This is something Clever says a lot.
As my trainer and sparring partner at The Armoury Boxing Club, Clever Mutero says a lot of things. Things like, just one more, and come on. Things like, don’t listen to your body. Keep your arms up. Don’t give me your head. Don’t give me your back.
Things like, there will be blood.
Training with Clever is a numbers game. An unsolvable maths equation, like some insane scientist’s crazy dream. The mind game of a mad man. Warming up, peddling on this bike, he says, five minutes. Five minutes was five minutes ago. On the floor, he says, sit-ups, let’s go. With a kettle bell, triple extensions, another 10. A small number, he says. Who said you can’t do 20? Who said that? No one said. No one. Let’s go.
Clever comes from Gweru, Zimbabwe. He started boxing at age 11, then he got asthma, then he started training. First his boxing champ brother, then guys like me. Clever’s been doing this for some time. He’s seen some shit. Seen better than me. Seen worse. My beginning, my end. My whole life, everything I am, he sees all of that, every Tuesday, every Saturday. In this ring, for hours and days. On repeat, for weeks.
How many can you do? 10? 20? Okay, 30. Times two. Times two is 60. Let’s go. This is when I’m on the floor, on my chest, arms shaking through another set of push-ups. When I can’t face another set of crunches. Wobbling through another set of squats, pull-ups, burpees, box jumps. When my sweat is smeared across the mat in big long wet wipes. This is when he knows I can do another set, two more, three.
You still owe me 10. Yes 10. From before. I want my 10. Plus interest. Another 10. Let’s go. This is when he can see I’m dying, but not dead. When I’m finished for me, but not for him. When he’s shouting me through another set, another number. Another barrier. Shouting, keep it up. Small steps, big jumps, on your feet. Jab. Jab again. Right. Right again. One two three four. Again. Faster, faster.
Dancing around the ring, Clever counts, one two three four, ba ba ba ba. Throwing his hips around, rolling his shoulders. Saying, don’t listen to the pain. Don’t think too much. Shouting, jab right jab right, ba ba ba ba. Shouting, yes, again. Shouting, come on. Again. Always dancing, always singing, one two, duck duck. Shouting, don’t bend your knees. One two, again. Use your height. Stay up. Come on.
Clever doesn’t give up. On me, on anyone. Clever doesn’t quit, not even when I do. Sometimes, when my arms drop, when my hands go numb and my mind goes missing, he says, don’t give me your back, or you are gone. Follows me around the ring, says, don’t turn away. You are gone. Sometimes, he’ll hit me with his mitts. Like a wet fish across the face. Like a wake-up call that says, you should be out cold. You should be dead.
Like a punch to the gut that says, there will be blood.
If I lift my back foot, while punching, jabbing, reaching, with these dead heavy arms, these numb broken shoulders, he drops his hands, frowns, turns away. That means push-ups. I lift it again, twisting, falling over, push-ups and sit-ups. If I fade, fall away, the numbers go up. I’m sweating, blowing hard, grimacing and groaning. He holds his mitts wide, says, why are you complaining? You’re punching me. You’re not getting hit. Bangs his mitts together, says, you must be happy. Smile. Let’s go.
Sometimes, I rock up at The Armoury a little early. Clever never sleeps. I see him sparring with pros, slick, throwing punches like they’ve been doing this forever. A few other beginners, flailing, like they’re somewhere else. The same look in their eyes. Tired, shaking. Desperate. For his approval, for the strength to do 10 more. 20 more. 30, a bigger number.
Clever’s seen it all. The beginning, the end. Buzzer goes. Clever gives me his hand. Says, now we box. Dancing, shouts, jab right jab, right three four, ba ba ba.
Shouts, come on. Shouts, again. Again.