Boxing: A whole new world

I entered the world of boxing purely for the catharsis. Beating up on things felt like the perfect outlet for the frustration and fear I experienced from thyroid surgery and its aftermath (cancer diagnosis, wild mood swings, weight gain, loss of fitness and endurance, TMI bodily function fluctuations).

Once the initial pugilistic glee faded, I realized catharsis was the least of what the sport had to offer. In addition to benefiting strength, mobility, agility and endurance, it turns out that boxing is the perfect antidote for a suddenly foreign body.

The Boxing Gym

I’m going to make an assumption here that, like my previous self, many of you have not had the experience of training at an old school boxing gym. Decatur Boxing Club, aka the Human Weapon Factory, inhabits a small brick building on an unassuming side street.

Simple brick building

Once intimidating, now a homecoming.

The gym has no air conditioning, just a large garage door and some fans used most often for purely decorative purposes. The ring occupies pride of place in the center, surrounded by punching bags, hand weights, jump ropes, medicine balls, and other workout miscellany. Decades of boxing posters and flyers paper the walls, and banners and pennants hang from the ceiling.

Near the top of the rear wall sits the interval timer with corresponding lights: Green for 2:30, yellow plus a buzz to mark the final thirty seconds, then the big buzz plus red light to indicate thirty seconds of rest. Each round of (men’s) boxing lasts three minutes; so, too, do a majority of training intervals.

Boxing interval timer

Green means go. Red means 30 glorious seconds of rest.

The Boxing Class

Each class begins with a round or two of jump-roping to benefit endurance and improve both footwork and rhythm. Neither the footwork nor the rhythm come naturally to me, but I’m working at losing myself in the music instead of overthinking and plodding through each step.

I’m far more comfortable with the next part of the warm-up: laps around the ring. Everyone grabs a set of hand weights and jogs as our instructor directs us to punch it out, criss-cross (aka grapevine!), crabwalk (a lateral shuffle rather than the preschool variety on hands and feet), backwards, change directions, squat, catch a medicine ball and squat or throw it back with one or two hands, stop for a bit to punch on a bag…

After the warmup, the real fun starts. The class dons gloves and enters the ring – the cool kids throw themselves up onto the canvas on their backs and roll under the ropes – and encircle the trainer and one boxer. We learn that day’s combination (a choreographed series of punches and defensive moves) and take turns practicing them in the center of the ring with the trainer, who uses either mitts or pool noodles in lieu of gloves.

The class crabwalks around the ring, shouting encouragement: You got this! Don’t think! Just breathe! Good one! That’s it!

As someone who struggles with choreography, coordination, and confidence, the encouragement, the camaraderie, the reminders of the basics surround me like a chrysalis. With every class I attend, I’m learning more and more to lose myself in the rhythm and the movement, not to overthink every punch, slip, or pivot, to respond to the placement of the instructor’s mitt or pool noodle.

There’s always time for drills and some practice on the bag or against a purely defensive opponent before an old-school, bodyweight ab workout. It often strikes me that the class is bookended with two fixtures of my youth: jump roping and crunches.

Man doing ab workout on boxing ring

Abs with Garcia: Everyone’s favorite part of the day! (Okay, abs aren’t so much a favorite, but Garcia – a gifted and patient trainer – sure is!)

The Surprising Benefits of Boxing

My body grows stronger and more agile with each class, yes. My endurance increases along with my aerobic fitness. I can see all of that show up in my running as I work to regain what I lost over the spring and summer.

Pink boxing wraps

I don’t think it’s a coincidence my wraps have a heart in the center!

The real difference, though, is that learning to box is also forcing me to get to know my body in a whole new way. Boxing encourages the fighter to fully inhabit her body while simultaneously releasing her mind. Not that boxing is a brainless sport—the exact opposite, in fact—but the moment you let your mind get in the way, you’re toast.

Once you have the action down, a trainer told me, let it go and just focus on your breath. Get out of your own way.

I have a long, long way to go before I can fully get out of my own way. But for now, I’m learning to fully inhabit this new body of mine. Each week, more bits and pieces are starting to click, and I find joy and camaraderie in the process.

Woman smiling in front of gym

Dripping with sweat—and gratitude.