Crossing the ropes

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – It feels like the punch has slid neatly into my side, bladelike, and slipped back out instantly. The jolt of it stuns me, leaving me breathless. For the first time in my life, someone has decked me. And I asked for it.

In my protective headgear and 16-ounce gloves, I try to remember the fundamentals — head down, hands up, circle to the right — but it’s pretty damn hard as I’m trying to survive what could be the beating of my life.

In preparation to spar, I pounded the heavy bag, worked the speed bag, and shadowboxed under the guidance of Rich Horsely, a former fighter who gave lessons at the 4th Street Boxing Club. All around hung posters of boxers in their fighting stances.

They all possessed the same gaze: a narrowed, hungry and desperate stare that I saw in some of the young fighters shadowboxing side by side with me. In my late 20s, I realized I was probably too old to break into boxing, but I was determined to try.

I keep my opponent, a wiry Polish kid, away by flicking a string of soggy jabs at his forehead that are at least a foot and a half short of their mark. When he doesn’t bite, I lunge forward and throw a barrage of lefts and straight rights, aimed directly between his eyes. He slips them with expert, snakelike jerks of his head from side to side.

I stop dead, dumbstruck. I may as well have mailed him a diagram a week before, showing exactly when and how my punches would be delivered. That’s when the kid sees my hesitation and pounces. I absorb one flush on the nose, and my hands immediately drop. Just as the punch ricochets off the back of my skull, he steps in again to smash his fist into my kisser with what feels like a tire iron.

“Get your hands up!” Rich, the acting referee, screams from the ring apron. My fists shoot up to my cheeks as I backpedal. Mercifully, the buzzing electrical clock sounds, ending the round. Rich presses a towel to my nose; my bloodstains it. I realize what fighters feel when they absorb headshots. The brain literally knocks around in the jelly inside your skull. On television, with that smooth screen buffering the reality, the blows appear to bounce off.

Sucking air, I look across the ring at him. It’s just some lanky kid, I think, but against me, he looks like a world-beater.

I tilt my head back as Rich squeezes a water bottle over my mouth. He instructs me to keep my hands up and follow through on those jabs instead of yanking them back. I nod at his encouragement, but once inside the ropes, a boxer is the loneliest man on the planet.

When the clock buzzes, the kid and I touch gloves. Again, we circle, and I keep busy with the jab, trying to measure the distance, trying to find an opening, determined to get him. Again, he times it, ducks, then slams a glove into my cheekbone and digs another into my ribs that deflate me instantly. My hands somehow stay up, and I take a half step back, trying not to let on that he momentarily paralyzed me.

Rich stops the action to ask if I’m all right.

I nod, take a breath, bang my gloves together, hard.

I’ve had enough.

At the signal, I lurch toward my opponent, narrow-eyed and ominous. My legs are no longer leaden weights, my head dips, and darts, and my fists are tucked beneath my chin, itching to strike. I charge and stick him with my jab two, three, four times. Any fear I had of being hit flies into the musty air like the spray of sweat after each punch. It is replaced with an instinct that has been jolted awake, and it propels me with one aim: to destroy my tormentor.

With one loping step, I cut off his escape and corral him into the corner, where I throw two roundhouse punches; he slips them both and scoots away from me and into the relative safety of the ring’s center. But I won’t be denied — I charge him again, snorting with my head down.

I crash a right hand down on his head, and then another. His hands fly up to his face, and he digs his elbows into his gut, caught unaware. “There you go, Frank!” I hear Rich shout. On the run, my opponent glances at the clock.

That’s how suddenly momentum can swing in this game. And now, possessed and poised over a cowering man, I am ready to beat him to the canvas. But I don’t. Or rather, I can’t.

What drove me to that point, to that animal fierceness, hissed and lit the dark inside me like a match for a few murderous seconds before quickly burning out. I shuffle back a step, my hands still up, as I realize it is extinguished.

I let the kid backpedal away, and my moment of mercy is repaid with two vengeful punches that he stabs into my side, making me double over. As I drop to one knee, the buzzer goes off. It is finished.

As Rich removes my headgear, he tells me to take a second and cherish what I’ve just done. I’ve crossed the ropes, and no one can ever take that away from me.

Afterward, I hit the bag for another three rounds, but my jabs are limp, half-hearted. In the wall-length mirror, I can see the kid behind me as he shadowboxes in the ring, alone. My eyes seek his to communicate, “Good work.” But he only stares at the space directly in front of him, concentrating intently on something I cannot see.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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