I experienced my first boxing training today. Not “boxer-cise”, not Tai-bo. An authentic, old-as-the-Greeks boxing lesson. The type Muhammad Ali championed.

I’m not sure why I’ve found boxing a fascination. I don’t think of myself as particularly sporty, and cardio workouts never interested me in the past, but then again, I didn’t have a target to hit. I didn’t really know much about boxing until, seven years ago, I struck up a friendship with a co-worker at Mattel whose father was particularly into pugilistic combat sport and who used to unwind to episodes of UFC. My friend and I would kill time between coding web pages by chatting about the Gracie brothers, and watching his DVDs of historic Muhammad Ali fights, like Rumble in the Jungle. Through my co-worker’s comments, I started noticing the strategy behind what I had considered a ridiculous, brutal, no-brainer, thug sport, and began to consider just how much training and fitness one had to go through in order to step into the ring. I watched Ali dance about in that small spare space, and noticed his grace and the finesse. I saw his body toned and reactive, supple and lethal. Each move he made was in perfect alignment.

When I started telling my friends of my new found interest, they all shrieked at the idea.

“What? That’s blood sport! It’s disgusting. How could you like boxing?!”

It was implied that my interest in boxing was neither politically correct, cultured, nor feminist. Finding no allies, I quickly shut up. Though a seed had been planted, there was no watering of the soil.

Today I walked into the home of UK’s only official female amateur boxing referee. Nine years ago, she had been bit by the boxing bug, and endeavoured on a severe weight loss programme. She lost 4 stone (or 56 pounds) and sculpted herself from a fat mother who’d eaten her way through two pregnancies and into a lean, mean fighting machine. Aside from the gruelling physical workout, this woman, Anne, trained and psyched herself up to where she was able to get into the ring, box three rounds with a champion, and earn the respect of all that watched, including male boxers and their coaches.

Anne took me upstairs to her training room. After a brief warm up with free weights, she said, “I’m going to wrap your hands. Most so-called gym instructors I’ve seen don’t do this, but this is essential for protecting yourself.” I agreed, considering my massaging hands were my money-makers. I watched as she wrapped up first my left hand, then my right, winding the long strip of fabric around and around, until both hands were neatly mummified, the fingers separated.

“Right, now I’m going to teach you the most important lesson.” She told me to raise my arms and touch the gloves to my cheeks. “This is protecting your face. You never want to leave that vulnerable. Always, always return to this position. If the gloves are up, your opponent can’t hit you there.” She touched a spot square on her chin, and explained that just three pounds of pressure punched at that exact position would knock anyone, no matter what size he was, unconscious. TKO baby.

The gloves, which I associated with damage, felt weird as I held them softly to my cheeks. She then told me to hold my elbows tight to my sides. “For a woman to be hit in the side of her breasts is like a man being kicked in the groin,” Anne said. I had not heard this and was surprised, but didn’t really feel like experiencing the pain.

Anne ran through what a jab is, how to stand, the physics of a punch, and some waist rotations. Then, she held up her hands, palms up, with mitts on. “Hit me,” she said. I fired off my first jab. “Left, right, left, right, give me ten! GO!” My brain was thinking too much, new synapses firing as the body felt awkward in its new stance, and trying to coordinate feet, hips, and sudden arm extension. As we continued to practice, I felt the power travelling up from my right big toe, snaking through and flicking out from my hips, the momentum going up and out of my extended arm. Pow! My gloved fist smacked into Anne’s padded palm. Pow, pow! Pow!

But I’m still a girl. I grin, I giggle between trying to focus. I find myself saying “Ooops!” and “Sorry!” Fighting? Sure I’ve thrown around phrases like, “I’m gonna kick ass!” but really, have I ever been in a fight? Never. I’ve never tussled, never got into a scrap. This is all foreign to me. I hear myself blurting out excuses, and I don’t like it but the self-effacing words and mannerisms are second-nature; they come out uncontrollably.

“You’re not rotating your left hand,” Anne tells me. The knuckles aren’t squarely hitting her palms. She shows me in slow motion her left jab. I can’t help but flinch as her knuckles travel slowly towards my face. It’s both alarming and beautiful to see close-up the flat of knuckles, the straightness of her extended arm, and her eyes locked dead on mine. Learning the correct technique is the key to one’s survival, and boxing moves are meant to be nothing except efficient. Still, it’s my first lesson and I’m feeling clumsy.

I feel myself slow down, winded. I’m sweating and breathing hard. Anne instructs me to breathe large breaths, dropping my arms to my side to conserve energy. “Imagine your heart, tell it to slow down.” I do this, while gulping down air, and amazingly, my heart rate does slow down. Fantastic! A new technique to apply when next I’m feeling anxious and experiencing a panic attack.

The hour flies by, and I warm down with core stretches. I’ve sweated and received a cardio work out, but for once, I’m not resentful. I feel light inside, and want to grin. I finally understand why some people develop a close relationship to their coaches. Even when Anne was yelling at me like a drill sergeant, I knew it wasn’t personal. I appreciated it. I felt good, gleeful even! I knew how to punch!

Anne looks at me, and hands me a glass of water to sip. “Well? What do you think? Do you like it?” I look at her and smile. “Yea. Yea. I do.”

Erica, almost 35, London UK

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