Boxing, writes Joyce Carol Oates, is a sport forever in crisis. What must we make of this: two men, half-naked, hell-bent on hitting each other so hard, for so long, that one will eventually fall to the ground, as if dead? There is nothing inherently likeable about this scene. No immediate sign that makes clear: this is entertaining, even fun, or at least important. To the casual observer, she writes, boxing must seem not simply barbaric but mad.
The Armoury on Fight Night is a place of worship: the weights are packed away, the lights come out, the cameras go up. This is a party. Beer and burgers. A hundred voices, dressed up, excited, electric, waiting for the bell, waiting for the fight. The Armoury on Fight Night is a wonderful place. There is something here, in this room, in the air: a kind of desperate delirium, a glittering spark spread across a crowd of bodies. Ding ding ding and the place explodes. This is a blast.
What brings two people into the ring? What brings a crowd to watch them?
Lately, this many weeks into the MH Staff Challenge, I’ve been sparring. This means biting down on a mouthguard and getting a lesson in why I need to keep my fists up. This is where I was headed, with all that running: to come home with bruises on my ribs, reminders of why I need to face forward, keep my eyes open. This is the point of all those push-ups: to keep me upright and awake long enough to learn why I need to twist my hips, stay on my toes, keep moving.
The Armoury is well named. A workshop, not a gym; a factory floor, not a vanity room. Welcome to the gun shop is more than a slogan; it’s a moral code. This is where things are made: bodies, yes, but also hearts, minds, whole lives. From scratch, when these trainers help the MyLife group of former gangsters reinvent themselves. As an ongoing intervention, when I walk through the doors each morning knowing this place is changing me from the inside out.
Sparring is an exercise in rewiring your mind. Training yourself to do what doesn’t come naturally. Look into a punch, into yourself, stare down your fear and tell yourself: you’re still here, you’re still alive. A punch in the nose is never fun, but it’s not the end. Ask yourself, looking through your arms, leaning forward, into the raining punches, what do you want here? This is what having heart means: to know that these punches can get in the way, that they can hurt you, but they can’t stop you.
This is what boxing means, to the people who do it and the people who come to watch them: life is struggle. Our fight is all we have.
Boxing, in the end, is about learning to cope with crisis. It’s a movement, not outward, towards some arbitrary objective, but inwards, through your own body and brain, to some invisible core. Some beating heart you might call your one true self. Behind the bravado. Your instinct. That centre is no one you’ve ever known, no one you’d have recognised, before all of this sparring. Before you bite down on that mouthguard and get introduced, over and over, to your own weakness, your panic.
A punch to the head is never fun. You get hit a few times and your mind lights up with a million alarm bells. You get knocked in the nose and your head snaps back and your eyes go black in a sea of stars. Under pressure, we do the wrong things, like flinch and freeze. We run away, asking what was I thinking, what can I do? Nothing. Under pressure, scared, most of all, we do nothing. Doing nothing comes naturally; it’s an instinct. Doing nothing gets you nowhere, except knocked out.
Sparring is an exercise in doing something. Moving, eyes open, feet on the floor, fists up, this is the challenge. To face forward, to do something, without turning away or tiring out or giving up. Sparring is an exercise in staying awake: alert, not passive or lazy or slow. Not flinching, not scared or on your back or out cold. To be here, to do something, always something: jabbing or blocking, ducking or weaving, this is the test. Always active and upright and alive.
This is what boxing is, inside the ring and out: a lesson in moving like you mean it.
Intent is everything. The world asks, what do you want? Boxing teaches you the answer: go and get it. How you move must have purpose. Always forward, never back. Leaning, looking, eyes open, waist bent, chest wide. Eager, searching, asking, what do I want to do? Go and do it. How you move here, as in life, must be deliberate, considered, and active. Never scared, never frozen. Never not moving, never waiting. What you’re looking for isn’t looking for you; you have to find it. So go and get it.
Fight Night is coming. 25 June, The Armoury takes on new life, all over again. All those people, watching, waiting to explode. All those fighters, stepping into the ring, past their fear, into themselves. This is why they do it: because life is hard, and painful, and unfair. Because this ring is a microcosm of the world, a place where punches come from nowhere and your fight is all you have. Because to hit back against anything that hurts you is an exercise in finding the fire in your heart.
And this is why I’ll be there, my name on the bill: because this place has shown me I have the fight to live a better life.
Fight Night is coming. 25 June, my hat’s in the ring. Because I’m learning to fight my fear. And I’m getting ready to knock it out.
Photo by Paola Kizette Cimenti via Flickr