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A WAY OF LIFE
The gym becomes a way of life. Arrive on 14th Street at 5:30 P.M., and there might be a few fighters left from the first wave, the ones too young for day jobs, the ones who work odd hours or who don't work at all. You shake hands with your teammates (boxing culture requiring a certain formality) and take your gear into the bathroom. Off with the shirt, shoes, pants and, after a quick glance in the mirror to see how you're cutting up, on with the T-shirt, shorts and high-lace boxing shoes. Back in the gym, if no one else is around, Milton may be dozing. He lies on the upholstered bench, long legs bent off the end and touching the floor. A padded trainer's mitt is set over his eyes. He is only half asleep and will make lazy comments or stir to answer his cell phone. His energy ebbs and flows with the activity in the gym. If fully awake, he might have a hand in a packet of cheese curls or wrapped around a candy bar, interchangeable components of the toxic flow of junk food that sustains him.
You sit on the varnished planks of the wood floor and begin your workout, lengthening hamstrings, flexors, adductors, gluts and lats, the rubbery sheath of your skeleton. Stretching is somewhat abstract to Milton's fighters; some of the best seem to do without it altogether. Milton certainly doesn't emphasize it. Stretching isn't very street, isn't very ... tough. Stretching seems abstract, seems abstract until the day you step forward in the ring and have your quadriceps seize or you wrench your back and can't train for weeks. Perhaps Milton's best fighters know the limits of their bodies better than you (certainly they movewith a loping looseness that you envy), or perhaps they don't and are putting bodies and dream careers to risk.
After ten minutes of floor stretches, you rise and begin to loosen your arms and back. A boxer needs flexibility in his waist, is always ducking, bending, rotating on the axis of his hips. The wall mirrors watch you as you twist, a presence doubling the scene so that you can follow whatever happens through the length and depth of the room. The mirrors knit the gym together; always scanning with some part of your attention, you are immediately aware when anyone enters. As you stretch, your body quickens to the rhythm of the music--hip-hop, generally, on the radio, old tapes or new CDs. Along with old school stuff like Wu-Tang and Biggie, this year's big sellers are DMX, Jay-Z and Nas, the harder the better for the young toughs, murder, robbery, shooting and looting while you bounce. The music is loud enough to make conversation difficult, loud enough to make Milton scream, "Turn this shit down!" The boom box bass dictates the boxers' rhythm. Those times a white person tries to slip on a rock CD the other fighters shake their heads and ask, "How can you people train to this shit?"
Next comes the rope, slip-slap cadence of which takes at least a few months to negotiate (awkward leaps of novices as the rope tangles feet and limbs, as the plastic band scalds bare skin). The rope for balance, for coordination and to raise energy for the workout to come. All sorts of pretty tricks come with dexterity on the rope: running in place, double passes under each jump, and perhaps most impressive, the crossover, in which the wrists cross as the rope goes beneath you, very smooth. Milton has his own warm-up drills as well, custom-designed to make the leadfoot fleet, for the good boxer dances as well as hits. You hop back and forth across a tapeline on one foot, back and forth along the hallway forward and back, then run crisscross up the tapeline and return backpedaling. After a few minutes of this, you step into the ring with a pair of dumbbells. You circle the ring in a fighter's shuffle while punching the dumbbells straight into the air, then circle rotating the weights before you, elbows bent, all toward a further dexterity in moving the hands and feet together. Next is Milton's patented "dunh, dunh-duh," his own waltz, two steps sideways and then a pivot off the leading foot to bring you back into stance and facing your opponent. "Dunh, dunh-duh," to get out of trouble and pivot on an opponent who may be following too close, to pivot and counter with a hook or cross. You moveand circle, breath coming faster, the faintest dappling of sweat on your forehead and staining your shirt. The day grind, the coffee and greasy lunch burn out of you as you move. This evening, like so many others, you barely dragged yourself to the gym. A thousand obstacles, a million rationalizations presented themselves. You were up late last night. You had a headache. You wanted to go out for dinner instead, see a movie, you have a deadline at your day job ... . As you climbed the stairs and dressed, those obstacles evaporated, and as you move now, their last traces break and fade in the air. The obstacles seem so insignificant, in fact, that if you even think of them, you can't understand why they so hindered you. You are alive in your body, now. Your eyes open wide. Looking around, you see the gym has filled, people in conversation clusters, in various states of dress. You leave the ring and shake more hands. With an audience present, Milton no longer dozes but is up and talking. Not just talking but expressing, directing, edifying, illuminating, the impresario of this shadowed room.
"Hey, Gumby! What is that? You're punching handicapped."
"So when I was in camp with Shannon Briggs, I told him, 'They have you standing straight up, fighting like a white guy. That's not what got you here. You have to start moving your head again and breaking at the waist.'"
"Hey, somebody get my phone. Hello, Supreme. Yeah, I'm here every day starting at eight in the morning, and we close at ten at night. So come on down and be our next contestant."
"Julian! Are you working out, or cutting out?"
The bell (bell in name only--not a bell but a buzzing electric clock) marks rounds, the base unit measure of gym time. Rounds last three minutes with a warning buzz at two minutes thirty and another buzz at round's end for a rest of a minute, work/rest, work/rest, work/rest. "I did five rounds on the heavy bag, five on the rope." "How many rounds have we been sparring?" "One more round!" From your gym bag you draw the length of cloth that will protect those most delicate of weapons, the hands. Scrupulous fighters always draw perfectly rolled wraps from their bags, wraps rewrapped after drying from their last use so that they will roll on smooth and unwrinkled, but you, maybe you threw yours in the bag after pulling them off and forgot about them until now. They come to daylight, crumpled cotton lengths white, yellow or faded red, a little stiff with dried sweat, smelling of the same. A not unpleasant smell, youthink, the salty must that permeates boxing, a combination of sweat with the glove leather it soaks. Boxers cultivate sweat, for sweat reduces them, makes them lean, symbolizes necessary exertion. All serious athletes sweat heavily, but in boxing sweat is the essential element, the sea in which the boxer is born and through which he swims.
After the rope and the warm-ups comes shadowboxing, the heavy bags, exercises and more shadowboxing. Milton may have you work pads with him as well, directing you to strike the oversize gloves on his hands while he shouts instructions and corrects your movement, using such choice idioms as "retarded," "robotic," "paraplegic," "idiot" and "bullshit," among others, punctuated with little smacks to your head. All this training, however, diminishes beside sparring. Sparring is the psychic center of the gym, as the ring is its actual material center. Milton's gym is a fighters' gym, not a health club or "fitness center." Fighters fight. To prepare to fight, fighters must spar. "We'll go with anybody," Milton states as a point of pride, that's how tough he believes his "Supreme Team" to be, and in point of proof, boxers, professional and amateur, come from all over the city to match up against his team. So sparring remains the center, and the other life in the gym revolves around it. People halt their workouts to watch. Milton insists that you watch ("That's how you learn," he says, "by imitation"). People come in just to watch. In the old days, tickets were sold for sparring sessions at the big gyms near Times Square or at the camps of champions as they prepared for title fights. Milton dreams of opening a streetfront gym to attract clientele.
"That would be the way to do it," he says. "Have it behind big windows right on Fourteenth Street. There'd be a crowd watching us twenty-four/seven. Once they saw how you guys spar, we'd be getting new people walking in all the time, begging us to teach them."
Your regular sparring partners have arrived and ask you if you want to work, or you ask them. "We'll go light," they say, or, "Just a couple of rounds," or, "I'm sore today, so we'll take it slow." Whatever they say, it's a decision of moment. A whole new set of excuses and escapes present themselves: You're tired; you want to avoid a headache; you have a date; you've sparred too much this week already ... .
Milton presses the issue. "Hey, you want to go in with ... ?" A zeal for contact drives him. He wants more! Now! And will throw all willingor semiwilling bodies together, heavyweight and featherweight, man and woman. Milton seems to love his gym work best when it comes to the threshold of real combat, when he can stand with his arms on the ropes shouting instructions. "Two-three! Slip, then pull back! Throw more jabs. Sit down in your punches!" Or he jumps up and down with a hand in the air, his fingers semaphoring the number of the punch he wants thrown (to conceal it from the boxer whose back is turned).
Sparring alters the normal routine on the floor. Milton will advise you to stop hitting the heavy bag or to go easy with the dumbbells. You do not want to get arm-weary. To agree to spar is a momentous decision and is nothing at all. Simply life in the gym. After nodding agreement, you shadowbox a few rounds in the mirror, skip rope, shake out your shoulders. Milton wants the show to begin. "Are you ready yet? Come on. Today. Hurry up and get the gear on." Finally, you accept that you are ready. Slip in your mouthpiece, the molded plastic to prevent your teeth from slicing your lips. You pull up the groin protector, draw the headgear over your ears, slather Vaseline around your eyes, across your nose, cheeks, lips (not too good for the skin, that, but it keeps the glove leather from chafing). Someone girds you with the fourteen- or sixteenounce sparring gloves and you step through the ropes. The preparation has a ritual air; though it's possible to pull on your gloves and fasten your chin strap yourself, it's better to have someone else do it for you. The care sanctifies you, helps separate this activity from all others. You dance about in the ring, throw a few flurries, jaw with your partner until Milton commands, "BOX!"
Two opposed philosophies dominate sparring. One states that sparring should always be light, not combat simulation but a venue for excising flaws and polishing technique. The famous Irish trainer Brendan Ingle (whose pupils include such champions as Johnny Nelson, Herol Graham and, of course, "Prince" Naseem Hamed) will allow his students to throw only body punches, thereby protecting the tender, skull-cased brain. Signs posted on his gym walls read: BOXING CAN DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH. IMPORTANT, NO SPARRING WITHOUT SUPERVISION. FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY, GUMSHIELDS AND HEADGUARDS MUST BE WORN. This Ingle approach emphasizes such terms as "light" and "easy" and "work." The other philosophy states that the sparring should be hard (hard but not wild). Most trainerswill claim to belong to the first school. Most trainers actually belong to the second. The reason for this duplicity, conscious or not, is the doubling that serves to cloak the realities of pugilism. Boxing is a combat sport, and fighters are directed to inflict, within the rules, a maximum amount of damage. This truth must be concealed to some extent. Few trainers will say to each other before their fighters spar, "I hope my guy kills your guy." Although they want exactly that: a demonstration of their students' prowess in the clearest manner possible. The trainers cannot make such a statement; the challenge would raise the stakes from sparring to a gym war. Instead they mention "good rounds," "going easy," "working with" someone. As in the romance around sex, the stereotyped, delicate language serves to cloak a more brutal reality.
As a trainer Milton stands completely in the second school. He will overmatch his fighters and watch as they sustain real beatings (one of his tricks is to turn off the bell near the end of the round so that the fighters' endurance will be tested). The result for you, in the first months, is headaches, bruises, pain. This sparring serves a purpose. Endure those first months and you will have little to fear.
When the bell buzzes, you smack leather with your partner by way of salute and then begin to circle. You are boxing. A thousand times you've done this and still the tension, pressing and binding. Moments ago you were talking to a friend about work and telling jokes. Now ... In the distortions of mouthpiece and headgear, your partner loses his human characteristics and becomes half monster. The first round moves slowly as you warm to the action, building up until, bang! A shot stings your face, ricochets from your headgear, crushes your lips. It's a goodmorning cup of coffee; you begin to accelerate, clear and rising. Now you will hit back. This is not your friend. The person facing you has become a series of problems to solve, a greater or lesser degree of intimidation. Things you try work or don't work. Depending on his mood, gym occupancy, activity on his cell, Milton becomes more or less involved. "Feint two-three!" "One to the body, one to the body, then something else." "Think out there! You've got to think!" "Use your defense!" You try to act on his commands and keep your eyes focused on the man trying to kill you.
When the buzzer ends the round, you take water, listen to Milton's promptings and circle the ring, shaking out your arms. This continuesfor three rounds, or six, or ten. Sweat runs; sweat streams, flows, pools. You are an aquatic animal. Sweat drenches your brow, burns your eyes, renders your white T-shirt translucent and drowns your socks.1 All your training does not prepare you for the ocean. You gasp but there is never enough air; your gloves become anchors dragging you to the bottom. As the rounds progress, you may gain confidence, put together combinations, slip and pivot like a pro, drive your partner back. Or your confidence may Hag; you may retreat, thrash the air with wild punches as thunderbolts split your head. The two of you may forget that this is "work" and tend toward murder. There is no fellowship then. Your partner is a thing to be broken. "Good hook," Milton shouts, leaping from his bench as the action boils. The tension slows time. You must stay focused. Break concentration for an instant, and the result is not embarrassment (the other team scores, you lose the beat in music or dance) but pain. The tension frets your energy, erodes it. "Relax your shoulders," Milton shouts. "Think!" The water rises over your thighs, your neck, your mouth.
Suddenly it ends. Either you quit or your partner quits, or Milton wants the ring for somebody else. The alien landscape that you sped through vanishes. You gear down and step through the ropes back to a gym different from the one you left. A fog obscures the room, even if you haven't taken any shots to the head. You return to a lesser place, less vivid, less encompassing. Someone has to unlace your gloves for you. The boxer with gloves on is helpless for anything except striking. He must be fed water. He cannot scratch an itch on his shoulder and asks his trainer to do it. Your hands emerge, small and swaddled. You wander around the floor for a minute, acclimating. You wipe the traces of Vaseline from your face with a shirtsleeve, look in the mirror to see if you are scraped or bruised. You drop gear here and there across the room. Sometimes it's not until days later that you realize your helmet and cup have gone missing and you return to the gym to find them hanging from pegs on the wall.
After another few hits of water, you pull on bag gloves and go to work on the heavy bags. You've thrown thousands of punches in yourmonths at the gym but they never seem good enough for Milton. "You're still punching retarded," he says. Punching too high ("Who are you trying to hit, the Green Giant?") or too low ("Stop hitting those midgets"). "You're punching handicapped. Let your hands go. Let them be free." Milton might not notice you for a week or more, but just when you think he has forgotten you, you're laved by such words of love. Through the circuit you go: heavy bags and hook bags and the jumpy little double-end bag that snaps back after being struck. Then shadowboxing, the rope again and exercises: sit-ups, crunches, push-ups, dips and the little weight lifting fighters allow themselves. The muscle that comes from weights tightens the body, reducing range and speed. Boxers need to stay loose and quick; a good punch snaps at the maximum arm extension. "Power thrills but speed kills" is a boxing maxim; the faster man will beat the stronger man. Boxers also don't want to add bulk because bulk is weight and changes one's class. As you cool down, you say goodbye and arrange your next sparring session. You've been in the gym for nearly three hours. On the way home, your body crashes, even after Gatorade and energy bars. Sluggish, sullen and starving, you're good for little more than television for the next hour or two.