Why did I fight in the ring? Well, this gets kind of personal, but I’ll tell you anyway. Maybe I need to get it off my chest. In fact, I thought writing this piece was going to be easy. I thought I’d knock it out quickly, but that didn’t happen… it took me eleven drafts. Clearly, not as easy I thought it would be.
In fact, I’m not even sure why I became a boxer, or why I was always fighting in the streets. I guess I was unhappy. Or angry? I often wondered why a polite and peaceful, suburban white kid, like me, unhappy or angry?
Well, boxing was all I thought about growing up. Boxing, back in the 1960s and 1970s, was about bravery, strength, and skill. Remember? Now that I’m older with more hair growing on my eyebrows than my head, I am slowly creeping closer to an answer, and I have a better idea about why fighting was so seductive.
And the answer is disturbing…
Back then, boxing still had cultural power and meaning. Boxing was deemed a manly pastime, and was interwoven into the very fabric of American culture: John L. Sullivan…Benny Leonard…Jack Dempsey…Rocky Marciano. Remember? Boxing’s Holy Trinity—Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis and Muhammad “Float Like a Butterfly” Ali still exists, but it has become archaic and stale.
Today, it seems the validity of boxing is vanishing. Is it more passé than manly? Perhaps.
Even my cherished Ring magazines, once the popular ‘Bible of Boxing’, are passé-doubly passé. Ring’s dwindling magazine readership reports on a dwindling sport. Ring might hang around and gain a cult following, like those who collect vinyl records, but the precious Ring magazines of my youth are now boxed up, quietly decaying, in my basement.
Is anybody interested in buying them?
So, okay, why did I step out of comfortable white suburbia and step into a boxing gym?
“You know why,” whispers a tiny voice living inside my head. It’s a voice I don’t want to hear-and definitely don’t want anyone else to hear either.
“Admit it,” it whispers, “you wanted to be tough because you thought you never were.”
Okay, I’ll admit it.
“But that’s not the full answer, is it?” whispers the voice.
No, it isn’t.
“C’mon, Peter, tell it all. You’re only as sick as your secrets.”
At a tender age, boxing kidnapped me. It took hold of my spirit and wouldn’t let go. I quickly became a fan of everything boxing.
I loved and hated the boxing gym. I subjected myself to its agony. Boxing was both beautiful and ugly. Understand?
My step-family and school became secondary. It was the rugged men in the gym who fascinated me. They were the sports heroes I had been reading about in Ring every month. They became my family.
They were brutes, but they were my brutes. They were rough and crude and probably never flossed their teeth or said “Excuse me” after burping. But these men hit the bags hard, sparred with passion, and were good at keeping whatever private darkness they carried inside themselves secret. And they enjoyed joking around with a young kid like me. They told wonderful stories and had colorful life experiences—fighting and fame, notoriety and love. I don’t think they ever had a boy look up at them with such wide, worshipful eyes.
Me, entering the gym, eager to spar, I always felt a pang of fear, a rush of excitement, and a twinge of guilt. Back then, I remember my tiny voice whispering, “Why are you taking this road? … Is today the day someone breaks your front tooth? … Shouldn’t you be back home studying math?”
Today, that tiny voice is still whispering inside me: “What were you looking for in a boxing gym that you didn’t find at home?”
My home was a large dysfunctional step-family, and my mind was a wild tangle full of horrible creatures and a hazardously low self-esteem. My solution was to hurl myself into sports—particularly a dark, smelly boxing gym. I reached out to the boxing ring like it was a life-raft. I couldn’t imagine ever letting go. Where else would I go? Who else could I be?
Quickly, boxing-magic seeped into me. I found a way to transfer my anger and sadness and my stuttering speech into my punches. I finally become a tough guy–or, at least, that’s what I told myself.
Each punch I punched was a cry of relief, and of power, and completely beautiful. The exhilaration of landing a good punch was like hitting a homerun on someone’s head.
The pulsing craziness squirming inside my young brain was in perfect sync with the craziness inside the old boxing gym. So, I guess I was in the right place after all.
Let’s face it, boxing is essentially an anti-social sport, and every fighter contains a certain measure of madness. I embraced my madness–it fed upon the hate, anger and fear I felt within me. “Punching out your madness redeemed you,” whispers the tiny voice. At least, that’s what I tell myself. My punches curving through the hot gym air–each and every day–was my way of screaming and crying.
I must be honest. I was, by nature, a gentle kid–just like my real father, a genteel songwriter. But I had a real good punch, quick reflexes, a granite chin, and a screwy mind. At home, I was growing up isolated and alone, incarcerated in a dysfunctional step-family. My soul was cracking, and I knew what it was like to hate myself so much that I wanted to murder myself.
“You were lucky to find boxing,” whispers the voice.
Boxing stopped me fighting in the street and kept me out of trouble. It kept me from killing myself—unlike my older brother who was quietly corroding from within. One dark night, he was wheeled into Pascack Valley Hospital D.O.A. after a heroin overdose.
When training at the gym, I always felt chronic anxiety, long stretches of simmering stress, but it was way better than heroin.
I loved and hated this stupid sport. Boxing was beautiful and ugly. Understand?
Like drugs, boxing feels good while you’re doing it, but afterward, it leaves you alone and nowhere. That’s why I didn’t turn pro.
“C’mon, Peter,” whispers the voice. “Answer the question fully–Why did you fight?”
After all these years, I guess I can finally admit the truth: I needed psychotherapy…
…Boxing was my psychotherapy.
Sometimes I wonder why God invented such a harsh sport. It’s a sport where my fearless heroes in the gym abused their bodies for our entertainment. When professional fighters get knocked out, we replay it in slow-motion, and we can see why these poor men, at 55, are rattled.
But boxing un-rattled me.
Boxing saved my life. Those four words seem absurd. And yet I believe them to be true.
No, I never turned pro. It’s a nasty life and I didn’t want to end up slurring my words, forgetting simple things, or living in cold-water poverty.
I find it hard to believe that I was in boxing-therapy for so many years and never realized it. Most surprising of all is this: In a way, I was my own therapist.
Why has it taken me so long to grasp all this?
Thanks to boxing, no horrible creatures live in my head anymore, and my self-esteem is healthy.
“Well, most of the time,” smiles that tiny voice.
Yes—most of the time.
“You were a pretty good middleweight,” whispers the voice. “Don’t forget–you fought in Madison Square Garden.”
Yeah, I was famous many years ago–for about three rounds…Well, that’s what I tell myself.