For someone who enjoys playing the violin, and has made a living requiring an acute memory, signing up for boxing lessons seemed like the right thing to do. Okay, maybe it's not the best idea in the world but I blame my new friend Jayne, an itinerant Aussie traveling the world as they are known to do. But this Aussie stayed in New Orleans for two months now, enough time to sign up for boxing lessons, and almost enough time to compete in an amateur fight.
Jayne didn’t need to say much about her brief boxing career for me to take the bait. I had once signed up for a boxing “course” in college at the local YMCA, which was comprised of aerobics and some air boxing--fantastically disappointing to say the least. Since then I had abandoned my would-be hobby, and generally avoided physical activity until the pizza diet, drinking binges, and all-night study sessions of law school mandated that I take up that annoying but effective ritual of jogging.
From there I moved to Alaska, where I bumped into the outdoors and dived in wholeheartedly. I tried hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowboarding on for size, but it was truly ice climbing that swept me away. With heavy tools banging into ice, nurturing a kind of controlled and calculated fearlessness, ice climbing was the perfect complement to my legal career and trial mindset. Ice climbing gave me the taste of exploring the boundaries both of my physical and mental worlds.
A few months ago I readily ended my career path in the legal field, and moved from Alaska to New Orleans. Without a secure job or any contacts, and having recently ended a dysfunctional relationship with another lawyer, I moved down here. I found an apartment, made friends, and rode my bike as much as my Alaska-acclimated body could handle.
But something was amiss. Although I was ready to say goodbye to the winter, I already missed ice climbing. I liked bashing ice. I liked having a visceral fear of a task, and then completing it. I liked looking down that wall of frozen water, knowing I had more to climb, forgetting about all the workplace stress I had in my day life. I missed the pure adrenaline, unrivaled in any other activities I had ever engaged in.
So, when in Rome, I decided to do as the Romans do, or at least the Romans who are boxing. Short of hell freezing over, I’ll never ice climb in New Orleans. So boxing seemed only natural. The more Jayne spoke about it the more I realized how important a structured activity wherein I could release my pent up aggression was an important element in my life. It just seemed like a good idea.
My trainer is Matt, nicknamed by his boxing co-horts as Cadillac Matt, because of all the different Cadillacs he has driven at various times of his life. But I'll call him Italian Matt because of his multi-syllabic Italian surname and his audible Italian-American accent. Walking towards me he gives me a little bit of a look. It’s that same look I first received many years ago in jail on my first day on the job as a public defender. I am Vietnamese-American woman, about 5’5”, and look about 5-10 years younger than I am. I recall something of a “Are-you-kidding-me-is-this-really-my-f*****g-lawyer-or-is-this-just-a-Japanese-exchange-student” look on my clients faces when they first saw me in court, before I had proven my loyalty to them and their incarcerated kind. Matt is giving me a more gentle version of that look now. So I walk towards him coolly and confidently introduce myself as if to say, “No really, I’m serious.”
Italian Matt is shaped like a lean refrigerator. Neither tall nor short, he has a squarish, closely cropped head, a thick neck, and a strong, squarish body to match. He is comfortable with his movements and uncomfortable with his words. I had heard that the gym owner, though well-intentioned, had the tendency to be a touch on the brutal side, once refusing to continue training a woman who had told him she was too tired to continue a jabbing exercise. Matt seems like a gentle giant, and in that sweltering gym, I knew to be grateful.
The gym itself could serve as a movie set about boxing in the seventies. Located in one of the numerous developing neighborhoods of New Orleans, it is comprised of concrete floors, cinder block walls, large fans and absolutely no air conditioning. There is a ring off to the side, large mirrors along the walls, and various punching bags hanging around. A few exercise bikes and a couple of bench presses. On the front windows are two conspicuous spots where it looks like someone threw a couple of punches. Like their surroundings, most of the gym’s patrons look lean and tough.
Skipping any uncomfortable small talk, Matt puts me on the exercise bike. Not wanting to look like a whiner I omit mentioning to him that I had just ridden my bike to the gym on this 95 degree day. He makes a jumbled explanation of the buzzer system running at all times in the gym. I am to train for three minutes at a time. The green light means I start the three minute period, the yellow light means 30 seconds more, the red light means stop and rest for 3 minutes. Each light is accompanied with a buzzing sound. Okay, I can handle that, so far so good.
Matt shows me the one punch. Step jab, twist that wrist, but just at the end. Move on the ball of your back foot, keep balance between the A shape between your feet, which should be no further than your shoulders. Legs bent, torso straight. Don’t huddle in, it takes away the force. Corkscrew that punch, that’s where the power is.
After about three rounds he directs me to the ring.
My instinct is to start climbing over the ropes and he quickly pulls the bottom rope down, beckoning to climb in between the ropes instead, biting his tongue to keep from laughing. Despite the fact that this is a boxing lesson and I am sweating like a pig, I appreciate the fact he is chivalrous, though I would be fine without it.
I step into the ring. I like it here and feel a certain oooing and ahhhing inside of me. Matt makes me shuffle around the ring, interspersing with some jabs and steps forward. I do a few rounds of around one side of the ring, jab jab jab, forward, jab jab jab back. Around and around the ring I go.
Matt takes me out of the ring and brings me back down to earth. He teaches me the two punch and makes me combine it with the left hook. After a few rounds of this, the smart-ass in me wants to stop, cross my arms and say, “Don’t you think that’s enough to try to figure out on my first day?” But I had already resolved not to show any weakness after hearing the story of the other woman. Instead, I comply with his demands, dripping with salty, fluidy, me, my shirt, shorts and hair drenched and clinging to my body. But despite my attempts to disguise my fatigue it is showing: I accidentally punch him twice in the face, followed by an unedited, “Oh f**k, I’m so sorry!” He tells me it’s okay and compliments me on the force of the punch. Matt sees that I am toasty and pours my water bottle directly on my head. In the mirror I can almost see the steam rising from my noggin. I almost laugh at my own image: I have never seen myself look more disgusting than I do right now.
After forty-five minutes he begins the “cool-down” part of the session. Instructing me to tuck my feet under the frame of the boxing ring, he makes me do twenty sit-ups. Matt notices from my first five sit-ups that under my flat tire is something resembling a core, a remnant of my climbing days, and so he ups the ante to twenty-five. I falsely lull my mind into thinking the torture is over until he tells me to do ten push-ups. He compliments me, and I decide not to tell him that it’s from yoga. Again, I falsely lull my mind into thinking the torture is over when he forces me to do two more rounds of each. I complete his demands without even a whimper, but emotionally I’m hurt. Why couldn’t he just be straightforward with me from the beginning? Man-up and tell me what was really going on? That’s right, THREE rounds of 25 sit-ups and 10 push-ups, totaling 75 sit-ups and 30 push-ups! Would the truth have been so hard??!!
The session ends, and we plan the next one for two days later. In his awkward, monosyllabic, Rocky Balboa way, he tells me my punches are good, I have good endurance, but that I’ve got to work on my cardio. Doesn’t he know? Would he care that I just moved here from Alaska a month ago? That even my dog is exhausted by this heat? I shut my mouth and obediently tell him that I’ll do rounds in Audobon Park.
I agree to sign up for ten more sessions. By now Matt has loosened up a bit in that awkward guy sort of way and endeavors the formidable task of making small talk. He can tell that there’s something about this nutty activity that I like and makes a comment along those lines. With a straight face I explain simply, “Yeah, I have a lot of pent up aggression.” He laughs and says he can relate. He explains that he was training competitively five years ago until Katrina happened and that shortly afterwards he quit altogether. “Well, you know...” he says, his eyes darting towards the ground. I always find it odd how locals either talk about Hurricane Katrina as if it made them a martyr, or, in the alternative, as if it were their fault, like Matt did right at that moment. As if he was some type of quitter for not boxing after the hurricane.
Matt tells me that he ended up driving limosines. “Wasn’t any other work around afterwards, you know?” The irony reminded me of some observations I once made while traveling overseas in a couple developing countries. No matter how poor, how devastated a region is, there are always people hanging around in the aftermath who get driven around by the locals. Matt perks up by telling me that he came back to train two months ago, lost 20 pounds in the process, and is preparing to fight professionally again. He notices my blue mountain bike, lovingly dubbed the Blue Bayou Bomber. We end the session by chatting about biking and kayaking on Lake Pontchartrain.
It usually takes a day before I am sore from rigorous physical activity. Oh but not today. Boxing efficiently eradicates that lag time and my arms and all sorts of muscles near my shoulders are sore immediately upon stepping out of the gym. Somehow, I make it home on my bike, and am able to hoist my body into a cold shower, and quickly pass out into a deep slumber on my bed.
I am 5’6” a size 6-8. Sure, I’m a little out of shape since leaving Alaska, having enjoyed my fair share of daiquiris and local food here in New Orleans, but by no stretch of the imagination am I obese. Yet, somehow, Matt leaves me feeling like a fat pig, squealing in pain.
I wake up from my nap, with both trepidation and excitement for my next training session on Thursday. I call Jayne and confirm with her that boxing is a very good thing. I know that the pain in my muscles are a promise that they will grow in the future. The pain lets me know that things are starting to build for me here in New Orleans.
I wake up on Thursday, mentally eager but with some rudimentary concerns. For instance, why do the muscles under my boobs hurt? And the ones all over my arms, and creeping around my shoulder blades in the back? Same with the ones under the flat tire I like to carry with me around my waist? Is this how I should be feeling the day of a workout?
We start our training session and a few minutes into it I’m combining my punches. Jab, right, left hook. 1-2-3. Then 1-2-3-1. Then 1-2-3. Whatever he calls I’m doing it. I’m soaked in sweat, and soon after the adrenaline comes, I lose my form, and am pre-empting his calls incorrectly. “Slow down,” he tells me. “Wait ‘til I make the call. And don’t forget your form.” We slow it down, and I am learning the physics of the punch, the importance of the the pivot, keeping balance, keeping appropriate distance from the opponent. I find a rhythm and hear a satisfying, “BAM!” when my fists make contact with the pads he’s holding up. “Boys you better not mess with her 'cause she’s gonna kick your ass!” He hollers out, laughing. He calls the gym owner over, “Hey Mike, check it out.” BAM! BAM! BAM! go my punches. Mike smiles big.
I ride my bike home and think about the day’s lesson. I recall the story of Mike Tyson and how it was widely criticized that a man of his broken, violent background was allowed to box. I also recall something my friend Liz, a member of the National Guard, once said to me. “People think that if you’re in the military, then you should be against gun control, because you use and handle them all the time. But what those people don’t recognize is that in the military, your use of weapons is so highly controlled and regulated. There are regular weapon counts, and you're only allowed to handle them a certain way. That’s pretty different than the type of rights gun advocates lobby for, which so often results in bad gun accidents.”
I'm starting to view boxing with the same eyes. It is a controlled use of violence, with a set of rules, and a protocol of acceptable behavior. Losing your cool is not to the boxer’s advantage; in fact, uncontrolled adrenaline can distract one from the physics of the punch, and decrease your effectiveness and power. Of course biting the opponent’s ear off is a terrible thing. It doesn't take a psychologist to observe that Mike Tyson clearly had uncontrollable rage issues. But where would that rage have been directed for all those years prior had he not been able to box? Boxing alone could not have solved Mike’s deeply-rooted psychological issues but I’d dare say that boxing probably did not cause them.
For me, boxing is the new ice climbing. I’m excited about tomorrow’s Friday Night Fight and I’m looking forward to the day when Mike and Matt pop the question: “Kim, would you like to compete in an amateur fight?”