June 06, 2006
Knock-Kneed, Part 1

My friend Michael had been coming around every once in a while during the winter, the two of us daddies re-living our days of bachelor decadence whenever we could get a "night off". So between watching pornos and debating about the existence of an immortal soul, he would occasionally get up and start shadow boxing. Jab, jab, jab; block, duck; jab, hook, uppercut, body shot; "you've gotta do this," he panted to me out of the midst of a combination, "this is geil!" And then he'd go into his own variation on the Ali shuffle. Michael had been going to a boxing school for a while and he couldn't quit raving about it. "You've gotta know what this feels like, there's nothing else like it," he puffed, jab jab jabbing and shuffling, "one hour of training and you've gotta give it everything you've got, your T-shirt is soaked and the room stinks of everybody's sweat," shuffle, body shot, uppercut, "you use up every bit of your strength, and when it's over you've got an endorphine high that lasts you the rest of the night, there's nothing geiler in the world!"

All of my life I had thought of boxing as the stupidest sport anyone could imagine. Two people hitting each other in the head until one of them is unconscious, I would have been hard-pressed to come up with anything that seemed more ridiculous. I thought about Butch Coolidge finding out from Esmeralda Villalobos that he'd killed his opponent in the ring while I watched Michael put on his preposterous spectacle, trying to project all the contempt I could muster. "Come on, get up," he said, "let me show you some of the stuff we do." "No fuckin' way," I answered without moving, "I'll just watch." "Just try it," he insisted, "you gotta understand, this is like being re-born, it's a revelation, it's enlightenment! Look, just stand in front of me and hold your hands up, we use punch mitts for this in training but I'll just hit your open palms. This is called a pyramid; I start with one jab, then two, and work my way up to five, and then back down to one. Come on, I'll show you, and then you do it." And so I relented; there was no stopping him, resistance was futile. I stood up and took his punches in my hand; jab; jab, jab; jab, jab, jab; jab, jab, jab, jab; jab, jab, jab, jab, jab; "and now I count back down to one"; jab, jab, jab, jab; jab, jab, jab; jab, jab; JAB! "Now you try it," he said, holding up his open palms, and so feeling like a fool I started punching -- jab; jab, jab; jab, jab, jab ...

I couldn't say now how he did it, but Michael persuaded me to come along for a try-out hour at the boxing school -- you can go twice for free before joining. I felt a little absurd, considering that I'm 41 years old, out of shape and smoke and drink too much, starting a learn a sport that real boxers begin when they're ten years old, and often have to give up before they're thirty. I hadn't got much exercise since I injured my knee three years earlier. On the orthopedist's advice I had joined a fitness club to re-build my knee with weight lifting and bicycle riding, but I soon found out that the fancy studio with its swell wooden lockers and personal trainers and computerized pulse-detecting stationary bicycles was boring. I'd go in and program the bike for a 45-minute ride, and then sit up there pedaling in place in front of a bank of muted televisions, watching "Desperate Housewives" with no sound, just trying to get it over with until time was finally up. It was such a drag that before long, I just quit going.

But despite all that, I showed up at the boxing school, and could tell right away that it would be as good a place as any to learn. The guy who runs the place had twice been the runner-up in the kickboxing world championships, had been European champion, and had won the German championship eleven times. The trainer of our beginner's class was the reigning champion in Hamburg. And both of them put all of their emphasis on technique and execution -- every detail of every motion, how to position your arm, your elbow, your fist, your shoulders, your hips, your lower body, throughout each split second of every move.

I got a taste of the rituals -- wrapping my hands before the hour began, skipping rope and shadow boxing to warm up (while watching the advanced class before us finish their hour), pairing up with a partner to hold the bag or give him a target with punching mitts. The hour finsihes off with strength exercises, push-ups and sit-ups and elbow push-ups and the like, us straining in pain while AC/DC or Billy Idol blares away on the stereo. This was nothing like the fancy computerized fitness studio, just a gym and a mat and a bunch of boxers mustering up all the energy they have. Punching bags and medicine balls were the most sophisticated equipment we used. And the workout is bloody murder, the toughest I had ever tried for maybe ten or twenty years. Even at times when you're getting a "rest", like when you're holding the bag or punch mitts for the partner, you still can't switch off your energy -- you have to react to your partner, giving back some resistance when they connect. It didn't last long until I was fighting my Schweinehund, to use the German expression for battling the evil inner monster (the Schweinehund) who wants you to give up and quit when the going gets rough. In those first couple of workouts, my Schweinehund usually won. Five minutes in the boxing gym had me more exhausted than fourty-five minutes on the stationary bicycle in the fitness studio ever could, but far from getting bored and giving up, I was willing to push myself harder. I was beginning to see what Michael was trying to tell me -- this was exhilirating.

After the two tryouts were up, I had to make a decision. Was I really gonna do this, join the school and try to be a boxer? Was that too ridiculous, or was it destiny calling? I was trying to figure that out when something happened that made it all clear.

(To be continued in Part 2 ...)

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