Monday, May 27, 2013

Sparring with Michel (Part II)

I walk into the gym for the first sparring session with Michel. I don’t even check to see with Harry if things are calm in the neighborhood, I just go in. I gave my word goddammit, and a person is only as good as their word. I walk in nervous, scared, awaiting the forthcoming ass-whoppin' that I'm sure to receive. But when I finally show up, Michel is nowhere to be found.

“He usually shows up late,” Harry tells me.

We go through our warm-ups, even make it out to the unlit dirt track for our roadwork and he still hasn’t shown up. Harry tells me before we head out that he’s probably not coming. He’s never this late. Part of me is relieved, part of me strangely disappointed. I had done all these things to prepare. All the psychological pep talk, all the “last stand” cheese sandwich bullshit for nothing. 

I start running harder than I normally do, actually try to keep up with the other fighters. Any of these guys in the ring I could take; there just isn’t enough mass on them to hurt me. I sprint when they sprint. Turn when they turn. Halfway through the track I see a red blur creeping up to lap me. It’s a slim wiry figure running in a matching track suit. It’s Michel. He runs by and flashes his trademark grin and claps my hands in a high-five. Great. Not only have I already expended what little energy I had for the sparring session, but he’s coming in fresher than I am to this thing. 

We trudge back into the gym, doused in sweat and dust in our faces. On sparring days we don’t go through the circuit training with the weights. We don’t shadowbox with three pound dumbbells in our hands. We don’t hit the bag for six rounds, or at least we don’t have to. I watch Michel jump rope in the corner. A thin film of sweat begins to cover his body, accentuating every cut in his biceps, every lump of muscle in his shoulders. He breathes heavily through his nostrils, like a mechanical bull wisps steam when getting ready to be set loose. Gibi comes by and wipes my face down with vaseline. It feels like he’s prepping my dome for the electric chair.

I stand there and watch the other kids fight. I suddenly wish I was fighting any one of them. They all have heart, they all have skill, but I can tell that none of them could knock me out. None of them have the same fire in their eyes. None of them are Michel. One of the kids hop out and crowns me with the sweaty blue helmet worn moments ago. I’m up. 

The round starts off slowly. I trot around getting a feel for the canvas. I don’t know what kind of flooring is used, but it is uneven and stiff. The padding is thin too, making it hard for my feet to get accustomed to the ground. I bounce around feinting jabs, throwing them lightly to test the range. Michel stares back at me with beady eyes of concentration, of absolute focus on the task at hand. He is waiting, so I decide to strike first. 

The first jab bounces off his gloves, the second one he parries. I return the favor by passing one of his own. We’re starting to dance. I land a sneak right hand into his face, duck under his counter lefthook, step to the left, and shoot off another one to the side of his headgear. Michel reacts up with a look of surprise. Gibi glances over with look of surprise. I think the whole gym has a look of surprise. But I’m tired. Incredibly tired. Already. 

Michel bangs his gloves together and moves forward. The barrage begins. He lands straight 1-2’s that push me back into the corner, digs hooks into my midsection, uppercuts to the chin. Television static flashes through my eyes, concrete boulders are being pummeled into my abdomen. I’m doing my best impression of a Philly shell defense, grazing rights and lefts off my shoulders, taking damage in between. I get him with a crisp right hand right between the gloves and it buzzes him. I slip out of the corner and dance around the center. I’m wheezing. My chest is tight. I’m regretting everything I’ve ever smoked in the last decade. 

Michel forges on, battering me in the middle of the ring. He lands a hard right hand that whips across my face, follows up with a perfectly placed uppercut that snaps my head back. I’m left covering up with my back against the ropes. The best way to describe how Michel fights is a cross between a Sherman tank and a farming tractor excavating the earth. Something about his workrate. It’s constant, non-stop. He’s a machine without a lower gear, let alone a shut-off valve.

Gibi calls the round and tells me to step out. Arthur, another fighter about our size, steps in. Gibi is taking is easy on me, switching out Arthur and I in between the rounds. Again that strange feeling of disappointment washes over me.

I watch Arthur and Michel go at it for a round. Arthur is strong, but unpolished. He wings a couple of wide hooks, but Michel counters them with a short right crosses straight up the middle. Arthur trudges forward unfazed. The round goes on in the same manner. I get switched out in between rounds and I do progressively worse as my fatigue sets in. But I walk out on my own two feet. I walk out with my respect in tact. 

I realize after the session that when I fought Eddie Hunter, I was 23. When I fought Maicelo, 25. I am 29 now, Michel is 9 years my younger. My body is starting to deteriorate and I’m suddenly reminded of my mortality. This, of course, is merely a fact of life; everyone eventually dies, but in the fight game the life of a fighter is shortened, their death accelerated. The peak of a fighter is about 32 years of age, their way out maybe 7 years after that. And that’s the timeline for a professional fighter, god knows what it is for a intermittent hobbyist. All I know is that I won’t be able to do this for much longer.

I’m standing there contemplating the longevity of my timeline as a fighter and Zulu yells "Sombra!" to me across the room. I look over and nod, then take off my gloves and begin boxing with my reflection. I see Zulu strap on a pair of gloves and wait for me in the middle of the gym. I forget that the term “shadowbox” here means shadowboxing with another person. 

This time we start out with no range testing stanza. We just go straight into the fight. We’re exchanging hard blows, but I try to keep mine restrained since I’m about two weight classes above him, but I figure I just spend 3 rounds going toe-to-toe with Michel, so my fatigue evens up any advantage I have in weight.

In the 3rd round Zulu tags me with a left hook that rattles my jaw. It would have set me on my ass if I was in his weight class. I try my best to compliment him afterward about the strength of that shot. He tells me he was holding back, that in shadowboxing he only goes fifty-percent. Bullshit. This kid was swinging for the fences, but for me, I'm flattered by the fib. 

Every culture has their own rite of passage. Boxing is no different. It is about being willing to hurt and be hurt, get knocked onto your ass, then get up and ask for more. It's about the fear you find in the ring, and the willingness to fight on in spite of it. There is no quit in boxing and every boxer is tested. This was my test, and it was given kindly. I know I can trust them now, and at the same time, they can trust me. Words were said and words were kept. Sparring is a big step in the relationship with a boxing gym. 

I collect my belongings and throw my sweat drenched gear into a plastic bag. I go around and give my farewells. This time, it’s different. Something in the smiles tell me that. Michel clasps my hand with both of his and gives a slight bow of gratitude. Zulu asks about the next time I’ll be coming into the gym. Gibi nods to me and says "thank you for the work". We’ve moved onto another stage, this gym and I. I can’t say I’m too satisfied with my performance, but I’m proud of seeing it through, for keeping my word. I think now things will be different here with the gym, different for my life here in general. And for the little life I have left in this game, at least in this place, I've earned my pass. 

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