All boxing fans are asked versions of the question "How can you watch something so violent?"
Boxing fans are drawn to the sport by an unknown force. It has little to do with violence, though some people want to see blood. I’m one of those people. The feeling that accompanies watching a bout surpasses any desire to see blood. The feeling is rapturous. For me, it’s all about what’s on the other side of anticipation, and boxing tends to follow through on its promise of drama and surprise.
More than any other sport, boxing appeals to the emotions. Picture a boxer facing a standing eight-count. Mouth and nose smashed and smeared, he shakes his head and brings his bloodied gloves together in a gesture of prayer and appeal (in some cases, the solicitation borders on begging), insisting to the referee that all is okay, that he desperately wants the fight to go on. Inches away from his face are the referee’s fingers counting the seconds. If you have any siblings who played the "I’m not touching you" game when you were kids, you know how agonizing this feels. And yet the resolve to continue is so strongly apparent.
Love of boxing is in my blood. I don't think I could have fought it anymore than my eye color. My maternal grandmother, a corpulent and lighthearted Iraqi Jew who donned muumuus and flesh-colored stockings until her death, was a fan of boxing. Ditto, my dad. You may not know it, but you, too, probably have a love of boxing somewhere in your bloodline.
I wasn’t always a fan.
Boxing came into my life gently, insinuating itself through a series of introductions that began, of all places, in high school English. Every quarter, Mrs. Gerhold rewarded our class with a movie. I have to give her credit: She chose well, despite all the dreamy posters of Daniel Day-Lewis on the walls of her room. She showed us "The Graduate," "The Godfather," "Flowers for Algernon," and the 1996 Academy Award-winning documentary "When We Were Kings."
With the exception of "Flowers for Algernon," none of these movies were connected to anything we'd read or studied. By screening them, Mrs. Gerhold seemed to confess to me and my peers things about herself that we neither would have guessed nor believed. Beneath the turtleneck-sweater combo and grey bob was a boxing fan, and her selection of "Kings" felt like a middle finger aimed at Walden. English teachers are not all delicate flowers concerned with fancy language and tranquility, she wanted us to know.
The documentary was my first introduction to boxing. I liked it, by which I mean I didn’t completely hate it. I was seventeen at the time. I probably appreciated Ali’s humor and the performances by BB King and James Brown, but my interest stopped with the film credits.
Close to that time, around 2002, I was working at the Borders in South Bend, Indiana. I was at the register when a customer in a ball cap approached me and said, "Can you believe that, walking around over there?"
I followed his pointed finger but saw nothing remarkable. I saw customers gathering around display tables and entering and exiting the store. They all looked the same to me.
"Right there," he said, insisting with his finger. "That’s Muhammad Ali, can you believe it?"
Later, the warrior himself came to my register with his wife and one of his daughters. It was clear that Ali was afflicted, but he was still walking at the time, though with a stoop. Ali and his family were the only people in line, so he wandered to the unmanned registers behind him and collected a stack of something from each station. His wife and daughter stood by, patient, understanding, kind as can be. When he returned, I scanned over 50 novelty dollar-bill bookmarks. I can’t remember their denomination, but I do remember how gleeful Ali looked, as if swiping every last bookmark was another triumph to add to his collection.
Magnificent photo by Thomas Hoepker
Meeting Ali was my second introduction to boxing. But because I used to categorize sports under Things I Will Never Care About, I shrugged off the chance meeting. I don’t even think I told my dad about it until years later, despite his being an Ali superfan.
It wasn’t until I watched my first televised fight in 2007—Mayweather versus De La Hoya—that something inside me finally relented after years of gentle nudging. I couldn't look away from the TV screen. I was like every other person in the bar, completely immersed in the fight. The unexpected had happened. I was a fan.
Being a boxing fan opened me up to a whole new world of fandom. I knew how to be a fan of other interests: I pay homage to literature by reading as much as I can; I show my love for Mexican cuisine by indulging in it more than my waistband would prefer; I listen to music the right way, without a touchscreen. But as a boxing fan, there's something dispiriting about sitting like a schlump in front of the TV and watching two athletes show the rest of us what a body and mind in peak condition can accomplish. As a fan, I had to have a taste of what it felt like to punch (if not a few specific someones)... something.
Two years ago, I found what I was looking for in Franklin Street Boxing, a gym located in Chicago's second-oldest building downtown. You can't tell this until you've been buzzed through the inner door and then everything turns speakeasy dark no matter what time of day it is. The walls along the stairwell are covered in mahogany wainscoting all the way up to the sixth floor. Four floors up, in an airy sunlit loft, the gym hosts a spare selection of equipment: two treadmills, a few bags, and one blood-spattered ring. The locker rooms are makeshift and not well marked. My first time at the gym I walked through the wrong curtain. Sorry, guy.
My next blunder was asking my trainer, former Golden Gloves champion Jimmy Mango, how to get into the ring. I was looking for a Velcro door.
Jimmy said, "People always ask me that. 'How do I get in?' You just go in. Through the ropes."
Imagine a Victorian gathering all her skirts and awkwardly twisting herself inside. That was me, in yoga pants. Seizing the ropes with gloved hands, I fumbled with my legs. Grounding myself, I fumbled with the ropes. This probably set the tone of my current relationship with my trainer: part jocular, part why's this broad wasting my time?
"If anyone I trained ever stepped into the ring like that," he said, "I'd pretend I didn't know 'em. I'd keep on walking and let 'em fight their own fight."
He didn't think I'd last three weeks. "After that first day? I thought, not a chance. She's done."
I might have agreed with him at the time. Three or four rounds into my first session, I had to take a break because I thought I was going to be sick. Boxing requires good wind. If you don't have a healthy set of lungs, you're in for a trip. Jimmy estimates that I throw an average of 150-200 punches a round (three minutes). Depending on my energy level, I can last about seven or eight rounds before I feel like collapsing.
I do not come from an athletic family. My trainer's ongoing criticism of my stance ("Bend your legs, keep your hands up."), my frequent need of water ("You know how much water my trainer allowed me to drink during a workout? Nada. None."), my inability to complete a round ("Till the bell! Don't give me that look."), and a medley of others, only underscores this point.
I'm still at it, though, despite predictions to the contrary. Why? Because I love the sound and the feel of the impact as my gloves strike my trainer's mitts. I stand a decent chance of defending myself, better than I did two years ago. Along the way, I've learned to accept my physical shortcomings. I've learned to deal with my trainer's verbal jabs and occasional public announcements about something questionable I said. For the record, Jimmy's not as mean as I make him out to be. The trash talk is part of the experience, and it sure as hell beats yoga.
Me and Jimmy
Although love of boxing is in my blood, I've never been willing to shed any of it for the cause. I box to work out and blow off steam. Sometimes, when I'm feeling fanciful, I like to imagine myself in a brawl. (It usually takes place on the el during rush hour.) But for now, my fandom only goes so far as the gym and an occasional live fight.
Last year, I attended the Chicago Golden Gloves in Cicero. Tickets are cheap. For $15, you can see a lineup of amateur fights, sometimes as many as 20, foxy ring card girls, and a wayward politician or two. The fights are short, lasting three or four rounds, or as little as 8 seconds. Kids as young as 16 can participate. (Isn't that something?) I don't think there's an age limit. Men, women, mothers of three. You just have to pass a health exam.
The 2014 Chicago Golden Gloves marked the start of another turning point for me as a fan. I walked away thinking about the winning and losing fighters in much the same way as I do about the characters in a book after reading their story. I wanted to know what was next for them, how they were celebrating and grieving.
Unfortunately, amateur boxing gets far less publicity and news coverage than professional boxing. Evander Holyfield lamented this in a recent interview (begin at 3:30). People tell me that more networks are showing pro fights on TV. That's great. But where's the boxing coverage in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times? One paper devoted a few inches of space to a sext scandal in the sports world back in March, but not a word on the Golden Gloves, a Chicago tradition that has been around since 1923 and brought us Muhammad Ali.
Late last year, I contacted the Gloves and asked about volunteer opportunities for the upcoming 2015 tournament. Within a couple hours I received a response from Larry Roeske, a board member. He wanted to know if I had any experience as a publicist. The straight answer to his question would have been no. But with my background in marketing and journalism and a handful of contacts, I figured, what's the difference?
We made plans to meet a few weeks later, along with another fella, Sam Colonna, a longstanding figure in Chicago boxing, to discuss some things and get to know each other.
In the months leading up to the 2015 tournament, I reached out to countless local and statewide newspapers. I spoke to sports producers. I wrote up a marketing-related questionnaire for registration in February. On Valentine's Day weekend, I joined a handful of Golden Gloves folks at Cicero Stadium to help out with the day-long event. I met two-thirds of the 400+ people who registered and read through their answers on the form I created.
To my question "What or who inspires you to fight?" these were some of the answers I received:
"all the fighters from Chicago past and present"; "the Holy Spirit"; "fear of going back on the streets"; "N/a"; "pain and suffering throughout the world"; "anger"; "the struggle"; "the combat"; "me!"; "nobody"; "I like to hurt"; "I just like to fight"; "??"; "—"; "money and fame"; "going toe to toe with your biggest fears"; "self-improvement"; and "my couch," which left the literal-minded proofreader in me searching my brain for meaning. I wanted to give this fighter the benefit of the doubt, going so far as to reason that his couch prevented him from being lazy by serving as a symbol of sloth. Yeesh. An honest error on both our parts. It should be noted that Sam Colonna received a lot of love on the questionnaire as well.
I thought these answers deserved more space:
"My brother is in a wheelchair and my mom is obese. They can't exercise, so I fight for them." -fighter Sara Locke
"Every day is the fight. The metaphor of the fight inspires me to get in the ring—to see what I'm made of." -fighter Jeffery Lung
"Muhammad Ali inspires me to fight. He had charisma and he revolutionized boxing. He was and still is a national icon. He was 6'3" and 178 lbs. as an amateur, JUST LIKE ME." -fighter Ernest Scott
"I am driven to show my daughter that females can do anything and any sport they want to. Being female does not mean you have to be weak."
-fighter Amy Reid
People are compelled into the ring by whimsy, curiosity, character, and for reasons that are deeply private. Some fighters get their start with a Groupon. Others are encouraged by friends and family. Their origins are as scattershot as most Chicagoans', and though they battle each other inside the ring, they seem to get along outside it much better than the rest of us (and by us, I mean you red- and blue-line riders).
Fighter Yousif Saleh, 19, who advanced to the National Golden Gloves in Las Vegas this year, credits other fighters for helping him along the way. "I like competing in national tournaments because all the best boxers in the nation are competing with each other. It's a good learning experience... it brings out the best in me."
One fighter who brings out the best in Saleh is 19-year-old Joshuah Hernandez, who recently made a strong pro debut at UIC Pavilion with a first-round TKO. Hernandez and Saleh fought in three Golden Gloves tournaments and consider each other friends. Theirs was one of the most anticipated fights of the 2015 tournament. Boxing historian Pierce Egan (1772-1849) would have said that both fighters have "bottom," an old term that describes someone who possesses good character and who is grounded and principled.
from Pierce Egan's Boxiana
It's not uncommon to see two opponents engaged in a lively conversation post fight, and often, the few people remaining in the bleachers at the end of a long night of the Golden Gloves are fighters who stick around to support other fighters.
Sure, there's posturing and trash talk. Muhammad Ali insulted his opponents, but he never used foul language. Ali's insults had the quality of a moth tickling your elbow. His insults made you laugh. "I've seen George Foreman shadow boxing, and the shadow won," said Ali, and "Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head." Still, I have no doubt that Ali respected his opponents.
The Golden Gloves has produced some great talent since Ali's time. It's unfortunate that we don't hear about these fighters until they're into a professional career. The Reader put together a nice blurb in their Agenda section the week of the finals, and in fact, the publication features articles on boxing with some regularity. But barring the local Spanish papers and a couple news crews, interest in the tournament was weak. And I was not the only person behind the effort. Everyone—referees, judges, board members, trainers, and fighters—worked hard to spread the word.
Boxing isn't tetherball. It's an Olympic sport with history. I don't understand why the media ignores it. But I do know, from my conversations with some fighters, that the Golden Gloves means a lot to them.
As Hernandez puts it, "The entire Golden Gloves community has been great. The Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago gives all fighters a huge platform to showcase their talent while gaining exposure from the fans. Winning the 2014 132-pound championship as well as receiving the best boxer award gave me a tremendous amount of confidence and will always be one of my greatest accomplishments."
While I do not in any way proclaim to be a boxer, I share Hernandez's feelings. Learning how to throw a punch has given me a tremendous amount of confidence. And energy. And happy-giddy feelings that I haven't experienced about a hobby since I was a teenager stepping into a darkroom for the first time, or discovering Richard Wright, or listening to screamo music.
I've become one of those people who will corner you and go on and on and on about boxing and the Golden Gloves if you don't stop me or walk away. I only intended for this blog entry to be 1,500 or so words. It's double that, and I could go on for another 10,000.