There’s not much to learn in boxing training. Except everything you already know.
Seven weeks into the MH Staff Challenge, I’m beginning to understand how you can do something your whole life without ever realising you’re doing it wrong. Walking, eating, these are things I knew about long before boxing, things that now feel brand new. Drinking, breathing, these are familiar skills, made fresh. Swinging from the hips, stretching all the way over there, what’s different? Except everything.
Boxing training has a way of taking simple things and making them really, really hard. Here, a push-up is something that tightens your core, strengthens your shoulders, so you stop falling sideways, so you stop dropping your arms. A sit-up is something that helps keep you crouched at the waist, protecting your stomach, guarding your chest. Reps of these aren’t new, they just help you stay alive. Here, staying alive is hard.
If you break boxing down into small, separate things, you’ll find it consists of everything. This is what all-round training means: when you can’t take any of it out. Small things, like breathing, running, eating, these are vital. Big things, like leaning forward past a punch, not back, like not closing your eyes, not turning your head, even when you’re weak and tired and scared to death, they’re all equal, all essential. You can do nothing without them.
You know them already. But not like this. In the ring, all these things become new.
The guys at the Armoury told me last week I’m not resting enough. Watching me fall around, tired, weak, like someone close to an overdose of training. Six days a week, too much, says Clever. Take Wednesdays off, says Sanchia. Go for a walk, stretch. Maybe do some yoga. My wife thought that was a great idea. Now I’m here with her at Air Yoga Studios in Cape Town, 7am, looking at the floor and asking myself, shit, how do I breathe again?
Connect with your breathing, says the instructor. This means pulling air in so hard, for so long, that everyone in this room can hear it too. Blowing it out, in a long loud stream, like you’re snoring while awake. This means breathing like it’s everything, your whole focus. Find your breath, she says. Even when you’re upside down, a downward-facing dog, dripping sweat. Breathe in, when you’re on your hands, legs tucked in, lifting off the floor. Now out, louder.
Shallow breathing comes naturally. On this yoga mat, on the road, in the ring, a simple thing. To do it right, you have to make it hard. In through the nose, deeper, so you can feel it blowing in against the top of your lungs. Out, again through the nose, so you sound like you’re in space, carrying an oxygen tank. Recognise a full breath, memorise how it feels, slow and steady and deep in your chest. So you can look for it later, so you never breathe badly again.
Hard breathing. The kind that keeps you alive. This is breathing made new.
When you throw a jab at someone’s head, you’re head down, leaning forward, way forward, more than that. Back leg bent a little, foot on the floor, all the way down, glued down. Front leg straight, hips twisting, all the way round, more. Do that enough, all those simple things add up to a big one, a hard one: the art of not falling over. Not dropping, not turning, not opening up your face, ribs, back. Not volunteering to get hit, to get hurt, to get knocked out.
Do that enough, and breathing goes onto the back burner. Bottom of the to-do list, like a long-lost forgotten lifeskill. Shallow breaths come easy, come naturally when you’re under strain, in pain, trying to stay upright and out of the way and alive. Breathe badly for long enough, in the ring, you start falling over, coming undone, seeing stars and wondering how long until the bell. Wondering why you’re getting hit so much. Wondering when all of this will end. Breathe badly for long enough, everything will end.
Connect with your breathing. This means knowing when your lungs are closing up, how your mind’s going missing. Knowing why, and how to bring it back to here and now. Remembering how it feels to breathe in, deep through the nose, firm on your feet, fists all the way up. How to breathe out, loudly, with your chest, with your fist.
Find your breath. Swing, hard as you can. These are single things, made of simple things, made bigger things, made new.
Boxing is everything you already know, only harder. Breathing, moving, punching, it’s not rocket science.
It’s much harder than that.
Photo by Ashley Rose via Flickr