I started boxing a year and a half ago. Having studied Tai Chi for more than a decade, I felt I needed something more — yang. I might have been seeking a response to the broader context of our times. It could be that something within me craved audience. Maybe I wanted to build confidence. Whatever the motivation, learning to box has changed me.
My adversaries would not describe me as formidable. A good sport? A-for-Effort G? I’m good with these #hashtags. And, given the limits of my skill, I I have a number of punches that I prefer more than others. For example, a jab that comes down the middle rather than an uppercut or a hook. My left glove can knock this punch aside. I can also slip or duck. Plenty of choices!
Also true is the fact that lots of punches get in. Coming to fighting later in life compounds my challenge. My boxing teacher, David Park told me once during some light sparring that “If you’re going to step in the ring, you’re going to get hit.” Of course, he then demonstrated what he meant.
Practice can help to mitigate the pummeling you would otherwise receive. Frequent drills on rolls, ducks, footwork, and combinations can create habits that serve you well. However, the brain can’t go fast enough to respond to all that comes at you. Instead, the point of practice is to move a fighter away from too much thinking and into a more instinctive approach. David often says, “I can always tell when I have a thinker in the ring. Makes for a short fight.”
Once, in a one-round, do-your-best spar with him, I managed to land a punch. Then, I heard the words “Whoops! sorry!” tumble out. Full stop! David looked at me and said, “Did you really?” Silence ensued for several seconds. Awkward. Then, we resumed. And, in that short exchange, I time traveled to the first time my internal apologizer stepped in front, and the braver me stepped back.
You don’t forget moments like that.
And, these moments happen often in the ring. The learning is efficient. I am alert to the energetic sweeps that occur when I land a punch. I am also humbled by the whole-body reboot comes when I get hit. The gut, not the brain, does the talking. For someone like me, practiced in the figurative arts of ducking and deflecting, getting hit — and striking back — can be liberating.
Once, a quick left hook knocked free something else I did not expect. In this instance, the glove landed on my temple, the word “hello” popped from my mouth like a smoke ring, and then I shouted “thank you” to my sparring partner. The surprise came in coming face-to-face with a much more direct being that had lived within me for my whole life but seldom got air time.
In that post sparring moment, my mind raced. Insights came in blunt terms. I got, for example, what it had cost me to stay on the winding path of the diplomat. An entire life dedicated to using my words! Now, here in the ring, I found profound relief in directness. Punch, get punched, roll, duck repeat. This simplicity proved a most energizing thing.
Once David said to me, “Greg, you’ve got to get out of your head. If you’re going to punch, then punch. You have to commit without worrying about what happens next.” He told me to stop smiling. “Not the place to be a nice guy, Greg.” He said “Strip away the half-smile, and step up when the bell rings.”
One day, he stood next to me as I did a one, two, three combo on the heavy bag. “Come on, man. You’re slapping that bag. Did you come here to do what you always do? No man. You came here to be different. What are you waiting for? Punch that sucker.” And then, I connected. It came like a bolt from my right heel, through my leg, up my spine and into my arm. David looked at me and said, “Well, what do you know? Nice to meet you.”
I’m just finding out. Six decades in, and I’m just finding out.