“Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face”.
I’ve now found that to be true.
Mike Tyson’s famous boxing quote undoubtedly works as a beautiful metaphor for life; especially a life lived outside of your comfort zone. But if you’ve ever stepped into a boxing ring, you know that it can be taken quite literally.
No matter how much ‘boxercise’ you’ve done in the past, that first right cross to the nose puts you back in your place.
Getting punched in the face hurts. It’s confronting. It’s humbling for an ego puffed up from hitting bags and pads unopposed at Fitness First. It ruins any grandiose Rocky-fuelled plan you might have been harbouring until a nano-second before that gloved fist catches you flush on the hooter.
It hurts physically – your eyes water and your nose runs almost instantly. But there’s more of a mental and emotional shock. A smack to the pride you didn’t even realise you were harbouring.
In recent weeks, I got to see both uses of Iron Mike’s quote up close. And in the process I learned what a skilful, technical, sometimes beautiful, but relentlessly brutal sport boxing is. I got to learn a few things about myself and human nature. I got to see grown men cry in front of other grown men and be embraced for it. And I learned that boxing boots smell far worse than normal trainers.
Boxing is harder than it looks – for many, varied reasons. And let’s face it, it looks pretty hard anyway.
First some background: I’ve always loved boxing; whether it’s watching Rocky IV for the 18th time (the one where he trains in the barn in Siberia), or signing up for a Pay per View fight in the early hours. I have a punch bag in the garage and have done the Fitness First / Virgin boxercise classes for years. I’ve got a good jab (now, officially endorsed), a fierce cross, a decent uppercut, but my hook is pretty weak.
Like most boys, I always harboured a secret desire to be the quiet kid that whipped the bully.
Like most boys, I always harboured a secret desire to be the quiet kid that whipped the bully – and that fantasy never really left. From Karate Kid through to Harry Brown, most men like the idea of giving the bad guy what for. It’s up there with being able to play the guitar at a party or speak a foreign language fluently as a girl-impressing, self-esteem-pumping desire.
I’d sometimes complete a fairly complicated eight-punch pad combo with a partner in a boxing class, and think I’d be pretty tasty in the ring; that maybe under the right training conditions I could be a contender.
I’m not a complete novice. Or so I thought…
More recent background: I turned 50 in April; bought a mini, lost 10 kilos, and got a few tattoos… you know where this is going…
The Facebook Ad was a callout for a challenge called Zero to Hero at a local boxing gym. I know the owner Simon; had been a few times before; and with a few other things going on in my life it felt like a perfect storm. I pictured myself in a silk hoody, walking to the ring with gangster rap in the background. I discussed various boxing names with my teenage kids and we ruled out Rob ‘Mid-Life’Crisis’ Pegley, among others.
And so, yes, for 13 weeks I WOULD BE Pretty Boy Pegley.
There were 26 of us that signed up for the ‘journey’ at an open evening. We were given details of the training regime (seemed doable); nutritional advice (seemed highly unrealistic); of the final Fight Night (big, formal and scary); and the kit and costs involved (never ending).
Past combatants told us what a ‘journey’ it would be. Everyone talked about the ‘journey’. I cynically laughed silently to myself at the very concept of a ‘journey’.
And then it turned out to be a bit of a journey. Although it didn’t necessarily go where I was expecting it to.
First: Wrapping your hands is one of the sexiest thing’s I’ve ever done. They look so cool and feel so strong. The very first time you wrap your hands, you really feel the part. Clenching your fist in tight boxing wraps, you ARE a boxer. I defy anyone not to post a pic of their bandaged fist on social media. It’s a symbol of cool.
The first time I knew I was out of my comfort zone happened about two minutes after that and was suitably pathetic.
“If you haven’t got boxing boots, then bare feet” said Simon. I know how ridiculous this sounds, but I hate doing sport in bare feet. I wear thongs all summer and love the beach. It’s not as if I sleep in my socks. But bare feet and gyms remind me of sterile school PE sessions, climbing up ropes for masochistic school masters; or grappling with smelly middle-aged men in the five judo classes I managed as a teenager. I love my Nikes. I feel exposed on a gym mat in bare feet.
And I have to say that catching your toe with a leather skipping rope swung at speed is bloody painful.
I hated warming up for that first class in my bare feet. That’s the level of resilience that was my starting point. I’m an only child, brought up without the rough and tumble of siblings. I’ve had three ‘fights’ in my life – and in each one I didn’t throw a punch; my smart mouth just got me on the end of haymaker. I guess I’m stoic and can drag my arse through adversity over a period of time. But I’m not a fan of confrontation; I’m awkward with physical contact (punches or hugs, to be honest); and I have a mind that overthinks everything.
I actually loved the first session, though.
We did a lot of tagging – like touch footy for boxers; you try and tap a shoulder or knee without getting touched back and I was good at it. Quick feet from years of soccer. We did some footwork, hit bags and pads, did little drills with tennis balls. The level of concentration was as high as the physicality. That brain of mine that never stops whirring –like three monkeys with only two chairs – shut up for a bit, and the hour flew by. It was mindful exercise.
I left the gym in the dark, with my kit bag over my shoulder, feeling I could do this. I could picture myself in a beautiful Mark Burnett-style time-lapsed sequence at the end of The Contender.
By the end of week one I had quit for the first time.
That first week involved lots of technique and gentle sparring… which gradually got harder. You could tell that everyone was out of their comfort zone, but some of us more than others. People were doing the challenge for many different reasons; a small group of us in our 40s and 50s were office-workers-gone-soft, who wanted to overcome some long-held lack of self-esteem. Towards the end of the week we shared as a group and there were even a few tears. On the private Facebook group we shared our anxieties. It was genuinely moving and inclusive to see men being honest with their feelings and emotions. I’ve been lucky over time in that respect – I gave up drinking almost 10 years ago and am well-versed in environments where I can share my feelings. Most men don’t have that and any group setting in which men can be honest, emotional and vulnerable has to be a good thing. Even if it's fear of being punched in a boxing ring that provokes it and unites them.
I still wanted out though. I felt life was hard enough with a big project at work, three kids, and voluntary commitments. The extra discipline I’d taken on seemed overwhelming and claustrophobic. I told Simon the trainer and he gave me a long talk that brought me back in. In week three though I got man flu and spent the week off work and in bed. I felt even more exposed. It was only two months until the big fight and I felt anything but ready.
Gradually though I got myself back into it.
I was training four nights a week at the boxing gym, plus running and doing some other fitness. I started doing one-on-one sparring with a trainer on Saturday mornings and that really helped. The more you get punched, the more comfortable you get with it. And the better the other boxer is, the less confrontational that punch seems to be. A trainer catching you on the chin has more control and feels like a lesson. A peer catching you wildly on the nose feels like a spiteful attack.
I’d bought some boxing boots – cheap, plain black like Mike Tyson (not out of homage, but because styles and outlets are limited – I’d have preferred flashier and brighter). The boots made my calves look even more chunky than normal, and the boots began to smell awful after only a week – normally my runners have a few months of freshness. I dreaded leaving my kit bag in my warm car for the day at work. My precious mini smelt like, well, like a boxing gym.
I got a mouthguard fitted and it made me gag. But my jab was getting stronger, my defence was improving and I was making progress. I leant into an attack, rather than turned away.
One guy got taken to hospital with a fractured rib and it gave us a bit of a wakeup call. This was for real. Having said that, he was pretty skinny and there was no chance of anyone getting to my ribs through the padding.
And then at six weeks, I woke up one morning and couldn’t move. Literally. I’ve never put my back out before. I’ve heard other people talk about the pain and I lacked any empathy. This was frightening and painful though. It took me 10 minutes to get to the end of my bed to grab my mobile and phone the physio. By the end of those 10 minutes I was wondering to myself who would look after me when I was old. It took another hour to get in the car and drive to the physio.
A few days followed of therapy, acupuncture, cupping, massage, stretching, and repeat. Within 10 days my back was good enough to train again. And as a side benefit I now have a stretching routine around all sport that I had neglected in the past.
At eight weeks we had our first proper fight in the ring. And this was the beginning of the end for me, in a way I never expected.
With headguards, mouthguards and groin guards in place, my new mate Darren and I went at it for three rounds in front of 20 or 30 onlookers. The fight is on video somewhere – apparently it was pretty good. It was full blooded on both sides.
It was only meant to be a warm up fight, but inadvertently in the process I realised I’d achieved one of my bucket list goals; of fighting someone in a boxing ring. There were only 30 or so spectators, but it was an organised fight with gloves on.
We came out about even. The adrenaline meant I didn’t really feel many punches, apart from one to my side that almost made my knees buckle. I could taste blood in my mouth after the fight. And the next morning my cheek, chest and ribs were really sore.
At one point in the fight though I feinted to the body with a left and caught Darren flush in the face with a right cross. “Oh, sorry!” I said and stopped fighting. I seem to remember putting my hand out to check he was okay. I dropped my hands and waited to see how he was.
I lost my appetite for it from that precise point on.
The ref shouted at me and I put my guard back up.
But I guess that was the moment I realised that boxing wasn’t for me. I lost my appetite for it from that precise point on. The idea of getting in the ring again and forcing myself to hit someone felt totally alien. I wasn’t showing the bully what for, I was punching Darren in the face hard. And Darren was perhaps an even more sensitive bloke than me.
It’s funny, but in that Karate Kid fantasy I’d had since I was a kid, where I confront the bully, a tiny part of me had always thought “but what if I really hurt him?”.
I’d thought that nagging worry would go away, but it didn’t.
For the next few days I thought about little else and I just couldn’t get past it. I didn’t want to hurt someone intentionally like that again. Yes, it’s only a sport, but I was a tiny bit haunted by catching someone full in the face with a punch. Any aggressive intentions I’d been maintaining seemed to drain away.
Despite the rage I show in traffic and odd times at work, I haven’t got it in me to be a fighter.
I told Simon I was finished. It didn’t feel like I was quitting this time, it felt like I was making a decision to stop. It’s a fine line between ending something and quitting, but this time my conscience felt clear. In the past, the people pleaser in me might have seen me carry on with it to the bitter end to keep others happy. But I know myself better these days. My ‘journey’ was complete.
Maybe there was a little bit of fear in there; but the fear was really of getting in front of a few hundred people and not wanting to throw punches. Not having the aggression that boxers have to show.
Ironically the trainer Simon showed me along the way that I’m enough already and don’t need to prove myself through a fight. I’ve brought up three teenage kids, I’ve been in the same job for eight years, I’ve been off the booze for a decade – I can commit to things that are important to me. I applaud the other guys who saw it through to the end, but I knew that the journey I was on was at an end and I’d learned the lesson I needed.
Maybe that sounds wanky and a bit of a cop out, but I’m going with it. And I have absolutely no regrets that it ended for me at that point.
So it’s back to running and circuits now. And boxing classes at Virgin where I just punch pads and bags, and go away with a decent sweat and no misgivings. No more mouthguard. I enjoy my exercise rather than endure it. My mini doesn’t smell like a locker room anymore.
I’m glad I tried it. I’ve seen what it’s like to put the gloves on and step in a ring. I’ve made some good friends and learned plenty of lessons. I think I could defend myself pretty well if I had to – but still not attack someone for the sake of it.
The journey is over. I’m sure there are others ahead.
“Every new beginning comes from some other beginnings end…”
Four-part drama series On The Ropes is currently airing on SBS. Catch up at SBS On Demand.