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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 move with 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 halfway 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 move and 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, you think, 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 willing or 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 sixteen- ounce 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!"
Copyright © 2002 Robert Anasi
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