“Everyone has a plan until they get hit.” – Mike Tyson
Christy Martin slammed her right hand into Deirdre Gogarty’s face. The woman’s jaw went slack and shifted to the left, hovering briefly before it snapped back into place. My family and I sat in our living room, screaming at the television. We were waiting for Mike Tyson’s fight against Frank Bruno. It was the first time I’d seen a woman box–this large, flabby fighter who was tearing her opponent end from end. The bell rang and Christy loped to her stool, where her corner men dipped into fat jars of Vaseline and squeezed water into her open, gasping mouth.
I sat on the floor, my fist in a bowl of popcorn. I turned to look at my father. “Did you know women box?”
“Sure,” my father said. “But people don’t like to see women get hurt, so it’s not as popular.”
I knew pain. I’d grown up doing flips, hurtling my body over the vault and balance beam. I’d squeezed into tiny leotards and spent most of my childhood suspended upside down, hoping my feet remembered the laws of gravity. I ran track. I danced. None of it appealed to me like boxing. I loved the blood and the knockouts; staying in on a Saturday night with my family, all of us obsessed with a sport that offered million dollar paydays for thirty-six minutes of action.
“How many women box?” I asked. On the television, Deirdre smacked Christy with an uppercut. Her nose opened up, suddenly spurting blood. It dripped down her exposed stomach and stained her white shorts that spelled her name in rhinestones.
“Not nearly as many as the men. They’re not as serious.”
“I could do that,” I said. “You think?”
“Maybe. But you’re only fifteen.”
Christy ignored the blood and kept fighting, easily overpowering her opponent. She raised her doughy arms at the bell, clenching a unanimous decision. She slung a gaudy belt over one shoulder. The crowd roared, photographers’ cameras popping loudly in the amped up room. I watched, this sport taking new shape in my mind. Girls could box.
I was a girl.
Four years later, I stood in the ring for my first boxing lesson. I was a freshman in college and had just joined Crunch gym. Despite the rows of equipment and free weights, the boxing ring was the focal point. Cages lined one wall, stuffed with gloves and mitts. Jerome stood next to them, expertly wrapping my hands. His gray hair was cropped short, his two front teeth marred by a slim gap, his mind sharp despite years of brutal pummeling. I watched as he draped the spongy fabric over my fingers. It felt intimate, this act; the way he took such care to protect my hands, so I could one day punch him in the face. He finished and brought over a set of gloves.
“You’ll want to get some gloves of your own,” he said. “These smell.”
I slipped them on, the insides still damp from someone’s prior workout. We entered the ring, and he went over the basics: jab, cross, hook, uppercut. He showed me how to stand, how it should feel to throw a punch, how boxing started in your legs and stayed there. I moved my arms, feeling the crisp pop of my fist into the cave of his mitt. Pain shot through my wrist. He corrected my form and made sure I was hitting with my first two knuckles and not my whole hand.
“Good. You’ve got to relax your shoulders, though. You’re too tense. Think about stirring a big pot of soup.” He moved his elbows around in a liquid motion. “Relax your fingers. Let the punches come naturally.”
I tensed and hit again. It wasn’t natural, but a rhythm began to develop. I relaxed into it, learning how to rotate on the balls of my feet with every punch, using my hips and abs.
We finished. I wiped my head with a towel.
“So, when can I start sparring?”
Jerome smirked. “When you learn how to punch. I think you’ll pick it up pretty fast. Just be patient.”
I nodded, eager to come back. I liked his unorthodox style, how he broke everything down, how he didn’t belittle me because I was a female. I think he preferred it. He had something to prove with me, and I had something to prove to myself.
In two months, I was sparring. My hands shook as I stepped in the ring, nerves making mush of all the things I’d worked on. Jerome stood across from me, his red headgear clashing against the yellow mouthpiece. He had morphed from teacher to boxer. He was about to hit me in the face.
“Come on,” he said.
I stepped forward and tried to relax. I shot out my jab and missed. The overextension ripped through my elbow. My face reddened. He popped me softly with a jab. I felt the crunching pain in my nose, like I’d just run into a brick wall. My eyes watered, but I shook it off. I threw a crooked jab to his body. It connected, and he smiled.
“Good. Now, add to it.”
I moved awkwardly, coming forward, throwing my arms without making sense of the combinations. The headgear was too big and fell over my eyes. My contacts were dry. My mouthpiece felt like an oversized chew toy. My hands were wrapped too tight. He hit me, once, twice, and soon the punches became a warning to cover my head, to move. I felt the tissues of my face swell for the very first time, as though getting smacked with a dodge ball again and again. As I concentrated on throwing and not getting hit, the pain faded. It would only get better, I thought. I could do this.
We continued for two rounds. In six minutes, I was done, sweating and proud.
“Good job, kid,” Jerome said, tapping my head with his glove. “You’re on your way.”
The Chicago streets were crowded, taxis weaving in and out of lanes during rush hour traffic. People in expensive clothing flocked to restaurants and dove into tall buildings, while I pedaled my bike toward the gym.
Inside, people dipped into the cages, fitting on gloves. Red and black hand wraps trailed the floor as they were worked over wrists and hands, the trails becoming shorter as fists fattened. The guys put on their equipment as though dressing for work: John, Trigger, Rick, and Jeff. I joined this ritual, which had become my routine over the past five months.
“Hey, you ready for today?” Rick asked. He stretched his dark, lanky arms above his head. He was covered in tattoos and small for his age. Three months ago, I’d watched as he’d tripped outside the ring and his kneecap had dislocated, plopping on the floor beside him. I’d ridden with him in the ambulance, his little fingers holding his kneecap in place. He still wore a brace and moved slower than he should have.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” I said. “The question is, are you ready?”
“So it’s going to be like that?” He slapped his gloves together in a vicious succession. “Let’s go then.”
We parted the ropes. The bell rang. Guys filtered around us, their arms draped lazily over the red cords of the ring. They shouted their instructions as I dodged Rick’s shots. My feet moved quickly, backward and to the right. I stopped, faked a jab, and landed one. Rick ambled forward, left leg over right, his punches like windmills. I shuffled around the ring as the leather inched toward my face. I contorted my body and slammed into the ropes in an attempt to defend myself.
“Hey, how about a little form in there?” Trigger yelled. “Hit her, Rick. She’s leaving her left hand down.”
I immediately picked my left hand up, leaned to the right, clocked him with an overhand left. I followed it up with three more shots. Rick kept coming forward, intent not on fighting but bullying me. I had the urge to kick him in his bad knee. I hit him with a left cross instead.
“Ooh, nice,” Trigger yelled, right at the bell.
After four more rounds, Jeff stepped in. He slapped Rick’s shoulder on the way out and turned to face me. I adjusted my stance, staring up at his six-foot frame. He hit harder than anyone. Our toes made dents in the canvas as I popped him with a straight left, knocking his head back like a pez dispenser.
“You’re accurate as shit,” Jeff mumbled. He pushed into me. One large blue paw landed flush on my forehead. I countered and landed a shot to his ribs.
Jerome watched from outside the ring. He nodded as I connected, smiling at the ease of it, this thing that took months to get, that was like dancing, that confused your feet, that left your shoulders in knots, that changed your body, that was like learning a new language. When it connected and you finally understood, it turned into something beautiful.
The sharp peal of the bell signaled the end of my ten round sparring session. I was drenched, drained, my face tender from hard punches. I stripped away my headgear. Pain tore through the left side of my head. I reached up and felt for blood.
“Am I cut?” I asked.
Jerome looked at me. He motioned for my head, and I bent over him as he picked through my sweaty hair. “Nope. No cuts.”
I left the gym. The headache shifted behind my left eye. After a week, I called the doctor.
“Why don’t you come in for a CAT scan,” a nurse said.
I set up my appointment and took a cab to the address scrawled on a piece of notebook paper. I changed into a tattered gown and sat in a white, sterile room. The technician sliced into the crook of my arm with a fourteen-gauge needle, his technique messy, his hand unsure. He pumped me full of medicine. It slid, razor sharp, through my veins. He slipped me back into the machine. I listened to the whir of the pictures and tried not to move. At home, I waited for the phone call.
“Ms. Frey, we’ve found something,” was all they said. I dropped the phone and locked myself in my bedroom. I glanced up at a poster of Muhammad Ali, the man whose mind had betrayed him, whose thoughts had gone slack before his body wanted to.
I stared at his dark face, spread smooth and flat against my wall. His hands would never again be in motion, except to tremor unwillingly, mocking him. His historic bouts against Foreman, Frazier, and Patterson would be played for years to come, but there would be sadness too, at how he had ended up. I tore my eyes from his face down to his hands; those lethal knuckles, flexed, all ten of them as large and rough as peanut shells. He was young then, his whole life ahead of him. Now, other people helped him dress in the morning. He moved at a snail’s pace. His tongue was no longer sharp. He could barely smile.
I closed my eyes, saw Ali’s face in my mind, then and now, heard the doctor’s words again. “We’ve found something.”
I opened my eyes and looked up at the poster.
“I’m like you,” I whispered. “I’m like you.”
The nurse was in my room again. I glared at her thick, boxy frame as she moved around me. She had a large head, and a permanent frown carved into the lower portion of her face.
“Why can’t I have something to drink?” I whined.
She yanked on my catheter and fussed with my I.V.s. I heard the squeak of her shoes on the cold linoleum as she walked out of my room and down the hall. I attempted to turn my head, but it felt as though it had been creamed by a semi. My body lay slack on the bed. My hairline was caked with dried blood and Vaseline. A surgical drill had scooped away small buttons of flesh from my forehead where the doctors had kept me immobile during brain surgery. My brow was bloated, enlarged. As a sort of consolation prize, however, the doctor had not shaved my head, instead making a clean incision down my scalp and parting it back, the hair still attached, dangling there like onionskins.
Beneath the skin, four titanium plates, shaped like snowflakes, formed a protective circle around my skull. Forty-two staples glittered at my hairline, which were covered with medical tape and bandages. I fingered the staples beneath the soft, white gauze, wondering what it would feel like when they were removed. Would they use pliers? Would it sting?
I couldn’t imagine getting hit in the head, couldn’t imagine anyone’s fist coming near me ever again. What if I couldn’t box? There would be no more sparring sessions where people crowded around to watch, or jaunts to the bars, or parties at the gym. There would be a gaping hole where the sport had been. Nothing could replace it. I would lose Jerome. I would lose my friends. I would lose everything. I dropped my hand, sighing. The mass was gone at least, probably kept for research in a jar somewhere.
The door opened and Dr. Getch entered. He looked crisp and clean in his white medical jacket, the hint of a paunch pushing from his belt line.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“More morphine would be nice.”
“Sense of humor intact. That’s good.” He sat on the edge of my bed. “Listen, I just wanted to explain a bit about what we did in there. Everything went well, but the mass was larger than we thought. We had to cut around a very aggravated vein to remove the cyst. You do have a few clipped veins, and this next twenty-four hours is critical to make sure we don’t miss any clots–but that’s not something you should be concerned with. It’s just routine.” He ran a hand over his face. “Um, I did put a few more titanium plates in there because your skull was so thin, so if you choose to be active, you’ll be protected.” He stood. “It’s great we caught this when we did. As crazy as it sounds, boxing actually might have saved you.”
I attempted to nod. “Thanks, Dr. Getch.”
“Sure thing. Get some rest.”
“I will,” I said.
Jerome held the mitts, leading me around the ring in a private lesson.
“This sucks,” I gasped. Sweat dripped from my arms and legs. My lungs burned. My hands shook, my body weak and heaving. It had only been a few months since the surgery, and I was back; back to the only sport I’d ever really loved. The sport that had quite literally saved my life. And I felt like an amateur.
“What if I can’t get it back?” I asked. “What if I’ve lost it completely?”
Jerome stopped moving. He placed his hands on his hips.
“You haven’t lost anything. We’ll get it back.”
I nodded. I wanted it back; wanted the assurance that this was worth it, that I belonged here. I could feel the tenderness at my hairline; the jagged scar that was still fresh and pink, a fat, bald line running the length of my head.
“I just feel so off,” I said.
“Hey, it’s just spilled milk, kid,” he said. “Spilled milk.” He smacked the mitts together and held them up. I nodded. I was here. I was ready. I focused on the target.
Jerome and I finished our session. He kissed the top of my head and gave me a hug. I watched him jump down from the ring, his body like a dancer’s. He shouldered his boxing bag and waved goodbye.
“See you tomorrow,” I said. He pushed through the glass doors, disappearing into the night. I could still remember walking into the gym for the first time, a naïve teen from Tennessee. I’d spotted Jerome at the edge of the ring, drinking a cup of coffee.
“Do you teach boxing?” I’d asked.
He’d turned to me, sizing me up. One hundred twenty pounds, a southpaw, probably agile, would need work on defense. “Yeah.” He’d slurped his coffee. “You interested?”
I’d stared at the men in the ring, their gloves thudding a curious melody against the pads. They seemed to know something I didn’t. I looked back at Jerome, surveying the gray eyes, the crooked nose, the defiant chin.
“Yeah, I’m interested,” I said.
Now, almost a year after I’d started, I had made myself into a boxer. I’d gotten hit and gone through surgery and fought my way back to the ring. I packed my bag and rested one hand on the ropes. I looked around the gym, almost bare now. I was often the last one to leave, and tonight would be no exception. My story wouldn’t end like Muhammad Ali’s. I wouldn’t be the greatest, but I wouldn’t be the sad story someone told twenty years later, sitting at a bar somewhere. I had more left in me; more to prove and more to learn. I was okay. I was back.
I was still here.