* 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?”
“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.