Sparring is one of the scariest things you can do.

The 2015 Men’s Health Staff Challenge came to a close last week. That means the fitness test is over, and a lot of the guys around the office are breathing easier, walking easier, now that they’ve done their time and put a few personal bests to bed. For me, a new challenge is coming: Professional Services Fight Night is a month away. Anyone who’s ever been ring-side knows, this is not like any fitness test. The guys in the MH office are taking it easy, but I’m busier than ever.

Five weeks out from Fight Night, Clever’s voice has ingrained itself in my head. Everywhere I go, I hear his voice, going at me: jab and move, jab again, keep moving. In my mind’s eye, all the time, I can see what he wants me to do, left right, one two, move, move again. In slow motion, a stuck record, use your jab, use it, again, again. Then I climb through the ropes and just like that, it all goes quiet. Too quiet. The deep hush of an empty mind. Calm and clean. Blank and stupid.

In a boxing ring, nine short minutes can feel like forever.

Twice a week here at The Armoury the Professional Services guys gather to get our asses kicked around. It starts off loud, everyone talking, joking, laughing, until Clever and Kessy take us through an hour of everything, with weights and without, until all you can hear is hard, laboured breathing. Until all you can see is sweat. In these classes we do a lot of fitness work, skipping, squats, push-ups, you name it. And we do a lot of boxing too. Against each other, and ourselves.

The thing about sparring is, you’re not fighting someone else, you’re facing everything you’re not doing properly. Even at PSFN group nights, where you come up against a lot of different guys with a lot of different styles and strengths, you can’t get away from your weaknesses. Say you have a tendency to freeze up, under pressure. That’s enough to hurt no matter who’s in there with you. Or maybe you’re not moving laterally enough, quickly enough. An easy target is easy for anyone.

Last Saturday I got into the ring with Steve, the owner of this place. War veteran, boxing instructor extraordinaire, he welcomes me in and says, you want to own the ring, make it yours. He punches my gloves, smiles, and says, this is your ring. Then he comes forward and hits me. Bang, it all goes quiet. Clever leans on the ropes, says, use your jab, but I’m dead quiet, still like a statue. Clever shouts, from far away, over and over, use your jab. Nothing about this ring is remotely mine, right now.

Go for a few rounds with someone, anyone, and you’ll learn pretty quickly the difference between knowing what to do and being able to actually do it.

The first couple of times you get in the ring, all you want to do is get out of there. Run away and hide, curl up and die. No one likes getting hit in the face. More than that, it’s knowing that there’s nothing you can do to make it stop that really hurts. Three never-ending rounds later you walk out of there, in pain, and imagine yourself glowing with a million heat spots, weak points, bright flashing bulls-eyes that say, come and hit me. Over here, and here, and here, and again.

When I got into the ring with Steve, I learnt a lot of things. Painful lessons, brewing in the back of my head. I have this habit, a stupid one, where I’ll miss with a punch and get frustrated. I’ll grunt, shake my head, smack my gloves together. Every time I did, Steve came at me for real, hitting me around like he was tired of this teaching shit and it was time to hurt me properly. Each of his hooks was a painful lesson, a piece of advice: you can’t get away from yourself.

Lessons like these don’t come easy, or often. You have to look for them, recognise them, and listen to them. If Clever says use your jab, use it. If he wants you to move, do it, it’ll help. That guy in the ring with you, with all his different styles and different strengths, he’s there to help. Each of his hooks teaches you something new, lights up another weak spot. Look for them, know what you’re after; this is what it means to use the ring, to treat this place like it belongs to you.

A boxing ring is a mirror. This is where you look yourself in the eye.

What is life without weaknesses? Even now, after three months of running, squats, push-ups, you name it, even me, after the MH fitness test, what is living unless you’re actively working to improve every part of yourself? Get into the ring with someone, and you’ll learn pretty quickly the difference between thinking you know yourself and being able to predict your own worst instincts. Sparring teaches you that everyone has flaws. That only you can fight yours.

A boxing ring is a torture chamber, a therapist’s couch. Say you have a tendency to freeze up, under pressure. That hurts, over and over, until you work at it. Or maybe you’re not moving laterally enough, quickly enough. You’re only an easy target if you let yourself stay that way. A hook or two to the head, in here, is a great reminder: keep working at yourself, your weak points and blind spots and bad habits. Keep coming back, to this ring. Make it yours.

Every time I come into The Armoury I learn something new. Painful things, bruising the back of my mind. These things are difficult to forget; hard to let go of. While I was sparring with Steve, between hooks, he said, keep your eyes open. Maybe it’ll stay with me forever, the way he said, look at your opponent, don’t look away. Who is that, my adversary, if not myself? What am I facing, in this ring, in my life, if not the worst parts of myself? My weakness, my enemy.

Sparring is one of the most terrifying things you can go through. Imagine all your problems condensed into three short rounds, and there’s nowhere to run and hide. Imagine all your issues coming at you for real, and there’s no way to curl up and die. Sparring is one of the most beautiful gifts there is: a chance to see yourself, properly, with all your weaknesses and blind spots and problems, and not look away. A chance to look for what you have to do, and have a go at actually doing it.

A chance to become, even for just three short rounds, better than yourself.

Photo by Pieter Baert via Flickr