June 07, 2006
Knock-Kneed, Part 2

(... continued from Part 1.)

One evening in early February in the hotel where I often lived during the week at the time (still working on my project in Hannover), I called up a woman I had been seeing for a while, long enough that it was starting to Get Serious. And dear gawd, I was head over heels, hardly able to think straight, but she had been iffy about the relationship the entire time, always leaving me guessing about where I stood. So we spoke on the phone for a good while, sharing our thoughts and troubles as people will do, and then about two or three hours into this conversation she announced that she wasn't ready and couldn't go on any further and would be breaking it off with me, right then and there, a decision that apparently came to her on a whim while we were talking. I sure as hell must have said something wrong.

And that settled it for me. I needed to let out my aggressions, wanted to beat the crap out of the punching bag, but I had already used up my two trial workouts at the boxing school, so if I wanted to go again I had to join. But it wasn't just that -- I knew then that this was a calling, it was something that I must do.

And so it came to pass that I started going to boxing school every Monday and Wednesday night. Since then I've felt like I've learned more there than I have in years doing anything else. We've drilled the technique so many times that I eventually felt I could execute the details well, and yet still stay loose, rather than get too stiff and mechanical. Conditioning is still my biggest problem, but after a few weeks I noticed I that I didn't have to fight the Schweinehund any more -- on the contrary, I was pushing myself a little harder all the way to the end of the hour. And above all, I discovered that I can hit hard -- both of the trainers noticed that, so they set about getting me to concentrate on technique, not using sheer strength to cover up other weaknesses that a good opponent would notice and exploit. And when I felt like I was getting it right, I could understand what they were driving at -- when you execute a blow like a jab or hook properly, the way it's taught, I could feel the enormous force at the moment it connects, WHAM! I felt like a human battering ram.

In the beginners' class we don't start real sparring for a long time -- it may be six months or a year before I'm ready for that, which would be fine by me. But we have done some light sparring exercises, sort of shadow boxing with an opponent, with an occasional light touch if your punch penetrates his defenses, just to get used to the feeling of facing another boxer, and of giving and taking a blow, even if it isn't very hard. This is when I noticed that I had a lot to learn about how to think in real match -- I could perform well enough in a training exercise punching a bag, but against another boxer I became chaotic and out of control. And when you're out of control, sometimes a jab or a hook will land a little harder than expected. One night I was doing this against another guy who brings along a fair amount of body mass -- let's just say he's my weight class. I was trying out the strategy of using the left jab to try to create an opening for the right hook, and by doing this I knoced the guy down twice. I swear to God, I really wasn't trying to hit him that hard, it's just that the right hook got through the way I wanted it to, and, well, I still don't have enough control to moderate the force of the punch. So I watched in amazement as my opponent first went to the mat, and then crashed into the bar in front of the mirror. I'll be more careful next time, I promise.

It gets me wondering, of course, what it will feel like when it happens to me. I don't plan to start real sparring before I'm good and ready, but when I do try it, taking a blow in the head will inevitably be a part of it. I have no idea how I'll react to that. Michael, who turned me on to boxing in the first place, tells me that he's in it for the technique and the conditioning, but doesn't care much for taking a punch, not even the light touches we've tried so far. Florian, another friend of mine who used to do amateur boxing, gave it up because he was sick of having headaches all the time. Will I be able to take a whack in the head that puts me on the mat, then get back up, suck up the eight-count, and finally gather my wits to keep on boxing, keep concentrating on everything that I've learned, fight back and maybe even win, despite the stars in my eyes and the throbbing in my head? Well, maybe one day I'll find out.

Four weeks ago today, on May 10th, we were working on combination jabs with the heavy bag. The trainer was emphasizing technique, as always, but also on staying loose rather than getting too robotic (a problem I had early on), and executing the motion suddenly and explosively. I felt great; I felt like I had internalized all of the mechanics and could execute the punch smoothly and explosively, just as he was coaching us. And goddammit, I was smacking the hell out of the bag, amazed at how much force I could create. During these exercises, the trainer goes around and gives pointers to the boxers when he sees something that needs improvement, but as I was practicing a left-left jab combination, he just stood and watched in silence. "Look at that, look at that," he was saying, "Klasse!" I felt everything clicking: technique, explosiveness, looseness and power, and the trainer's quiet praise made me feel like a champion. I was ready to hold up the belt.

And then when we started the next exercise, I made a minor turn with my left leg, just a little turn with my foot flat on the mat so that all of the rotation was in my knee, and a stab of pain shot through my knee that sent me writhing and groaning onto the mat.

Three years ago (it was November 26th, 2003, I'll never forget that day), I was playing basketball when, to my eternal shame, I missed a five-footer. I went up for the rebound and missed that too, and when I landed on my left foot, my shoe slipped on the floor (it was probably someone's sweat), and my knee bent to the east and west rather than to the north and south. I heard three popping sounds, pop, pop, pop, and then a numbing pain shot through my knee. It turned out that I had ruptured my ACL -- the ligament was torn all the way through -- and also had tears in the LCL and both of the menisci. The latter tears were not the most serious injuries -- a tear in the lateral ligament just needs time to heal, and torn menisci evidently don't need to repaired; during surgery the orthopedist just scraped the torn parts out, so that they can't get caught up in the machinery of the joint and prevent me from bending my knee. But a ruptured ACL is much more serious, because it cannot heal on its own, nor can it really be repaired, according to what the doctors told me, because the ligament is under tension and cannot be sewn back together. Some people with a ruptured ACL never do anything about it, and just go through the rest of their lives without their ligament. In my case, they replaced it with a tendon transplant -- they removed a piece of the tendon below the kneecap, breaking off a piece of bone on either end ("bone-tendon-bone"), then drilled holes through the femur and tibia, pulled the tendon through where the ligament once was, sealing the ends with pieces of bone (the point being that bone heals with bone), and finally fastened it with two titanium screws.

After all that, I went through a long process of recovery, going around on crutches for a few months, and over half a year of physiotherapy to regain the strength and motion of my knee. But frankly, the knee never fully recovered: It was still a little unstable and weak, right up until my newest injury, and occasionally if I twisted my leg or landed from a jump or a high step, I would get that terrible shot of pain again. But every time, I could walk it off, and the pain was gone after a new steps. I knew I should go back to the orthopedist to check it out, but I kept putting it off.

This time, however, the pain didn't go away. I went limping home, got the crutches back down from the attic, and went to the hospital the next day. The MR images indicated that the transplanted tendon was torn, and so were both of the menisci. The worst thing that could happen, of course, would be an injury to the tendon transplant, because as the orthopedist later explained to me, they'd have to go back in and remove the screws, pull the tendon out (and do what with it? pitch down the garbage disposal, I suppose), then remove another tendon from the hamstring to re-build the whole thing all over again. At any rate, I returned to the Fleetinselklinik, where I had the first operation, and underwent an arthroscopy a week ago today -- they make two small incisions below the kneecap, insert a small tube with a tiny camera into one of the openings and another tube with surgical instruments into the other one, and the surgeon goes to work watching the camera, kinda like playing a virtual reality game.

Like the first time, I got an interesting experience at the Fleetinselklink with the German national health care system. Most people are insured with a public health insurance company, but if you have enough money, you can pay extra for private insurance, which pays for better services -- pricier doctors, fancier private rooms, services that usually aren't paid for, and so on. The Fleetinselklink specializes in orthopedics among other things, often treating sports injuries -- my doctor there does nothing but knees. Ordinarily, they only take patients with private insurance, but my insurance company apparently has some sort of deal with them, so I could go. The clinic doesn't have its own patients' rooms per se -- instead, it uses a wing of a five-star hotel situated in the same building. So for two days I got to live in the swank hotel, getting meals prepared in the hotel kitchen and brought up on silver platters, with nurses and physiotherapists fussing over me all day long.

(Which reminds me of another thing I noticed when my knee was injured the first time -- it sucks, to be sure, but it isn't all bad. Not only do I get pampered in the five-star hotel, when I go about on crutches people are really nice to me. They're always holding the door open for me, I always get a seat on the subway, and people are always bring me stuff or carrying things for so that I don't have to do it myself. Most of the time I can do these things on my own, but I let them do it, because that my would-be benefactors are disappointed if I deprive them of the opportunity to show the cripple a little kindness. There really is a good side to just about everything.)

Anyway, the arthroscopy may have actually turned out to bring some good news, because the doctor got a look at the tendon transplant and said that it's a little stretched, but doesn't seem to be torn at all. The meniscus, however, was damaged pretty serverely, and he had to scoop a lot of it out. Nevertheless, if the replaced ligament is intact, then with some work I might be able to recover from this injury, and it might end up even better than it was before. That's what I'm hoping for at any rate. Right now, I'm going everywhere on crutches, even short distances, will probably start physiotherapy again pretty soon, and can return to boxing school in about six weeks after the operation. I'll find out more next week.

So what have I learned from all this? Well for one thing, when you're on the mat, always stay on the balls of your feet, heels up, so that when you turn your leg, your foot turns with it and you don't take all of the rotation in your knee. Don't keep your shoe flat on the mat, like I did, and your knee will be fine. Gonna have to work on that.

But most importantly, the whole experience has made it very clear to me what I want, focusing my energies on a goal, more than I have in a long time. I am determined to box. I've had to give up on a sport because of my knee once before -- basketball, with the jumps and pivot steps, is about the toughest activity for a knee ligament, and I haven't played again since November 26th, 2003. But boxing has already become a passion that I refuse to give up without a fight. Metaphorically, I've already had my first knockdown after all. Right now, I'm in the process of getting back up off the mat, shaking off the pain and the shock, gathering my wits and concentrating on what I've learned -- jab, jab, and then the RIGHT HOOK, WHAM! I can't wait.

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