Lord of the ring: from the gym to a new self-confidence

After weeks of hard training down at the boxing gym, Nikesh has learned the most crucial lesson of all…

They decide to start opening the gym at 7.30am instead of 10am, which is perfect for me. I go three mornings a week. It’s just me, the owner and one of the coaches who spends his idle moments mopping the floors and cleaning. The first morning I go, the owner is surprised to see me. He asks why I’m so early. I tell him it fits into my life easier than other times. He tells me I’m the only person so far to take up the new early opening, but knowing I’m here makes it worth it. He asks how I’m getting on. I tell him I’m gaining confidence. I find the classes good, but I like the quiet. I can focus.

I skip one round by myself and put the rope down, ready to move on. The coach who is mopping the floor asks if I’m done skipping. I nod my head. I hate skipping. I can, at best, manage, 20 seconds without whipping the rope across the backs of my bare legs, or tripping. I find it frustrating. It. Looks. So. Easy. Why. Is. It. So. Hard?

You have to keep your body moving, he tells me. Run the length of the gym, do five push-ups at one wall and five sit-ups at the other. For one round. I’ll come check on you. I’m unsure if this means he’s training me or being helpful, but I do as I’m told. I do the drill. It’s not long before I’m out of breath, but I show willing. When I’m finished, he reappears and asks what I plan to do next. I plan to hit the bags, I tell him. He shakes his head.

Shadowboxing, he says. He points to the ring, behind me. It’s empty. I stand in the centre of the ring. When I first started, it felt so cringey to do. Over the last few months I’ve given myself to it. I shadowbox. The coach watches as he stands over his mop. And he grins at me. I feel more at home. By the time he lets me go on the bags, I feel like I’ve had a workout. And my body is moving. My shoulders, hips, knees. Everything. I stand in front of the heavybag and I feel planted.

Months after that initial racist incident on the train, I feel more confident in the way I move, the way I take up space, the way I feel strong enough to stand up. Months of boxing lessons, being schooled on my technique and my stance and where the power comes from in my shots and I’m starting to feel like I am allowed to take up space again, I’m feeling a bit more like a version of myself that will not shrink, especially in the face of drunk racist men.

I walk into a petrol station one afternoon, on my way to a talk about the book. I’m wearing the same sweatshirt with the name of my book The Good Immigrant on it as I stroll into a petrol station to pay. “Urgh, that’s disgusting, take that thing off,” a man says as he walks past me.

“What?” I reply and square my chest, placing my hands on my hips and taking up just a little bit more space.

“That jumper, it’s well disgusting. Take it off.”

“Why?” I ask defiantly, and stand, planted, not shrinking at the thought of being seen. Instead, taking up space I feel a right to take up. The man recoils a little. He starts backtracking.

“I’m a comedian,” he says, stepping backwards and laughing as if he wants to diffuse the situation. “You go round wearing a sweatshirt like that, you have to expect comedians to take you down.”

“How did I know you were a comedian?”

He tells me his name.

“Nope. Never heard of you,” I say.

He shuffles off and I look at my feet, shoulders apart. My body is ready for me to drop my chin and lift my fists up to protect my face. But the defiance inherent in planting myself firmly in my space also meant I knew I wouldn’t have to. Because after this period of time learning how to box, I feel less afraid. And if that incident on the train was replayed, I’d now have the confidence to stand up and change carriages. And that’s all I wanted.


Nikesh Shukla

The GuardianTramp

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