I turned forty-years-old in 1998 and had not boxed competitively for over fifteen years. I still worked out regularly, though I called it “training,” instead of “working out,” as if I was staying in shape in case a fight came up. Two days a week I rode a stationary bike, and then another two I shadow boxed, hit the bag, and jumped rope. But only once a year I sparred. In February, right around my birthday.
This sparring occurred because of an itch I began to feel at the end of January, an itch that is hard to describe and even harder to locate, but one that would not go away. It was a state of pacing agitation that felt a lot like being twenty-years-old and horny, with the exception that it was not love I had on my mind. The majority of my training occurred at what is called an “athletic club,” the membership of which is comprised mostly of business people and government workers. I fall in the latter category and this “gym” — which is what I called it because I refused for years to admit that I belonged to an athletic club — was close to work and had a heavy bag.
But each year, as February 18th neared, I would make my way to the Capitol Gym on Stockton Boulevard to check on the availability of sparring partners for an aging but not too overweight former light-heavy. Jerry Jacobs, a local boxing figure who had himself fought professionally, told me he had someone who was getting ready for the Golden Gloves and needed sparring. We made plans to meet at noon the coming Saturday.
Jerry Jacobs was the bravest manager I’ve ever known. One of his boxers, Joe Guevara, had a record of 12-0 and was the California state bantamweight champion when Jacobs matched him in consecutive fights with Carlos Zarate, Roberto Rubaldino, and Wilfredo Gomez. His heavyweight, Stan Ward, fought Johny Boudreaux, Mac Foster, and Jeff Merritt within his first eight fights, and Ron Lyle in his eleventh. An African-American himself, Jacobs regularly used the ‘n’ word when training his black fighters, so harshly that others in the gym would wince when hearing it, regardless of the color of their skin.
I thanked Jacobs as I left that day. “You bet,” he said back to me.
My wife was never particularly happy about this annual ritual of mine. She knew I had boxed when younger, and didn’t mind me working out, or going to the fights, or having a couple friends over to watch boxing on pay-per-view. But she didn’t care for me doing any boxing myself, especially at my age, and especially once a year. She didn’t care either for what would happen when I got back from the gym, the sparring usually having gone pretty well considering my age and being so rusty.
But I couldn’t get her to take the bait when I then tried to start a conversation about giving boxing one last try. My opening lines would vary from year to year, but the general theme was consistent, and would always include at least one “I still got it,” plus an “it would be a shame not to see what I can do.” My wife would never argue with me about this. She wouldn’t disagree, or put me off, or act as though I was joking. She was like Herman Melville’s Bartleby and I could not get a reaction out of her. I don’t know how a person can be that patient. It’s not fair.
I would go on like that for a week or so, until I ran out of energy and returned to my life of quiet desperation. So, on Saturday of the week I turned forty, I showed up at the Capitol Gym at noon to get my fix, and show I hadn’t aged as much as my birth certificate indicated. The gym was empty as I wrapped my hands and loosened up in the ring, but then this tank of a human being walked through the door, followed by Jacobs, who nodded at me.
I had told Jacobs I weighed two hundred pounds when I asked him about sparring, and he said his guy was “about my size.” And indeed, “his guy” — I remember his name was Kevin — was my height, a little under six foot, but that was the end of our physical similarities. Kevin was built like how David Tua would have looked if Tua had been fed better as a child and allowed to fully develop.
“How much do you weigh, man?” I asked, the words coming out of my mouth before I even knew I had thought them. I would never consciously ask someone I was about to box how much he weighed, especially in a situation like this. The question was an obvious indication of fear. It was not manly.
“Two seventy,” said Kevin.
“God damn,” I replied, but this time to myself.
I looked at Jacobs, who shrugged his shoulders. “You said you wanted some work.”
I couldn’t argue with that, and returned to my shadow boxing. Kevin wrapped his hands and began loosening up. Uncomfortably, for me, I saw that not only did he have forearms as big around as my calves, but he knew how to throw punches, destroying my hope that Kevin might not know what he was doing. But it was obvious that, in addition to being big and strong and young, he knew how to punch correctly. My only hope then was that he wouldn’t know what to do when punches were coming his way.
At the bell for the first round, we were both cautious. Kevin had obviously been in gyms long enough to see I knew what I was doing, so he was careful. And I wanted to find out exactly how well he knew what he was doing, so I was mainly feinting and moving around. When Jacobs was giving me a rinse at the end of the round he said, loud enough for us both to hear, “You girls don’t need those gloves on if you’re not gonna throw any punches.”
This must have bothered Kevin more than it did me because he came out aggressively for round two. He had heavy hands and I punched with him when necessary to fend him off, but now he was applying some serious pressure. At some point, he backed me into the ropes and landed a right hand, something between a short cross and an uppercut, a punch that caught under the bone of my left eyebrow. The shock of that blow will be with me for the rest of my life.
The human cranium is comprised of eight sections of bone that fit together tightly, like the pieces of a puzzle. The sensation I felt from this punch was as if all eight pieces of my skull pulled apart for a moment and then snapped back together. I didn’t lose my equilibrium and was nowhere near falling down, but the force of the blow was unbelievable. It was like being hit with a sledgehammer. Remembering that childhood game called “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots,” I wanted to stop and say, “Kevin, you knocked my block off.”
Instead, what I did was move to my right and retreat, with Kevin following and still throwing punches. And when I was on the ropes and fending off more punches, I couldn’t help wondering how much that punch may have affected my brain and my ability to think metaphorically. To state the obvious, getting hit in the head is never good for the brain. But getting walloped as I just had was something of a different order. It certainly affected me. Perhaps, I wondered, it would continue to affect me in the time to come. Would there be an immediate reduction in my ability to think, or would it be more of a tapering off? Would the tapering be quick or slow?
I had mentioned earlier a sense of “quiet desperation.” This was a consequence of my job as a government analyst. It was safe, easy work with good pay and benefits, but it was also akin to watching myself slowly die minute by minute, with each minute feeling like it was an hour, while knowing I had several million minute-hours awaiting me in the weeks and months and years ahead.
My quiet desperation drove me to sign up for a literature course that met once a week at the local university. The course was titled “The Short Novel” and the first week’s reading was Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. The professor, Donald Sturtevant, who was not the kind of person I was used to being around, was a bit of a performance artist in class: lecturing us, loudly reading passages, flailing his arms in the air for dramatic effect, even coming to tears a couple times. As his first two hour presentation came to end, having fully rendered what an absolute mess of a human being Dostoevsky’s poor, suffering animal torn between rational and irrational desires was, it took everything I had not to stand up and say, “That’s me you are talking about.”
It would be some time before I realized Dostoevsky was writing about each of us, but I was sold, and kept attending classes, eventually earning an MA after six years of work. Originally thinking I might become a teacher, I won a few awards in the annual English Department writing competition so I decided to keep my government job and consider myself something of a writer.
That idea turned out to involve more work than I could ever have imagined, but was almost certainly my savior. Everyone pokes fun at ex-boxers and their “comebacks,” but it’s not really a laughing matter. In major league baseball or the NFL, a player is put on waivers when he can longer do the job, and when no other team shows interest, that is the end of his career. But in boxing, there is always someone hiding in the shadows who will pick a fighter up off waivers. Old boxers never go unclaimed. One man’s scraps are another man’s meal.
I had stopped competing at age twenty-five, but kept training and developing my skills, and I had even tried to fight again at age 32. But my aspirations were serious and I had wanted both a professional trainer and a credible, established promoter to represent me or I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to be the designated loser fighting in tank towns for short money. That is, I didn’t want that at first. But when I realized no ‘A’ level promoters or managers were interested in me, I began to hear the voices of the type of guys I had always ignored. Guys who would promise anyone who walked through the gym door a million dollars for fighting Foreman.
I told myself I could be a good writer if I worked at it, but if I continued boxing I would never have the time or the energy. That, more than anything else, is what allowed me to keep my distance from those shadowy voices in the gym. I wanted to be good at something and I knew, deep down, that I had a better chance of being a good writer than I ever had of being a good boxer.
Hopefully, what I have just described adequately explains why, as I was getting knocked around by a man both bigger and younger than me, I was thinking about metaphors and my brain. I spaced these mental reflections between desperate flurries of punches for I found I could not punch and think philosophically at the same time. I could avoid punches and think about what was happening to me, but as soon as I began throwing punches back, I had to stop thinking.
Kevin kept pressuring me and, while I wasn’t letting him land anything like that first, devastating right, blocking his punches with my arms and shoulders didn’t feel too comfortable either. Fortunately, Kevin’s defense was not as good as his offense, and I could tag him enough to keep him honest. But you can’t get in the water without getting wet, so for the most part I just dipped my toes in from the edge every once in a while. During a slow-down in the action it occurred to me that if I was so worried about the health of my brain and my ability to write, I probably shouldn’t be climbing into a boxing ring anymore. Finishing the four rounds we had agreed upon was it for me, and I knew it.
When the final round had ended Jacobs had a hard time looking at me as he took off my headgear and gloves and I guess that didn’t bother me as much as it should have. I normally would have done what Kevin was doing, finishing my workout, pounding the heavy bag and jumping rope a bit. But I didn’t see much point in training any more that day, so I watched Kevin hit the bag as Jacobs barked at him.
We all have dreams at different times in our lives, maybe all through our lives. But for most of us, the dreams have to be set on a shelf. If we want to live any kind of a full life, we will take on responsibilities, the pragmatics of which will require compromises, if not sacrifices, and often the sacrifices are the dreams. But even as we let the body of our dreams slowly wither away, sitting alone and unattended on their shelves, the heart of the dream is still beating. The heart of the dream, call it a fantasy if you want, continues to live because we tell ourselves that the way our lives turned out was not inevitable, that under different circumstances, the dream could have had a different life. This thinking is all the nourishment the fantasy needs to stay alive within us.
I had shelved my dream years ago, but maintained the fantasy that I “still had it” and that under different circumstances my dream could have come true. But while watching Kevin pound the shit out of that heavy bag, especially after what I had just gone through, I realized that whatever I once had was now long gone. Something inside of me was dying as I sat and watched him, and to show my respect as it passed, I stayed where I was, on the edge of the same ring in the same gym where I had been taught to box twenty years before, and I waited until it had taken its last breath. Then I got up to go home.
As I pulled into our driveway, my eye was swelling and beginning to hurt. We have a freezer in the garage and I took out a pound of sausage that had been packaged into a tube shape. The end of the tube fit perfectly in my eye socket. I walked into the living room, dropped my equipment bag, and laid down on the floor, holding the sausage on my eye. After a while my wife walked by and stopped and stood over me. She looked at me without saying anything. She looked at me without saying anything far longer than was necessary, I think.
That was the last time I sparred. — Glen Sharp