Before my first boxing class, the trainer shows me how to wrap my hands safely. He loops the wrap over my thumb and across the back of my hand, wrapping it around my wrist three times before wrapping it around my knuckles three times. He looks at me and says: “You do the other hand.” I stare at his handiwork and panic. I can’t remember anything he’s done. I already feel intimidated being here. He laughs and wraps my other hand for me.
“You’ll get it eventually,” he says. “But you should learn to do it. Protect your wrists.” He points at a wall of gloves and I pick some that look about right.
They stink. They smell of the sweat of many boxers. I place one hand in one and then immediately take it out to scratch my nose. Now my nostrils stink of the sweat of many other boxers.
The trainer begins by getting us to shadow box. He tells us we’ll feel stupid doing it to begin with, but the sooner we treat it as part of the process, the better. “Remember,” he says, “the first person you box is yourself.”
Which sounds vaguely as if it makes sense, but it doesn’t really. Either way I show willing and attempt to box myself. I am rooted to the spot, staring at myself in the mirror. I feel self-conscious. I jab and I throw a cross, jab and cross, jab and cross, repeated, with no variation.
I watch as more seasoned boxers glide around the whole gym, throwing multiple combos, forwards, backwards, hooks and uppercuts, their footwork light, their shoulders pivoting to bring force to each blow.
The trainer asks me if I’m planning to be hit. I ask what he means. “Well, you’re simulating a fight. Did you think you’re gonna have all the shots?”
“I suppose not,” I say.
“You also planning on staying still?” he asks. I shake my head. “You need to move around…”
I try again, this time slipping side to side, dodging imaginary punches. But still, as I watch myself in the mirror, I’m stiff. Then I feel something sting as it wrenches down my back. I turn around and realise, through my moving about, that I’ve backed into someone skipping rope.
When we split into pairs, to go through the combinations the trainer demonstrates, I end up being paired with a man who is around 7ft tall. We are preposterously mismatched. “Feel free to hit me hard,” he says.
“It’s my first time,” I say. “I’m not sure I know how to.”
“Just hit me as hard as you can,” he says.
The instructor reminds us all that this is a technique class so light taps, not actual punches. My partner says I can ignore the instructor. He asks why I’m here and I say it’s partly self-defence, partly exercise. He laughs and says: “You’d better hit me hard then.”
As I attempt the combination the trainer has called out, my partner pushes me. It causes me to mis-hit him – on his nose.
I drop my gloves and ask if he’s OK. He tells me he’s fine. He pushes me again and I land some shots on target, not powerful, but on target at least. He tells me to be harder. I don’t like this. I think, this isn’t for me. Before I started boxing, I’d had many conversations with friends and family about my fears. Will the gyms be oozing with toxic masculinity? How much do I have to change my entire lifestyle? Can I even do this without sparring? I don’t want to spar.
Entering the gym, I’d been buoyed by how diverse it was – lots of men and women, lots of people from different backgrounds, J Hus was pumping out of the stereo. I felt comfortable.
Until this guy demanded I hit him harder.
He pushes me again. I trip and fall to the ground. He takes a glove off and pulls me up. I question whether I should have come. I’m not sure this is for me.
Next week: a harder fight