I Was A Teenage Boxer

Getting punched in the face sucks. The boxing glove protects the puncher’s hand, and not, unfortunately, the punchee’s face.

The fist connects with the jaw. The head snaps backwards and sideways. The pain is strangely absent, more like a dull, dizzying throb, as the brain ricochets around the skull. The legs, loose-kneed and hip-width, stay sturdy beneath as the body sways back, absorbing the impact. If one is inattentive, as I often am, the mouth is open slightly due to labored breathing, and the lower teeth snap closed, catching and cutting the upper lip. If one is unlucky, as I often am, one is wearing headgear a size too big and soaked with previous wearers’ sweat. The glove pushes the headgear askance, the top of the headgear slides down the forehead, presses into the eye, and the punchee’s contact pops out, and one cries out to stop the fight, to remove gloves, locate the contact, and pop it back in without rinsing. Ding. The fight resumes.

I started at sixteen by learning how to hit a heavy bag with one of six punches: jab, straight right, left hook, right cross, left uppercut, right uppercut. Five of the six punches can be thrown to head or body, making eleven punches. The challenge is throwing those punches swiftly, accurately, and in unexpected combinations to land one or two good ones.

It’s a warrior’s game, and most of those warriors are men.

Growing up, I wanted to be a man—not for the identity, but for the social capital. I wanted the freedom masculinity appeared to offer. I wanted to travel without fear, to live in romantic isolation, to sculpt my body into an image of desexualized power and strength. I lived in awful masculine books like Fight Club, enamored of its anticapitalist antiestablishment antieverything ideology.

My mother, who taught me feminism before I was ready to appreciate it and had no idea I was reading Palahniuk, used to gently correct me when I mentioned the “mailman.”

“Mail carrier,” she’d say.

“It doesn’t matter,” I’d whine.

I wanted all my gender problems to go away. I didn’t want to dance or ride horses or do anything I understood as coded female. I wanted to be as distant from the social construct of “femaleness” as I could, while still being a girl. I didn’t want to be cat called or assaulted or expected to marry or get pregnant or fill any of the roles I’d seen as required of women. I wanted my feelings reified as violence.

In training, I found something even better: endorphins. I was a bookworm, not an athlete, and I’d never felt the rush before. After each workout, it was like I’d dunked my head into a bucket of ice water. The teen anxiety, confusion, rage, and sadness ebbed away, even if just for a day. Better than journaling, long walks, deep breathing, screaming at the sky, everything I’d tried. A strange little church I’d discovered inside myself, a different world from school, work, family, society, my internalized misogyny. My sacred church of hitting stuff.

I trained off-and-on all through high school and college. I finally understood what my mother was getting at with her gender non-specific terms. I learned words like “structural misogyny” and “intersectionality” and read bell hooks and Kimberle Crenshaw and Foucault. After graduating, I started a well-paying desk job at an advertising firm. I turned to boxing very seriously for the first time, as a rebellion against my self-inflicted sedentary screen-filled life.

The physical simplicity of boxing was a relief. I was the only woman in a tiny strip-mall gym, and outside of my pointless, super-capitalist job, I found a tangible way to live my feminist beliefs: I would show these men that I could train just as hard. I would fight and win.

In the essay “Federer Both Flesh And Not,” tennis player and aficionado David Foster Wallace refers to drilling as a tool to develop “the kinesthetic sense.” This sense is the “lizard brain,” or the ability to do something physically without thinking about it consciously. Slipping a punch and counterpunching is a lightning-fast reflexive motion, perfected through endless drilling.

I am not “kinesthetically talented,” as Wallace says. I run drills to train the body to throw punches, and have felt those minute adjustments that only thousands of and thousands of repetitions can isolate. It feels great. But a lifetime of drilling will probably not make me a great boxer. My kinesthetic sense, also referred to as “flow,” where the athlete drops below consciousness and into the lizard brain, is easily disrupted. (Great athletes, Wallace posits, are undisruptable.) Fear, pain, and fatigue are my disrupters. Unfortunately, getting punched in the face sets off all three.

I spent a year in the strip mall gym, doing push-ups in silence, running suicides on uneven pavement, punching one-two-three-two-five-two-three on heavy bags for hours. It was a serious atmosphere, made for young men ready to devote their lives to the sport. They sparred with each other, but not with me. When the sparred with me, they pulled their punches. When they didn’t pull their punches, I got my world rocked. I didn’t improve. I didn’t know how. I was not representing women well. My anxiety levels crept up and up. So I quit.

Boxing does not let its practitioners go easy.

I dreamed about the sharp squeak of my thin-soled shoes on the mat by the heavy bag when I pivoted. I stuck my head in my gym bag, seeking the smell of concrete, rubber, Vaseline, sweat, and leather, coalescing into a single gross smell of homecoming.

Six months after I quit boxing, quit my job, and started a much less prestigious job in the service industry, I found a new gym. I was twenty-three. I decided I would no longer spar with men. Maybe I wouldn’t spar at all! I would simply avoid facing my internalized misogyny, and still get that wonderful endorphin rush. Problem solved.

This gym was different, too. The space was vast, high-ceilinged, in the middle of downtown—yet somehow kept that ratty underdog vibe of a good boxing gym. The walls were bright red and papered with posters and photos and promotional t-shirts. Music blasted constantly. I started training there four days a week. I wasn’t grinding myself into exhaustion as some sort of undissected self-flagellation. I was having—I could hardly believe it—fun.

But I couldn’t resist. I started sparring. Just a little bit, here and there, just with other women, who were not better than me. I didn’t improve, but I got comfortable.

Then came Jackie.

Her name was whispered incredulously between coaches. “She punches like a grown man,” my coach said to me once. “And she’s only fifteen.” She did not train alongside us, the casuals in group classes. She trained privately. She appeared at the edges of the gym, arriving or leaving with a bright blue bag slung over her shoulder, one or both parents trailing, grimacing, behind her. She had a determined look that scared me.

Then there were murmurs of her first amateur bout. I saw her in the gym cutting weight. She was jumproping, checking her form in the mirror, the shiny edges of a black trash bag peeking out from the neckline of her t-shirt.

She won.

I started sparring with men again.

As I became a regular fixture at the gym, training harder and sparring more, my teammates began to fold me into the “macho” banter (or “locker room talk”) that defines the culture. I fielded comments about my body, leers, needling jokes and queries about my sex life, and the enduring and inescapable equation of weakness with femininity. I addressed it jokingly, but not seriously. Who was I, halfway committed white girl, to come in and demand all these men of color adjust their behavior to suit my needs?

I wondered—how does Jackie avoid it? Is it her age? Her skill level? Private lessons? Is it happening to her too, and I don’t see it? Why can’t I just get over it?

My sparring performance tanked again. I regressed. When I was in the ring with a man I was suddenly not a boxer, I was a female boxer, acutely aware of my coach telling him to pull his left hooks in case I couldn’t take it. I was surveying myself, acutely aware of the clothes I wore, the shape of my body in the ring with the men’s faces on the edges looking up at me.

Every fight was a chance to prove that I belonged, that I was strong enough to train with the boys. I seemed to lose every single time. I weighed my options: which made me feel worse? The casual misogyny of the gym? Or not training at all?

I started speed-dating other sports, looking for the same strenuous workout without the emotional challenges. Rowing crew hit the sweet spot. It was satisfying to find the rhythm of the boat and slice through the glass-surface lake water. I liked the contrast of my bloodied, blistered hands and the sunrise over the tree-lined horizon.

Only I didn’t want to row. I wanted to box.

When Jackie’s left hook connected with my chin, my neck cracked three times in quick succession as my head swung the right– pop pop pop.  My eyes closed instinctively—very bad!—and my stance widened as I tried to avoid stumbling to one side.

My breathing grew heavier. My punches were erratic and slow. I was tired. I didn’t move my head at all—it was a motionless target for her to pepper jabs at, landing rapid-fire punches on my forehead, nose, cheeks, then stepping forward to rip body shots, fast, hard punches that left me breathless. I did not punch back. I pulled my arms in tight, shielding up as best I could against the onslaught, and tried to angle out. I created distance and my eyes cut to the three-minute timer. Please let it be over. She saw this. She redoubled her assault.

A boxing match is clearly delineated between a winner and a loser. It’s just you, in the ring, with your fists, versus one other person, and your goal is to hurt the other person more than you get hurt. It’s fun to do, and beautiful to watch, in the serious way a church service is fun and beautiful.

I had never experienced athletic failure disentangled from my own self-hate. Jackie had laid bare some of my many physical limits: a lack of endurance, slow reflexes, unplanned combinations, heavy footwork, a general inability to get out of my head and into my kinesthetic sense. Suddenly I had a roadmap to improvement, and a teenager to show me the way.

How foolish to think that I represented all women.

The great contradiction, from day one, was that boxing made me feel better about myself. Boxing built in me physical strength, but also spiritual strength: a confidence in what my body can do, instead of what it looks like, in the face of the modern world’s constant barrage of beauty standards. I’m bone-deep comfortable in my body, and I take great pride my pull-ups, my sprint speed, my yogi’s balance. I love the feeling of exertion, of growing stronger, of improving, and I love the uselessness of structured, consensual violence. For every gross sexist remark, I had a transcendent moment landing a straight right in the ring to counterbalance it.

Recently, I stood at the edge of the ring, watching my teammates end a round. To my left, a thirteen-year-old girl had her elbows propped on the edge.

The bell sounded and the men went to their corners.

“Give me two more,” my coach barked.

The girl looked impassively at me. “Are you gonna spar?”

The gym’s glass doors opened to the parking lot, where security guards peered in to watch. Sweaty boxers loitered, ready to call out mistakes or offer advice mid-round. Funny—the ring felt welcoming, with its jolly red-white-blue ropes, sagging under their own weight, its sweat-stained dark canvas body, its edges dotted with water bottles and cell phones and hand wraps and mouth guards in plastic baggies.

I’ll never be a great boxer—not like someone who starts training at thirteen, and not like someone with the natural kinesthetic sense for it. I won’t be in the Olympics. I probably won’t ever have a real amateur bout. But maybe this girl will one day, and maybe she’ll remember seeing me.

I pushed my headgear down with both hands until it hugged my skull tight just over my brow. I looked at the thirteen-year old and grinned a blue plastic mouthguard smile, then hopped up onto the edge of the ring.


Image: keith ellwood via Flickr