On lazy Sundays after recreational soccer matches or baseball or recovering from a morning spent playing the woods with my younger brother, we would retreat to my grandmother’s house for lunch. My uncles were often around and we would gather in the living room to watch the feature fights that ABC sports once aired. Fighters like Marvin Haggler, Roberto Duran, Hector “Macho” Camacho and Sugar Ray Leonard to name a few would grace the screen and put on a show of brutal strength and athleticism. Often after matches we found ourselves in the garage with my uncle and the heavy bag hanging by thick metal chains from the support beam. My brother and I would put on hooded sweatshirts and boxing gloves as if we were recreating a scene from any and all of the Rocky movies. Over and over we would hit the bag, trying to replicate the power of a Mike Tyson’s uppercut to make the bag jump and the chains rattle they way our uncle could but the feeble arms of an 11 and 9 year old were no match for a 75lb leather sack stuffed solid.
As I grew older the garage and the heavy bag became an after school refuge during winter and rainy days. Day dreaming I was big time prize fighter under the lights of Madison Square Garden I could get lost for an hour or so and work out the frustrations of adolescence without attracting the attention of police or neighbors. While my skills were not that of a future champion it is easy to see how kids are attracted to the sport and how with the right guidance the next great champion could be an 11 year old kid working out his demons.
This past Friday I was invited to shoot some photos for the annual Fit 4 Boxing Fight Night. Once a year the Fit 4 Boxing gym holds a night of amateur fights to raise money for Parkinson’s disease research at a local country club, offering guest a night of classic sporting entertainment. I wasn’t sure what to expect walking into the club, a boxing ring filled the area where normally the suburban well to do’s enjoy their Sunday brunch before tennis on grass courts. The pool house had been converted into a make shift locker room for the fighters to prepare for their evenings efforts. As I approached the group of fighters shadow boxing in the dying summer sunlight one thing was clear, these guys and girls were dead serious. What initially I thought was going to be an exhibition of skill and fitness was clearly about to escalate into a series of 6 minute grudge matches. Fighters varied in age from 10 to 25, each exasperating every last ounce of energy in order to defeat their opponent.
I thought about the feeling of nerves that course through your body while locked into the starting grid of a cyclocross race. The official gives the call — one minute until start — and that hollow feeling that arises in your stomach just before the blow of the whistle. I thought about how the muscles electrify through the first few corners as you hear bikes and riders tangling and the abusive sound of heavy shifts. Looking across the boxing ring, I could see in the eyes of the fighters those same nerves, only it wouldn’t be whistle it would be a bell and there wouldn’t be a collective charge for the first corner but a collection of punches aiming for head and body. I wondered if similar to a bike race once it had begun the mind narrows and the concentration of the task it hand is all that there is. Duck, jab, move, sprint, brake, dismount until the body has nothing left to give.
Boxing as a sport was once king in America, but waining interest and the rise of MMA fighting has left professional boxing in the rearview mirror. If a fight doesn’t contain Mayweather or Pacquiao it is lucky to make the third page of the local papers. However, for many, Boxing still remains a refuge, a vehicle to a better place in life. Similar to cycling in Europe, boxing in America can be a way out of poverty, out of trouble for young men and women. Both sports are rooted in a deep tradition and history of elevating their champions to the highest level. It is easy to understand the attraction to sports so equally grueling. After witnessing 8 bouts and feeling the charge of the efforts from the competitors I left wishing the old heavy bag was still hanging in my grandmother’s basement but for now I’ll have to settle for the battles that await me this cyclocross season.