Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Sparring with Michel (Part I)

Maré has been hot for the past few weeks. Rates of violence have shot up due to the impending attempt at “pacification” by the Brazilian government (more on that later). The day before my own brush with death, an elderly trash collector was found bleeding outside the academy, shot shortly after a skirmish between the drug gangs and the police. Luke packed him into his car and rushed him to the hospital, ruining his exhaust pipe in the process. The man died in the hospital the next day.

Now I check in with Harry before I go into everyday. He send me emails with subject lines like “things seem pretty chill”, but you never can never really tell as the hours go on. Things could pop off at any moment. Monday I work with fireworks and machine-gun fire going off in the background. It sounds like a popcorn maker in the distance. 

I walk out to the street to get my green "Strand" bag fixed at the local tailor and I run into Coach Gibi on the way there (I’ve been spelling his name wrong this entire time). Gibi begins by asking where I’ve been, but before I can explain that Carol told me not to come in last Wednesday due to the spur in violence during the holidays, he tells me we should move out of the street in case any stray bullets fly by. We’re standing on the connecting road between two warring favelas. Nova Holanda and Baixa do Sapatiero. Comando Vermelho and Amigos dos Amigos. “The Gaza Strip”, they call it.

We move closer towards the academy and I ask him if there’s training tonight. 

“Yes of course,” Gibi says. “Boxing doesn’t stop. You and me, we do. But boxing doesnt.” 

I like that answer. 

I go back into the gym and see Michel sitting on top of a stack of mats listening to his headphones. He has a worried look on his face as the tunes pass through his ears. He lowers his headphone and greets me with that classic smile. 

I ask him how he’s been. He tells me he’s going to Sao Paulo this weekend for a championship. I ask him if he’s been sparring. He shakes his head. I think about it for a moment. I tell him that I’ll spar with him on Wednesday. I get this weird giant-eyed response, as if I just agreed to donate a kidney. 

Serio?!”  he asks. 

I nod. He calls Gibi over and starts deliberating with him under a hushed voice. Gibi listens with arms crossed over his chest that drop when what I assume to be the moment Michel informs him of my offer. Gibi turns to me with a stern demeanor and inquires further. 

“Like sparring or shadowboxing?” he asks.

“Sparring,” I say.

“Ok, but this is forreal,” Gibi states almost as a question. 

I nod my head, this time a bit hesitantly. Him and Michel gleam with excitement. Both of them are rubbing their hands together as if they’ve just pulled off the biggest scam in Brazilian history. Their happiness is a bit unsettling.

I go back upstairs and tell Harry the news. Harry kind of gives me this crooked stare and gulps air down this throat. 

“You know we have other welters, right?” Harry starts. “Are you sure you don’t want to warm up with them first?” 

“I’ve already made the promise,” I say a bit worried. 

Harry gives me a grim look like I just signed my own death certificate. Forget the bullets. It’s the punches I’m scared of. 

I go into training that night with the preoccupation of sparring on my mind the entire time. I watch Michel move around in the mirror, studying his movement. I try to smile at him. He gives me nothing. He’s all business in the ring. 

Gibi assigns me three different fighters as shadowboxing partners that night. The first one is a beginner. I can tell by the way he moves his feet. He still thinks about where to put them before they get there. He’s sloppy, but that also means he doesn’t know how to control his punches. He has a strong jab that never seems to be meant for probing, but I’m handling him easy. I’m landing lead rights. I’m digging to the body at will. I can dance around with my hands down if I want to. I’m toying with him before the round is over. 

Gibi changes him out with a fighter nicknamed “Sugar”. You can’t get that nickname in boxing unless you’re really really good. Sugar has to be a couple weight classes below me, but he fights like he’s takes on giants. He doesn’t back down like the other ones. He holds his hands up in a perfect turtle shell turtleshell defense. Everything I’m throwing bounces off his gloves. I manage to get him with a few good body shots, but he stings me in the face in return. He’s good. He’s definitely earned the nickname.

The last fighter gets switched in, but I never learn his name. He’s shorter, fights kind of like a pitbull. He’s maybe only one weight class below me, and fights with the same determination as Sugar. He doesn’t back down after I land a solid right. Doesn’t flinch when the left hook scrapes across his face. He keeps the pressure on and I’m forced to fight backwards. I don’t get a chance to rest. His punches carry sturdy pop and he can definitely bang. I manage to duck and dodge most of the barrage, but these guys are making me work. My chest tightens at the end of the round. I wonder if this was Gibi’s way of saying, “Do you really know what you’re getting yourself into?”

Since then I keep thinking about my upcoming sparring session with Michel. It feels like I’ve already been sentenced and am now just living out my last days on death row. But I’ve sparred hard hitters in the past. I sparred Eddie Hunter, a solid middle weight at the gym back home. The best way to describe getting hit by Eddie is having a bag full of bricks thrown at your face. I’m thinking I can do this, but I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure at all. 

I wake up today and crank out six miles on the beach. I sprint the last half minute and don’t get winded. It brings some confidence, but not much. I got back into Fight For Peace later in the day and receive some new assignments. Bryony, one of the coordinators for Global Alumni program, asks if I’d like to help out during a visit from some of their partner organizations from Nairobi. The Global Alumni program is part of the Fight For Peace methodology where they bring in organizations from around the globe to train in their Five Pillars philosophy, proliferating the use of education and fighting throughout the world.

Bryony asks when I could come in and start meeting some of the visiting members. The first one comes in tomorrow. I tell her I’ll be here tomorrow, but only to box. I then tell her I’ll probably take Thursday off because I’m sparring with Michel and expect to be in a great deal of pain. We both laugh, but my laughter is more out of pleasantry, not that I actually find it funny.

I go back home and take a long nap. My body aches as I try to rest and the impending slaughter is still fresh on my mind. I attempt to write for about an hour, but can’t seem to concentrate. I know the solution: queijo quente. That always does the trick. 

I hoof it down the twenty minutes trek to Café Lamas, sit down at the counter and order my usual. I shouldn’t have one, I know. Gooey cheese sandwiched between two greasy squares of white bread doused in ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise isn’t exactly championship caliber alimentation. But this is Café Lamas goddammit, and there are few things in the world more sacred than late-night queijos quentes at Café Lamas. I have two for good measure and wash each one down with a cup of sweet Maté. 

I sit there and think about all that’s happened to me  so far in Brazil. I think about love, I think about life, and all of it is just a mess in my head. A woman sits down next to me and orders a beer. She gracefully asks the barman for a glass in exchange for the paper cup she was initially given. I want to start a conversation, but write a poem about her instead. Something about her eases the night.

I go back home and start extracting blog posts from my fingers. I suck down two Marb lights in the process. I figure at this point my body is already in fuck-all shape to fight, might as well take it the rest of the way home. Maybe I have a subconscious desire to destroy myself. 

Or maybe it’s that this sparring session is a measuring stick of where I am. Brazil has made me fight ever since I landed and now it’s trying to see how much I have left in the tank. But I’ve carried a decade of my life here. I have the love and support of all the beautiful souls I’ve met thusfar on this earth. Maybe it’s not a subconscious desire to destroy myself. Maybe it’s a big “fuck you” to this place and all it's put me through. Maybe it's not even my own body in the equation, but the strength of everyone else who has carried me here. 

I won’t go down without a fight; that much, I do know. I’ll go into the ring out of shape and all sorts of fucked up, but I'll still try to survive. You just wait and see, Brazil. Just wait and see. 

* For more on the Global Alumni Program, please visit here.

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