(Photo of Washington, D.C. amateur Malik Jackson at Lime Light Gym)
Boxing is often called fighting, but the terms are distinct. The difference is not minor: the goal of fighting is the destruction of one’s opponent, while most classically trained boxers focus above all on defense. That focus is best demonstrated in the ref’s final admonishment before the bell for both fighters to “protect themselves at all times.”
All boxers are fighters; in fact some are far more of the latter than the former. But barely any fighters are boxers. That’s one of the reasons the sport first grew popular in practice: boxing is the best possible preparation should one ever find themselves with no other choice but to fight.
But if your idea of fighting is limited to memories of schoolyard scraps or a stray punch after too many drinks at the bar, it may come as a surprise that most who engage in fisticuffs have only a vague notion of what comes after they connect with a punch.
Years of cartoonish television violence have conditioned us to think that all it takes to end a man is to cock back your stronger fist and let fly. Watching a civilian attempt that maneuver against someone schooled in the pugilistic arts is an exercise in physical comedy not to be missed.
Put simply, throwing a punch is the easiest part of fighting. Learning to avoid one is another matter altogether. Keeping up the guard is a start, but the ability to bob, weave and duck punches is something that can only be learned after thousands of repetitions.
There is a reason Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s defense seems like second nature; the man was literally raised in the gym. His shoulder roll is as natural as the average man’s handshake. He predicts punches the way old farm hands can sense if the season will bring sufficient rain.
Rodriguez has never treated me any differently than the kids he trains at the rec center and I’ve never asked him to, perhaps partly as penance for my insufferable resistance to coaching as a youth. So I was justifiably chastened by his disappointment when I admitted I hadn’t been keeping up with my roadwork, pushups or sit-ups between our training sessions.
His reasoning for the additional work is hardly opaque: the first time I get in the ring with one of those amateurs their focus will turn immediately to my admittedly slight torso.
“I worked there, I know the coach will tell them to go straight to the body,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been working out to go 12 rounds. But you start taking those punches to the body and the first round feels like round 12.”
Leaving aside my slight shock at the notion of having to fight fully-trained amateurs ten years younger than myself, I knew he had a point about building up the muscles on my arms and sides so they can withstand a beating. So we spent the session focused completely on defense and I committed myself to passing his pre-fight conditioning test of 500 push-ups and sit-ups before sparring.
It was another humbling experience after recent weeks had fooled me into thinking I was starting to get a feel for the training. While my punches are crisper and footwork quicker, learning not to get flustered by constant pressure and slaps to the head has been more difficult.
Rodriguez is not shy about making sure I feel it when my head feints the wrong way, and one of his straight rights landed with the kind of impact you’d expect from someone with bad intentions. But realizing it only gets worse once in the ring with an actual opponent, I shut up and tried to do something before he sent me to work with a shiner.
The key to a good defense, aside from keeping your hands up, is to make like Lil’ Jon and get low. Rolling with body shots comes somewhat naturally, but afterward I always found myself open for a wide shot to the head with either hand. By stretching the base between my lanky legs a bit and really squatting down I was able to present a smaller target and avoid blows more easily.
I’m not comparing myself to Pernell Whitaker or anything but the difference in my ability to bend after two months is striking. Boxing requires re-capturing the type of agility I last enjoyed at age 16. Slowly but surely I find my body has been responding to the challenge and even moving in ways my younger self never mastered.
But ducking punches presents its own problems, such as leaving one wide open for the uppercut from either hand. Instead of bending from the waist or ducking one’s head, it’s crucial to bend from the knees and keep your chin up and protected on both sides. That way when the uppercut or straight punch comes you can parry and respond, catching your opponent off-balance.
The shorter 30-second breaks between rounds begin to take their toll and I’m no longer able to duck low and use my jab to the body to keep Rodriguez off. He’s jabbing me in the face repeatedly and I’m forced to take a page from Floyd’s book, tuck my chin behind my left shoulder and try to roll with the punches. It’s surprisingly effective and even gives me an easier angle from which to throw the jab.
We close by running through how to duck under an opponent’s straight punch and explode with a hook to the body. The latter is probably my favorite punch apart from a right cross and I really enjoy stepping, pivoting and unloading on the body suit as hard as I can. I ask Rodriguez if he can feel the punches.
“Only if you hit like Margarito,” he replied. “Once you start doing that I’ll buy a thicker pad.”
It’s a joke, and yet not as funny as it would have been two months ago.