We stop for a moment to exchange looks across the gym. We nod in silent agreement to acknowledge our mutual feelings of exhaustion, touch gloves to cement our solidarity, and through our spit laden mouthpieces, smile a wide grin. Five rounds of sparring. Five rounds on the heavy bag. Now onto floorwork. We're in the same world.
For the first time I'm doing what I've always claimed to do. For the first time I actually feel like one of the fighters...well, at least to an extent. I try to match their efforts in whatever they do. Sprints, roadwork, sparring. And outside the gym, restraining from sex, drugs and bad food: the trinity of poisons for a prizefighter. Normally on this journey, the sparring sessions were infrequent, maybe two or three times in total, and held more of a Ok let the tourist have his "sparring session", take his pictures, and write about it on his blog type of feel rather than a serious test of skills.
But I've long ago lost count of how many times I've hopped into the ring here in Peru. I am now waited upon by trainers, greeted by handshakes and sighs of relief when I step through the gym doors. Ah, the sparring partner showed up. Let's get to work. I'm beginning to be introduced around the gym as El chino que hace el sparring con Maicelo, which almost garners the same wide-eyed admiration as the champ himself.
Before I felt taken advantage of. I remember the first time I was denied a proper warm up; thrown into the ring like meat to a lion. There were times when the gym couldn't provide headgear as I'd be left in there trading blows naked from the neck up. "What the hell," I thought, "he's the one beating my ass. Why's he have the headgear?"
Maicelo's coach, Faustino, used to look away and have side conversations when the three-four punch combinations left me stumbling on bambi legs, which in retrospect, was something perhaps I deserved. Who was this two-bit tourist coming in snooping around and thinking he can hang with the best anyways? He wants to fight? We'll give him one.
But now Faustino stops the action the moment two consecutive blows connect. Estop. Parate. Maicelo, mas suave. Even I think it's premature at times. Last Thursday he spent 20mins showing me how to improve my punches and enhance my footwork to stay out of the corner. Hell, he might even care about my well-being. I guess my willingness to take a beating warmed him up to me.
And even though I come home everyday exhausted and beaten, even though I still haven't figured out all the feelings of my self-loathing, I feel like this experience is going somewhere. I'm discovering something in these sparring sessions even if I can't express them in words. I sit here now with a swollen right cheek, a blacken left eye and a scarred bloodstained lip from taking too many uppercuts to the chin, and tomorrow, it's the first day of the last week before the big fight. The training will probably intensify, the sparring will be harder, and the injuries more severe.
But you know, I don't think I'd want it any other way.