A month after that incident on the train, where I worried about my inability to defend myself, having overheard some men threatening to beat me up because they didn’t like my sweatshirt, I decide to take up boxing.
I’ve never been into boxing in any way other than enjoying a good sports movie. And self-defence doesn’t even enter my mind. Boxing, to me, seems like the perfect way to own your space. I’m bulky and I don’t want to shrink like I did in that moment on the train ever again. I want to have the confidence to stand up and walk down the corridor. I read a quote somewhere online, from Mandela: “I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match.”
I mention to my brother-in-law that I want to learn to box, but I’m intimidated by the idea of boxing clubs and maybe I should get a heavy bag and gloves. He tells me that I need to learn properly or I could stand to break my wrists. I talk to my friend Hayley, who trains, and she tells me not to worry about clubs. They’re friendly, supportive environments, because people are there to train. They take it seriously. It’s not a toxic male atmosphere and clubs tend to be very diverse. She says: “You’ll never feel a softer handshake than a fighter’s handshake.”
I’m talking with another friend, and she asks: “Why boxing? This is about self-defence, right? Why are you taking up a sport involving consensual fighting and not, say, actual self-defence or non-violent communication?” I don’t have an answer for her immediately.
My brother-in-law arrives at our house on a Sunday morning. He helps me move the table in the kitchen and roll up a rug. He loops a wrap over my thumb and across the back of my hand. It goes over my hand three times, tight, and then around my wrist, three times, tight. He brings the wrap up from my wrist in between my little and ring finger and then back down to my wrist. Up again, between ring and middle, and back down. Each time, the wrap forms an X across the back of my hand. He loops it between thumb and index and then across the palm of my hand, to lock it in. He wraps the remainder of the cloth around my wrist and then Velcros it closed. I am hypnotised the entire time. I flex my hand as he repeats the action with the other hand.
He teaches me some basic punches and then puts his pads on. My wife is on the other side of the room, making tea and watching, bemused.
“Punch me,” he says. I follow his instructions.
I punch the pad. The sound of glove on pad is exhilarating. “Again,” he says, and I do, less tentatively, more forcefully. He starts to move in a circle. I follow him and jab-cross as instructed.
Something happens to me in that hour. I become less stiff, a bit freer with my punches. My brother-in-law is supportive and instructive, but also pushes me where I need to be pushed. The more punches I throw, the harder they land, the more confident I start to feel in myself. And after an hour, I feel different.
As we drink a cup of coffee afterwards, he asks how that was. “Good,” I say. “Exactly what I need.” “Think you’ll join a club?” I don’t know yet. I still feel unsure about boxing. Also a boxing club seems terrifying. In my kitchen, with my brother-in-law, feeling vulnerable and ungraceful feels manageable to me. I don’t know what it is about the club that seems so terrifying.
Later, I talk to Hayley again. She tells me a story about how learning to kickbox changed her life, how it’s better than therapy, and about the close relationship she has with her trainer. I decide, at the very least, to go to one class.
But the thing that rankles is, why boxing? Maybe my friend was right. Why not learn self-defence?
Next week: at the boxing gym