Thursday, December 1, 2011

Friday is a Good Night for a Fight



"
A great hush fell over the huge assembly. Even the dogs stopped yapping; one might have thought that the monstrous room was empty. The two men had stood up, the small white gloves over their hands. They advanced from their corners and shook hands...Then they fell into position. The crowd gave a long sigh--the intake of a thousand excited breaths."

--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Croxley Master"

Tonight, I ride my bike through the streets of New Orleans, through the recovering neighborhood of Broadmoor, down a pot-holed filled Freret Street, which is strangely just blocks away from the beautiful and stately St. Charles Avenue. On Freret I pass abandoned buildings and vacant storefronts alternating between new cafes and restaurants, some with barely a layer of paint slap-dashed over a recently unused facade. On my right I pass Freret Boxing Gym with its concrete floors and water-stained walls. It is catty-corner to my destination, a parking lot cordoned off with cheap blue tarps. Within the tarps are throngs of people hunched around an elevated boxing ring, food and beer vendors operating out of carts, and a crudely loud p.a. system blasting fuzzy-sounding rap music. It is a brisk 50 degree evening for New Orleans, "cold" by local standards. It is Friday night and everyone is ready for a fight.

I pay my $15 and enter the portal to New Orleans amateur boxing. Hosted once a month by Freret Boxing Gym, typically on the first Friday, it has become a local favorite for would-be and has-been boxers alike, in addition to hipsters, yuppies, professor types of various ages, and all others with a morbid curiosity in the art of pugilism.

With its termite infested interiors, leaking ceiling, quasi-toxic restroom, and primitive changing room, the Freret Boxing Gym looks like a set from a boxing movie from the seventies (and has in fact served as the backdrop to movies and TV shows). Of the dozen or so boxing gyms in the city, Freret is one of the few reflecting a diversity of race and socio-economic background. It is also where I have been training for the past year.

Fight Night is a BYOB alcohol situation, and upon entering the chain link fenced-off parking lot I take a few sips from my bottle of Crown Royal Canadian whiskey to keep warm. I shout a hello to Mike from New York, the gym's owner, a friendly and surly man in his early 40's. I check in with a few of the trainers, all of whom are busy with preparations working the corner of one of the evening's fighters, and all of whom find it virtually impossible to keep training appointments. In the past year of training at Freret, I have learned a decent left jab and right straight punch; I've also learned that the sport does not attract the most reliable of men for trainers. But, despite my inability to secure a consistent trainer, I am drawn back to that nasty little place to jump rope, punch bags, and dodge make-believe punches on my lonesome, like most of the men there. I am drawn back by that same unspeakable something that brings me to watch tonights bouts on this very night.

I have come alone to the fights. The dozen or so friends I lobbied heavily to join me instead opted to attend a theatre festival. I spit on the ground in disgust at the mere thought of it. Just as well. With my hood on my head, wolfing down a hotdog and guzzling some more whiskey, I recognize that my draw to boxing is perhaps a manifestation of one of my more unsightly qualities.

Having seen the fighters sparring and training for this day all week in the gym, I expect the evening's bouts to be worthwhile. My eyes dart around for the tall, young black male, tatooes on his arms, who showed a certain steeliness against his nervy, slightly more bulkier, white opponent. I look for the young Latino who clearly has been training all week with the clear intention that this fight will not be his last. I see my current trainer, barely 30 years old and just out of prison after a 15 year stint, working the corner of the only female fight this evening. He recently won a prestigious amateur fight sponsored by Ringside and is slated to go first to the Olympics.

Despite the brisk temperatures, the crowd is quite thick, mostly male, but with a decent showing of women, and a surprising count of hipsters. In my solitude I am recognized by a three men and a women. The man is the husband of a new friend of mine. He and his three companions are all professors at Loyola, in English, chemistry, philosophy, and Chinese Islam. Not exactly the typical peanut gallery for a fight night but I am happy to have their company.

The lights get brighter and the crowd gets quiet as the boxers take the ring. My heart races. The first pair of fighters are surprisingly agile, but leave some to be desired in form. Unguarded faces leave plenty of time for jabs never thrown. But they are young and fit and moving, which is good enough for tonight. Bets are made, beers are chugged and whiskey is slugged. I shrug as the professors decline my offer of Crown, nursing their cold light beers.

I call the winner two out of three fights, should have been three times but alas the fix was in. The ref is inattentive, almost complacent. In one of the matches, a fighter surrenders in lieu of a drawn out beating.

By the fourth fight, the crowd has thinned out, but has grown louder. It is now almost completely devoid of women and hipsters, and the air is thick with heckling and yelling. The professors and I make our way to the edge of the ring where we join our comrades in hooded sweatshirts, guzzling beer and taking sides. Loudly.

The fights get progressively harder and meaner, and the fighters heavier. Bad calls are made and boos are echoed. From our vantage point, an arm's reach away from the boxers' feet, I can hear them breathing, see them thinking about how to move, when to dip, when to throw. A whiskey-induced buzz finally sets in and I am seeing them move in slow motion, chills running down my spine not from the temperature but from the mood in the air between them. Here before me are two adversaries who challenge one another in simple form, three minutes of each round lasting a lifetime.


Finally comes the bout between two women, one of whom I share a trainer. Their form supercedes all previous fighters thus far, as does their agility. Both are skilled but one is a killer. She bloodies her opponent's mouth. The complacent ref does nothing. The killer looks at the ref as she delivers blow after blow to the face, as if imploring him to call a TKO. Nothing. Mercifully the bell rings. My trainer rushes to his trainee who has lost, as does James, the other trainer.

James is older, in his sixties, teddy-bear like in stature and demeanor, and clearly beyond his days as a fighter. And this is the third female winner I know of who calls him coach. I've seen him in the gym before, when I first started training, and when he used to get along with Mike the gym owner. He now trains his stallions at the Crescent City gym, deep in the heart of Central City, lodged between two notoriously dangerous public housing projects, in one of the more crime-ridden corners in town.

I look at the winner, standing next to James, and I look at the loser, mouth bloodied and face swollen, standing next the man who has flaked on my last two training sessions. I do not, repeat, do not, want to be standing next to a trainer--Olympic bound or not--with my mouth bloodied and face swollen.

***

Despite its brutish nature, the sport has historically drawn a variety of fans. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, medical doctor and author of the Sherlock Holmes stories was a known supporter, and even wrote a short story about boxing called "The Croxley Master." Doyle himself was an amateur fighter in his med school days. One can't help but think that the story's main character was drawn from his own experience; a med school student training for an amateur boxing match against an older, more brutish and more experienced competitor. I enjoy Doyle's description of the sport and the popular love of it:

"Sometimes brutal, sometimes grotesque, the love the sport is still one of the great agencies which make for the happiness of our people. It lies very deeply in the springs of our nature, and when it has been educated out, a higher more refined nature may be left, but it will not be of that robust British type which as left its mark so deeply on the world. Every one of these ruddled workers, slouching with his dog at his heels to see something of the fight, was a true unit of his race."

Myself, I have my own reasons for boxing, overlapping in part with Doyle's theory. I've already acknowledged my former trial-lawyer-esque crave for adversity and public performance. It is an annoying and possibly unhealthy urge, and being clever can get old; all of these reasons are in large part why I left the legal profession to work for a non-profit affordable housing developer. But I acknowledge that remnants of the thirst for achievement remain in this adrenaline-seeking corpus of mine. I was raised and trained to be a competitive person, and I get a buzz from challenge; so why not get that buzz in a structured and controlled environment? With boxing I am reassured by the fact that at least in this adrenaline-laden arena I gamble with my physical health, and not the liberty of another.

To become a professional fighter is not my desire. But I look forward to the day when I feel fit and prepared enough to step in the ring under the bright lights in the cold night, as I encounter a worthy adversary who has agreed to challenge my training and skills in one of the world's most unadulterated forms of conflict resolution. There is something to it--to abandoning the cleverness of words and argument and cajoling, and instead, speaking through the art of swings, throws, thrusts, dodges.

As I walk to the porta-potty in between bouts, I see James' entourage--a half dozen of fit, toughly scowling women who used to train at Freret and have since moved to Crescent. "James," I call out, waving at him. He gives me a big paternal smile and makes his way through the crowd to me.

Before I can say a thing, he says with a knowing look in his eyes, "So you ready to become a fighter?"

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