Here I am at twenty-nine, sat backstage about to do the craziest thing in my life to date; compete in a boxing match.
My heart feels like it’s going to jump out of my body, the pounding beat is deafening and the adrenaline surging through me is all I can feel. I realise I need to calm down and focus on what’s about to happen. I call my mate Ben who is on his way, or maybe already here, to see if he can come backstage and talk to me as a form of distraction.
He doesn’t pick up.
I then start to go through my work phone and respond to emails or re-check them systematically in the hope that it might distract me, anything to calm down and soothe the jitters, and for a few moments I am partially distracted.
The atmosphere is tense; filled with aggression and anticipation, the crowd can be heard through the walls, shouting and cheering loudly like a baying mob thirsty for blood and action. The constant movement of people coming and going, fighters stretching, warming up with their trainers and gearing up for their matches can’t be ignored. It’s a hectic environment of blurred motion and colour constantly passing in front of me.
It’s an unusual feeling, there’s a sense of anxious uncertainty as if the words ‘here we go, let’s do this’ are hanging in the air, coupled with strange bodily sensations that I don’t want to get accustomed to, like there’s a disconnect between brain and body. I’m telling myself I need to stay calm but my body is in fight mode, acting on its own. Adrenaline is surging but my mind is trying to stay calm and the result is a jittery nervousness as the reality of the situation hits me in the face.
I start to shadow box; moving around to try and loosen up a little. The most important thing for a boxer is to relax; you can’t move spontaneously if you’re tense. My body feels like it has taken on a new form of stiff, tense anticipation; I am far too rigid and tight. I carry on moving around the large room, jumping up and down and side to side in short precise steps for quick movement, simulating my intended moves. I roll my shoulders round with my arms in a boxing pose, ready for action I jab away in the air going through a sequence of punches.
The room has been sectioned off into little open corners with false walls, similar to those big open plan offices with workstations that can be moved easily at any moment, the intention is to give the fighters their own private cordoned off space to get ready, it hasn’t worked. We all either bound around the room pacing up and down trying to loosen up or aggressively jeer ourselves on. It takes space to do this and, for some, it is to intimidate the opponent by walking around with heads high, looking tough, or at least that is the idea.
I stride up and down and shake my arms in circular movements to keep them loose, going through all the motions I have done so many times before; quick movement, short sharp turns, bounce, bounce, but nothing loosens me up this time.
The previous match is over and two fighters come backstage; one with his head held high and the other with his head drooping. “How’d you do?” I ask the one I know having sparred with him at the gym. “Not good, got knocked down and lost in the end” he replies, the already bulging eye and hunched over appearance of defeat evident. “Argh shit man” is all I can respond with.
I carry on moving, putting my mouthguard in and staring at the wall in front of me as if it’s a thousand miles away, or not there at all. I breathe and focus on what’s happening.
“Right, you’re up!” comes the call. The phrase is hurled my way as if I should ‘hurry up and get a move on’. They have to keep a schedule after all and I am a mere pawn in the evening’s entertainment.
I walk to the entrance and wait to be lead out. There’s a moment’s pause as I look at the promotor who is standing to the left of me holding my arm firmly. The walk-on music starts (Rage Against the Machine Bulls On Parade) and I hear a cheer from my friends as they recognise the track. The crowd is cheering loudly, my heart is pounding and I have someone shouting words of encouragement next to me.
The headgear I am wearing blocks out a lot and the surrounding noise has turned to a muffled blur as if my head has been plunged under water, so I don’t recognise the music. I turn to the promoter and say “this isn’t my track?”
“Are you sure?” comes the response, “It should be, I gave them the music list and yours was definitely on there.”
I hear a few more sounds and realise it was just the quieter part of the record that I didn’t recognise. As soon as the big guitars and lead shout from the vocalist comes, I know it and start walking.
I hear another round of screams as my friends see me enter onto the walkway. My focus is straight in front of me, looking ahead with tunnel vision; I see them and don’t at the same time. I walk right of the ring, stepping up to the ropes, which are pulled apart, and duck in between them. I’m in and hear my name bellow through the speakers by the MC.
The ring is well lit and the lights are beating down on my shoulders and back almost pushing like weights from above. They help to draw attention into the ring. It feels like I’m in a room with no-one around and anything beyond the ring is this black space of shadow and sound. My attention is drawn in, focused.
A quick jump up and then down to touch my toes followed by a clashing of fists and a motivational ‘ARGH!’ brings another loud cheer from the crowd in response.
I turn around to face my corner and just beyond the ring I see my best mate in the crowd right behind me. I wink to acknowledge that I’ve seen him; the look on his face was one of shock, awe and ‘bloody hell mate’. He looks more nervous than me.
It quietens down and my opponent walks on with his entourage. I already know he’s bigger than me as we met briefly in the gym for the usual ‘oh ok so you’re who I’m fighting’ meet-up, which involved a handshake, a look up and down and a grin.
It was at that point that weights had been discussed and I discovered he was ten kilograms heavier than me. In boxing that’s a lot and looking at him now he had put on more, with shoulders that appeared to ‘block out the lights’, as one friend put it. Meanwhile, I have lost more weight through intense training, only now realising the mistake I have made in not stepping up my eating habits as well.
We are called to the centre of the ring, touch gloves, and the ref says a few words that I can’t hear through my head gear, noise and general intensity of the moment. We go back to our corners and I breathe, inhaling sharply and exhaling deeply.
‘Ding’ the bell goes and we’re on.
There is an unusual anticipation walking out into the centre of the ring to ‘get it on’. I feel as stiff as a board. The fluid movement and relaxed nature that makes a good boxer isn’t in me. My adrenaline is surging and over keenness gets the better of me. I dodge, duck and move, jabbing away and generally doing well to control the first round.
I come out fighting, which works as my opponent is defensive and cautious. We have a good few tussles with each other catching the occasional blow as we do, mainly examining the situation and not giving too much away. The bell goes and I hear a big cheer from my supporters who happen to be on the other side of the ring behind my opponent. I’m up on the first round.
Breathing frantically I sit down on the stool and sip the water thrust in front of me. The corner man tells me to keep it up: “You have him on movement. Stay at it, you’re ahead!” he says. “Where is my trainer?” I think. It turns out that as my trainer is a professional fighter he isn’t allowed to be in my corner and someone else from the gym is, but I only find out now. This throws me slightly and I stare vacantly a few feet in front of me, not knowing what to make of it.
I feel let down, I know this person and had occasionally seen him in the gym but I didn’t train with him. It would have been better to know the person in my corner telling me to “chill out, calm down and focus on your breathing, you know what you’re doing”.
“Ten seconds corners” comes over the speakers from the announcer.
‘Ding’ I get up and pace forward, hearing my friends, and especially my sister, shouting my name. The atmosphere is intense and electric, its as if the air has an electric charge. My vision is fixed within a metre on the man in front of me. Through determination and fear I am focused.
This round is hands on, with a lot more up close, bullish behaviour from both of us. We are digging into each other having a hard tussle, close and tight in the corner. All of a sudden my opponent grabs me with both arms and throws me to the floor. I hear lots of ‘BOOO’s’ and a loud “What the…?” from the crowd.
The referee marches over and signals that we should go to our corners. I can see he is talking firmly with my opponent. I have no idea what he is saying but it seems pretty apparent that he is telling him “it’s not a wrestling match!”
The referee comes over to me and asks “alright?” I smile and said “yeh” not knowing what to make of the situation and feeling quite bemused. “Did he really just do that?” I think.
We carry on for the rest of the round and it is clear he wants to make an impression. A few more intense moments of up close scrapping, hard knocks and the bell goes. This round is even.
I sit down, my heart rate has reached a new level of speed and my breathing is deep, rapid and intense. The corner man tells me to “keep at it, stay on him you’re just ahead”. It’s at this point I start to feel exhausted and worn out, as if a switch had been flipped and I am drained of all my energy, it is immediate and sudden.
Before I know it, ’ding’ the bell goes and the third round is on.
There is always a huge amount of respect from each fighter towards their opponent, touching gloves at the start with an acknowledgement that it’s no joke and at the same time, don’t take this personally. We touch gloves to signify the last round.
The fight picks up a gear and he comes at me with intensity, wanting to take charge the assaults seem relentless. I move, dodge left, lean back out the way of a fast jab followed by a hook. I pivot and keep moving. I am doing well to avoid his fast approaching advances. There is only so much I can do before the action gets up front and personal. I’m shattered and feel exhausted, I would quite happily hear the bell go now.
In one ‘embrace’ as we tussle with each other I feel that I’ve had enough and my strength has gone. I feel like a rag doll, a puppet on strings whose master has tossed it aside, leaving it to move on its own. My arms don’t work and my legs feel like they are barely holding me up.
The fight takes on an even greater intensity as he steps it up, taking charge of the round. I duck and move around, keeping him at bay, jabbing where I can, but my body is tense and tired. I hear a shout “Come on Guy, keep those hands up!” as the signs are clearly showing. I gee myself on and muster the last bit of strength I have to go on the attack. It’s clear that he’s won the round and had a good finish.
The bell sounds and there is a huge raw of appreciation from the crowd. We touch gloves and go over to our corners. I feel deeply disheartened as I know I am better than I fought.
My movement was stiff and rigid, the flowing of punches simply wasn’t there. I sit wondering where my strength went. All the training and it just suddenly disappears when I need it. I see the look in the corner man’s eyes and it’s one of defeat. I sense that I lost and then tell myself otherwise. We are called to the centre of the ring with the referee standing between us as we face the judges. There is a moment’s pause and my opponent’s hand is held up high. I turn to congratulate him with a smile, touch of gloves and nod, then head out the ring.
My girlfriend and sister are there as I get out of the ring and start to walk towards backstage, both their hands in the air, screaming and smiling at me. I’m still in an exhausted and disappointed state, despite their best efforts I say: “That was shit, I was shit, I’m so much better than that” and continue backstage with my head low and my girlfriend to accompany me.
I sit down in my small corner and the environment is still intense, there’s no breathing space to relax yet and the next fight is moments away, boxers are gearing up, pacing back and forth and I am there with my opponent only a few feet away. I glance his way and our eyes catch each other. We smile and nod almost in unison.
My girlfriend removes the tape around my gloves and unties them. I unwind the wraps from my hands and with each layer that comes off my fingers loosen. I roll my wrists with delight as they relax. The tension is going and I tentatively take the rest of my gear off. Folding my top and shorts in half I place them neatly next to my bag along with the gloves, wraps, mouth guard and boots. Like an old ornate military outfit preserved on display in a museum, here is my war outfit, complete and laid out before me.
I shower and change to go and greet my loyal supporters.
As I head out I catch a glimpse of a few people eagerly looking in my direction waiting for me. I am met with overwhelming joy from everybody. I then realise they were as much a part of it as I was. There are pats on the back, broad smiles and congratulatory embraces. I feel united with everyone; it isn’t about me, it is a group of people being together, showing love and support.
It is good to feel the support from everybody there, people I know and don’t. It becomes apparent that it meant more to them than me and that they also took on board the seriousness of what has just happened. The first thing they bring up is the ‘throw down’ incident and it becomes clear it was a tactic to ‘rough me up’ and use his strength and size against me. One friend explains how he saw and overheard the opponent’s corner after the first round say: “Bully him! Use your size to overpower, go at him and use it to your advantage, rough him up!”
The best fighter on the night won.
I feel a deep sense of my own worth lacking though. My main goal was to go out there and represent myself well. Winning of course would have been great but ultimately it was about the achievement of competing after all those months of dedication spent training, getting up early, arriving home late. Above all I wanted this to show that I was a good boxer and I couldn’t understand why I was so exhausted and drained, where had my strength gone?
It appears however that I did all of these things and everyone is very impressed saying it was the best boxing fight that evening; the most technical, no big swinging and no lack of skill. It was boxing. None of my friends have any need to say that for the sake of it; it’s truly what they feel.
I’m pleased to say that I was the only fighter to come out that evening without a black eye and without getting knocked down or taking a serious beating. So perhaps I had done better than I felt.
We go to the bar and the order comes my way. I glance across behind the waiter looking carefully at the bottles. “I’ll have a double Remy Martin, neat please,” I say. It’s the first drink in months and goes down my throat like water to a marooned sailor.
Standing at the bar we chat and go over it all, hearing different parts of the fight in detail from the viewpoints they each have. We watch the last few fights, having a good time, laughing and joking, getting more drunk as it goes on.
At the end of the evening we leave and go to a hotel bar on the way home for a few more drinks. Finally we close the night at a friend’s house nearby, inventing a new game in his living room called ‘dancing on a towel whilst drunk’, as you do, until early dawn.