»  The Straggler, No. 25

November 8, 2004

  Boxing Day


"Three! (… two, three)—Go!—Switch! Six! (… four, five, six)—Go!—Switch!—Switch! Twelve! (… ten, eleven, twelve)—Go!—Switch! …"

I am watching my son Daniel, aged nine, working the big bag. The instructor calls out how many blows the boy should land on the bag. After the last blow, Danny must dance off sideways round the bag, switching direction on a word of command, waiting for the next number call.

My son is taking his weekly session at a local outfit named Fitness Through Boxing, run from a modest storefront near us, and containing a full-size boxing ring, some bags, and a small gym area fitted out with benches and free weights. We come here every Wednesday evening for an hour: Danny to take the training, myself to catch up on magazine reading.

FTB is the brainchild of a local amateur boxer, Rob Vanacore. Rob told me he fell in love with boxing in 1971, when he himself was nine years old, the night of the tremendous first Ali-Frazier fight. From that moment on Rob belonged to the small, blessed band of human beings whose life is fired with a determination to do just one thing really well. He started out practicing with a neighborhood kid named Tony. They only had one pair of gloves, so they wore one glove each, taking turns so left and right both got a workout. Tony went on to join the U.S. Army, boxed professionally in Europe, and won a Junior Middleweight championship. Rob — who, at 5' 8" and 147 lbs., boxes welterweight — worked as a pizza-maker for a few years, but he worked only in order to box. The great event for amateur boxers in the New York area is the local Golden Gloves, a competition run by the Daily News. Rob chased the Golden Gloves championship for fourteen years, making it to the semifinals twice.

Tony is back in the neighborhood now, working at the gym with Rob. A large and superbly muscled man, Tony would be very intimidating but for inborn good nature and tireless enthusiasm. Earlier in the evening I'd seen him sparring with one of the more advanced students, a boy of about seventeen. Ducking, weaving, skipping easily to and fro, Tony was a marvel to watch. I talked with the teenager afterwards. "With a regular sparring partner," the lad groused, "you throw a punch, three times out of four you'll hit his glove. With Tony, you never hit anything. By the time your glove gets there, Tony's some place else."

I can't call myself a great boxing fan. I've always liked the sport, but never followed it closely. If I'm channel surfing TV and catch a boxing match in progress, I'll stop and watch it through — that's about the limit of my enthusiasm. I had a brief moment of glory at age thirteen when the gym teacher at our boys-only school organized a boxing tournament, with a ring set up in the school auditorium. Though a fundamentally unathletic kid, I was going through a growth spurt, and, as often happens, different parts were growing at different speeds. The part of me that was growing fastest at this particular moment in time was my arms. I looked like a gibbon. At our low skill level this gave me a great advantage. With decent wind and some grasp of basic technique, I could hold off any opponent till he tired enough to give me an easy opening. I won all my bouts. The glory didn't last long — does it ever? The gym teacher left that year, his successors had no interest in boxing, and society soon passed into a zone where the idea of thirteen-year-old boys punching each other's faces for educational purposes became as unthinkable as the dense fug of tobacco smoke in our school's staff room.

(Though I note that in colleges at any rate, the sweet science is in something of a renaissance. College boxing, which seemed to have died out in the late 1960s, was re-established in 1976, and the National Collegiate Boxing Association now includes about 30 teams. For this factlet, and many other fascinating insights, see Gordon Marino's article "Boxing and the Cool Halls of Academe" in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8/13/04 issue. I would give a lot to be able to byline myself, as Marino does: "A former boxer, professor of philosophy, curator of the Kierkegaard Library, and assistant football coach.")

Danny likes this place, anyway. Last year we let him try some Chinese martial-arts classes, but they didn't "take." Boxing seems to have "taken." I am not sure why this is. Rob, like most boxers, holds the oriental fighting styles in low esteem. "Put me against one of those guys — I'll knock him flat." Speaking as a person who once watched the late Bruce Lee up close and personal, I have my doubts; though I recall that Lee himself was a keen observer of western boxing techniques, and incorporated some of them into his own very individual style.

I like it here myself, I must say. Perhaps I should set aside my magazines and join in the training with my son. There is an agreeable and good-humored atmosphere in a boxing gym that cannot but be healthful for a growing boy to inhale. Robert A. Heinlein famously remarked that "an armed society is a polite society." Well, a trained fighter is always armed. It is an odd paradox of human nature, seen in sergeants' messes as well as boxing gyms, that there is never more ease of manner, concentration on mastering tasks and skills, and warm fellowship among men than when they have come together in a group to perform lawful acts of physical violence.

It is of course an open question how much longer boxing will be lawful in our feminized, lawyered-up society. Rob makes his customers sign a sheaf of wavers before they can put on the gloves. For a while longer yet, though, a boy can still come to a place like this and learn how to take on others in physical combat with skill, courage, and discipline, as men have done for longer than time itself.