Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Michel and Maicelo

I go in last week for my first day of actual training in Maré. I try to go in on Monday but fail at finding a bus even though I took one two weeks back. “Just take any one that says, Parrador  on it,” my friend Patricia tells me. I hop on the first one that has the digital letters streaming across like they would on a little league scoreboard. I ask the driver if he goes by Passerela 9. He tells me it does. What he doesn’t tell me is that it drives through downtown during rush hour. It takes me an hour and a half to arrive nine blocks from the gym. I think about the reality of doing this everyday. Fuck it. I’ll learn to read and write on a moving bus. I’ll learn to sleep standing up. The whole reason I came to Brazil was to train at this gym. I’m not letting something like petty comfort stop me now.

I show up to the gym and everyone is pretty much done with the warmup exercises. This massive block of a Brazilian sporting a “Muay Thai Campeón do Brasil” shirt stands in front of me and looks down at my shoes. I’m wearing my Vibram five-fingers, which basically look like rubber feet gloves. 

“Nossa! Que é isso cara?” he chuckles. I look back and give a thumbs-up. He laughs and gives me a high five in return. I’m feeling pretty cool at the moment.

Brazilians always get a kick out of my footwear. The trend hasn’t really caught on here. The only other person I’ve seen wearing them was some crazy homeless dude selling bracelets at some ungodly hour in Lapa. I remember thinking he was the craziest motherfucker that I’ve ever met in my life, but then again, we did have the same shoes. 

I run into Michel as we start trotting outside. He comes up with a warm smile and gives a slight embrace. I ask him what we’re doing. “Running,” he indicates by gyrating his arms. “Just a little. Maybe like twenty minutes.” We walk past a mechanical junkyard into an open field. I would describe the field but we’re running under borrowed light from the lamp posts on the adjacent freeway so I can hardly make out the terrain under the orange haze. I just know that it wasn’t built to accommodate any sort of athletic activity.

This shit is like an obstacle course from Legends of the Hidden Temple. The rain earlier left huge puddles of muddy water everywhere and I’m doing my best to avoid them while not twisting my ankle, hopping around like I’m doing knee-high drills through field of tires. A loud voice blares behind me. “Vai! Vai! Vai!”  I hear something that sounds like the grunt of a horse. I look back. Yup. It’s a fucking horse. There are three riders sprinting around on horseback while we’re busy making circles around the track. Before I can even conjure a reason as to why there are three horses galloping in an empty field at this hour, I step into something soft; not like a muddy-dog-shit soft, but more like a loose-hay-horse-shit soft. Yes. It’s definitely horse shit. I can feel the grains of horse excrement shift between my toes. Suddenly my rubber feet gloves don’t seem that cool. 

I see a couple of motorcycle headlights rushing towards us. What the fuck, really?  The riders yell something indecipherable at us. The coach yells something back, something along the lines of, “Hey we got champions training here!”  The riders give a big middle-finger “fuck you” in return. Suddenly the line of boxers in front of me change directions. I follow thinking that all of us will turn around, but only half of us do. 

So now there is half a platoon of fighters, mechanical horses and actual fucking horses, all darting towards me while I run laps in the dark. Then one of the riders decides to dismount and tie his horse to a broken lamp post, creating a trip wire that we have to hop over after every lap. It’s a complete mess of roadwork for twenty minutes. I’m wondering exactly what kind of training I signed up for. 

We get back into the gym and everyone bursts into different directions. Gloves and headgear are unloaded. I’m confused as to why they’re being brought out since sparring days were told to me to be only on Saturdays. Half of them start jumping rope, half of them start gearing up. I’m standing there in the middle, twiddling my fucking thumbs.

GB tells me to start jumping rope. Ok, simple enough. I tell him both my wrists are injured so I gotta to take it easy. He replies with a concording thumbs-up. I’m relieved for the moment. I start jumping rope and the boxer next to me starts talking. He looks like a Brazilian version of Floyd Mayweather Jr. After discovering that I hail from the United States, the first thing he asks is about the price for a pair of Oakley sunglasses. 

“Ummm…maybe 200 dollars?” I guess. Truthfully, I have no idea.

Nossa!  I bought a pair for 100 reis,” he says with a beaming grin of pride. 

The coach yells something across the gym and he puts down his rope. He brings out two pairs of creased red boxing gloves. They waft of a leather sauna steamed with the sweat of strangers. Dozens of palms have perspired in these mitts and the aroma will tell you that. The stentch is the texture of sand, corse granules of bodily fluid grinding through your nostrils. I love that smell. Any legitimate boxing gym will have that smell. 

GB motions to me to put them on, then throws a couple of punches into the air. I remind him that I can’t hit bags or mitts because of my wrist injury. He says we’re only doing shadowboxing drills, nothing hard, just light touching. Ok sure. That sounds safe enough. 

Oakleys and I start the dance. I’m shifting lightly on my feet, moving in circles as he follows suit. I flick a loose jab to which he blocks with his right. I throw three more, quick as lightning. It feels sturdy. It feels familiar. Back in the game. It feels good. Suddenly he pegs me with a stiff right. I mean really pegs me right in the fucking face. He follows up with a sharp left to the body then back up to head. All of them are carrying mustard. 

I shift back, wondering in my head what the hell that was about, then he snaps my head back with another stiff jab. Don’t ever think too long during a fight. I hit back and back pretty hard. He covers up in a turtle shell defense and I’m letting my hands go between the head and the body, finishing the combo with a straight shot right in between his gloves. He nods back in recognition. Things start heating up. Soon we both become lost in the fight. To hell with the wrists. You can’t really back down in a boxing gym, at least not as a newbie trying to gain some respect.

Oi! Oi! Sauve! Sauve!” GB blares out from across the room. Oakleys lowers his fists and the humanity returns to his face. “Was I going too hard for you?” he asks. I lie and shake my head as my wrists pulse with pain. The fighter looks back at GB. The coach waves his hand and glances the other way. The round finishes and we tap gloves. Oakleys beelines his name to me, all first, middle and lasts in the same speed of the TIM voicemail message. I ask him to repeat it a couple of times. “Zulu” he says. “Around the gym, it’s just ‘Zulu’.”

Michel begins to gear up, but has no real partner to spar. The only guy remotely in his weight class is the massive black dude who was fascinated with my shoes. He has to be at least a light heavyweight, probably more. Michel is a welterweight, three weight classes below. 

They begin their own dance and the difference is apparent in the footwork. Michel glides lightly across the canvas while his opponent plods around the ring chasing him, lunging strong, but extremely slow punches. Michel is already two steps ahead, side stepping with fleet-footed mobility and tagging crisp, sharp punches in return. The heavyweight is clearly out of his element, bouncing on his toes too much, squaring up constantly, habits that transfer poorly from Muay Thai to boxing. 

The round continues in this pattern for another minute. Lunge, side-step, pop. Lunge, side-step, pop. It’s like an oversized giant trying to catch a pesky child with a BB gun. The damage begins to accumulate and the giant is starting to show signs of wear. Pop-pop-pop. Now the lunging has nearly stopped. Michel opens up with a vicious four punch combination on his stationary foe, finishing with an audible rib-shattering left hook to the body that reverberates throughout the gym and sends the giant to one knee, like a lumberjack delivering the final chop on a falling redwood.

The action stops and the founder of the gym is watching the entire time with a hand on his chin. Luke Dowdney, a crazy English mofo who came down to Rio back in the 90s to write a master’s thesis on children in drug trade and started a boxing gym in the process. Crazy in the sense that he goes around the world and fights random boxers for no apparent reason. Crazy that at 40 years of age even he still straps on a pair of mitts and goes a few rounds. Just my kinda style.

Luke looks around and catches me with his eye. He stops to size me up. He asks my weight class. Welterweight. He asks if I’ve ever fought before. 6 times. “Ok, hop in,” he says. 

I glance over at GB who has a look of slight preoccupation, recalling the state of my wrists. He eeks a stammered attempt at an explanation. Luke deadpans. GB sighs and asks if I have a mouth piece. I tell him I forgot it, thank god. “Otro dia, proxima vez,” the coach excuses for me. Luke rolls his eyes, but let’s it go. 

Another day. Next time. Next time I’m in for a massive ass-whoppin’, but for some reason, I’m not worried. I’ve been in tighter situations than this. I’ve fought while battling massive bouts of depression and sucking down unfiltered American Spirit rollies days beforehand. I’ve played the role of sparring dummy against world champion contenders back in Peru. 

Peru. The old memories flash through my mind, probably some of the worst memories of my life. Peru. the only place to this day that I vehemently proclaimed to hate.  

To be fair, much of the disdain was more about me than about the surroundings, though the polluted cityscape of Lima didn’t exactly help. I guess isolating myself in a depressing motel room didn’t help either, but at the end of the day, the ambiance of the city and only leaving my room to eat lunch and train at the boxing gym spelled out the perfect recipe for a self-loathing pity party of one.

Looking back on it now, it was probably the severe lack of human contact that nearly drove me over the edge, but boxing was the only thing that kept me sane, and Jonathan Maicelo, my sparring partner, had everything to do with it. Maicelo was the most decorated male boxer in the country at the time, and after three brutal months of training as his sparring partner, he’s someone I loosely consider a friend. 

I followed his career on cyberspace, joined in distant cheers when he found victory both inside and outside the ring. I watched him rise in Peruvian society, creating his own clothing brand, making onto Peru’s version of “Dancing with the Stars”, and at one point even becoming a respected underwear model. And through all of that, his decency survived. I still remember when he won the WBC Latin American Championship, the first thing he did was build his mother a new home.

At the time we knew each other, he was still building his career. He had plenty of national notoriety, but none on the international level or inside the small world of the well-known in boxing. There in Peru, like it is here with Michel, Maicelo had nobody to help him train. I stepped in as the unassuming schmuck.

At first my presence was viewed as a gimmick, almost as an annoyance to the coaches in the gym, but after a while they grew to respect me. They needed me. I had a use, a purpose, and the lack of that sense, I later realized, was the source of my depression.

This past week Maicelo finally broke through to mainstream audiences, headlining ESPN2’s well regarded Friday Night Fights against the Russian contender Rustam Nugaev. It was by far the toughest of Maicelo’s challenges up to date. 

The sides were drawn like this: Maicelo the nimble boxer, Nugaev the rugged slugger, and in those equations, the slugger is always trying to draw the boxer into a fistfight. The fight started out smoothly enough for the boxer, keeping a good distance while landing laser-like right hands and moving quickly out of the way, then drumming five punch combinations with successive speed to follow. But Nugaev just ate the blows like chocolate cream pies and kept trotting forward, seemingly unfazed, almost enjoying the punches in some strange and twisted way.

As the rounds went on, commentator Teddy Atlas asked whether or not Maicelo would be willing to go into deep waters, into the dark places, or if he would rest on his accumulated laurels back in Peru. He wondered if he was already too comfortable, if he had lost his hunger.

For once in my life, I thought that Atlas didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. Maicelo was there for a reason. He’s a damn near superstar in Peru, but he came to the US to climb the ladder as a nobody. The guy puts in work. The guy sacrifices. He wanted it more than anyone I’d ever known.

But one thing Atlas wasn’t wrong about was the course of the fight. He described it as trying to keep out an ocean and there was a rising Russian tide on Maicelo’s horizon. I withered in discomfort as I watched Nugaev slowly break my friend down, making his punches a bit more wild, his footwork more and more clumsy. He finally went down on a right hand in the 8th round, the first time Maicelo had ever tasted the canvas as an amateur or a pro. Referee Jack Reid waved off the fight at the count of two and clasped Maicelo’s wrists to hold him down. But he tried to get up. It was a split second shot, but I saw it. Atlas, to his credit, saw it too. Maicelo would have made it. We shared enough blood over three months that I know. I know he would have made it.

It was hard for me to watch that, Maicelo crashing down to the hands of defeat. It was the first time I’d ever seen him in a moment of weakness, and when he crumbled, a bit of me did too. He might not know this, but sparring with him was the only thing that really kept me alive. I wish I could tell him that. I wish he could know what all those rounds meant to me, that they prepared me for all that I’m about to encounter here.

I oddly find the characters of my past reincarnating themselves here in Rio. Elvis and Akey. Gloria and Gloria. Michel and Maicelo. I sit around wondering what it's all supposed to mean, what lessons I'm supposed to learn.

All men fall at some point, but not all rise back up. The true test of character is whether or not you're willing to keep trying in the midst of battle, if you're willing to lose something for a greater purpose. I know Maicelo will be back. He’s got too much fight in him, too much on the line to quit now. He will find strength in this loss and be better for it. Maicelo taught me that back when we trained together. I may have lost to him every single day when I lived in Peru, but I never gave up. I never stopped fighting and for that reason, I'm here. Maybe that's the lesson in all of this. 

*Past stories on my time with Maicelo can be found here:

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