced what I’d learned through a number of skill-building exercises: shadow-boxing, in which you watch yourself throw punches in the mirror to reflect on your technique; hitting the heavy bag to work on power and endurance; the double-end bag, a particularly vexing device, consisting of a stuffed leather bag suspended in the middle of two elastic chords, designed to hone one’s precision and coordination with its moving target; and, of course, more work with mitts. The only thing missing, a fight with another boxer.
I appealed to Ed Fu, another sophomore with a year of competitive boxing at USF under his belt, to determine when and if I could go toe-to-toe with one of the experienced boxers. I felt that I’d improved, which he ceded, but he maintained that I still had quite a ways to go until I could confidently hold my own in the ring.
“You have to grasp as much of the technique and strategy as possible before you start throwing punches at another person,” Fu said. “It’s like school— you have to go to class, study, and do homework for a certain amount of time before you can hope to do well on a test.”
To polish my punches, Fu even suggested that I try boxing in the shower – so as to remove any sense of self-consciousness and insecurity that naturally arise when we’re around other people.
In the end, I’m left with the knowledge that my boxing prowess is only beginning to sprout, and that for it to bloom, I must cultivate it accordingly. In addition to a respect for my health and fitness, as well as a newborn urge to jab at my shampoo, my experience has engendered in me an appreciation for the boxer —not as a specific athlete, but as a human engaging in a struggle with no definite end.