The first rule of boxing training is, never make jokes about rules and boxing training. Boxing isn’t a movie. It isn’t Rocky, with all the communal runs and bro-hugs. It isn’t Fight Club, with any of the sex toys or soap. There’s no Drago; there’s no Tyler Durden. There’s no interval, or popcorn. There’s no blinking neon Exit sign.

When I meet my trainer, Clever, from The Armoury Boxing Club, for the first time, I say hi. He looks at me, says, “Tuesday, 6am. Saturday, 11.” Holds out his fist. I punch it, ask him how he’s doing. He says, “Tuesday, 6am. Saturday, 11.” Holds out his fist. This is the moment I start getting goosebumps.

Steve, the owner of The Armoury Boxing Club, gave me a book yesterday. Said I might enjoy it. Joyce Carol Oates’s extended essay, On Boxing. I read the Preface in the car on the way home, red lights and green, holding up traffic. I read more when I got into bed, staying up later than I should have.

“There is nothing fundamentally playful about boxing; nothing that seems to belong to daylight, to pleasure. At its moments of greatest intensity it seems to contain so complete and so powerful an image of life – life’s beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage – that boxing is life, and hardly a mere game.”

This is when the goosebumps come back.

Boxing isn’t running. It isn’t sit-ups, or push-ups, or anything you should ever try at home. Boxing isn’t a punching bag, or a muscle. It’s not something you can hit, or flex. It isn’t a number. What it is, is a lot of pain. In the wrists, in the fingers, in the shoulders and ribs and every muscle you never knew you had. The pain of keeping your fists up. The pain of what happens when you let them drop.

Stepping into the ring with Clever is an exercise in learning how to hurt. Learning the proper structure of hurting, if that makes sense. Learning that it hurts to attack, and more to defend. Like staying on your toes while throwing your jab miles out in front of you, over and over, for minutes at a time, quick as you can. It hurts. Throwing too many straight crosses into his mitt, trying not to overbalance, keeping your head still, knees locked, feet on the ground. It burns. All of this takes a strong core. All of this is what a strong core is for.

Being in the ring, just being there, hurts. “Pain, in the proper context, is something other than pain.”

Between rounds of punching, bobbing, weaving, Clever introduces me to sit-ups. With kettle bells. I’ve never known sit-ups like these. Extending to the knee, then back down, then to the foot. That’s one. Of 10. Then the other leg. Legs in the air, extending to the knee, then back down, then to the foot. That’s one. Of another 10. Then the other leg. Buzzer goes, up you get. This is where a strong core comes from. This is where a strong core is put to work.

Between more rounds of jabbing, sweating, shouting, Clever introduces me to push-ups. With dumbbells. Flat on my stomach, feet off the ground, looking up, passing the weight in circles around across my back, one hand to another, up to in front of my face. That’s one. Of 20. Up on my hands, pressing down and up, reaching forward to meet his hand. That’s one. Of another 20. There is nothing like this.

Buzzer goes, gloves back on. Keep ’em up this time, he says.

Boxing is boxing.

Photo via Flickr by Sébastien Barré