Thursday, December 23, 2010

Three Minutes

(This piece was also published here. Minor changes in this version)

The time it takes to listen to a good tune, the number of minutes to cook a microwavable snack, one eighth of your favorite television sitcom, is three minutes. One hundred and eighty seconds. For some, it is an instance, a fraction of time that can pass by unnoticed. But time has a strange way of working. It morphs with the surroundings encasing it, and inside the squared circle, three minutes can last a lifetime.

In amateur bouts, open fighters compete for 3 rounds, fresh pugs in the pros go at it for 4, and those at the pinnacle of the sport battle 12 three-minute rounds for the right to call himself “Champion”. But the actual number of rounds is irrelevant. Some fights are cut short due to a devastating knockout, accidental clash of heads, or one corner simply throwing in the towel to defend a fighter from hurting himself further. But legacies can be defined in one round, careers solidified or shattered within the duration between bells. All you really need in order to know a fighter is one single round, just three minutes.

Even in the gritty chambers of the boxing gym, one three minute round of sparring can tell you everything about a fighter’s mood, a reflection of their day, maybe even their life. How he moves, whether he adopts a slick southpaw stance or the posture of face first brawler, what he is willing to give and what he is willing to take, will tell you who that person is as a fighter.

Some boxers enter the gym after 16 long hours of menial labor; others come because it’s the only thing that will keep them out of trouble. I’ve heard countless anecdotes of how the Sweet Science saved troubled lives and strangely enough, sometimes a controlled environment of violence is what prevents fighters from committing violence outside of it. You might get a sprinkle of college grads or urban professionals looking to refine their skills in unarmed combat, but most of the serious ones are in it because they want a better position in life, and there’s no other option to go about it but to raise your fists and fight for it.

Boxing is the sport of the dispossessed; the gym a sanctuary for those outcasted from society. “I’ve had ex-convicts, rape victims and drug addicts walk through that door,” my coach tells me. “Anyone that needs it can train.” And sure enough, posted outside the gym door is a staunch reminder of this ethos: “This is a safe zone, all are welcome here.” You don’t need an academic scholarship to train here or even a shred of athletic talent; just show up with the right attitude and you’re good to go.

Most people who scurry in fresh off witnessing the latest Pay-Per-View extravaganza are gone within days. Where were the blazing fast fists? The back and forth action? Where was all the drama? Contrary to the exciting glitz of a bloody brawl, a boxer’s training regime is incredibly boring. You might spend 2 weeks throwing only one punch, endless hours studying footwork, and there’s a guarantee of at least 3 rounds of skipping rope in the exact same spot each time you walk in. But the ones that stick around gain something. They find a discipline, a few sacred moments of silent focus, and for some, maybe even a momentary sense of peace.

The first sparring session is a frightening one. In those three minutes you are tested of your will, your durability, and if you’re lucky, your resolve at the prospects of defeat. You learn what you are afraid of; you learn what you can do, and more importantly, what you can’t. But in any good boxing gym, sparring is never about beating up one another. It is a cultivation of skills, a bonding of camaraderie, and an exploration of into the self.

The feelings are heightened when a fighter starts competing. Now you are not only fighting for yourself, but you’re representing your gym. In a professional fight the stakes are raised even higher as most fighters compete to quite literally feed their families, and given the dim employment prospects for boxers, there is little recourse elsewhere. The Greats fight for an entire nation, sometimes even a universal cause beyond them. Muhammad Ali’s legendary bout against George Foreman legitimized his stand against Vietnam. Tito Trinidad fought in protest of the US bombings in Vieques, and crime on the streets of Manila comes to a virtual halt anytime Manny Pacquiao laces up the leather.

Of course boxing suffers its share of causalities. Benny Paret died ten days after taking 18 unanswered punches at the hands of Emilie Griffth, the death of Duk Koo-Kim changed title fights from fifteen rounds to twelve, and each year the sport continues to add victims to its mortality rate. But contrary to the tragedies that bestow the sport, the intention behind these combatants is seldom to actually hurt one another. It is merely a contest, a payday for all the hours toiled inside the gym and for the monastic abstinence from worldly temptation outside of it.

So if you think boxing is nothing more than an exhibition of brute savagery, go into a gym, talk with the fighters. Ask them where they’ve been, where boxing has taken them and where they would be without it. Just spend three minutes with them, in person or through the television screen. Three real minutes, and it might change your view on the whole thing.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Perspective on Self-Sabotage

When Hernán Cortés first set foot onto what is known today as Mexico, one of the first things he did was drill holes into his own ships with the intentional purpose of sinking them. The Chinese did the same thing in their own foreign conquests. To most people, this appears as a foolish measure of self-sabotage; even Cortés' own men were on the brink of mutiny upon learning that their unfortunate predicament lay in the hands of their own leader. But this is simply a strategy of war. To successfully extract the precious metals they originally sought, an undeniable obstacle remained in defeating the powerful Aztec Empire, and in order to do that, Cortés needed his troops' full attention. Their complete focus.

Being soldiers on conquest in a foreign land, naturally their minds wandered astray in thoughts of their wives, their children, their lives back at home. Having those ships afloat represented the possibility to flee, to run back to what is familiar and comfortable. Cortés sunk that possibility and left them with only two options: Fight together or die together.

Sometimes I feel we can apply the same concept in our own lives. We might have an initial interest in pursuing something that is, at the same time, frightfully dangerous and magnificently glorious, but we approach it with caution. We always maintain a safety net in case we fall. While I do think it is important, at times crucial, to have an exit strategy, it's also important to investigate how much reliance we invest in that exit strategy. Do they begin harboring our excuses to retreat when we had more left to give? Do they provide enough reason to surrender the good fight in exchange for a comfortable death?

If our defense mechanisms against self-sabotage act as crutches instead of an instrument to aid us in the battle for our lives, that, ironically enough, is more of a self-sabotage than "drilling holes into your own ships" could ever be.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Don't Get It Twisted

Women threw down just as much as the men did back in the day:

"Although boxing matches were frequently advertised as 'trials of manhood', women as well as men could often be found fighting at the booths and bear-garden. In August 1723, The London Journal noted that 'scarce a week passes but we have a Boxing-Match at the Bear-Garden between women'. It would not have been unusual, while browsing the newspaper, to come upon a challenge and reply such as this:

I, Elizabeth Wilkinson of Clerkenwell, having had some words with Hannah Hyfield, and requiring satisfaction, do invite her to meet me upon the stage, and box me for three guineas, each woman holding half a crown in each hand, and the first woman that drops the money to lose the battle.

I, Hannah Hyfield, of Newgate-market, hearing of the resoluteness of Elizabeth Wilkinson, will not fail, God willing, to give her more blows than words - desiring home blows, and from her no favour; she may expect a good thumping!"

From Boxing - A Cultural History by Kasia Boddy

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Downsides of Travel

When people hear about all the places I've been, a common response is usually, "Oh, I wish I would have gotten that chance. You're so lucky!" While I do appreciate all the opportunities I've been blessed with throughout my life, sometimes I wish people would stop treating my circumstances as some dumb strokes of luck that landed into my lap. The result of my life has been a culmination of choices where I consciously took the most difficult route on the sole basis to challenge myself.

An ongoing existential debate is whether our current realities are dictated by choice or fate. Do we have a stake on the outcomes of our lives or are we all predetermined to an unforeseen destination? Like any wavering 26 yr old, I choose to take the middle ground. I am of the strong belief that fate presents us with the doors of opportunity, but only you and you alone can make yourself walk through them.

The earliest genesis of my travel experience dates back to when I made the voluntary choice to enroll in the Honors Program of the Sociology Department, simply driven by the principle that it would make my academic studies more difficult. From that, my name appeared in a database of eligible Sociology students to be employed on a nationally funded research project. I spent 2.5 years filing through thousands of census records in pursuit of determining whether or not social characteristics affected the likelihood of blacks being lynched in the late 1800s. This work allowed an opportunity to earn a Mary Gates Research Scholarship, which eventually funded my first trip abroad to Spain. During those three months, I caught the travel bug to motivate me towards any other outlets of travel, and because of my Honors status with the University, I was eligible for the Bonderman Travel Fellowship - a grant that permitted 1.5 years of globetrotting and the basis of my Fulbright proposal in Brazil, leaving me where I am today.

But as transformative as traveling can be, I think people have a misconception that somehow transformation is easy, romanticizing the end product without considering the massive amount of shit you have to go through to get there. It comes with a lot of disappointments and failures, a lot of sacrifices and heartbreak. Many good relationships have been broken from my traveling. I created distance with old companions due to my shifting perspectives, missed the wedding of one my closest friends when I was in Guatemala, and because I chose to leave and explore the world, I lost an amazing woman that I still think about everyday. I'd say that 90% of those 18 months traveling in Latin America I spent depressed, constantly questioning my adequacy in the world, and always feeling this overwhelming sense of fear each time I departed for a new destination.

Now to some people, this may sound like some real bitching over some spilled milk. (For Godssakes, you were traveling!) But to be fair, nobody else was on that journey with me. I didn't spend the majority of my time in party hostels or sightseeing the major attractions of each country. In fact, I felt incredibly guilty whenever I took a moment to enjoy myself. Instead I spent nearly every moment in the boxing gyms, in uncomfortable situations that beat me physically and emotionally. I went home every night angry at the state of the world, unable to accept the incomprehension I had witnessed that day and worried about the day that was to follow. But for some reason, I just kept going back. I don't necessarily know why I did, I just felt something innately discomforting with the way most people travel. There was something worthwhile in exploring the emotional places that few people venture, something more valuable than what any guidebook or tourist attraction could give me.

Most people have called me a "negative person", a real pessimist because I choose to acknowledge the afflictions in the world. While I do believe it is harmful to allow suffering consume you into a bitter person, I also believe it is incredibly selfish to completely ignore these things just because they make you uncomfortable. Quite frankly, I think I've reached a point in my life where I know myself well enough to vocalize my beliefs and those who disagree can either discuss, ignore, or go fuck themselves.

However, my point isn't trash the beliefs of others or to stroke the ego of my accomplishments, but just to say that it always pays off to take a challenge. It is worth going into those dark places of despair and uncertainty to battle all that is unsettled in your heart. I've recently adopted the belief that you cannot spread peace in the world until you have found peace within yourself, and ironically, finding inner peace is a long grueling process of going to war with yourself.

But eventually you learn to appreciate the pain, you learn to love the struggle. It's just much harder than most people would like to believe.