By Archie Best
So you decide to try your hands at boxing. The professionals make it seem so easy. Avoid being hit by the Ukrainian troll with breeze-blocks for fists, stay on your feet, and leave the ring with a novelty cheque and the crowd chanting your name.
First lesson is footwork: keep your feet an equal distance from each other and never cross them. You’ve seen it in Rocky. In between pointlessly pounding beef carcasses and congratulating himself on jogging (a measly) 72 steps to the Philadelphia Art museum, Rocky impatiently listens to his coach, Tony “Duke” Evers, instructing him to tie his feet apart to fix his footwork. Second lesson: keep your hands up to protect your face. Simple enough.
You begin shuffling crab-like round the boxing gym, feet apart and arms up, celebrating your newly acquired Mike Tyson stance by passing the trainer as often as possible. He glances at you like he would at the tooth of an opponent he just picked out of his glove. However you assume he can’t make any other facial expression, and were he able, he would be glowing with pride.
“Now pair-up, time for some body-sparring,” he shouts. Suddenly some guy is throwing his fists into your unprepared belly. Avoiding the onslaught means hopping around with your arms protecting your mid-riff. Survival becomes the priority and you wonder why he wants to kill you. “If you screw things up in tennis, it’s 15-love. If you screw up in boxing, it’s your ass” said boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb. You concentrate on not screwing up and, although more chimp than crab, you’re sure the trainer didn’t notice your brief slip in technique.
After training twice a week for six months, and at the end of another brutal session, although it feels as though you’ve been stamped on by Vladimir Kitshcko for an hour you’re happy with your progress. The trainer marches towards you and you assume the prowess you’ve displayed is about to receive the appropriate praise. Novelty cheques and crowds chanting your name flash through your mind. “Is this your first session?” he asks. Before answering you consider whether he might, just might, be joking. However his look is one of pure disdain, without a hint of humour, and the others are beginning to stare. “Um, no, I’ve been a couple of times maybe” you stutter, trying to muster a little dignity, “was I doing something wrong?” He seems to realise he’s supposed to be teaching, not humiliating, you and his look softens: “just stick to the basics, concentrate on your footwork and keep your hands up”.
Mohammed Ali said “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights”, but it seems “the road” is painful and apparently endless. Learning to box isn’t easy.