I’ve been meaning to write about boxing since I started this blog. Boxing has played a huge role in my life over the past two years and I’ve been waiting for just the right time to talk about it. Now, I’ve left it too long. I have too much to say about boxing to fit into a single post.
I’ll start at the beginning.
On a dreary afternoon in February 2010, a few weeks after I left my husband and six months before I moved to Johannesburg, I trudged on a treadmill at the YWCA. I don’t like gyms. But there wasn’t enough space to exercise in the small apartment where I was staying, and exercising outdoors in February is not an option in Washington D.C. I no longer participated in organized sports (I retired from softball due to knee problems), but exercise is essential to my sanity. Joining a gym was the only option.
As I jogged listlessly on the treadmill, feeling anxious and depressed and counting the minutes until my half-hour was up, I heard a thwacking sound behind me. I turned, and saw an incredibly fit-looking woman with a dreadlocked guy in a YWCA t-shirt. The woman wore boxing gloves. The guy held a large red pad in each hand. The woman threw perfectly aimed punches at the pads with crisp, rhythmic precision. They glided together around the room in a kind of dance.
I stared, transfixed, nearly rolling off the treadmill. I thought, “I have to do that.”
A week later I had my first appointment with the dread-locked guy, a personal trainer named Neil. Neil was more than a personal trainer though; he was a boxer. Training to fight for real. He looked and acted the part, too. I don’t have any photos of Neil, which is really a shame.
After a brief general assessment, Neil gave me a pair of gloves, got me into a boxing stance, and showed me the two primary punches – the jab (which Neil called “one”) and the cross (“two”). He held the pads in front of me.
“One,” Neil called.
“Thwack.” My glove hit the pad. I was tentative. We tried it a few more times.
“One-one. One-two.” Thwack-thwack. Thwack-thwack. I started to feel good.
My glove made hard, solid contact with the pad. An intoxicating rush exploded through me, starting in my chest and radiating through my limbs. All the stress – the tumultuous uncertainty, guilt, and fear that I’d been feeling – disappeared instantly. Nothing mattered except my gloves and those two red pads. I was hooked. (Pardon the pun.)
“One-two-one-two-one-TWO!” Thwack-THWACK -thwack-THWACK -thwack-THWACK!
This is how I started to box.
My weekly boxing sessions got me through the months when I struggled to say goodbye to one life and walk into another. No matter how crappy things were at home or at work, I knew Neil would be waiting for me every Monday. The harder and faster I hit those pads, the better I felt. (I was a little bit in love with Neil. That helped too.)
Sometimes a small crowd gathered on the third floor of the gym, in the little corner where Neil and I trained.
“One-two, one-two, one-two!” called Neil. “One-two-one-two. Drop! One-two-five-six!” Thwack-thwack-thwack-thwack. Duck. Thwack-THWACK-thwack-THWACK. It came so naturally. I loved it. No matter how tired I got, I kept hitting harder.
“You GO, girl,” called a middle-aged lady on her way to the staff room. She bobbed her head and punched the air.
Landing a solid punch feels like hitting a homerun in softball. But you can land at least 25 solid punches in a minute, while you can only hit one or two homeruns a game (if you’re lucky). Boxing is way easier on my knees than softball, and a way better workout. I’d discovered my perfect sport.
I wasn’t sure what would happen to my boxing habit when I moved to Joburg. For the first few months I survived on shadow-boxing in the garden at the Lucky 5 Star. Then I met Anita.
Anita and her husband Johnson live two blocks from me in Melville. They have three boxing bags in their garage. Before I met them, I used to walk past their house with Jon and stare longingly at the bags in the garage. “I really want to meet whoever lives there,” I said. A few months later, in a twist of blogging serendipity, I met Anita. We’ve worked out together ever since.
Anita (right) beats up on Mark (left), the instructor of the cardio boxing class that Anita and I attend. Yes, they are wearing skirts. Don’t ask why — it’s not relevant to this blog post. This just happens to be the only photo I have of Anita boxing.
Not long after meeting Anita, around March 2011, I went on a photowalk through Hillbrow, which many people consider to be the most dangerous neighborhood in Joburg. We walked down a street in Hillbrow and came upon a boxing ring. The ring was under a carport in what appeared to be an old petrol station. Athletic-looking youth milled around. A gaggle of children tumbled about inside the ring, under the watchful eye of a man who was clearly The Coach. This was the Hillbrow Boxing Club.
I walked up to The Coach and introduced myself. His name was George.
George is the founder of the Hillbrow Boxing Club. He was once an accomplished fighter, with 262 professional bouts. He won all but four of his fights on knock-outs.
“I like to box,” I told George. George has a kind face. One of his eyes is clouded over. I don’t think he can see with it.
George regarded me. “I c’n mek you a box-ah,” he said. George is difficult to understand. His speech has been garbled by decades of punching and being punched.
I laughed, but took his number down. I wasn’t sure when, but I knew I’d be back to the Hillbrow Boxing Club.
A year passed. Anita and I spoke often of training with George. But life got really crazy for both of us, and we were nervous about getting in and out of Hillbrow. We kept working out in her garage though, and went to a cardio-boxing class every Saturday in Melville.
A few days after Jon died, I went alone to Anita and Johnson’s garage. I punched and punched the heavy bag. I pounded the speed bag while tears streamed down my face. It didn’t help very much, but it was something. Boxing makes me feel less helpless.
A couple of months later, I wandered into a photo exhibition at Arts on Main, a trendy cluster of art galleries and shops in downtown Joburg. I struck up a conversation with Herby, the curator of the exhibition. He knew Jon, and we started chatting about him. Somehow we got to talking about Hillbrow. Herby grew up there, back in the days when Hillbrow was a different place.
“I still go to Hillbrow,” Herby said. “I work out at the Hillbrow Boxing Club.”
Herby raised his eyebrows.
You can probably guess what happened next.
Boxing is part of my Joburg destiny.
To be continued. The boxing story continues here.