May 18, 2006

Come boxing

The 535 up Avenue du Parc is jammed full of people in winter; in spring, though, with so many Montrealers on foot or bicycle, it's usually easy to get a seat. It's only a ten-minute ride from my 'hood to Van Horne. The gym itself is in the building right on the corner, but it's virtually impossible to find. You go through a back entrance, down a graffiti-covered alley which sets off all your "you are about to be mugged" street-smarts alarms the first time you follow it, to the unmarked door with no handle.

Once inside the semi-abandoned building - once a factory? a warehouse? - the air is musty. Debris and abandoned furniture litter the stairwell. From above you hear violent rhythmic thumps, and the first time you probably presume it's the sound of gloves hitting bags in the boxing gym that is your destination ... so you're a little surprised when you ascend to the second-story stairs and see a crowd of slender young women furiously flamenco-dancing away, stomping out the noise that shakes the air.

Past the dancers, turn right, and into the gym. It's shaped like a half-trapezoid, with dusty sprung-hardwood floors. The woman's change room is comfortable; the men's is cramped, used to stow a drum kit and random other rusting and incomprehensible equipment. There's a line of heavy bags along one wall, and racks and bookcases full of boxing equipment along the others, weights and gloves and jump-ropes, plus a few antique stationary bikes. Several of the many windows are broken and sealed with canvas and duct tape. There's an excellent sound system and a big rack of CDs in the corner. Phil is probably there. It's his gym. You could say that Phil is a character, but that would be such an understatement.

Phil is forty years old. I know this only because his fortieth birthday party was in April - I missed it, alas. He's half-bald, half-dreadlocked. He wears a perpetual smile. He's a drummer in a punk band, and a full-time boxing instructor. He has no sense of impropriety; his middle names might as well be Too Much Information. A typical Phil story begins with "I was taking a crap the other day, when..." I have heard it alleged from multiple sources that Phil is capable of squirting man-milk from his nipples. In the winter, his friend's apartment was devastated by an explosion; Phil was there within hours, gleefully documenting the devastation with his videocamera.

Phil had a pot belly last year (it's since vanished, no mean feat for a 40-year-old) but he was still the fittest person in a room full of extremely fit twenty- and thirtysomethings. He has been boxing since his teens. I learned more about boxing in one month with Phil than in four years with several other instructors. If you want to compete, he will train you for free, and he will do a phenomenal job - but he will take no shit from you. You will train at least four times a week, you will be reliable, you will give up all smoking and drinking, or he will drop you like a hot rock. As far as he's concerned, his job is to bring out your fullest potential, and if you're not interested in that, neither is he.

The boxers file in. The crowds are growing - word of mouth - twenty people tonight, thirteen men, seven women. We change into workout clothes, exchange chitchat. It's a fun group. We don't hang out in the real world, but there's a loose, easy camaraderie. You get to know people pretty well when they work themselves to brain-flattening exhaustion next to you, and you're doing the same. You get to know them even better when you're punching each other in the head.

Warmup begins with the music. Something loud, punk, and screaming: Ministry, Nirvana, NoMeansNo, The Pixies, or even more dissonant stuff which I can't identify. Phil takes his stance in the center of the room, we surround him, and we loosen up our joints, then start jogging in a circle, knees high, and do footwork variations as Phil leads a call-and-response chant in Chinese. Yes, Chinese. No, Phil is not Chinese. He claims he's teaching us all how to say "Hello. How are you? You are a pretty girl. Would you like to come home with me?" Having studied a little Mandarin ten years ago, I'm a mite suspicious.

We assemble in a circle, and one by one, we all call out an exercise that everyone does. Phil knows everyone's name. A number of exercises have local names: "Burpys", "Ginos," "Sam Peckinpahs." Groans meet the names of the most strenuous exercises. Then a little foot-fencing, a little more footwork, and we all head outside for a run. Twenty to fifty minutes, depending on the day and the mood. The route leads along an active train track through glorious fields of urban decay. In the winter, instead of the run, we do a nonstop gauntlet of calisthenics, alternating between matwork and running back and forth across the room; these are, at least for me, much harder than the run.

Back to the gym, strap on the hand wraps, and begin shadow boxing. It might be a fitness day, in which case we skip, then throw punches with punch weights, then hit the bags, each for ten nonstop minutes. Summer is all fitness days. It might be a technique day, in which case we'll practice the left hook, or slips, or parries, or footwork, solo and/or in pairs. Or it might be a sparring day, in which case we bite into our mouthpieces, lace up the sparring gloves, put on the headgear, get smeared with Vaseline, and face off against opponents of roughly the same size, in mini-rings made of twine hung from the ceiling and bungee-connected to weights on the ground.

Even if there's no sparring, it's always my most draining workout of the week.

Sparring is one of the purest physical experiences imaginable. The world shrinks to yourself and your opponent. The adrenaline rush is incredible, it warps your perceptions like a powerful drug, but it introduces clarity, not distortion. Everything is insanely intense, precise. You can't think about more than one thing when you're sparring, if you can think about anything at all. That's why the training is so gruelling. It's not enough just to teach someone how to box, that's easy. You have to make everything instinctive. No one is fast enough to consciously dodge a well-thrown punch. Your reptile brain has to tell you to slip or duck right away, before the notion ever reaches your forebrain. There's nothing complicated about boxing. It's all simple movements and stances. But they all have to become as unconscious as breathing; and the more you explore them, the more you begin to understand that even the simplest punch, the most basic stance, contains a multitude of subtleties and nuances. It's like yoga in that way.

Of course we're not actually trying to hurt each other. It happens, especially in my weight class ("the big guys"). People tense up, and you don't know your own strength in the ring, and with the adrenaline you don't even know you've been bruised until several minutes later. The one punch I ever knew was bad news at the time was because I saw stars. Yes, it actually happens. That's how I got the black eye on my driver's license photo. The worst you'll get is a broken nose, a cracked rib, or a sore jaw. Which is still enough to scare a lot of people off.

It's not really aerobic training. There's an element of that, but boxing is about sudden, explosive motion more than endurance. It gets you into the best shape of your life, there's no question - Phil's living proof. And I shaved 10% off my up-the-mountain running time since I started working out there, a lot for someone my age. Whether you're sparring or not, you hit the edge of exhaustion, first the point at which you're not sure you can push yourself any further, and then, often, the point where you know you can't. Which is fine. It's really not about macho bullshit. Nobody there has anything to prove, or if they do, they're not welcome. Phil's kicked people out before.

The hard work is mostly over now. To the mats, strength training, pushups, situps. Then five minutes of stretches and a couple minutes on the mats with eyes closed. The air is warm and humid now, regardless of how it began, and my mat and several others are damp with sweat. Then up, change back to street clothes, a few terse see-you-next-weeks, and back out into the city, surfing on a warm wave of endorphins, and maybe, if it was a good day, or especially if it wasn't, just a little closer to your potential.