That should more accurately read, “I TRIED to hit a boy.”
I’m talking boxing.
Last night, I sparred for the first time. I’ve been looking forward to this day since the option was first announced at the beginning of the summer. Due to a bunch of crazy conflicts, this Thursday was the first time I’d gone.
Pulling First Punches
For almost three years now, I’ve been learning to box at an all-women’s gym, Pink Gloves Boxing. A good friend of mine who I was working with at the magazine had a Groupon for the class and convinced me to join her. It was just 5 minutes down the road from my house. Plus, boxing sounded like an excellent way to pound out my frustrations at the end of what were increasingly stressful work days. How could I say no?
That first day, I didn’t really know what to expect. There were two coaches; the primary coach, Brenda (also the gym owner) and her brother, Jonathan, who was helping out with the big group. Being a runner, I figured I’d have no issue with the workout’s cardio aspect.
I was, however, unprepared for the level of coordination involved.
I know my right from my left. As a former marching band geek, I can send my feet one way and have my upper body do something completely different, all while remembering complicated patterns.
Except I didn’t and I couldn’t. There seemed to be a huge mind/body disconnect. Jonathan worked patiently, helping me discover what hand did what and where my feet went while I did it. Foot drills on the speed ladder revealed that I was very good at putting one foot directly in front of the other (runner!) and not so good at quick steps in multiple directions. My arms were weak and my punches puny.
By the time I’d used up my 10-class Groupon, I was hooked. The drills and movements taught addressed my physical shortcomings. I could see that an improved core, greater upper-body strength, and increased proficiency in lateral movements were going to pay off long-term dividends for my overall fitness.
What I hadn’t anticipated was how much I’d love boxing as a mental workout. At first, it was all I could do to manage which punches were which and what my feet should do while delivering those eight different movements. Then we started stringing together combinations of those punches. The strings got longer (24, 48, 64 moves) — so many, so hard to remember! As those combos grew, ducks and slips crept into the mix. Here: these are mitts. It’s time to learn how to hold for a puncher. The next hurdle was switching from orthodox to leftie stance. Learn it all again — this time, with the other hand and foot dominant. Now, switch it up midstream, going from right- to left-handed stance and back within the same combo.
There were mornings (so damn early for thinking) when my mind ground my body to a halt. I’d stand there, slack jawed, attempting to break down what I knew I SHOULD be doing with what my body ACTUALLY executed. I learned to let the mind go blank and give my body the lead. Watching and reacting had become faster than thinking through each punch and step.
And then it was time to add another boxer into the mix. The closest comparison is piano: you learn all of the practice etudes and pieces by heart, becoming adept at reading the music, and then you’re thrust into a jazz combo, playing without music, having to ad lib.
Time for Fight Club
To get ready for sparring, we practiced. There were multiple sessions of shadow boxing with a partner, one on the offensive (the puncher), the other defensive (blocking). That helped break down movements, to give a glimpse of how those lessons fit into the actuality of free-form execution.
Week after week, travel and commitments kept me from attending those evening workouts. Meanwhile, I heard about what it was like to spar with Jonathan on Thursday nights. When I’d show up in the mornings, I’d get feedback from the women who’d gone.
“Your brain just stops. He moves so fast.”
“All you see is that big glove coming at you.”
“Man, I was so tired. It kicked my ass.”
I was itching to get there while simultaneously squelching the roil of fear in my belly. So it was no accident last night that I placed myself three stations back in the set rotation before I’d reach Jonathan. That way, I could watch before I had to do anything.
What I observed and what I experienced were vastly different. Watching, I was able to determine quite a bit from body positions: who was there to hit versus who was there to avoid getting hit; the way Jonathan used his body to trap his opponent; how, when fists dropped, he went on a resulting attack. Watching, that 1-minute round didn’t seem too long.
As I stepped up, I said, “I’m nervous; this is my first time sparring.” Jonathan replied, “You’ll do fine. Don’t worry. You’ll see — that hit won’t hurt. And then it’ll all be okay.” Uh, ok. How does a hit to the face not hurt? I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken a punch (or hit anyone, for that matter), but I was pretty sure it had hurt.
We touched gloves and the timer sounded. I wish I could say I remember much, but it’s all a blur. I must drop my right guard regularly, because Jonathan’s fist met that side of my face often.
He was right; the impact didn’t hurt. The punches did, however, make me MAD. And then he backed me up and I went defensive, crouched, feeling trapped, hands simply up in front of my face, protecting. He and Brenda, who was watching, both yelled, “Fight your way out!” So, amazingly to me, I did.
By the end of the evening, each of us women had had four sets of 1-minute sparring. By the last round, I was exhausted. The evening heat had to have been in the 90s. Between sparring rounds, we hit the heavy bag, did foot work, completed exercises, like tuck jumps. At the end, it was all I could do to keep my arms up and attempt to stay out of his way. Afterward, my legs shook.
It was exhilarating.
I learned a lot from those four minutes, things I can’t wait to put into practice the next time. I can only imagine the day when my mind is able to detach from my body and I can actually anticipate and plan a combination of moves based on what my opponent is delivering. When I’m not just scrabbling to stay in one piece.
I was almost in tears — happy ones, of course — because of the symbolic beauty in that workout’s completion. I’d made a full circle from that first uncoordinated day. Jonathan had been with me then and here I was, almost exactly three years later to the week, putting what I’d learned into practice with him.