Wherefore art thou boxing?

Before I started showing the general public this blog, I showed the first few posts to my best friend for a little beta review, and asked her for input as to what I should be writing about. She gave me the heap of praise you would come to expect from a BFF, but also provided helpful feedback and suggestions.

Obviously, she said, one of the posts needed to be about why I box and what attracted me to it in the first place.

And I started to draft that yesterday – the first pro match I saw as a kid, the bad breakup that necessitated an outlet for rage, the injury that reset my fitness goals.

Then this morning I dragged my carcass out of bed at 4:30 to hit the gym for some sparring with my trainer. It wasn’t my best work – I couldn’t stop overthinking long enough to actually apply any of the stuff I know all too well intellectually. My trainer assured me, like he always does, that improvement is happening, but I had my doubts. So I got a much-needed pep talk while he stretched my hamstrings and I cleared out the automatic tears that still happen sometimes when I take a hit to the nose. (Physiological, not emotional. I think.)

“Why are you boxing?” he asked me. “What do you have that 95% of people don’t that makes you want to do this? You need to think about that and apply it, and it’ll make you a better fighter.”

That made me realize that in the post I’d been writing, I was blithely churning out a whole bunch of “what” and “how,” and very, very little “why.”

I don’t even know if listing all of the things I like about boxing – the fast pace, the strategy, the endless potential for finesse and sublety off of a very simple premise – answers the question, either. I obviously didn’t understand most of these things when I first put on a pair of gloves. I didn’t even know most of them when I started sparring.

So I had to give some thought to it, because if you’re going to spend your free time letting people potentially inflict brain damage on you, you should probably have some good reasons. And like my trainer said, if I know myself, I can better know how I match up against an opponent.

Is it the solitude of the sport compared to team sports? A little, I guess, but that doesn’t explain why I didn’t just take up tennis.

Is it because I love violence? No more than your average person whose favorite movie is by Jerry Bruckheimer, I guess.

Is it because hand-to-hand combat is likely to be a useful skill when the zombies invade? Well, sure, but I’d still try to have a gun in that eventuality.

I think, in the beginning, I picked it up because it seemed very unlike me. For most of my life, I was a complete and utter nonathlete who shied away from anything more competitive than a spelling bee. Nerdy and intellectual since birth, I’ve excelled in things that exercise my brain in very certain, specific ways, which has allowed me to coast into a liberal arts degree, a media career, a small amount of blogger notoriety, and even a stint on a game show. I take so few opportunities to challenge myself in anything that doesn’t fit into something I already know I’m good at. If I can find something that doesn’t come easily and intuitively – something which tests every single UNcomfortable skill and impulse and forces me to improve them – and get excellent at it, then that’s a real challenge. I’ve kept at it because it turns out I enjoy surprising myself. I want to know how much I’m capable of and how much I can take …and it’s almost always a lot more than I thought.

Boxing tests my limits while being just dangerous enough that I know there’s something real at stake. Not that I’m any sort of adrenalin junkie – I just enjoy that it’s an incredibly tangible sport with tangible outcomes and consequences. I know when I’ve done something wrong instantaneously and I can correct for it the next second.

Initially, I think boxing specifically appealed to me because it wasn’t something I ever saw myself doing. When nerdy intellectuals play sports, I’d tend to think of them playing something like squash or badminton, or championing a less mainstream sport as superior to the typical stuff. (Nerdy intellectuals enjoy, for example, going off on how the rest of the world is more evolved because Americans haven’t yet embraced soccer. At least American ones do.) As it happens, though, I’m finding plenty to feed my intellectual side with boxing, and not just because I can read books about it on my way to work. Combining mindful strategy with power, speed, and defense is a lot for the brain to handle, which of course is how I took a couple of hard hooks to the head this morning. I’ve spent these past months competing with myself before ever competing with another person, and every day my brain hopefully gets a little better able to process the 10,000 things you have to simultaneously consider during a fight.

Whew. No wonder this question was worth pondering today.

So that’s one answer. I’m sure there will be others down the road, as well as answers to “what” and “how.”

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