Volume XI, Issue 14 ~ April 3-9, 2003

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| The Zen of Boxing | Bay Life |

The Zen of Boxing
by Matthew Thomas Pugh ~ Photos by Ernest Anastasio

In 18 months I fought my way from the doldrums to bliss.

My stomach is cinched in a fisherman’s knot. I want to be sick. Not a drop of liquid will trickle up or down my throat. My corner man, Jim, shakes the trembles out of my hands as he finishes wrapping them in gauze and tape. “Just relax,” he says.

Electricity from the crowd bleeds into the tiny storage closet where the trainers have sequestered me. The walls inside heave like the chest of a dying soldier. Claustrophobia needles my skin.

Anxiety bewilders my senses. I don’t realize the people around me applying Vaseline to my face and jamming the headgear onto my cranium.

The leather crown boils my head and pushes steam through my synapses, causing the barrage of images around my brain to accelerate out of control.

“Are you ready?” Jim asks. “Are you ready,” he asks again, smacking my head.

“What? … yeah, yeah … I’m ready,” I mumble through my mouthpiece.

“It’s time,” he says.

It’s Tuesday, 8pm, fight time at the Teamster’s Hall on Erdman Avenue on Baltimore City’s eastside. There are nine bouts on tonight’s card, including the 165-pound division match between Thomas Stewart from Woodlawn and me.

Both of us are first-time fighters fighting out of the Baltimore Boxing Club in Fells Point. Stewart is fighting toward a career in the sport. I am fighting because I was offered a rare opportunity.

The Snake’s Sweet Offer
I was floating and stinging around the BBC one evening last December, when club owner, fight promoter and Baltimore boxing legend Jake ‘The Snake’ Smith, asked me to box at his next show. Smith had asked me before if I wanted to fight, but I’d always said no. Insecurity, self-doubt and fear held me back. This time, however, Smith sweetened his offer.

“You’ll be fighting for the state middleweight championship,” he said. “You may never get the chance again.”

For two reasons, I couldn’t resist: First, I wanted that title; second, I wouldn’t be able to sleep knowing I let the experience slip away.

Quicker than a Roy Jones Junior jab, I was on the card for February 4, 2003, and in a situation I had never imagined when I took up the sport.

At the Baltimore Boxing Club, Pugh found ‘chiseled dudes, sleek, with fire in their eyes. They attacked the meager equipment like hell’s pit-bulls, snarling and forcing air through their nostrils.’
At the Baltimore Boxing Club
When I took up the sport back in September of 2001, my life was in the dumps. I needed a personal overhaul. And I didn’t know where to begin.

I was brooding down Fell Point’s South Broadway Street, when I came on the Baltimore Boxing Club. Boxing had always attracted me. I checked the place out.

The single-room club was utilitarian. There were four heavy bags, two speed bags, a double-end bag, one set of free-weights, a second-hand Nautilus machine, a few pieces of scattered exercise equipment and, of course, a ring.

Walls were adorned with boxing memorabilia, dozens of fight promo posters and signs with motivational messages like “the more you sweat, the less you bleed.”

Before me stood half a dozen dudes, chiseled, sleek, with fire in their eyes. They attacked the meager equipment like hell’s pit-bulls, snarling and forcing air through their nostrils. My chest pounded from the shockwaves.

The scene was surreal; violence and grace rolled into one. I was captivated.

“Can I help you,” a raspy voice startled me from behind.

“Yes,” I said, “when can I begin.”

A Good Punch
I began the next day learning how to punch. Technique is everything when it comes to punching, explained Smith, who has trained seven national champions and over 50 state and Golden Gloves champs.

“A good punch involves your whole body,” said the 6'2", 205-pound Smith. “A good punch has got to have that snap,” he added, snapping one off.

That lethal snap comes from a combination of lightning-fast movements.

As the fist is thrown, the corresponding hip and foot turn into and with it, giving the punch its force. As the arm extends, the fist twists in and downward, making the index and middle knuckle the points of impact. A split second after impact, the fist is snapped back to the face.

A punch thrown and landed correctly sounds like a gunshot. And as Smith explained, “once you know how to really punch, you’ll look at the world differently.”

I began shadow boxing with fluidity, turning single jabs into combinations. From there, I moved to heavy bag work.

Pounding the heavy bag was cathartic. To fuel the sessions, I would call to mind all the negativity in my life. I punched the skin off my knuckles and bruised my hands to the bone. The tremendous sweating purged my body of impurities. I lost 20 pounds in six weeks.

My muscles toned quickly, but my body rhythms lagged behind. My timing — in everything from breathing to walking — felt off. Then I began training on the speed bag.

At first, it was frustrating trying to control the teardrop-shaped nuisance as it ricocheted around. But I found control in the sound of the rhythm. As I learned to work the tiny leather bag into a blur, I restored my sense of cosmic timing.

Over the next few weeks, I added rope-jumping, weightlifting and running to my workouts, which were often lasting more than 40 rounds.

Because a boxing match is divided into rounds, training, too, is in rounds.

At the gym, a bell rings every three minutes, signaling the start of your workout. Two minutes and 30 seconds later, another bell rings telling you to double-time your workout. Thirty seconds later, another bell rings and the round is over. You have 20 seconds to rest before the next round begins.
In three months, I’d punched a long way, but I was still short on confidence. I knew the only place to gain it back was in the ring.

A Fistful of Confidence
I was eight rounds deep into workout, jabbing and hooking the heavy bag when Smith strolled into the gym.

“Man, Pugh, you’re lookin’ pretty good on that bag,” he said rubbing his shaved head. “You wanna’ spar today?”

As if I’d made the record skip on a jukebox, all eyes in the gym hit me. I thought “no way in hell am I going to get in the ring with this guy. He’s a pro.”

I would have looked like a cream puff had I said no. So I said, “sure, what the hell.”

BBC trainer Moe Rites prepped us to spar, strapping on our gloves and greasing our faces. I wore headgear and a cup. Smith figured he didn’t need them.

Into the ring we climbed, and ding, the first bell rang. I lumbered around the canvas like I had clubbed feet. “Not bad, Pugh,” Smith cracked on my footwork.

Smith — 35 pounds heavier than his normal fight weight — shuffled effortlessly. “Come on, chump … whatcha waitin’ for,” Smith baited me through a blue mouthpiece.

I moved in and jabbed. Smith slipped, countered and nailed me square on the nose.

I’d been punched in the face before, but never popped by a pro boxer. My eyes welled and my knees wobbled as the impact sent white, hot, tingly jolts through my nerves.

Smith got the better of me for three, three-minute rounds. At fight’s end, I was woozy and dazed, but I felt good. I’d conquered some fear, earned a measure of respect in the gym and grabbed a fistful of confidence.

From that whipping on, sparring became a regular part of my training just so I could get confidence injections.

Training became necessary in my daily routine. I grew dependent on its therapeutic and physical rewards. If I missed a day at the gym, my systems felt out of whack.

Training forces you to take life seriously.

“When you’re training to box, you have to live your life right,” said Smith. “You can’t be boozing all the time, eating poorly, smoking or doing anything else bad for you.”

A lack of seriousness has its consequences. “If you don’t live right, then you’ll become a boxing promoter,” laughs Smith, jiggling his belly.

I’d been training for more than a year. I was established in the gym as a worthy sparring opponent and as a potential fighter. I never intended on competing, but I couldn’t refuse Smith’s latest offer.

The Main Event
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Teamster’s Hall,” Smith shouts into the microphone. “Y’all ready for some action?”

A crowd of 800 roars unanimously through hot, cigar-choked air.

Baltimore Sun sports writer Pat O’Malley — who also moonlights as a ring announcer for Ball-Room Boxing at Michael’s Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie — explains why people love the sport.

“People are drawn to boxing [both as fans and participants] because they like competition,” said O’Malley. “The one-on-one, the blood, the excitement … people love it.”

Here to see me fight — and hopefully not to bleed — are a slew of friends. My father and sister are here, too. Today is their birthday.

My uncle Fred — a professional musician and onetime Baltimore City boxing champ — is also ringside, holding his nose in disgust as a vocalist butchers the National Anthem.

Waves of nervous laughter offer me no relief as Smith announces the fighters.

“In the red corner, weighing 164 pounds, fighting out of the Baltimore Boxing Club, Thomas Stooowart,” he shouts.

“In the blue corner, weighing 161 pounds, also fighting out of the BBC, Matt Puuuuugh,” he hollers.

Punch for Punch
Adrenaline rivets through my veins and robs me of my hearing; the fight-or-flight instinct oozes from my subconscious; the referee’s voice sounds like a record in slow motion as he reviews the fight rules; time seems suspended. Then suddenly, “Ding!”

To hit and not to be hit, that is the object of boxing.

“You don’t want a fly to land on your face, let alone a punch,” said Scott Wagner, promoter for Ball-Room Boxing.

To beat your opponents, you must out-score them with landed punches — or knock them out.

In Pugh’s boxing match, he fought Thomas Stewart, above. The fight goes the full three rounds, but “Stewart has more skill,” Pugh writes. “I keep my jab in his face, but Stewart’s inside punches dismantle me each time I move in.”
Quickly, I move in on Stewart, sticking a couple of stiff jabs. I weave right and throw a combination. Stewart slips inside and counters with a one-two, catching me on the left eye.

The blast cranks the volume back in my ears. I hear, “get ’em Stew” … “come on, Pugh” … “keep your guard up … move.”

I shift to gain my footing just as Stewart throttles me with another right. The blow knocks me off balance. The ref penalizes me with a standing eight count. The crowd boos in disagreement.

A good boxing match features two fighters of equal talent and skill. “When promoting a fight, I always try to match boxers 50/50,” said Wagner.

In this match, Stewart has more skill. I keep my jab in his face, but Stewart’s inside punches dismantle me each time I move in.

The fight goes the full three scheduled rounds with Stewart winning by decision.

The Zen of Boxing
My left eye and nose were swollen, my lungs burned with lactic acid, my calves were cramped, but I felt elated. In 18 months I’d fought my way from the doldrums to bliss.

My family and friends embraced me and praised me as I passed outside the ropes. Strangers congratulated me for showing heart. And contrary to the stereotype that all boxers are mean and violent, Stewart put his arm around me and said, “good fight, man.”

When I’d accepted Jake ‘The Snake’ Smith’s offer, I decided I would fight only once, even if I won. The sport demands a full-time commitment from a special type of person. I’m proud to have been a part of Smith’s program. But my commitment is of a different sort.

Though I won’t fight again, I’ll continue to box because there is no better workout. Nor is there a better measuring stick of my character.

The Baltimore Boxing Club is not the only boxing gym in the Metro area. Hyattsville is home to former champ Sugar Ray Leonard’s gym, The Brooklyn Boxing Club, the Honeycombe Boxing Club and the Loch Raven Boxing Club, all hail from Charm City.

Also located in B-more is Mack Lewis’ gym, where former world champs Vincent Pettway and Hasim ‘Rock’ Rahman trained.

Competition between gyms can be fierce, but, as Smith explains, most of the promoters and gym owners cooperate for boxing’s sake.

“Mr. Lewis and I are highly competitive, but we’re also good friends,” said Smith. “We try to work together to make the business of boxing better.”

The Baltimore Boxing Club hosts Ocean City Boxing at the Ocean City Convention Center on Sunday, April 6, as well as the 2003 Regional Golden Gloves Championships on Saturday, April 26, at DuBurns Arena on Boston St. in Baltimore.

The Golden Gloves event features fighters from Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland and the United States Marine Corps.

For future bouts and to learn more about the Baltimore Boxing Club: 410/675-6900 • www.baltimoreboxing.com.




© COPYRIGHT 2003 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated April 3, 2003 @ 1:57am