Sweaty gloves, Muhammed Ali and toxic femininity


Since I started boxing, I’ve suggested it to quite a few women I know. New people who sign up have usually had it recommended to them by friends who have already done a white collar event. White collar fights are usually aimed at professional people who have never boxed before. Some told me they were put off, not by the fear of being punched in the face, but because they had tried boxfit or similar classes before, and didn’t like putting their hands into sweaty gloves and pads which had been used by other people. One said to me she thought the hygiene was too poor in the fight gyms she had been to.

Muhammed Ali once said that it isn’t the mountain ahead to climb that wears you down, it’s the stone in your shoe. I think he was trying to say that it’s the trivial bullshit that can prevent you from achieving what you want to in life. Nothing is more trivial than being too concerned to put your hand into someone else’s sweat to ever feel that feeling of some greater force flowing through you as you punch the pads, to get strong and fast and fearless.

I do have sympathy for people with OCD, which is a mental health issue. However, I have listened to too many conversations in groups of women where they each try to outdo each other over the issue of cleanliness. Like competitive dieting, or judging others for their sexual behaviour, it is a form of a fixation on purity. If I’m the cleanest, that makes you dirty in comparison, just like if I’m skinnier than you, that makes you fat in comparison. Much is made of so-called toxic masculinity these days, but these are examples to me of toxic femininity. At its worst, it not only prevents the individual themselves from really living life and enjoying it, but attempts to inhibit the lives of others. Do not not do things because of other people’s sweat. It’s a bit rank, but you’ll soon forget about it when you’re learning how to slip and roll and deliver a killer upper cut (I still can’t do any of these things well, but I am trying).

This is a picture of my gloves. They don’t smell too good after a training session. I never knew it before I started boxing, but hands can sweat just like feet, and the odour is similar. They are also fucking awesome and I just don’t care.

When sparring makes you cry

Tuesday night I was walking down Camden Road in tears. They just fell down my face and I cried openly, with no real motive. No motive that is, unless you count the blood spewing from my nose and mingling with those tears, the dull ache in my head and the pain in my forehead every time I went to raise my eyebrows.

Once, in a job I had a long time ago, a colleague was telling me he thought another colleague was unstable. Erratic behaviour, extreme demands and shouting at others were all invoked as evidence, and then we came to the piece de resistance: she had been known to cry at work. To him, that was proof she was a loon. I wanted to tell him that on numerous occasions, I had been inconsolable in the toilets. Sometimes that was due to conflict with other members of staff, sometimes it was personal life stuff, sometimes it was just a release of tension and stress. But I couldn’t admit that without tacitly admitting I too was unstable.

The belief has stayed with me. The first time I sparred in my white collar boxing group, people apologised every time they made contact. Some punch too hard (you are only supposed to use 60% of power in sparring, which is practicing your fight skills without getting injured), drunk on the cocktail of fear, outrage and adrenaline. Some people get upset when they get hit in the head, and some cry. It takes some getting used to.

I have surpassed that stage, but it can still be a shock. I recently sparred on a Sunday morning with a formidable partner. Still sleepy from the melatonin I had taken – and I don’t want to face up to the fact that fighting might aggravate my insomnia rather than ease it, because I CANNOT give it up (I’ll save why that is for another blog) – I took a lot of punches from her, and they hurt. Right about that minute, I knew I was going to cry. It was like a dam bursting, and I couldn’t contain the water anymore. The shock and pain merged with all the residual self-doubt in me and I felt like I was hurting because I deserved it. Yes, there was self-pity in there too.

Then I looked up, and saw a quote from Mike Tyson on the gym wall. “Never show weakness,” it said. I went to the toilets, again, to blow my bloody nose and sob a bit. I came back smiling. When I came back, another woman who had been sparring was openly in tears. Why did I feel like I had to hide it?

When I was in Brazil, the first foreign correspondents I met were generally men. They talked about the choice to move to Brazil as a relatively untapped market which was to be the venue for two mega sporting events, the World Cup and the Olympics, and as an exciting and beautiful place to be. They never mentioned it might be difficult to be away from home in a dangerous country. If anyone thought that, they kept it to themselves.

Then I met a young female correspondent who was arriving soon before I was leaving. She wanted advice, so we agreed to have a drink one evening. I thought it would be about the practical stuff, like how to pitch a story, how to keep safe, etc. And the first questions were about that. Then, “How did you manage your emotions?” she asked. It took me by surprise. Nobody ever asked me that, but of course it mattered. Tyson was right that you can’t show weakness in a fight, or your opponent will take advantage of it, but that’s not the whole story.

I don’t know how far I’ll get yet, but I’m interested in these questions: do men and women deal with these emotions differently (in boxing and in life)? What can we learn from each other? What is true strength and courage all about? I don’t know the answers yet, or if I ever will, but for now I know that I can deal with it if I cry sometimes after sparring.

Fighting and writing

This blog is now dedicated to boxing. I’ve been home from Brazil for two years now and fighting is the most interesting thing I’m doing with my time. It would be misleading to even say I am an amateur boxer, as that implies someone who still trains full-time. Most of the time, I am sat at a desk like a sack of potatoes, and at 41 boxing will never be my main occupation.

Nevertheless, after taking part in my first fight on May 24 2018, I am addicted. There is something about boxing which attracts writers, even though it might be said to be the opposite of a cerebral activity. Maybe because of that in fact. You are never so much in the moment as when you are being punched in the face, and fighting for your life as it feels at the time.

A little part of me feels guilty that focusing on any sport and its inner ramifications for the player is neglecting what’s going on in the world, like a kind of navel-gazing. Maybe there will be time to reflect on those things too. Maybe my age makes me think this is the last time I will be able to throw myself into the purely physical, and I have to rage against the dying of the light with a pair of gloves and a bloody nose.

Another reason I wanted to do this is because some of my favourite fighters have not been known for their ability to articulate themselves, at least not in words. Obviously Ali is an exception. That might be why the sport attracts the likes of Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates to do it for them. So much goes unsaid, and I want to try and say it.

Yet another is a thought which has been ruminating since I read A Fighter’s Heart by Sam Sheridan some time ago. It’s a good introduction to combat sports around the world, and also explores the compulsion to fight. While I find myself nodding along to a lot of it, there was very little in there about women fighters and quite a big focus on masculinity and the desire to join a pack and prove yourself. It struck me that for women doing this, it is not so much about belonging as transgressing. Women are supposed to nurture and heal, not compete, show aggression, and fight. Yet the sport appears to be becoming more and more popular among women. I want to explore that here, talk about some of the emotions it throws up and what it means to women to fight each other physically.

Let battle commence.