‘Something must change, I think, as the bell rings and rings and the fourth round starts. For the first time ever, I actually start to engage my boxing brain.’
Extract taken from The Boxing Diaries
By Marion Dunn
Published by Saraband
I have signed up for a women’s boxing session, and in the changing room I speak to a woman with badly dyed blonde hair and a slightly mad glint in her eye. She tells me that she has been in the boxing ring fighting competitively as an amateur but has been recently injured and has lost fitness.
I change into my gear and have a little last-minute shadow boxing session in front of the changing room mirror before the main session starts. Even though it is supposed to be a women’s only boxing session, we are initially directed to a largish group of men and women, where we warm up under the watchful eye of the coach, skipping and shadow boxing interspersed with other familiar exercises. We have to sprint in a dogleg pattern across the gym floor to avoid the Victorian ironwork. The room seems to be divided into two halves. Most of the women are directed into the right hand half of the room and, mysteriously, the woman with the mad glint in her eye, the men and I are directed into the other half, where things begin to look a bit more serious.
I have had to fill in an online form about my boxing skills (or lack of them), so surely the coach must know that I am still a novice? The boxers in my group appear to be more experienced, carded or ex-carded types, which means they either carry or have recently carried medical cards to allow them to box competitively in the ring. After a few further exercises I am paired up with the woman with the mad glint in her eye, and I get my first taste, or rather trial by fire, of defensive boxing.
She throws a sharp jab. I am not expecting this so rather embarrassingly I am still wearing my glasses. I block the shot with my left hand, with my hand in a vertical orientation and the palm facing inwards as I have seen the other boxers do at my local gym. She throws a right hand – I parry or push it out of the way with my right. This goes on for a bit. We stop for a breather.
I warn her that I am wearing a rather expensive pair of glasses that I don’t want to lose. We start up again. The glasses seem to have enraged her somehow. The jabs and right hands come thicker, faster and harder, and my glasses are knocked to the floor. I am having real trouble blocking the shots now. I sense that she has it in for me, and I am cross because it should be obvious that I am novice and will gain nothing from the session if she treats it like a boxing match. Neither will she. I guess that she is somehow frustrated by her injury. The coach rushes over and without hesitation slings her out of the gym, and that is that. I am glad to say that this is the one and only time I have experienced this type of undisciplined behaviour in any boxing gym.
I attend two further sessions at the same gym over the next few weeks and both are worthwhile. In the first session one of the professional coaches who has a cauliflower ear spends time with me going right back to basics with my boxing stance. This is incredibly worthwhile. I practise moving around the boxing ring for the first time. I am told to ‘swing my hips like Elvis’ which I try in vain to do.
In the second session I am paired up with a much saner female boxer, Michelle. We both practise some genuinely useful defensive moves at a more civilised pace, before enduring a fairly punishing fitness session. At the end of this session, I am placed in the boxing ring with a much more experienced male boxer for five three-minute rounds. My sole purpose is to try and break down his defences and to see if I can score any points against him at all.
I consider myself to be quite fit now, but rather cruelly I am not allowed to rest between the rounds. Instead, I am given a series of exercises including fast step-ups on a bench to keep me ‘occupied’. Apparently, this keeps the necessary blood pumping round the muscles between the rounds.
My opponent is not throwing any punches at all at me, but even without this obvious distraction it is completely exhausting work. Because he is an experienced strategist, somehow he is making me do all the work. I seem to be whirling round and round the edge of the ring, feebly throwing punches into the air. He can read me like an open book and merely ducks, slips or rolls out of the way of my clunky jabs. He barely seems to move as I try my hardest. It is abundantly clear that he is completely at ease and well able to defend himself from any of my rather pathetic attempts. In fact, his is a textbook demonstration of proper boxing defence. In a way this gives me hope as I see that good defensive boxing is at least possible by someone.
Something must change, I think, as the bell rings and rings and the fourth round starts. For the first time ever, I actually start to engage my boxing brain. I must try something new or face complete humiliation in the eyes of the few onlookers. I feint a right hand shot. This causes him to momentarily drop his guard, and I plant a good left hook. I drop towards the floor by flexing my knees. He doesn’t know what’s going on, and this temporarily confuses him. I move forward in a display of pretend confidence. He moves back onto the ropes, and I deliver a couple of good body shots, then I am spent. The bell rings. At least I have managed something. The fifth round passes in a blur of exhaustion without event, but I do manage to deliver punches right to the last.
I thank my opponent and we fist-bump gloves in the timehonoured way. He takes off his headgear and smiles. He has barely broken into a sweat, but I am all in. I ask him for his honest comments. ‘Well, you are clearly a novice and lack technique, but there is some determination and punching power there. You were even punching quite well in the fifth round.’
Though not a proper boxing match or even a sparring contest, this experience did have a sense of reality about it, and from now on, I think, I will never be afraid to step into the ring under the gaze of onlookers, as long as I am adequately prepared. Perhaps this means never.
After getting changed, I have the immediate and quite primal desire to eat. It is an overpowering sense of hunger that I have rarely experienced. Fortunately, I have a couple of cereal bars in the car. Feeling faint, I wolf these down. Perhaps these will stifle the hunger pangs before I can reach my favourite café in Rivington village, a couple of miles away.
After driving only one mile along the Bolton Ring Road, I turn off into a small park. God Help Me! I have to eat again. Right Now! I fumble in a rucksack in the boot of my car and thankfully I find a few soggy glucose tablets right at the very bottom. Simultaneously, I glug down a whole flask of sugar-rich coffee. Then I feel as high as a kite as my system is simultaneously swamped with endorphins, sugar and caffeine. It is the most glorious feeling imaginable. It makes me wonder what real boxers must feel like after a real match.
Eventually I make it to the Rivington café. It is an old, slightly damp, churchy building stuffed with wet dogs and their earnest owners out for weekend walks on the Bolton fells. Years ago, I recall that my partner shamed me in this café by asking for Eccles cakes. ‘They’re Chorley cakes round ’ere, love,’ came the swift reply.
I ask for beans on toast with scrambled eggs, and pray, pray, pray for it to be quick. I am thirsty again and ask for a pint of tea loaded with sugar, then another one, then another one. It might be the road to diabetes hell, but I need it right now.
I sink into a dreamy torpor. I am tired, but also alert and incredibly elated. The food revives me enough to make it back home by teatime. I wonder if I will ever replenish my reserves of energy.
The following day, I lie languidly on the sofa and eat three enormous meals, one after the other, one of which is just a giant pan of spaghetti. ‘You’re never going eat all that?!’ Haydon says, aghast. I know that it is slightly disgusting, but I just stuff it straight in, gratefully all the same. I am still ravenous.
‘After all,’ I lie, ‘I’m allowed – I’m a boxer.’
The Boxing Diaries by Marion Dunn is published by Saraband, priced £9.99