Before I go into this, I want to mention that I often made the error as a journalist when I found the intricate details of something fascinating of assuming the reader wouldn’t feel the same. I usually skimmed over that part. While training for my second fight, I discovered that one of my faults is my tendency to rush or panic when trying to get things done. How you do one thing is generally how you do everything. I really had to learn to stop and think this time around. With that in mind, I am going to go into the details which were important to me about this fight and have faith that someone else might recognise something pertinent in them too. As a reader, I often like these details.
After the first bout, I felt so strongly that I had laid a ghost to rest. Rightly or wrongly, my success in that fight had come to symbolise a victory over my abusive ex, and proof to the world I wasn’t some kind of victim. It delivered. I won, I felt strong, people said I was an aggressive and intimidating fighter. Right from the beginning of training for the second one, I was nervous about who my next opponent would be. No one had any expectations of me for the first fight, and my opponent and I were two beginners. Not so this time around. Any time I trained with anyone who had fought before, I became filled with anxiety that we would be matched for the fight and that I would struggle to get another victory. I think it must be this way at all levels in boxing or any other combat sport: you are torn between the fear of losing and the natural desire to challenge yourself.
I probably trained a lot more, having a baseline of fitness and skill which was higher than it was when I first started training to fight. This Girl Can Box ran a four-hour workshop, in which I learned the joy of the screw jab, for example, and during sparring sessions I would get feedback for the first time on what I was doing wrong and what I could do to fix it. Private classes were especially useful, and I often felt I had been given the key to what had seemed like an unsolvable puzzle. During the first fight, I hadn’t been able to escape when my opponent stood in front of me, hitting me with the left and then the right. Straight punches which I stood there and took. Now, I could duck and roll, move to the side, move my head or move in towards her. The possibilities were multiplying, and it felt freeing and exhilarating.
As fight night drew closer, I was increasingly anxious. The way it works in white collar matches is that you don’t find out until very close to the fight who you’ll fight (a week before, in this case). Completely different to professional fights where the entire prep is based around who you will be fighting. The fighters are not professionals and it is imperative that they do not get badly hurt due to a mismatch, or have a bad experience. It is impossible to control entirely since getting in the ring is tough and some will hate it, but promoters and coaches try to be as fair as possible and tend to spend a lot of time over the decision.
I was especially scared of two of the women in my group. Our main coach noted that there was an “edge” to this group, partly because one of these women did not modify her power at all during sparring, so that total beginners got flattened, and became angry or upset. This collided with other tensions and created a moody atmosphere. In the end, the two I had feared fought each other. I was matched with a woman I had sparred with once before, who was slightly heavier and stronger but shorter, and had an aggressive style, moving very close and throwing a volley of punches, so that it became overwhelming.
My defence had been offence before, and now I was faced with someone I couldn’t just stand opposite and fight. I had to get out of the way.
The big night arrives
On the night, we were operating about an hour late as usual, during which time I had swallowed so much Red Bull and was brimming with nerves. I was going to the toilet so often, I was going back in as soon as I had gone out. Because the first fight had been like being in a tunnel and I had had no awareness of the crowd, I took it for granted that I would feel the same this time, but it wasn’t like that at all. The wait to go on was the wrong side of unbearable. I came on after my opponent, and as I stood in my corner, I felt the fragility of being up there. I could see people, the light on their faces in the dark, I could see my Dad, and my body felt so light I wondered if I would be able to move it or if it would collapse when the time came.
When the bell rang, my corner shouted at me a lot that I had to move around and move out of the way. It didn’t feel natural to me. I tend to face conflict head on, not seeing any other way to do it. I thought I would be able to beat my opponent if we got into a clinch as I am taller, but she was so strong we cancelled each other out every time we got that close. The only thing for it was to wriggle free, throw a combo of punches and move again, in the hope that she would get tired before I did.
As the rounds progressed, I started feeling more confident about doing this, with the result that I landed more than I took. I was able to free myself from her clutches and move back to the centre of the ring, controlling the fight from a defensive position. I can’t even recall now if I knew all along what the result would be, but at the end of the third round, I was declared the winner.
The end of ego
Fighting from a position of control meant that I never tapped into my rage. I used force and aggression to some extent, though far less than before. In some ways, the more you learn in boxing the more ego has to be set aside and you have to submit to the importance of technique, tedious repetition, meticulous observation of your opponent. A surrender to something bigger. The win was a relief, but it didn’t lead to any high. I was left with the feeling that I wanted some kind of recognition I could never achieve. Mine was just another fight on a night of amateur fights of varying quality, over in a flash and praised by some but not necessarily even the most entertaining.
The next day this calm gave way to a feeling of emptiness. I only knew how to solve it by signing up for another one, which I am beginning the process of training for now. I understood why heroin addicts say they are always chasing that first high. Along with chasing the feeling I had in my first fight was the awareness of it all as a spectacle, and even though I had won I felt chewed up and spat out. Was this because there is still – and always will be – such a huge gap between the elite sportswomen and my fights? It can’t only be that, as I recently read both swimmer Tom Daley and former judo fighter turned MMA champ Ronda Rousey said they felt bleak after winning Olympic medals. I think it is part of the paradox that you can only hope to win by giving the training and the fight your all, but when you do that, there is no way the payoff can be big enough. My ghosts long dead and laid to rest, I was out there in the world again, still exposed to its indifference to my existence. The only thing you can do then is carry on fighting.