by Chris Ike
Squid is at the vending machine. I can see him out of the corner of my eye. I hear the machine go through its series of clicks and whines, and drop a bottle in to the receiving tray. I’m in the corner of the gym jumping rope. My sweat is working its way down my face as the rope whirrs rhythmically around and around, slapping the floor.”phffft. phffft. phffft.”
Seeing him there makes my throat feel dry. I’m kind of thirsty by now and could really go for a drink. I figure I probably have about 2 minutes left in the round. When I train with the rope, I like to do it for 3-minute durations. 3 minutes is the length of a standard professional boxing round. Typically, the standard rest period between rounds in a real boxing match is 1 minute. I try to rest the same for my jump rope rounds. On good days, I can abide by these standards, but I often find myself gassed after three or four rounds, and end up extending the rest period to 2 minutes or more. It’s ok though, because for me the point is more to develop my sense of rhythm and timing. Whatever increase in conditioning I get is merely a bonus.
My jump rope is an older wooden-handled, ball-bearing model with a genuine cowhide leather rope. “Everlast” is engraved across the sides of the handles. This was made back when Everlast was still a reputable brand and made some of the best gear. Today, everything they make is made overseas and of dubious quality and design. An old coach of mine used to joke about the new gear, referring to it as: “Echoes of Everlast”
The gym is buzzing. Lots of people here today. Some days the place was still, like a church with only a few bodies wrapped up in a self-contained meditation of movement. Maybe it’s a form of physical prayer or even penance, I’m not sure, but I liked the solitude sometimes. Today, however, the place was packed. There’s another guy beside myself, jumping rope in the open area of the gym. Both speed bag stations were in use, laying down a nice steady “thuppa-tah,thuppa-tah” backbeat. The drone of voices, jostling chains and leather thudding canvas filled out the atmosphere. A couple guys sparred with each other in the main ring, their trainer incessantly drilling commands.
“Hands up! Move!”
“Protect and move!”
The trainer, Manny is from Milwaukee via Mexico. He has a pretty thick accent that has the power to transform a “jab” into a “yab” His voice pitched the phrase “use the jab!” as a very sing-song-y “youse-thee-yaab!” It used to crack me up, the first few times I heard it. I came to realize however, that it was exactly these small, subtle quirks that can be very effective in helping condition the mind to reflexively respond to the commands. In an actual boxing match, the ability to be able to receive instruction from your corner and actually apply it is paramount.
Heavyweight champ Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That pretty much accurately sums up most of my own experience in the ring. You go in with a game plan, usually specifically tailored to the opponent you’re going to face and think you have it all figured out. In the heightened adrenaline-fueled state of attention that occurs when you are physically fighting another human being, there is this cone of focus that develops from your eyes to the opponent. Periphery stimuli like the crowd noise and often times, the much needed instruction from your corner becomes nothing more than a fuzzy echo that reverberates dully around you. You exist in you own mind, remembering what you need to do, figuring out how to execute it, watching the other guy. Watching the other guy….
“Bap!” his jab connects.
The punch registers pretty quickly. There are a good number of autonomic responses that happen when you are struck in head. Many of them are genetically pre-programmed from our earliest hairless incarnations post-crawling out of the primordial ooze. I don’t want to go into all the reflexive chicanery that your body is apt to do, but suffice it to say that it takes a lot of practice to detour or at the very least suppress these natural responses.
Just imagine the last time you accidentally banged your head on an open cabinet door. My guess is that you most likely were compelled to grab your head with both hands, close your eyes and wince in pain. Less likely is that the instant your head slammed into the door, you coolly stepped back and calmly reminded yourself of your lifelong game plan to avoid slamming your head into cabinet doors.
“phffft. phffft. phffft.”
Why was I thinking about getting punched again? Oh, right. Awareness and the ability to maintain, digest and use the information flying around you in a fight. This is important. I’m not very good at it, but I am getting better. I find my mind wandering to strange places while I’m jumping rope. Maybe it’s the monotonous repetition of the exercise or maybe the physical exertion opens up neuro-pathways, the likes of which make grown men deliver narratives to themselves about their own self-reflection. I don’t think I’m unusual in this regard. Perhaps a bit less focused than some others, but not unusual.
Take the guy with the drink: Squid. He’s amazing. He has an innate gift for being able to parse information coming from outside his cone of focus and translates it into what’s right in the ring. He’s actually just a great fighter all around. In addition to his above average mental capacity for concentration, he is physically ideal for the sport of boxing. He’s built of cabled musculature: long, lean and lithe, without the impedance of bulky over developed biceps, deltoids or pectorals. His power comes from his speed and timing, not brute strength. I’ve seen his economy of movement in the ring.
Each slip, feint, bend or bow is a measured coiling of fascia readying the delivery of a stinging counter with frightening efficacy.
I’ve been told that Squid got his nickname because he was a Navy man. Maybe it’s the name, but I’ve come to liken him more to the animal myself. To watch him throw a beautiful arching hook is like watching a nature show clip of cephalopod’s hunting underwater. His blows emulate the almost slow-motion beginning of a tentacle strike that end with the whip-like lashing of ropey tendrils around a doomed dinner morsel. Gotcha.
The first time I saw him, I had just started training at the gym. I was walking in the parking lot when I see an large, rumbling, on-deaths-door gold Dodge pulling into a space. It had all the earmarks of an old, dying car replete with a busted taillight and rear bumper attached only by a bent coat hanger and a prayer. More rust it appeared, than paint on the body. This unholy rolling abomination seemed to be heaving itself between the painted lines like a fat gold walrus hoisting its body onto an ice flow. It was spewing a fairly remarkable amount of blue-black smoke from a rotted out tailpipe. A groaning lurch later, and the Dodge’s engine wound down. A loud creaking as the driver’s side door swung open and produced a tall, lanky, somehow unsettling version of a man. He bent over and pulled a small leather gym bag out of the car. He was shirtless and wore grey sweatpants and flip-flops. He walked towards me on his way to the gym entrance.
As he approached, he began to take shape. Lean. His face, easily definable as gaunt, tightly framed a set of dull grey eyes. His cut and striated muscles with so little body fat, it almost appeared as though his body was catabolizing itself. I could see he had a few tattoos. There were a couple on his forearms that I couldn’t make out clearly. The one on his neck that looked like, at the time to me, a bust of Barney Rubble from the Flintstones cartoon ensconced in a thorny rose. I would later learn that it was actually a portrait of his father. Once he passed me, I saw that he had more tattoos on his back. The largest among them really stood out. It was a fairly detailed monotone of a hammer with a broken wooden handle. Surrounding it, in a half arc above the hammer were the words: “Roads To Roads” and completing the circle, under the image: “Only We Know”
“phffft. phffft. phffft.”
“250. “The last rotation concludes with a slightly deadened slap of leather on the shiny hardwood as the rope comes to rest behind me. Jumping rope is in the books for today. The morning light is now pouring in through the high windows in the gym. The space is probably a converted factory or machine plant of some kind. The window panes are made of old pebbled glass, the kind with a weave of chicken wire embedded inside them. The sunbeams trying to penetrate get split and refract into a million rays, some of which make me squint as I head over to the drink machine. My legs feel tingly, with muscles still taut while the blood begins to vacate back to other parts of my body.
I reach the soda machine and prop my forearm against it over my head to support myself as I survey the options. Let’s see, water: no. Orange Gatorade: no. Lipton iced tea with lemo… OUT. The tiny “Selection Not Available” red light solidly lit in the button corner of the fat plastic button drives the point home.
I’m mildly depressed by this turn of events and resign myself to a bottle of water. As I’m walking away from the machine with my consolation prize, I happen to spot Squid now riding the Airdyne exercise bike. Sitting by his towel on the floor is his bottle. The label is turned so I can only make out part of the label, but there was no mistaking the letters: “L-I-P-T”.
Well there you have it. I take a long pull off of my water, which is in fact, quite underwhelming.
My introduction to boxing came through my grandfather, by way of his good friend Thom Halsey. Halsey, he preferred to be called, was a trainer and worked out of the local gym bringing up small timers until they either outgrew him or fizzled out into the abyss of unrealized prize fighting dreams. My grandfather wasn’t part of the fight game himself, but he had known Halsey forever, and he would help work as cornerman for him if he was short a man. He loved the sport though. He approved of it as an honest contest and strongly felt that it was about the fairest way a man could match up against another.
One year, I had spent a summer in Washington State visiting my grandfather. It was near the tail end of that summer and the early autumn signs were starting to make themselves known. I was probably about 11 at time or as Pa called it: “The twilight of my juveniles” Though not a droll man by any stretch of the imagination, he was never short any expressions or witticisms. Cut from the same rugged cloth that produced many a young American boy’s grandfather, these sayings were also often accompanied by a piece of stern wisdom or a stoic gaze, sometimes both.
My memories of Pa always find him perpetually clad in Pendleton flannel shirts. Their woolen construction, stiff and itchy out of the packaging, was worn down so thoroughly by age and countless wearings that they were transformed into a soft familiar hide as natural as if his body had grown it right out of his skin.
Once Pa and I were at his place waiting for a delivery of stones intended for the repair of the low walls that ran along the lane. The delivery arrived about 2 hours late and there a discrepancy with what was owed, to boot. Pa was less than amused. Among other more colorful and scornful expletives delivered, he told the men to “Go bust rocks!” Later, when I was older I heard a similar expression phrased: “Go pound sand.” I imagined those men my grandfather had chided kept breaking those rocks until they were reduced to sand. These were after all, men of the old breed. Members of a hardened cast who built the world around them with their own two hands. Their gifts left for us extended into idioms, for the hard work was done and now even the most indolent progenies among us could be sent away to successfully pound soft, forgiving sand without incident.
One weekend that summer while I was staying with Pa, he had brought me by the gym to see Halsey and some of the other regulars. After my grandfather had greeted Halsey and the two exchanged cordials, we settled ourselves in a couple seats ringside. On this particular day, there was a guy that Halsey was trying to recruit training there. His name was Avery Taylor. Taylor was known as an exciting up and comer in the boxing game around town in those days. Physically, he was a rangy, but solidly built lightweight, with small somewhat narrow eyes and sported a slick ducktail haircut with a sweeping shock that fell off to one side.
Pa looked at me and said, “You see that man there in the dark trunks?”
“That man’s a fighter.”
I was a little confused because I thought that all the men who were boxing in a ring were fighters. I hadn’t understood then that he had meant it as a high form of compliment. By that statement, he meant it as a declaration that this man was the ideal representation of the very definition of boxing excellence. I nodded again and mumbled a soft “uh-huh.”
I looked up at my grandfather who was intently staring at the man as he warmed-up in the ring. His leather lace-up boxing shoes were beating the tight canvas floor dully as he danced gracefully and with natural ease. Apparently, Pa had seen him fight earlier in the year in a non-promoted bout at some local fair and was impressed. He was excited to watch him there that day.
Pa said he had something that couldn’t be trained or given. Taylor, he explained was gifted with what he called, “fatal elasticity”, the kind that might save your life in the ring or take one just the same. According to my grandfather, no man in the county or next county over could match Taylor’s evasive speed and devastating ability to snap a punch so sharply as to arrest the very thoughts floating around in his opponents head.
Even as a boy, I could appreciate the ferocity with which Avery Taylor could land a blow. I distinctly remember the sparring match I witnessed that day. Halsey had told us one of the journeyman locals at the gym had been less than convinced that Taylor had all the goods to back up his quickly growing legend. When Taylor showed up at the gym that day the two had agreed to go a few rounds, in a friendly match of course. My grandfather told me that the other guy, who’s name escapes me now was in fact, no slouch and fairly skilled in the ring himself. In the opening minute of the first round, Taylor slipped his opponents jab and came back with a lightning straight right that squared up on the guy’s forehead. In the fuzzy ring light, I could have sworn I saw dust compress out of Taylor’s glove as it connected. His opponent’s head snapped back and the moment it rebounded I could see the expression on his face had turned from concentrated gritty focus to a sleepy, stunned mask of fear and confusion. I would later see this same face worn pitifully on cattle the instant that they received a shot from a captive bolt pistol just prior to being slaughtered.
I watched the man’s form collapse. It just seemed to melt and crumble into the canvas, starting from the top of his face on down. His eyes rolled back and all tensions appeared to wash away as his features, then limbs released and settled into a loose heap on the ring floor.
My own kid face was locked in stiff and utter amazement. My eyes were as wide as I can ever remember them being and my mouth frozen agape.
I looked up at Pa who was looking on just as intently, but his look was less one of surprise than one of positive scrutiny. He flexed his furrowed brow and softly mouthed an approving: “Un-be-lieve-able.”
I believe in that moment I recognized for the first time just what a beautifully violent expression of force boxing could be. One man’s will creating an exquisite explosion capable of reshaping another man’s physical matter and his perception of the world around him. All this in less time than it takes to scratch one’s head and contemplate it.
That day was the one and only time I ever saw a man get knocked out from a punch delivered to his forehead. It’s an appreciable feat, because it is not a common target, because it’s generally a hard way to do any damage, but also because it’s a damn good way to break your hand or wrist. Most fighters in their right mind will elect to visit the softer targets: jaw, eye, cheek, body, etc. For all I know, he did break his hand when his glove met its target, because the fight was decidedly ended at that moment.
I’m convinced now that that Avery threw that punch with every earnest intention. He was sending a message and that message was: “Do not fuck with me. I will make your brain hug the inside of your skull like a fried egg sizzling on a skillet. It’ll be lights out, friend.”
Although, I never saw Avery fight again after that day, the word was he apparently kept fighting and winning locally until the day he enlisted and got stationed somewhere overseas. I’d wager that he won a lot of off-base scrabbles were he to catch any drunken nonsense from soused loudmouth locals.
Squid is done with the bike and we pass each other on his way to one of the heavy bags. As I walk past, I give him a nod and he returns it with a quick upward flip of his head. I wonder for a moment what a fight between Squid and Avery Taylor would look like. I wonder what it would be like to possess the speed and fluidity that Squid is naturally graced with. Would it be enough to overcome the fatal elasticity that Avery would surely bring to bear? I’m snapped out of my hero worship by the sing-song music of the gym’s troubadour telling some young spirit, full of heart and vigor, to: “youse-thee-yaab!”
About the Author
Chris Ike is an editor at riksha.com, writing and living in Chicago, Illinois.