To this day, boxing practice at the Islington club in London will always be the most brutal activity I have ever experienced. It is a terribly coarsening, depriving, reducing and humbling sport. It is an hour and a half of intense circuits with designated sessions for weight training, jump roping, sparring, one-on-one combination work with gloves and pads, pushups and sit-ups, heavy bag work and other unpleasant ways of browbeating your body to its very limit. The limbs of both men and women, young and old, fit and flabby, tremble like reeds as they work to push and hold their full weight, and to jab, cross, hook and uppercut in the least pathetic manner possible. Sweat ran down all of our faces, necks, arms, backs and legs and onto the floor, creating manhole-sized puddles. One of the coaches would have to continually go around the gym mopping up all the water, all the weakness.
I stumbled upon the charity boxing club while walking around the Northern London neighborhood where I was residing as an expat. I was overweight. I didn’t have any friends. It was a listless existence working abroad in a country where both the sun and engaged conversation made scarce appearance. The club was a red, unassuming warehouse that bordered a wooded public park at the end of Hazelville Road. A small parking lot spilled unevenly from the entrance. There were no signs, but I heard combative cries echoing out of the open windows and a humid, sweat-filled atmosphere pervaded the entire block. I thought it was a recycling factory or auto body shop because of its rusted, blank exterior and constant clanging noise. But then I spotted some people going in with gym bags so I followed them through the entrance, intrigued by the noise inside. And once you step in and let your eyes adjust, you can’t help but stop and stare in admiration. I remember my eyes widening and the hair on my arms standing on its end. Here it was: a proper boxing gym. I immediately wanted to get in on the disciplined raucousness and violence, the cumulative energy and intimacy among so many bodies like the charged bonding among atoms. I desired to immerse in all this heat and activity—in pleasurable contrast to the dull and quiet routine of my solitary existence.
I will mention at this point that I originally came to London for the sake of a relationship. But as it turned out, I would leave six months after discovering the boxing club—a year after I first arrived—and by leaving, end a tumultuous, battle-worn pursuit six years in the making.
I remember my heart thumping hard in my chest when I first entered the facility, having zero boxing experience. But the coaches welcomed me with a bright smile and a warm handshake. Their Caribbean-English accents captivated my attention and added a novel joviality to the hardcore sessions. They were not soft or soft-spoken by any means; they ran you hard—to the point where they (not you) knew you could go up to. But they attended to you. They would pace slowly around the floor as we rotated among the different circuits and stopped here and there to comment on our hits and moves, showing us how to correct bad habits with patience. They stood by our side, adjusting and re-adjusting our stance and stare, our feet and shoulders, to make out of us something a bit more well-oiled and streamlined and ready (for something, anything). Women who first came in and couldn’t stop giggling or showing reticence became unrecognizable a week later. All modesty and self-consciousness whittled away and in their place stood new creatures: women who delivered combinations with unsmiling zeal and dexterity, arms corded and rippling with nascent lean muscle, and iron-hard eyes that examined every nuance of their opponent. Boys who came bearing large egos and smirks, surveying the older and the female and the non-athlete landscape, were also pared down to expose an impressive humility and discipline.
As an outsider, embarking on even a casual affair with boxing is intimidating: the sport is a harsh, all-consuming and intimate dance of strategic violence—not unlike a relationship. You put your mind and body through several ordeals of punishing mental and physical conditioning, and practice complicated routines of footwork and offensive and defensive combinations. A sport built for no ordinary mortal. But once you do decide to embark, you realize that it’s all quite basic.
You realize that priorities are simple and few in boxing. Your first priorities are your hands and wrists. They are your ultimate priority. You care for them above all else. And to care for your hands and wrists you must properly wrap them. The finished product should feel tight throughout, but you don’t want to cut off circulation. You want all digits and joints secured well next to each other, as though all extremities were one extremity. You may not consider the significance of hand wraps, since the boxer, in final phase, dons shining and boldly colored gloves that make you forget about the other protections. However, these strips of cotton are what enable the fighter to return to the ring, without inviting harm to the very tools needed to inflict injury and seize the prize. Hand wraps are not only about protection either. The ritual of carefully binding your joints in preparation is surprisingly meditative. The snug feeling of cotton around your skin accentuates as you squeeze your hands into proper fists (thumbs on the outside), as you flex your fingers to test the wraps’ give. These methodical motions offer you a moment of repose before the action. It’s the calm before the storm, the Becoming before the Ready.
The second priority, but not nearly as important, is your set of gloves. They should fit around your hands in proportion to them, cozily like shoes. You should be able to strap and unstrap both gloves by yourself. When you curl your fingers into a fist inside the glove, the glove should curl in tandem. At this point, you acknowledge that your wraps and gloves are organic extensions of your flesh-and-blood self.
The last of your priorities is the equipment. In essence, there are: the heavy bag, double-end bag and speed bag. But you would be wrong in assuming all three are equal in value and benefit, or that the newest, top-of-the-line bags are the most desirable. There is no need for an expensive, state-of-the-art heavy bag weighing over a hundred pounds because there is no use for practicing on a fake, stuffed opponent that stiff or unrelenting. Breathing, in-the-flesh opponents are anything but stationary things. What you want is a lighter, worn heavy bag that gives some, like a real body—a bag that swings around a bit recklessly with lumps and dents that play tricks on how your punches land. The speed bag, too, is overestimated (this is solely my opinion after practicing on all three types of bags, observing my peers and consulting with my coaches). Although this bag sounds hefty and menacing when used, since you stand square and still in front of it, you lose all opportunity to dodge and defend, to move around. As the wise and ineffable Bruce Lee once scoffed, “Boards don’t hit back.” The whole point is to be able to dance around your opponent, to encapsulate both flight and fight in unpredictable mode, in-between breaths, while wasting as little energy as possible.
My favorite piece of equipment is the double-end bag. This bag is not practiced on as frequently as the others. The double-end bag is the most challenging because it is the best representation of a human opponent, of someone who will move about unpredictably and dodge and slip away from your attacks. As many as three of these unassuming bags, each about the size of a human head, are stringed through with a flexible piece of rope tied floor to ceiling and are located at stomach, chest and head levels. The elasticity of the rope is such that even with the slightest rap the bags will spring away from you and back with blurring speed. These small globes elude many boxers, as the balls’ lightning and erratic orbits force every fighter to painfully confront weaknesses in coordination, speed and reflex. It breaks down your pride. You would be amazed at how many people in a boxing gym avoid the double-end bag (no one looks good huffing around little leather heads). If you decide to try it, you must stay attentive, and be ready to dance and flit at first rap.
I was drawn to this bag from the beginning, with the roped spheres looking wimpy yet alluring, in contrast to the usual heavy bags and speed bags hanging boring in the corners. I remember asking one of the coaches about this unpopular apparatus and he shared its specific purpose with me like a secret. “Boxing’s not just about power, it’s about accuracy,” he explained as he moved around the bag, jabbing and dodging with ease. Not once did his eyes move away from the bag. And this secret, to me, remains the fundamental distinction between a skillful and unskillful boxer, between the victor and the defeated.
Another lesson I learned at the Islington boxing club was that my body was held to the same indifferent regard as my male peers. We were genderless in gray and white shirts, shorts and sneakers, with the same puckered and sweat-soaked gloves, uniform combat stances, mussed hair and red faces pasted with sweat. The guys couldn’t care less about being paired up with women to practice defense and combinations. Men and women became category-less in each other’s eyes, and developed an intimacy in the pad-glove dynamic that was separate and unique from the usual sexualized sense. In a world where male-female transactions always seem to be laced with suspicion, tension, mixed messages and latent motivations, the rapport built between a sweaty man and woman going at it as boxers was a rare and liberating treasure.
One day, about a month or two in, one of the coaches took me aside and instructed me to do a one-two combination on the heavy bag—he would tell me the amount of jabs and crosses and I was to continue until told otherwise. “Eight!” he barked. “Ten!” “Fifteen!” “Six!” “Twenty!” “Twenty!” “Again!” “Again!” “Again!” He barked and barked, commanding me not to stop, whatever it takes, keep on. He finally slapped the bag and said I was done. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to inhale, but my heart rate was racing like a rabbit’s and failed to pump anything substantial. I jogged outside and bent over, heaving, gasping for air, holding the doorway with shaking hands. Strangely and unexpectedly, I felt the urge to weep. Between gasps, I had to use all my remaining willpower to fight down the cry. Anger, resentment, frustration—emotions tucked away somewhere like dormant bats had awoken and were clamoring to fly out.
And so I realized, too, that psychical restructurings occur as you jab and cross and hook and uppercut, dodge and slip and strike and fend; you will be startled by the odd and unpleasant timing of tears, discovering, as it is happening, that by whacking away at a large bag of sand you were chasing demons up and out of yourself (or at the very least reducing their size).
Even in the context of boxing practice, I can’t think of a more lethal opponent than the one you are in a relationship with. Unless you are busy battling yourself while in it—if what you have become in the relationship is akin to something slimy, an unsure and acquiescent thing like I was. I saw myself scrabbling for morsels of affection and apologizing for all my shortcomings to an unforgiving man. It was like I had broken my jaw and left it unhinged, day after day, never thinking to seek repair.
When I would be surrounded by other women at the boxing gym, I wondered again and again at my lack of strength in my relationship—my denial of the fading love, the built resentment, his cruelty and my disappointment and diminished faith. I had become one of the girls I used to smirk at when younger, at the ones who fell head over heels without reason or caution or will, and who discarded their whole lives and autonomous selves to try and “make it work,” only to become the leathered and puckered targets of their partner’s disdain. I had done all I could to “make it work:” I had left family, friends, career, the whole country, to try. I hated the cold and cloudy city, the bad food and lack of community. I hated myself for the level of self-delusion that had prompted me to think all my sacrifice would earn my partner’s acceptance. And believing I needed to earn his acceptance the way I did. My efforts were aggressive, but terribly off-target. I wonder now if the women surrounding me, sweating in stride with me, weren’t in similar situations: swinging away in love, yet receiving only welts in exchange.
Like long-term relationships, in boxing practice you kept on going because the people next to you kept on going. There was tremendous positive peer pressure that filled the room every evening. And I stress the word “tremendous” because the participants were not impressive athletes training for competitive purposes. These were students, dads and moms; the young and the old, men and women, boys and girls, people who came with friends and others who came alone. People who had day jobs behind computer screens and raising children; people who were bony, fat, short, wide, skinny, toned, soft, round, taut, wrinkled. This place was not for the brash and sleek—this place was sanctuary for those wanting to lose weight, get fit, or release stress that stockpiled from a soul-sucking 9 to 5. Regardless of athleticism, we all limped back home after training; we all wrapped ourselves weakly around bus poles, went up the stairs one slow foot at a time and peeled off clothes soaked through and through with effort. There were no excuses, no whining, no breaks. If you felt sick or saw stars you went quietly to the bathroom and recovered before rejoining. The air grew thick with body odor and noise, sweat and heat—all the yelling and moving and contact between glove and bag, flesh and leather; the pacing feet, the clinking chains from which swung the heavy bags, the copper-blood smell of old rusted weights, the musky scent of used gloves—even the aromatic blend of body oil and shampoo spilled into your nostrils because of how close you were to others. The loud clangs of weight equipment after someone finished a set; the faint rap-rap-rapping of people jumping rope outside on the gravel. It was a foreign and intoxicating undertaking. The whole world came into focus singularly upon the grunts, pants, strains, groans and tremblings of my body.
We also sparred one another. Mouthguards sucked around teeth in suffocating embrace and spongy helmets constricted heads like loving headlocks. People stood around outside the ring while the coach planted her or himself inside, leaning against the rope with a regal and nonchalant bearing, yelling and intervening as needed. Women versus women. Men versus men. Women versus men. You tapped gloves and went for it. It was never pretty. People hit air, fell over themselves, shuffled about like tranquilized rhinos. Everyone had nerves going in the first couple of times. But the adrenaline hits; you begin to shoo your virginal anxieties away with a healthy smack to the skull; and bloodlust rises. You start to go in grinning. You slap each other’s backs afterwards and laugh. Out of all things, it’s a love-filled time.
There is lots of pain, of course. Shredded muscle to be rebuilt. Bruises and pulled muscles and sprained joints and stiff wrists. Sore backs, necks and shoulders. Eyes that burn from sweat you shed. I’ve seen bloody and broken noses. People who have stumbled over others stretching on the floor to dry heave outside. But like everything else in life, growth first requires a breakdown severe enough from which something equally strong can be built.
The act of boxing is not the only thing that can be disassembled into a few simple acts. You yourself become reduced to a much simpler being. I would even say that you are “not yourself” as you hit the bag dead center, as you take in that leather (or sparring partner) square in the eye. You become something without any awareness of a world beyond the borders of the ring: all complexities and dilemmas and fears and concerns and disappointments and losses and yearnings of your human aspect fall to the floor and are swept deftly away. The world becomes simple and stark; you turn instinctual and primal. Your body becomes the new language. I guess that may be the case for almost every athlete who is immersed in the moment of play. In the boxing club, no one felt obligated to make small talk because there was conversation enough through our strikes and dodges. Not only does your world contract, it depopulates. And we were grateful for this individual and insular sport, where there was no team, but “I.” There was no one else to measure up against, no one outside of you who depended on your performance or effort, no one to answer to. Not to teammates, co-workers, boss, family, partner or God. No one.
Going there, I became strong. And strong body was strong mind. I saw and felt my lean, muscled figure, the strength of my limbs and the endurance of my lungs. I walked with less fear and hesitancy down the London streets. I spoke my mind more freely and saw how others admirably sized me up head to toe. I was restored in all the ways I was deprived by my six-year relationship.
It comes down to priorities. Boxing made me the priority. The one and only priority. Just me. Some may perceive it as narcissistic, but boxing did anything but generate vanity or arrogance. It returned to me my autonomy, and the steely self-belief I had lost from loving someone so unconditionally and without any in return. I danced with the bag with increasing skill and stamina. With every session, I punched and sweat and silently cried myself back into existence, into flesh, like a potter to clay. And after my year-long contract working in London, I declined the offer to extend it because I knew my relationship finally needed to be K.O.’d, put down. No longer was I willing to sustain what was now necrotic. So I left him, the job and the country. And with it excised there were no more tears to be shed, no further fractures of the heart. We parted in armistice, with me lugging my suitcase into the taxi as he stood there silent, leaning against the doorway of his home. In the end, I had the strength to stand toe to toe with him, enough to tell him evenly that I was putting myself first. I don’t know if he understood or believed my reasons for the break-up, but we finally hung up our gloves and let each other go.
Among my few possessions from transit: my frayed black hand-wraps and bruised mouthguard. One last lesson learned: the rupture and mending of the heart are easier to manage as a boxer. While you’re consciously occupied refurbishing the body, you’re also subconsciously repairing the psyche.
I have yet to find a place that mirrors the boxing club I discovered in Islington, with its modest and bare facility housing veteran coaches who pushed you with fondness and pride, and embraced your sore, soaked and smelly body without hesitation; with the years-old bags and gloves and individuals who were indifferent to how you looked, who you were, or why you were there. I will be forever grateful for its unwavering approach to re-building a person’s constitution—its reach penetrating far past surface musculature—and looking beyond the choices you made that left you broken and unwilling and dormant at its doorway. The charity boxing club was the best thing about London and I’ll never forget what it taught me, and what it released in me.
Here’s to you, to boxing.
Photo by West Point Women’s Boxing Club