I’ve taken up boxing. Not the Rocky Balboa Million Dollar Baby type boxing with its knock outs and in-ring drama. And not the LA Boxing type boxing with its glistening ladies in work out capris and glitter, tearing up the heavy bag with their pink gloves and tenacious zeal for fitness. Nope. My boxing class is real. Part fitness. Part technique. All heart and sweat. Led by Harold (Coach), an ex-boxer with a fighter’s heart, a teacher’s soul, and a quiet voice. Held in a gym that’s basically a garage in the worst part of town–not a place I typically frequent as I cruise between the suburbs and the Whole Foods in my hybrid.
Back 2 Basics Boxing. That’s what it’s called. I understood the truth of that name the first time I pulled up to the squat brick building. The metal door was rolled up part way, green paint peeling as if sandblasted. The place screams bomb shelter, not gym. Three solid walls of cinder block form the perimeter. Painted aqua blue, the walls provide a stark contrast to the gray of the cement floor. Exposed light bulbs dot the ceiling, and a line of ants across the floor reminds everyone that this place could be reclaimed by the shadows of the city at any moment. Several heavy bags hang from the rafters, providing the only real hint that this place is a boxing gym. The bags and the god forsaken boxing timer, forever bleating its buzzes and lights–start now, keep going, thirty more seconds, start again.
I wasn’t sure what this place would hold for me. I’ve been searching for answers recently. Casting about, screaming at the moon, pushing for quick fixes. Struggling all around, really. I didn’t expect boxing to solve anything. It was something to pass the time and maybe help me get in shape along the way. Turns out it’s much more than that. Turns out my boxing class is an awesome training ground for all the things I’m working on in my life–patience, mental toughness, faith, intensity. When I hit the heavy bag in that dungeon-like gym, it’s emotional work made physical, manifested in my fists. The work and pain is tangible, down to the broken blood vessels on my knuckles and the sweat that drips on that line of ants on the concrete floor.
Just last week, I was struggling with combination punches. I’ve trained in Karate, so my punches are deliberate and strong, sending the heavy bag into a sweeping elliptical arc. It felt good to connect with the bag, but my rhythm was off, the bag was never in the right place, my feet where wrong, my balance was crap. Over and over, I sent the bag swinging, only to have it swing back awkwardly. Jab. Cross. Hook. Jab. Cross. Hook. The more I tried and failed, the harder I tried, and the more spectacularly I failed. A vicious cycle. I swore under my breath, set my jaw, and kept punching. Harold approached. “You do karate or something?” I nodded, pissed off, breathing hard. He gave me a patient look, and said, “Think of the three punches as one.” He demonstrated. It clicked. A breakthrough. The frustration drained from my body, and I attacked the bag with a new quickness and fervor.
Only after class did I realize what a gift Harold had given me. Just one sentence gave me a new perspective, one that lead to a new understanding and allowed me to operate at a new, higher level. I guess that’s the essence of what great teachers do for their students. It also helped me remember that sometimes you just need to do the work without any hope or expectation that a miraculous and quick solution will appear. Because it’s when you’re buried in that work, head hunched over your fists, that the new understandings come. Maybe it’s the work itself that allows for their appearance. Whatever it is, I’m grateful to Harold and Back 2 Basics Boxing for giving me the space I need to do the hard work of getting back to basics, in boxing and in life.