The Real Thing
Everything is hazy. Sweat cascades down my face and stings my eyes. I am hopelessly deprived of oxygen and my lungs feel terminally useless. I try to gasp for air but the effort is frighteningly futile. The pain in my left shoulder that was worrying me ten minutes ago is gone now, replaced by a numbness that worries me even more. My legs threaten to buckle. My arms feel leaden as I try to maintain the fierce pace of punching. Jab, jab, jab, right, hook, right, right, hook, right. Duck. Duck. Body shot, left, then body shot right. It occurs to me that I am perilously close to fainting. Or puking.
In the fog that passes for my perceptions at the moment, I am aware of Eric in front of me, his round face and shaved skull, beaming infectiously as he urges me on, the big red trainers mitts, targets for my punches, teasing me at the end of my reach. If I wasn’t so sure I was dying I’d be smiling back at him. My brain struggles to check my vital signs. I try to take a breath. Blinking helps. Eric doesn’t seem to notice or care. Can’t pass out, I am thinking desperately.
“Three-minute drill now. Take him out. Harder. Harder! Give me your knockout punch!”
I am throwing punches as hard as I can, left, right, left, right. “Straighten them out. Don’t just slap. Punch on through, all the way, that’s it. Keep your hands up!” And with this last admonition he pops me on the side of the head with one mitt, bam! His hands are so quick I don’t see it coming. It’s not enough to do any damage, but the startle effect is jolting.
Then blessed relief. He drops the mitts to his side. “Go get some water,” he says calmly.
Thank God. My chest heaves as I gulp for air. I glance at the wall clock as I stagger across the gym floor toward the water fountain. Only ten minutes have passed since we started. Forty to go. My heart sinks. I pass by a phalanx of treadmills and StairMasters and the people there look at me with a mixture of horror and admiration. It perks me up a notch. Yeah, what are you staring at, you wusses! You’re not even sweating! I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror as I prop myself up over the water fountain. I look like I’ve been run over by a truck. Cool.
This is the boxing workout. The real McCoy, boxing according to Eric “The Prince” Martin, one-time welterweight contender and now, at 44, a trainer. Eric is old school all the way. He looks a little out of place in my trendy gym, down the street from toney San Francisco restaurants, big-name ad agencies and the Levi Strauss corporate headquarters. But on the gym floor he oozes casual assurance. He has his method, and his method is simple and straightforward. It starts with raw fitness. His workout is more like a Navy Seals program than a modern gym session. Its hallmark is intensity. Over nearly an hour the only relief is the periodic and brief water break. Occasionally you get to “sit on the wall,” lean back and plant your feet on the floor with your knees bent at ninety degrees. After a minute or so your quadriceps begin quivering like the San Andreas fault. As tortuous as it is, the wall is always a welcome break, a chance to stock up on oxygen. Eric grins. “The wall is your friend,” he says.
Most of the time, however, you’re going one-on-one with Eric and the mitts, running zigzag patterns across the basketball court or doing pushups, sit-ups and “burpies.” It is excruciating and far and away the hardest thing I have ever done. In the three years that I’ve been working out with Eric, dozens have tried it. Only one other person is still with the program. Eric doesn’t seem to mind the attrition or to take it personally. He knows from experience that the most fit boxer usually wins the fight. In his prime fighting days, in the 80’s, his own workouts were daily multiples of the ones he puts me through, often with ten rounds of hard sparring at the end. It’s hard for me to imagine.
In our sessions, we work to exhaustion. My exhaustion, that is. There is something about Eric that makes me want to give everything I have and it bonds us in a unique way. I am innately stubborn and go full blast the whole time. I’ll pass out before I’ll cave in and tell him I’ve had enough. He reciprocates with flattery and encouragement. He’s got me believing I could take out Mike Tyson with my body shots and he knows how to squeeze another dose of adrenaline out of me when my shoulders have lost all feeling and my arms have turned to rubber.
I am deep on the dark side of fifty myself, ridiculously old to be doing this, but I’ve kept myself in good shape, which helps. I've never been on the fanatical fringe, though, never lusted after a triathlon or a marathon or anything particularly heroic. I think of myself as locked in a fierce battle with Mother Nature, refusing to age gracefully, mostly interested in maintaining a baseline of strength, speed, flexibility and endurance. When Eric showed up in the gym one day with his training mitts, boxing seemed a terrific complement to everything else I was doing. I had no idea how excruciatingly hard it would be.
The payoff is the extraordinary level of fitness you achieve. The day following a workout is a day charged with surplus endorphins and a kind of ebullience that can only come from a deep sense of well being. To feel fit and strong, in a way that gives you the sense of mastery of the space your body occupies, is downright addictive.
And let’s face it. There is something about old-fashioned boxing that is undeniably the purest essence of machismo. Surviving an hour with Eric, taking your licks and throwing your punches until you’re on the ragged edge of collapse - this is right there at the top of the testosterone scale. On top of that, there is something that I can’t imagine deriving from any other sport or athletic activity: The sense that you can deal with anything that might arise. Anything. To say that’s confidence-inspiring is an understatement.
Once you’ve been working with Eric for a while and he begins to take you seriously, he starts to teach you how to really box. All Along he’s been hammering home the basics – the jab, the right, the left hook, the body shot - and combinations of these. From there, you move to offensive strategies and defensive techniques. I learn to power up my body shots, to follow a strong right with a left hook and another quick right, all the time snapping my gloves back to protect my face. I learn how to slip a punch, to bob and weave, to duck, and to deflect a punch with my hands but keep from being exposed.
We have a drill where Eric lets me come at him with jabs. I give it my best, throwing as hard as I can, straight at his face. I can’t mix it up with other punches, but I can throw as many, as often, as I want. We have been doing this for a long time, and despite my significant reach advantage, I’ve never hit him. My punches either end in a loud thwack as he catches it with a mitt or they simply die in the air as he eludes it with the slightest of motions. He makes it look so simple, so trivial. It makes me appreciate just how good he is and hints at how incredible he must have been in his prime.
Eric has a good measure of the classic ghetto kid in his biography. The youngest of seven, he moved around a lot and had stints in foster homes before finally being reunited with his mother in the Hunters Point district of San Francisco. Eric was the smallest kid in his family and in school, which made him a preferred target for bullies. But it wasn’t in his nature to be a victim. He tells me there was never a day in his childhood that he didn’t fight somebody. He became a street legend in Hunters Point. Then, through the local police athletic league, he got involved in boxing and quickly rose through the ranks, taking a number of amateur titles before turning pro. He was a smooth, stylish, classy fighter, earning the title “The Prince.”
As a pro he won the California state title as a junior welterweight and seemed destined to be one of the best at a time when the middle-weight divisions were rich in legendary talent - Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Wilfredo Benitez, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran. In 1985 he won the welterweight championship in an ESPN tourney that was probably the pinnacle of his fight career. In 56 professional fights he was never knocked out. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who can’t lay a glove on him.
He went on to fight top ranked fighters in Italy and South Africa, losing both by controversial split decisions. Then injuries struck, none of them coming in the ring, and his fighting career flattened out and slowly tailed off.
In the working class suburb of South San Francisco there is another gym. On the street level is the usual assortment of well-used iron and a few rough-looking guys pumping it. Around back, down an unlit staircase, there is a boxing gym, a real throwback. The basement might be dingy but the equipment is first rate and it’s all there, all the specialty bags, the big ring, everything you could imagine in an old-fashioned boxing gym except the cigar smoke.
On the wall is a large banner proclaiming that this is the domain of “The Prince.” Here is where Eric trains his real fighters. Twice a week there is sparring and I am invited to get in the ring. I am flattered and at the same time terrified. I’m at least twenty years older than anybody else down here. The 23-year-old super-heavyweight for whom Eric has high hopes doesn’t have anyone else close to his size to spar with. Eric hopes I will give his guy some practice. There is part of this that seems like a bad joke being played at my expense, but this is a logical end-product of the addiction and there is no way I can say “no.”
My first time there I’m matched with the only other guy close to my size - I’m 6’ 1” and 205 - and he doesn’t look like he wants to be my best friend. But it starts out well, and I’m pleased that my jab seems effective and my movement is good. I’m landing my shots and he’s not getting to me. Then he starts firing hard, going full blast. This is not what sparring is supposed to be about. I’m perplexed and go fully defensive, but he doesn’t let up. Finally, I look for an opening, throw a hard right and he goes down. Damn, it works! But I’m shocked and find myself standing over him apologizing like mad. He looks stunned, but gets up and finishes the round like a gentleman. We’re buddies henceforth.
The next time, Eric gets me together with Tay, his big guy. Tay is 4-1 as an amateur and his one loss was clearly a fluke. Eric thinks he has a real future as a boxer, which is high praise. He’s a quiet young man, low key, but fit and obviously serious about his boxing. He also happens to be 6’3” and 230 pounds. At the end of another tortuous workout we spar. We go the equivalent of a couple of rounds. Eric tells us to concentrate on body shots, which means there’s not much moving around, just close quarters toe-to-toe banging on each other. Tay is more interested in working on his technique than besting me, so our session is more like hard work than a fight. Nonetheless, I am thrilled that I am still standing at the end, that I’ve landed my share of shots and taken his, and we’re both gleaming with sweat as we touch gloves in that special gesture of the camaraderie of the ring. It is absolutely exhilarating.
The following Saturday is amateur fight-night at the Irish Cultural Center in the farthest reaches of the Sunset District of San Francisco. It’s a big deal here, sold out weeks in advance. Four of Eric’s young fighters are on the card that night, and my wife and I go out to watch. She says it best. “You know, you can really tell who’s been trained by Eric. You can tell by the way his guys move. His fighters really look like they know what they’re doing.” And they tend to win.
The last fight is the Super-Heavyweight match, and it’s Tay going up against a very thuggy looking character, even bigger than him. Midway through the second round Tay knocks him down with a body shot. He stays down and Tay is a winner by a TKO. I am so happy for Eric and for Tay I could burst. And I want to shout out, “Hey, I sparred with that guy just three days ago!"
Randall Stickrod is a long-time technologist and magazine publisher whose credits include Wired and The Readerville Journal, as well as BOOM, a new magazine for the baby boomer crowd to be launched this spring. He has published several short stories and has a novel that is presently being pitched by his agent.
Photos of boxers courtesy of
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