As I was working on the heavybag this morning, I had a moment of gratitude for the gentleman who taught me my modest boxing skills. I was practicing a particular combination, and was in the groove of it, captivated by the rhythm of it, lost in it, carried along like a leaf swirling down a gurgling mountain stream. Between punches I felt my gloves come up and brush my cheekbones.
“Keep ya hands up, keep ya hands up!” my mentor, JD, had admonished me. “Ya drop ya hands in practice, ya drop your hands in the ring! And yull wish ya hadn’t.” Actually, he said that much more colorfully, in fluent Chicago-ese. I’m translating charitably.
He was, like all good teachers of fighters, a stickler for “tryin’ to make it real.”
You see a lot of guys work the heavy bag with their hands low, concentrating on punching power and forgetting about defense. It’s an easy trap to fall into.
The bag doesn’t punch back.
Another of JD’s pet peeves was the speed bag. Most guys stand up in front of it and wail away using the side of the fist, the back of the knuckles, dog-paddling away at hummingbird pace.
JD would have none of it.
“Ya not gonna punch like that are ya? What’s the point? Don’t practice anything ya don’t wanna do.” So he bade me approach the bag in a good stance – hands up --- work it with proper jabs, straight rights, double jabs, slip side-to-side…
A typical workout would go like this:
At the beginning of training, JD would start the clock which would then automatically signal a three-minute round and a 1-minute break, continuously for the rest of the session.
We would also put on his favorite album which would also play continuously for the rest of the session. It may have been the only album he owned. It had been played so much, you could hear both sides at the same time.
You come in, gear up, grab a corner, do a couple rounds on the rope to warm-up.
Then maybe go to the mirror (or use your reflection in the window if the room was crowded) and do some shadow boxing.
Then some bag work.
There was a light bag that swung a lot, so you could practice punches moving in and out. There were heavier bags, including one super-heavy bag that I don’t believe ever moved an inch when I hit it. There was an uppercut bag. Double-end bags.
There was “Rocky,” which was a sort of a turnstile with two arms – one arm had a coaching mitt affixed to it, the other a boxing glove. The idea was to punch the mitt and then duck before the glove swung around and hit you in the head. The harder you could punch, the faster you’d have to duck.
Between rounds, quick, hit the floor for some sit-ups or push-ups.
After 8 or 10 or 12 rounds, if you were working the way you should, JD might call on you to step into the ring with him to work on the mitts. He presents targets, you nail them with the appropriate punches. And, yes, keep your hands up or you’ll certainly get clocked by one of those mitts. It’s an experience from which you can personally attest to the truth of Einstein’s theory of the relativity of time.
Or JD might pair you up with another guy and have you work on a particular drill together. One drill. ALL night.
Not much. A round or two sometimes. Not every time. Just when JD thought you were ready for it. You were invited; you didn’t ask.
If you NEEDED to spar because you were training to peak for a fight, that was different. Then you’d progressively increase your sparring rounds. Maybe 2 or 3 or 4 rounds for every round of the fight you'd have to fight.
But whether you were sparring or just working on the bag, you ALWAYS trained as if you were in against an opponent who wanted to take your head off.
Because you weren’t training to punch a bag.
You were just using the bag to train for punching an opponent – who wanted to take your head off.
Boxers keep it real because there’s a serious price to pay if you don’t.
A price you pay in blood. In sprained ribs. In sprung jaws. In black eyes, and broken noses and brain trauma.
Even with a foul protector, a mouthpiece, headgear and gloves, you know you could get seriously hurt.
Or even worse.
And you'll probably get routinely hurt in minor degrees.
So boxers respect what they’re doing.
They respect the opponent’s ability to do them damage.
I wish fencers trained the way boxers train.
If they did, we wouldn’t need to distinguish “classical” fencing from “sport” fencing.
If I could rig a cattle-prod or a taser to the point of the weapon, I could bitch-slap “sport” fencers back to reality overnight.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
(with apologies to Les McCann/Eddie Harris)