Saturday, November 27, 2010

Something I wish I would have said

The first two friends I made in the boxing gym were these guys from Somalia, Omar and Mohammad. Omar, a strong and stocky inside fighter who always opted to slug it out rather than box, and Mohammad, with his lanky, long-limbed frame fit best for an outside fighting style turned boxing into a choreographed dance. Despite their physical differences, they were the best of friends, probably because the one physical commonality they shared was that permanent smile plastered on their faces. They were the epitome of friendship, real ball-busters around the gym, but at their core, kind young men.

To this day I still don't think either of them know my real name. They just called me "Nasty", the ring moniker given to me by my coach. But despite being on a nickname basis, these two knew me better than most of my own friends. Omar initiated me into my first sparring session, forcing me onto one knee by way of lefthook body shot, my first experience of "getting the wind knocked out of me." I picked myself up to survive through the third and final round, and immediately after the bell rang he came and hugged me, exclaiming in my ear, "You did good Nasty! You did good!" as if celebrating my final rite of passage to joining the team.

Now you know what it feels like to be beaten up. Now you're one of us.

And despite being pummeled and dropped, Omar somehow managed to pummel and drop me without making me feel embarrassed. There was no shame. No dishonor amongst a band of brothers who had all been there before.

For the next few months Omar became my regular sparring partner, inadvertently teaching me the valuable lesson that chewing gum relieves the soreness a fighter feels after getting their jaw bashed in. Soon it became ritual to buy a box of Wrigley's after a week of sparring with Omar. I still remember when he clipped me with a right uppercut that jammed my teeth down right over my bottom lip, creating a small black scar that I still carry with me today.

But Omar didn't go far in boxing. Mohammad told me he enjoyed soccer too much to make the necessary sacrifices of the pugilistic mantra, and spent more time juggling the round ball on his feet than throwing combinations on the heavy bag. After taking a few fights in weight classes too high, he eventually disappeared from the gym. But I hear that he now has a wife and two kids, works with a friend of mine in a production factory. Overall, I hear he's happy. In many ways, he's made it.

I shared a very different relationship with Mohammad. We weren't sparring partners due to our drastic weight disparity: me, a welterweight, him, a featherweight, but we always went to the fights together. I still remember during one of our first visits to the fights, we watched boxers battle it out at the Niles Country Club in Mountlake Terrace where I sat in disgust at the sight of high brow men of power placing bets on my teammates as they smoked cigars and groped the bikini-clad women serving them drinks. When I turned to Mohammad for his opinion, I found his eyes tranced on the faux tiki torches planted on the golf course. "Man, this reminds me of Africa," he managed through somber tears. "I miss home."

That year, Mohammad was the only other fighter to accompany me in our first cross country road trip to the Ringside World Amateur Championships in Kansas City, Missouri. My first tournament and actually, my first fight. Over 33 hours of driving, we slowly became more acquainted, found solidarity in being the only two colored kids whenever we made a pit-stop in places like Idaho, Montana, and Nebraska.

I learned that Mohammad had just been admitted into the University of Washington, but had reservations about accepting his enrollment. His goal was to be the first Somalian boxing superstar and didn't want university courses to interfere. I thought about how both were possible; hell, I was a living example, even though I wasn't nearly as good as he was. But people still did it. Former Undisputed Lightweight Champion Juan Diaz reached the pinnacle of his division while studying Political Science at Houston University. Education and boxing could coexist, but for some reason I never mentioned it to him.

I ended up losing my first match in a hard fought battle against Alonzo Juarez from New York, but many spectators came up to me afterward to pat my back and say, "Hey man, you won that fight." Being that Juarez had 7 fights to my none, I didn't feel all that bad. Mohammad, on the other hand, was irate, up in arms crying foul play at the nod going to the other corner. "I'm going to win this tournament for you Nasty," he proclaimed.

Unfortunately, Mohammad's road to glory also fell short, getting robbed himself in the second fight of the tournament (and I mean REALLY robbed), but he didn't let a silly tournament get him down. He went on to compile a string of victories upon his return, knocking out tough prospects and generating a small following in the community, me being one of his biggest fans.

After a couple more of my own fights back in Seattle, I left for Spain to study abroad for a quarter. In those three months I discovered part of myself through reckless partying and stuffing my face stupid with bocadillos and churros con chocolate, effectively destroying any physical fitness I had gained from boxing. When I returned, I was so out of shape that I couldn't go back to the gym with dignity. I had to at least look somewhat decent before showing my face.

I didn't step foot in the gym for nearly a year, but when I did, Coach welcomed me back with open arms, spoke to me so nonchalantly as if I had showed up to train the day before. We quickly caught up on each others' gossip. I told him about Spain, he told me about his recent tournament ventures through the West Coast. I instinctively asked if Mohammad had snatched up any titles, but Coach's expression instantly turned bitter, reporting that Mohammad started drinking and hanging out with the wrong crowd. "The streets got him," Coach put it angrily.

But I knew it wasn't just anger; it was disappointment, not only at the prospect of losing a great fighter, but because he just cared about the kid.

I saw Mohammad a few months later and the rumors were true. The first thing I noticed as he waddled in was the uncharacteristic pot-belly he bore and a general look of dishevelment on his face. But he came back to train and straighten his life out. Even though he was noticeably slower, frequently short of breath, and the time he dedicated to training was about half as long as he once spent, he was back. Mohammad was back.

After about two days I never saw Mohammad again. I ran into his cousin a few weeks ago and was told he now spends most of his day in the streets with a beer can married to one hand and a cigarette in the other. I was heartbroken. How did this happen? How did such a young, bright kid with that mean left jab get reduced to this?

My narcissism left me responsible. I should have never left for Spain. I should have stayed and helped him through the tough times. I should have told him about Juan Diaz. Why didn't I tell him about Juan Diaz?

But Spain had changed my life and I really thought Mohammad didn't need any living examples to push him forward toward his goals. I simply had a different path and boxing wasn't on it.

I was never really that good at boxing, just good enough to survive. Quite frankly, I just never put enough effort into it. But I didn't make that choice because the sport didn't interest me. I did it because I was scared. I lacked the courage to put all my eggs into one basket, especially in a trade where the success ratio follows a decimal point and is never based on ring talents alone. Of all I know about the politics of boxing and all I've witnessed in the lives of fighters, it was a good decision for me. I always say, if you have any other options in life besides boxing, take them. I just wish I would have said that to Mohammad.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Conversation

* One of my more recent writing assignments was to recall a past conversation that told led to the moral of a story. This is what came out. Any feedback is appreciated.

“What are you doing here in Colombia?” he asked meekly, fishing for the right answer.

“I’m doing a photo documentary on the lives of boxers. What boxing means to people. How it can change lives,” I stated proudly.

“They call me ‘The Bear’,” he offered, raising his hands and posing in an orthodox stance, urging me to evaluate his form. “I’m a featherweight fighter…maybe you could help me find a fight in the United States”

I paused for a moment. The desperate hope in his dish saucer eyes made me a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say, I wasn’t here to scout fighters, nor could I really do anything if I found a promising prospect. So I did what anyone does put in an uncomfortable situation. I stalled.

“Well, I’m not really a promoter and…”

“Are you an agent?”

“No, I’m a fighter, but…”

“Well maybe you could get me in contact with your promoter.”

“Actually, I don’t fight professionally and well…”

“Are there professional fighters in your gym?”

“Yes, but…”

“Well maybe you could ask their promoters.”

“Ok, see, I don’t…”

“Because I can fight anywhere. I’d be willing to travel. You don’t have to pay me much. I don’t even have to win.”

At this point I’m exhausted, simultaneously empathetic and annoyed. Like any independent traveler, I wanted to be validated for my character, not for the color of my passport. I was, afterall, like him wasn’t I? I was a fighter. I knew what it was like to be punched in the face. Hardship? Yeah I’ve been through some of that myself. I wasn’t privileged. I mean this trip wasn’t all flowers and honey you know. It was tough traveling on your own. You get lonely, you get tired, sometimes you get hungry. I was roughing it. Spending my nights in cramped hostels, intermittent couches and whatever barren floor that could accommodate my sprawled body and cover me from the forces of nature. On top of that, I wasn’t even sightseeing or doing your “typical” backpacker’s journey of drug tourism and partying. I was writing a book, doing something meaningful. Yeah, that’s it. I was doing something to change the world.

But at that moment, the thing I wished to be most was a traveling boxing promoter.

“Ok look. I’m more of a writer than a boxer. I don’t have any connections to promoters. I’m just trying to do a documentary.”

“Are you a journalist then?”

“Well, no, not really, but…”

“Because maybe you could publish something about me in the papers and…”

“Okay, really this is something I’m just trying. I don’t really know what I’m doing or where this is going to go so I have no connections. I can’t help you get a fight.”

“Then why are you writing about us?”

“(Sigh) because I want the world to know about your struggle. I want to write about the lives of boxers and what boxing means to them. I want to write about how boxing can change…”

At that moment I pause at the realization that those were the exact same words I had squeezed out thirty seconds ago. It was my rehearsed response in case anyone questioned the integrity of my journey, against anyone exposing my ignorance of my intentions, but “The Bear’s” inquiry pierced through it all. What was I doing? Did any of this really change anything?

“Look,” I finally said, “I’m not here to find fighters. I just can’t get you a fight.”


As he sullenly carried himself back to the heavy bag, I was left with a feeling of anger. It wasn’t that he asked these questions forcefully, in fact they were about as passive as a child asking someone for a candy bar, but I think that was the problem. I felt strange at the fact that a grown adult spoke to me as if I had such authority, as if I had earned this presence of power that he regarded, as if my privilege was something more than merely the unexplained twist of fate of being born in a particular part of the world.

There was such an eagerness in his voice that if I had been an actual promoter, I could have probably made him concede to any ridiculous stipulations I set forth and I became enraged at the realization that this is in fact how boxing works: The stepping-stones of the sport’s superstars are plucked from third-world gyms and paid pennies to risk their lives. I guess I just hated the desperation in his words, hated how the world created and allowed such desperation to exist, that it forced people to sacrifice their dignity for their livelihood.

I was angry at his questions, angry at how it forced me to face the truth. I was a nobody. Absolutely powerless.

So I did the only thing that was in my power. I printed the photos and handed them out to every person I photographed in the gym. Two for each fighter, a tab that still amounted to well over $150.00 USD. In retrospect, a cheap price to wash away the guilt of global inequality, but it was the only thing I felt I could do.

The next day as “The Bear” approached me to claim his photos, I readied myself for the conversation I envisioned:

“No I can’t send pictures to promoters.”
“No I can’t get you into the newspaper.”
“No I can’t help you feed your family.”

“Hey, did you take these photos?” he asked.

“Yes I did,” I said resentfully, waiting for yet another plea for a fight.

And in perhaps the most humble and grateful manner, he kindly said to me, “I just want to say thank you, because nobody in Colombia would do this for people like us. So Thank You.”

As he started to walk away, I immediately chased him down and took down his information, told him to repeat to me his weight class, his wins, his losses, telling him I’d see what I could do, see if I could maybe pass on his stats to someone I knew or someone I’d meet. The truth is, there’s really nothing I can do. But I figure that maybe it was better to at least let him think that I was trying, that maybe there existed some hope for him to land that big fight, even if it really was a lie. To this day, I still wonder if I made the right choice.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Frustrations with the Trash

There is this garbage can that sits in the common area on the bottom floor of my apartment. Each week this garbage can gradually becomes stuffed with newspaper ads bombarded into the residents' mailboxes. If there is one constant in the world, it's that my unopened mailbox is brimming full of coupons from QFC and Walgreens. As the pseudo on-site manager, the emptying of this garbage can is technically my responsibility, "technically" meaning that it's a hassle to lug that thing to the dumpster 20 feet away and that I'm just fucking lazy.

But today I finally decide to fulfill my duties since it was starting to reflect poorly on the property, and as I'm dragging this cylindrical trash receptor up the road, the winter winds begin snatching the various ads for next week's Black Friday Sales and scattering the streets with 2 for 1 deals on USB Flash Drives and the best price per pound on turkeys. I begin to become frustrated, not only at the prospect of retrieving these renegade leaflets of newsprint, but at the incredible waste of paper I'm responsible for disposing of week after week after week after week. My neurotically over-analytical mind begins imagining the corporate boardrooms that make the executive decision to plow advertisements into random apartment buildings because regardless if 90% of these ads become destined to wander the earth as litter, 10% will bring in new customers, and what that 10% spends usually outweighs the financial cost of printing these things.

I began to become frustrated at the fact that business decisions are made at the expense of the annoyance to the people and to the environment. I'm annoyed at the fact that these mass produced advertisements are just prompting us to buy other mass produced products that in the grand scheme of things, is shit we probably don't need. I'm upset that our overindulgence in consumerism is a direct cause to the suffering in other parts of the world and we are completely justified in ignoring it. I'm angry that people aren't honest enough to admit that the holiday season is really focused on instantly gratifying our desires and painted over with the veil of holiday cheer.

This is my thought process within the 45 seconds it requires to take out the trash. This is how ridiculous my mind has become.

I make my way around the corner and haul the horrid reminders of global inequality into the dumpster. I run into the streets and retrieve each and every fugitive paper and shoved them to the bottom of the now empty trash can. Out of sight, out of mind, out of worry.

But for some reason, I was still angry. Angry that we are allowed to be irresponsible with our lifestyle at the expense of the world. Angry that we care about things only when they affect our immediate reality. Angry at the fact that what angered me the most during this whole ordeal was having to carry out a heavyass can of trash in the cold.

Friday, November 12, 2010

My Opinion on Writing and Grammar

As a writer, you have a commitment to your audience. Your duty is to guide your readers through the text with ease and clarity to your intended message. Whether or not the message is worthwhile is completely a matter of personal opinion, but the necessity of grammar is undeniable. They are tools to your craft and writing a piece with inadequate grammar is like attempting to build a car with only a hammer and a screwdriver.

I’ve never been a grammar Nazi or even considered myself “good” at grammar, but I’m not foolish enough to think we don’t need it. You must have some command of the English language in order to effectively guide your readers because it is simply a fact that linguistic communication of our society, or any society for that matter, is based in some organized structure.

Don’t get me wrong, I always appreciate, at times even admire, the awkward styles of writers that take a non-conventional approach to writing, so it’s not to say you can’t manipulate the organized structure of "traditional" literature. But you have to know what "paint" and a "paintbrush" are before you can create your masterpiece. You can’t think outside the box if you don’t know what the box is made out of.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Do Not Fly Too High with Wax Wings

The rise is exhilarating. The flight is heavenly. You are surrounded by praise and adoration. You are loved. It gives you a false sense of confidence, an empty facade of invincibility, a foolish belief that you can fly higher than you are capable, because in that hastily obsession with flight, you never took the time to learn the virtue of humility.

You fly towards the sun, it's glorious warmth only matched by being completely engulfed in its presence. However, wax wings were not built for such magnificence. They were never intended for greatness.

As the wings slowly melt, as you begin to descend, the light begins to fade, the chill begins to crawl across your skin. You don't fall instantly; it feels like it last for years. Each second is a regret of the shortcuts you took, of never paying your dues. Each forceful gust of violent wind is a reminder of what you once had and the cruel reality of it being stripped away. Maybe even realizing that you never had them to begin with.

When the torturous fall finally ends, you hit the ground, and wake up in complete darkness, terrified at the discovery that this is where the real torture begins. You are accompanied only by your lost moments of glory. They are your only companions. Your demons.

You huddle naked, crouched in a cold corner, the open wounds sting as the damp mist drips down your back. It is here you realize that wings should never be made from wax. They should be made from materials of fortitude - the broken shards of failures and disappointments, from the scattered remnants of heartbreak. They are made from lessons of defeat and sewn together in a jigsaw pattern of unmatched colors by the hands of hope and despair. The wings are horrendously ugly, but they are yours.

This is where you should have started your ascent. Not in the clear blue skies of manufactured bliss, but in the dark pits of Hell, where you're forced to create your own light, because then, you'll never need the sun.