The last time I exchanged blows was in the fourth grade, when Benji Leva was spitting on my sister at the bus stop. I pulled Benji's raincoat over his head, kicked him in the backpack, and bolted to school as fast as I could.
Believe it or not, I had no formal training.
That all changed when I met George Sylva, owner of Sylva's Boxing Gym. Last year George won a title at the Ringside World Championship. Today he faced a more daunting challenge: teaching me the trade.
Sylva's Gym bustled with jump ropes and speed bags while shadow boxers snorted through their punches (it prevents them from holding their breath).
"Get punched while holding your breath," said George, "and you won't inhale again for thirty seconds."
The gym was spacious like an airplane hangar: two professional rings, a dozen heavy bags, treadmills, bongos. Yeah, bongos.
"Boxing is all about rhythm," says George. "It's kind of like a dance."
To which I must add: a dance where your partner is trying to cut off circulation to your brain.
Going in, I had a few things working against me. One, I am skinny; two, I'm white; and three, my insurance plan is an HMO. Fortunately, George was the kind of guy who listened carefully before telling you to get over it. His gentleness came from knowing that he could beat up everyone in the room.
At 140 pounds, I was a junior welter weight -- a fancy way of saying "puny." Guys talk about staying at their fighting weight; I myself have always hovered more around a fleeing weight. It keeps my chin out of trouble.
"Getting hit on the chin may feel like a car wreck," said George, "but you learn to recover because you don't want to get hit again."
Oh. Well. That was encouraging.
Sylva's Gym is filled with chiseled trainers. Enter Al Tenenholtz, a cross between Burgess Meredith, complete with beanie, and Popeye, complete with 30-inch forearms. Al was always helping someone. Today it was me.
"You've got to relax," said Al, fluffing my shoulders. "When you're tense you not only waste energy, but your punches are unproductive."
Steve Carbajal was on mitts. As a light heavyweight Steve advanced to the '84 Olympic semifinals. It's hard to imagine him falling; he's built like an SUV. Steve had the same look as George -- kind but dangerous. He also shared George's martial approach to the sport. One time he caught me peeking at the round-clock and added 15 seconds.
Fifteen excruciating seconds.
It's hard to properly describe the pain without using the F-word. Three minutes doesn't seem like much until your triceps catch fire. Then it's, like, 180 seconds. The whole gym worked out in three-minute intervals. When the timer rings, everything stops like an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Steve passed me back to George, who explained body position, balance, and watching the opponent's feet without really looking. I also learned to guard my chin. Boxers don't mind getting punched -- nay, I suspect they enjoy it -- but the chin is sacramental.
Over the weekend I had finished my homework -- "snatching the lemon." That's when you place a tennis ball on your dresser and snap it up with your jab hand over and over and over.
"The jab is your best friend," said George. "It will get you out of trouble and irritate the hell out of your opponent."
George spent the day teaching me to breathe, something I had done since birth but seemingly not so well.
"You need to relax even when you're scared and exhausted. The whole fight depends on your breath."
George ordered a series of ab drills that he had learned in the navy. Until then I had seen medicine balls but didn't know how much I despised them. George stepped on my stomach to keep me from cheating. And when I absolutely, positively could not go on, he squeezed ten more crunches out of me.
"Body blows. You'll thank me later."
How do school girls smile when they jump rope? It's a grueling activity. George had me jump rope for six rounds, and by the time I was finished you could wring my soul for sweat. And every time I dropped the rope, George called for ten pushups. Gym policy. No matter where he was in the world, George could hear that rope hit the floor.
"Concentration. You'll thank me later."
Toshi Kuwata endures this anguish six days a week. He says, in fact, that he can't get enough. As a professional fighter, Toshi is three and one, including a knockout victory.
"This gym has a great feel," said Toshi. "It's not like other gyms where guys want to take your head off every time you spar."
Sparring, for the record, is a time for boxers to hone their technique. It may look friendly on account of the headgear, but take it from me -- getting punched is a lot like getting punched.
Today George went Zen: "All the things I've taught you ... don't think about them. It's got to become instinct. If you think about what to do, you're already done."
Snapping the jab, protecting my chin, eye contact, breathing... There was a lot to not think about. George ducked behind a heavy bag from where he issued commands.
"Jab ... Jab jab ... right ... jab right right ..."
Every time I punched, he leapt out and smacked me on the head.
"You'll thank me later."
Fifty-six-year-old Pat Hyatt comes to Sylva's Gym three times a week.
"I feel great," she said. "I'm tone. I'm pumped. I feel like there's nothing I can't do."
It should be noted that I spoke to Pat after her workout, when she could have gotten a DUI for her endorphin levels. But she was right: Boxing empowers you in a way that other self-defense courses cannot. When someone corners you on the street, you can't say, "Give me a second while I get my tae bo music."
The Main Event
To find someone my size, we looked to the teenagers. George selected 14-year-old Hugo Centeno, a junior gold medallist who has boxed all over North America and plans to go pro. He was "skilled enough to control his sting." So it goes.
First, I hate it when ninth-graders are taller than me. Second, I was old enough to be his ... spiritual adviser. Stepping into the ring, I mentioned my HMO, but Hugo didn't get it. The round clock buzzed and George pushed me out of the nest.
The jab is your best friend, Jason. Jab. Jab jab. Jab jab jab.
Hugo thumped me on the forehead with a right. I ordered an immediate recall of all jabs. Hugo and I circled each other until he got bored and one-two'd me. His punches split my gloves like they weren't even there. I threw a right of my own, but like George said, I was trying to swim without getting wet. In boxing you have to commit. Or else.
The round ended, and I loitered back to the corner sucking for air. I asked George to unstrap my headgear.
"It's not your headgear," he said. "You're out of air because you haven't breathed in three minutes. You've got to relax."
I was still in street fight mode -- arms flailing, juices pumping. It was, according to George, a good way to get killed (figure of speech, ma).
The second round was mostly hit and miss: Hugo would hit me; I would miss him. Then, at the risk of walking away like something by Picasso, I decided to throw as many punches as I could, hoping to win by volume.
This is called "punching yourself out." Hugo waited for my arms to catch fire, then introduced me to The Counterpunch. And George was wrong: It wasn't like a car wreck at all; it was more like a plane crash.
Between rounds, Al (Popeye) repeated something we had discussed earlier. "Think of your arm as a piston. It's got to snap back as fast as it goes out."
In the final round, Hugo moved in and, like a man with four arms, played the bongos on my noggin. George shouted for me to defend myself, but my arms wouldn't budge. "To heck with it," they said. "Let the head take some grief for a while."
And right there, in the midst of that flurry, something beautiful happened: I opened my eyes and I breathed. In, out, in, out. My courage grew not with every punch I landed but with every punch I took. I had finally stopped running from the bus stop.
Don't expect a Rocky ending. I landed only one more blow to Hugo's forehead, and if he ever becomes famous I will talk about it often.
After the fight, I didn't want to gossip. I drove instead to the beach where I looked at the stars. It was still light outside; the stars came from inside my head. And there I reflected.
Whereas I used to find boxing a silly sport -- grown men fighting over a purse -- I came to see that it's an art form requiring equal measures courage and grace. Most of these boxers aren't fighting for money; they are fighting for that look in George's eyes, the freedom of walking the earth with nothing left to prove.
I am officially the newest member at Sylva's Gym. They call me Cinderella Man because that's how I fight -- like Cinderella. And even though I take the worst of my exchanges, I'm getting better. Someday I may even fight a grownup.
And whenever life gets tough and makes a fist, I think of George. And I relax.