I posted this just about a year ago on another blog as I was training for my second fight. I did not write this post. Rather, it is a copy and paste of an article that is also linked to in the first paragraph.
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If you’re still trying to wrap your head around why some people box, this is a great read: How Boxing Got Me to Face My Fears
My first fight in Madison Square Garden was 17 years ago. I was 25 years old and 119 pounds, which made me a bantamweight. Merriam-Webster defines “bantam” as “any of numerous small domestic fowls that are miniatures of members of the standard breeds” or “a person of diminutive stature and often combative disposition.”
The diminutive stature came naturally. The combative disposition took work. Backstage at the weigh-in for the New York Daily News Golden Gloves finals, I stripped and stepped on the scale, avoiding the eyes of my opponent. As the female official diddled the counterweight to the left and right of the number 19, I mentally recited Cus D’Amato’s advice to Mike Tyson about the hero and the coward: The hero and the coward feel the same inside. It’s how they act that divides them.
It was hard to act like a hero in thong panties, but I didn’t have an ounce to spare for briefs.
In the dressing room, my trainer, Mike, wrapped my hands with gauze.
“Cut the ring off,” he told me. “Don’t follow her around.”
I could hear the anxiety in his voice. This was only my second fight. Two months before, I’d outjabbed a chunky Dominican in a church in Queens. Now I was facing Patricia Alcivar, the defending Golden Gloves champion, ranked No. 2 in the nation. Mismatches are common in female boxing, because the scarcity of opponents means there is no novice division.
Mike buckled on my headgear and swiped Vaseline over my nose. Vaseline made punches slip off and had the side benefit of exacerbating my adult acne.
“Whose time?” he asked.
“My time,” I whispered.
Another trainer, Francisco, stood beside us, holding my mouthpiece. In an earlier bout, Francisco’s fighter, a lovely Swiss woman who’d once had me over for fondue, got destroyed in one round by a New York Police Department detective. This was sobering.
A stagehand yelled, “One-nineteen female.”
Mike helped me into a gold gown with wide sleeves that admitted my gloves, and we trooped into the bright hall once called the Felt Forum (now the Theater at Madison Square Garden). The crowd had concentrated in the lower seats surrounding the illuminated ring.
I saw my tall opponent a few paces ahead in her blue robe and headgear. My legs went weak with terror.
I climbed the ring stairs, wondering if I should have kept the bout a secret, instead of blabbing to everyone I knew.
I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt. I sparred with men and bigger girls. Three two-minute rounds with another female bantamweight couldn’t seriously damage me.
My fear had to do with the nakedness of the confrontation. I had spent my life avoiding conflict by fleeing or feigning indifference. I left boyfriends after two years. I quit jobs without warning. I was like one of those prospects who remain undefeated through careful matchmaking. Because I never tried my hardest, I never needed to lose.
Now I would be alone in the ring with a champion of my class, and what I really feared — with a nauseating dread — was that I would be humiliated, exposed as unworthy.
I ducked between the ropes onto the sprung canvas of robin’s egg blue. I opened my mouth for water. I bit down on the mouthpiece. I knew I needed to face my fear. Boxing called me, because it could punch me unstuck.
When the ring announcer spoke my name, I was shocked at the roar. I squinted through the lights to the epicenter of the noise.
It was like “This Is Your Life”: My mother and her bipolar support group; my brother and his boss from Forbes; my Brown roommates; my high school music teacher; my favorite yoga students; my aunt and cousins, waving a banner spray painted “Kick her ass, Sarah!”
For one beautiful moment, I felt fearless. This was my best moment of the fight.
The bell rang, and I charged at the champion. I tried to jab my way inside, but she kept moving, just outside my range. Her speed infuriated me. Whenever we exchanged, she got off first and last and spun away. It was a stinging kind of pain. The bell ended a bad first round.
She came out hard in the second and whipped a right hand to my temple, then a left hook that drew blood. I hated bleeding in the ring. It generated a low-grade distress, like a mosquito in my ear.
“Sarah Deming is bleeding from the nose.” Someone put the fight on YouTube, so you can hear the play-by-play guy deliver this line with relish.
It’s become a running gag with my brother, who periodically announces it when I enter or leave a room.
I’m glad this embarrassing video exists, because my memory of those six minutes is so tenuous. Ring time is different from life time. It’s the only thing I do — except maybe sex — where I’m not thinking, as it happens, of how I will describe it later.
Mismatched boxers often reach a tacit agreement, like animals fighting for dominance. This happened in the last round. As I trudged forward, eating uppercuts and bleeding, I wasn’t trying to win anymore. I was just trying to finish. I was trying to prove to Patricia that I existed, too, that I was worthy of this sport we both loved.
When the final bell rang, I lifted my arms in my own private victory.
This amused the play-by-play guy: “Sarah Deming raising her hands in triumph, but Gil Clancy, I don’t think she’s going to get this decision.”
“She might be just happy she’s still standing, that’s why,” suggested Kathy Burke.
“She went the distance,” said Gil Clancy, may he rest in peace. Clancy trained Emile Griffith and cornered for Muhammad Ali. When I finally won the Golden Gloves two years later, he was the one who noticed my triple left hook.
I tried to quit boxing after that, but this sport is notoriously difficult to leave. Even after I gave my mother a kidney and had to stop sparring, I kept hitting heavy bags. It’s like something this Buddhist monk told me once. He said the truth is like a grease fire and we are like dogs. We can’t have it, because it’s burning. We can’t abandon it, because it’s delicious.
Four years ago, I started coaching at a free gym called Atlas Cops and Kids. Josh is one of our up-and-comers. He is 16 and 152 pounds, the amateur welterweight limit. According to Merriam-Webster, “welter” means “a state of wild disorder.”
Josh wrote an essay for our gym blog about how he used to street fight and smoke weed daily before boxing saved him. He is a stylist, on the page and in the ring, but his first fight was a welter of aggression. His coaches gathered around him afterward, offering pugilistic condolences.
Wayne said, “You should’ve beat that kid.”
Quiro said, “Why you not throw punches?”
Sosa said unprintable things.
Josh was crying a little. It’s good when they cry.
I said, “You have to lose to learn,” and cut his hands free.