When I say I had never thrown a punch, I mean I had never even been in a playground scuffle. I have lived my life avoiding troubling situations and employing what I tell myself is wit and charm in situations where trouble seems unavoidable. Upon moving to Philadelphia I decided this needed to change.
Perhaps it was one too many runs up the Rocky steps, or the fact that I stand six foot one and two hundred forty pounds, but the city of brotherly love got me wondering how I would hold up standing toe to toe with another man. I opened my journal and inked a goal, “Have two official fights, judged by an official referee.” I figured I needed one fight, just to say I did it, then a second to make sure the result of the first, whatever that may be, were not a fluke. I closed the book and set about learning how to fight.
The first thing I learned was that real boxing gyms are hard to find. My Google search sent me to one disconnected number after another with the only signs of promise being numbers that rang with no one ever picking up. On a lark I called the Legendary Blue Horizon, a North Philly boxing venue, and asked whoever answered if they knew where one could go to learn to box. I got a list of five places that regularly turned out winning fighters and began working the phone. I decided to try the cheapest one I could find, assuming I may need the extra cash for medical bills.
My first lesson, my initiation I suppose, was learning that the Front St. gym is not on Front St. The second was that one does not just walk in and sign up. The owner, a gentleman who sounded as if he had spent a long life chewing glass, told me that if I wanted to get in shape I should go to Bally’s, its nicer there. I informed him I wanted to fight. I had just turned thirty; he looked at me as if I was crazy, and introduced me to a trainer. My trainer informed me he was the best and had proven that fact as the all state corrections champion. He was not, nor had ever been, a corrections officer.
I suppose I should have been embarrassed to be both the oldest and most inexperienced person in the place, but I was too excited to even think about it. I learned to wrap my hands, move my feet, and hit the bag. It felt great.
My first attempt at sparring was with another of my same experience. Only allowed to jab, we both felt accomplished as we poked at each other lamely. My lip got bloody and his eye got puffy. I started to think I was pretty good.
I decide otherwise when placed in the ring with an opponent five years my junior and twenty pounds lighter. After two rounds my elbow hurt from throwing punches that hit nothing, and my jaw was sore from him doing the opposite.
I loved it. I began walking a little taller, smiling a little wider. I drove around North Philly and Kensington and felt at home.
The first fight loomed. I drew an opponent that more resembled Manute Bol than George Forman. I could not reach his chin but by the third round I had found his ribs and I won. I felt more accomplished raising my hand in that ring than the day I raised my diploma. The man with the gravelly voice tried to convince me to retire undefeated. I did not.
I won again then fought one more. I retired at two and one.
Now as I tie my tie to go to meetings, or drive past Rocky’s statue, I feel a tinge of pride. I now know something others will never guess. I have the new knowledge that when I use my wit and charm to avoid trouble, that it isn’t my only option… I can always dial 911.