Clever calls me bhuti. Day in and day out, 5am in the morning, he punches my fist and says, morning, bhuti. In the rain and dark, he tells me, skipping, let’s go. 30 minutes later, we’re sparring, he grabs my fist and pulls it towards his face, until my knuckles are on his nose, and says, big punch, bhuti, right here, try, try try try. Another half hour, my sweat is everywhere around us, and Clever smiles and takes my fists, unties my wraps and says, sharp, bhuti.

This is something my mom used to call me, when I was a kid. I grew up in Durban, we had a domestic worker who called me “bhuti Tom”, and there’s been something intimate, something familiar, or familial, about that word, ever since. I’m 32, and my mom still calls me bhuti, even now, when she’s feeling nostalgic, and it still makes me feel like a kid running around in a big family home in Durban, one of many, looked after and loved. Moms, what can you do.

How on Earth Clever knows what this word could mean to me, this pampered privileged little punk from the suburbs, I don’t know.

Roughly translated, the Xhosa word bhuti means brother, and is used to show respect to a man who may be younger than you or roughly the same age. Bhuti is popularly used for an initiated male who has graduated from initiation school. Even his peers and younger children call him bhuti. This is done to show respect that he is now a new person, that he has become a man. Note: according to this custom, a boy can’t become a man without going through initiation school.

I’ve been training with Clever twice a week since February. That’s a week short of five months; 40 one-on-one sessions. Then there’s Boxing Fitness classes, Professional Services classes, and all in all it adds up to much more. I see this guy a lot, and he sees me just as often, at my worst. Bitching and moaning, flailing and failing. If I’ve improved at all in that time, it just shows how unfit I used to be; I still walk out of there feeling like a weak sweaty stupid mess.

I saw Clever in the ring at the last Armoury Fight Night and he was great. Fluid, like water. The way this guy moves, you’d swear he was a yogi master. Lethal too, like a snake, like the best Youtube highlights video of Floyd Mayweather you’ve ever seen. When he spars with me he moves in slow motion, patiently, gracefully, knocking me back just enough to remind me, keep your guard up. Playfully, like I’m a toy, and carefully, like he doesn’t want to break me.

There’s a lot of care in everything he does. The way he holds my feet up, while I’m doing sit-ups. The way he hugs my legs, when I’m doing those crazy sit-down-then-stand-up-with-no-hands things. And the way he throws a medicine ball at my stomach, while I’m on my back, hard as he can, like something out of Southpaw. Picking up the ball and hitting me with it, 20 more times, right on my chest. The way he says, take a punch, you won’t die, don’t worry.

Clever calls me bhuti. Why on Earth he feels he needs to show me this kind of respect, I don’t know.

When you hit someone’s pads hard enough, for long enough, you get into a rhythm. In the beginning, it was all noise: he’d shout, one, two, double jab, triple jab, simple things like that. Now he says nothing, and I’m throwing much more complicated combinations without thinking. Now, if we’re load shedding and it’s dark as night or if the music’s up so loud you can feel it in the floor, he says nothing and I hit his pads and none of it is verbal, none of it needs any words.

Boxing is work. Everything you do, whether you’re hitting the pads or punching the bag or just plain running, it’s all work. Pad work, bag work, roadwork. You have to get the hours in, get it done. The only way to build anything is to pick up heavy things, move them over there, put them down. Pile them up. If I’m getting anywhere, if any of this heavy lifting is doing anything, Clever’s the cement, the glue, the connective tissue between each of my building blocks.

Boxing is teamwork, too. Everything you do, pads, bag, running, you do together. Sometimes in a group, often paired up, always in unison. So if you’re doing 300 sit-ups with Clever, he’s doing them too. Difference is, he’s counting for both of you, loudly, and not sweating at all. The only way to get anywhere is to stay in sync, keep trying to go to where he is, and if I’m getting anywhere, it’s because he hasn’t stopped. He hasn’t given up on me.

5am in the morning, most mornings for the past five months, Clever wraps my hands. I could do it myself, one-handed and badly, but he does it for me, slowly and carefully. An hour with Clever is like catching up with family, meeting friends for a drink; it’s time immersed in a bond with someone who knows you better than you’ll ever know yourself. Most mornings for the past five months I’ve offered my soul into his hands, and in return he calls me bhuti.

After five months of this, I’m more of a man than I’ve ever been.

Maybe he calls everyone that, maybe he doesn’t even realise it, I don’t care. If he wants to help me do this, day in and day out, he can call me whatever he wants. Maybe it’s just a word, maybe it’s just me reading too much into a single small piece of semantics but if he wants to train me and help me and that’s the word that comes into his head when he does it, if he feels that word carries the weight of what he wants to say when he sees me then fuck it, yeah, I’ll take it.

If he looks at me and sees a man, not another no-good loser from the suburbs, not a weak sweaty stupid mess, not anymore – not ever again – I’m happy. Maybe, if I put myself into his hands, day in and day out, for long enough, and if he calls me a man each time he sees me, maybe, I’ll start to believe him.

Photo by James Nord via Flickr