Imagine: 6pm on a rainy Thursday night, 16 guys, accountants, auditors, lawyers, in their 20s, 30s, crammed into a little back-end locker room, all talking, all laughing, all moving and jumping and skipping and stretching. Shaking hands, hitting bags, earphones blaring, tying their wraps, tying them again. 16 guys, all excited, all hyped, warming up for Fight Night. Scared out of their minds.
Of everything that gets said, in this tense little space, one thing means the most: you’ll be okay. Of everything anyone wants to hear in this nervous dark little room, this is what they want to know most of all: it’ll be okay. Clever, Kessi, Richard, Jongi, Sting, Chris, all the trainers back here, they say it again and again, to anyone and all of us. No one ever gets sick of hearing it.
The evening before, we’re all here, listening to Steve explain how the big night will go, what’ll happen when, the rules and routines. So there are no surprises. He knows we’ll remember exactly none of this. He knows that when everyone’s here, talking, moving, stretching, it’ll be a surprise no matter what he says. The most massive terrifying wonderful surprise you’ve ever seen.
In the final few weeks before this night, Clever and I spar a lot. And he hits me. A lot. Each time, he says, don’t be scared. Take the punch. Hits me again and asks, what is blood? Blood is nothing. By now, it doesn’t even hurt anymore. This is what people mean when they talk about the sweet science of boxing: knowing the beauty behind being hit. Being able to beam through a mouthful of blood.
Imagine: 7pm, 25 June, the second-ever Professional Services Fight Night at The Armoury Boxing Club in Woodstock, Cape Town. I’m here an hour early, to soak in the atmosphere, get used to the noise and calm myself down. That hour goes by in 20 seconds. Before I know it the ring announcer’s saying my name, my song’s playing, and just like that, boom. I’m walking.
It is not death a man should fear but never beginning to live.
Walking through a screaming crowd is lonely. All these people, family, colleagues, calling your name and screaming and losing their minds, and this is the loneliest you’ve ever been. There’s a lot of loud advice, shouted encouragement, from friends, from trainers, and you can hear none of it. There’s a lot of noise, from miles away, and all you can feel is a big lonely nothing.
I remember the quietness, more than the noise. The stillness, and the calm. There is a silent empty moment in the middle of all these people, all this light, everything a blur in slow motion. I can see only in front of me, and all I know is my pounding heart, my heavy breath, the steps of a slow solitary walk. In this loud silence I am in limbo, neither alive nor dead, or both at once.
Climbing into a boxing ring is hard. Harder than you’d expect. You take off your fear, in that dark tense little space, and put it on the floor and step over it, out of a scared small shadow and into this light and noise, into what you have to do and who you have to be, into the thought, I’m not afraid of this, of him, of me. All you have is you, and it is harder than you’d ever think anything could be.
Who would be afraid when faced with himself alone? Every man who ever lived.
I remember only fragments of my fight. A few nice jabs, right up the middle, snapping up into the nose, the chest, the stomach, a few strong straight rights, not enough, and a lot of bobbing and weaving. I remember dancing, on my toes, skipping forward and jabbing. I remember sitting on my stool between rounds, Sting telling me, use your right. I remember standing up, walking forward, wanting this.
I remember bleeding. How it felt, dripping onto my lips, how it tastes, even now. I remember thinking, what is blood? Blood is nothing. I remember wishing there was another round, just one more, just two more minutes. I remember feeling tired, and happy, and sore, and free. I remember hugging Clever, after the final bell, and him hugging me, lifting me in the air, and laughing.
I remember him holding my hand in the air. I remember being on top of the world.
8pm on a dark winter’s night, and I can’t stop smiling. In relief, that they were right, it is okay, I am okay, and pride, that I fought past my fear. And joy, for everything and everyone, in this place and everywhere. There is nothing as immense, nothing as hard-earned or wonderful, as this joy. Nothing as big, or bright, or beautiful, as winning a war against who you think you are.
Imagine: 16 men, coming out of this ring, coming into themselves, coming to life. How would a man ever know he could be this alive, without fighting for it? This happy, without facing his fear? A man who comes out of a boxing ring says, I know who I am, who I want to be, and who I can be, in this life, the next, and forever. And I’m not afraid of fighting, of bleeding, to get there.
He has stared his fear in the face and smiled. This is a man who is afraid of nothing.
This is a man who has begun to live.