Chapter 1 : Fight Night

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.

Photo credit - Richard Smith
End of round two. Photo credit – Richard Smith

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.

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Chapter 2 : The Build Up

“I was on my way to a stranger’s house to have a fight.”

 

I had been training in various boxing gyms throughout London for approximately five years. I sparred here and there, enjoying the relaxing feeling I had after a good session.

Boxing is an art form, a technical dance with the highest stakes.

That’s what attracted me to the sport. I remember going into a boxing gym for the first time and seeing these small fighters who were very technical with precise movement around the ring, like chasing a shadow in the wind, you can’t get close. They could easily knock down a man twice their size and I admired this athleticism greatly.

Boxing was a release; a fun way to be in great shape, hammer out the stress of working long hours in London with the added benefit of feeling good. It was time away, an escape where I could focus on the intense action in the ring without any other thoughts. It was for this reason I had turned down so many opportunities to fight before, all the gyms I’d sparred in had put me forward but I always declined.

I enjoyed the freedom boxing brought.  The only pressure was the one I put on myself to turn up to the gym when I felt like going home.  One of the gyms was notorious for putting together fighters who were not well matched either in size or experience. I heard some terrible stories of fights that had devastating results for the less experienced boxer, who generally got beaten up.  It wasn’t a boxing match.

Some of the promoters didn’t care and wanted to ‘put on a good show’ as they saw it, they were never governed or overseen by a particular body, or at least not that I knew of, so it was free reign in that sense and you had to put a lot of faith in the promoter to match you evenly. It takes huge guts to put yourself forward and step out into the ring even without this added unknown risk.

I came to a point where I had been flirting with the idea of a fight for some time. It kept creeping into my mind: ‘I’d like to be part of a show, I feel good enough’.  This tied in with an internal drive I have always had to do something to the best of my abilities and not by halves. I would go all in, or not at all.

A few things in life also shifted to help with the decision. I had been producing music for some time and the studio I was using wasn’t available for a few months. I had also split up with my girlfriend so I now had more time and energy than usual.  There was an opening for this to happen, for me to invest in the training needed to compete at this level, not to just box anymore for the sake of it.  The timing felt right to allow it to happen.

I trained hard; six times a week for two hours each session. Once early on Monday mornings with a trainer, then each night and Saturday morning. I would ride my bike to the gym which added another forty minutes exercise each way, carrying a bag weighing six kgs of gear too added its own workout. Sunday was the day for relaxation.

IMG_5966
The Ride on Regents Canal.

Throughout this period I felt myself becoming a much better boxer. The trainer helped to bring me back to basics; footwork and movement. I was now more nimble around the ring, it is a dance after all.

One evening I went to another gym I had never been to before to get some practice with fighters I didn’t know and joined a sparring session. I wanted to test myself by intentionally being in uncomfortable situations to help prepare mentally for the ring and get used to that feeling of the unknown. All boxing gyms are intense environments for the outsider. There is always a certain amount of sussing you out that goes on by the fighters in the gym.  As insiders they don’t give too much away, it’s all part of the dance. I went through to the changing room and immediately felt the glare coming my way, like a heavy weight pushing on my back, almost making me trip over my feet as I walked.

The session was good training although I was out of my depth. We did a few minutes sparring between each fighter on continual rotation with no stops and it became immediately clear they wanted to make an impression. It was tough going and I took a few hard hits. They had proven their authority; this was their gym and I felt it!

Another scenario I found myself in was a suggestion put forward by a trainer I knew. He said I should meet with one of his clients who had fought before to spar with. This seemed like a good idea so I got in touch and arranged to go round to his place to have a sparring session one evening.

I remember walking up to the flat, which was on the sixth floor in a block of flats in central London near Farringdon, and it suddenly dawned on me this is a bit weird and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In a nutshell, I was on my way to a stranger’s house to have a fight.

I got to the entrance of the building and pressed the buzzer. A strong “hello” came through the small speaker and I said “hi, it’s Guy”.  “Ok, come up” he replied.  I went up in the lift and walked along the corridor, not sure what to expect. I was slightly nervous and keen at the same time. I got to the door and it was off the latch. I cautiously nudged it open and he came down to meet me. He was slightly taller than me with a stocky build and a few years older.  He welcomed me in and came across as a good bloke telling me he was a chef. As with all chefs I have met he had a scowl ingrained across his forehead from the tension of the job I presume.

He had cleared a space in the lounge ready for a tussle. We did the usual  “how do you know such and such” whilst I got changed as he didn’t have much time. I think this helped to ease the nerves for both of us. We ended up using an egg timer he had nearby on the cooker to keep track of the rounds.

It was unusual sparring. You had to be aware of the sofa behind you, the kitchen in the corner (it was open plan), then the bookcase to the left and a glass table that had been moved out the way. We couldn’t shove each other too hard as you would fall into a picture on the wall or possibly out the window. This helped with spatial awareness and forced us to be up close with one another. We did six rounds of sparring and I left as quickly as I had arrived.

All the training and sparring was taking its toll though. I remembered approximately two weeks before the fight feeling good and ready; it appeared I had peaked too soon. This was my own character showing through, going all in with lack of experience and guidance taking on something of this nature. The words ‘pace yourself’ came to mind.

I found the hardest part with boxing was the emotional shift I forced myself to undertake every time I put on the gloves. I never, ever, intentionally wanted to hurt anyone. Getting into a ring you have to be mentally prepared and fully accepting of what is going on. To box you need to have this ‘I’m going in’ attitude. This was completely out of character and I found it emotionally draining. I would psych myself up to it, when within my true nature it’s the last thing I wanted to do. This is probably the main reason why I hadn’t fought in all the opportunities before.

As anyone will know who has competed or trained to a high level in a sport, the more training you do, the fitter you get and the better you feel. There is a high often spoken of which can be achieved after a short fast run for example.

I was used to this high having played rugby to county level throughout my teens and also doing cross country mountain bike racing amongst lots of other sports; I was very active growing up.  This high was not felt through my intense boxing training.

I can remember a specific conversation with my girlfriend (we got back together a month into training) when I said to her, “something seems wrong, I don’t feel fitter and stronger. I feel more exhausted and worn out, almost thin”. I left it at that and presumed it was just due to the amount of training, a stressful job and I wasn’t in my teens anymore. This did linger in mind as an area of concern. 

As the build up to the fight continued I felt a sense of improvement in my fitness, although something wasn’t right, I couldn’t quite identify it.  One day I was walking along the road to the shops and felt a very sharp sudden pain in my chest that brought me immediately to a stop. As quickly as it occurred it disappeared as if nothing had happened and so I carried on not giving it another moment’s thought.

This happened a few more times over the coming weeks up to the fight. With my general exhaustion as well I decided to book an appointment with the doctor just in case.

Within myself I knew something was up but I didn’t want anything to possibly get in the way of the fight. So with the usual delay at the surgery and my own self-willing I had an appointment the week after the fight.

Chapter 3 : The Appointment

“Goodness, has anyone ever told you you have a heart murmur?”

 

I arrived and sat at the doctor’s surgery feeling quite bemused and a little uncertain. Last week I had competed in the most intense environment I had ever been in and now I was sat here, feeling good but anxious. I told myself it was nothing and it was a good idea to have come so that the doctor could clear it from my mind.

I was called through for my appointment; I didn’t have a regular doctor as I did my best to avoid those places and I had always been fit and healthy.  She was in her mid to late forties with dark brown hair parted in the middle cut to shoulder length and wearing a black suit which drew together her hair and brown eyes behind large circular glasses.

She gestured that I should sit down on the chair next to her desk and said, “so how can I help?”.

I filled her in on what had happened over the last few months and why I was here, going into detail about the training and how I had been feeling; the exhaustion and those odd moments which had lead to being sat talking with her.

“Oh right” she said and asked me to lift up my shirt as she got out her stethoscope, placing it on my chest.  Within a split second she jolted back in her chair and her eyes broadened. She recomposed herself and focused intently.

“Goodness, has anyone ever told you you have a heart murmur?”

“No!” came my reply in a sharp, shocked laughable tone.

“Oh” she said, and I noticed a look of shock, terror and sympathy all hidden behind her professional appearance.

“OK, well what we’ll do is send you off to have some tests to see what’s happening. Give you an MOT as it were”.

I sat there in silence for a moment. It felt like I was being sucked into a void,  someone had turned the lights down and the room closed in on me.  Had I just been punched in the face during a sparring session?  I quickly came to and wearily said “Ohh K”.

“The nurse will send out a referral letter with an appointment for a follow up” she said whilst smiling at me as if to offer some reassurance. This smile was clearly hiding something.

There wasn’t really any more to discuss and I didn’t know what to say.  So I got up, thanked her for her time and left.  I was in and out in under ten minutes and it felt like the world was spinning.  Not knowing what to make of it all I walked home in a complete daze.