"Jab POP POP POP POP POP! Double jab! Right upper cut! Left hook! Right hand! Look alive! DO IT!”
Boxer talk. That’s Claressa Shields, at 17 the winner of the first middleweight gold medal in women’s Olympic boxing.
The idea of socking someone in the face has always bothered me. But supporting youth is an easy choice. So I bought a front-row seat at a boxing show to benefit the Holyoke boys and girls club, and decided to explore boxing in an effort to appreciate it.
I enlisted my friend Pat McGrath, who loves boxing unconditionally, to help me understand what I was going to see. He broadcasts his love of the sport with a tattoo on his bicep: “The International Boxing Hall of Fame.” He also has a tattoo of his dad, Harold McGrath, the renowned fine letterpress printer (McGrath and I met through the book arts world). On the inside of his other forearm is a tattoo of his mother. McGrath is athletic, climbs mountains, but is not himself a boxer.
I visit his office in Holyoke. Every wall is covered with objects and photos, reminders of heroes. He sees “big heart”: no matter what life hands you, you keep moving forward. I, on the other hand, notice boxers like Terry Norris and Evander Holyfield who have slurred speech from too many punches or not enough healing in between.
I prepare for the actual boxing show with more interviews, coaches’ workshops, videos and reading. I trip over well-written perspectives about boxing such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Breitensträter–Paolino, where he describes romantically “a momentary deadening of the muscles” where there is no pain, but “an instantaneous pleasant sleep.”
“A blow to the solar plexus is less pleasant,” he claims, “but a good boxer knows just how to tense his abdomen, so that he won’t flinch even if a horse kicks him in the pit of the stomach.”
Hamilton Nolan, the media editor of Gawker, gets closer to my feelings. He says “[Boxing is] not something I can figure out. Boxing, unlike a job that involves spending hours wasting time on the Internet each day, is unforgiving of even the smallest amount of slacking.”
I see this is true in a video of Corrie Sanders, from South Africa, a world heavyweight champ, when he intrudes on Wladimir Klitschko’s boxing career. I watch this video repeatedly, and I can barely see Sanders’ quick left hand repeatedly destroying Klitschko, ending the fight in two rounds.
The show in December at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke is my first, and I’m not tuned in to the nuance that most of the audience knows. I’m not prepared for the sudden end of one of the matches.
I am busy distancing myself from the boxing by focusing my manual camera lens on the ropes in the corner of the ring, videographers I knew, boxing officials I had met.
The unified voice of the crowd is an expression of a kind of pleasure, a democratic awareness that does not, it seems, pass judgment. They’ve gasped and cheered wildly together, then suddenly they are still or murmuring.
A boxer stands stunned after being hit near his liver. Those butter-soft 10-ounce gloves, meant to protect the fist, do not cushion blows to the arms, chests and backs of well-trained fighters.
Is his opponent supposed to go to a corner to wait this out?
The ref is between them.
Time is slowed for us in the audience. How does it feel to the man in the ring? He seems to be in so much pain he does not move. He is breathing into it. He is defeated.
It looks like he will rally when he moves a leg. But no, this is the kind of pain that stops the fittest of gents.
At the age of eight, in 1960, I was privileged to learn that getting knocked in the head by a softball may result in a brain concussion. My mother, a trained nurse, made me stay still for 15 minutes as she watched for signs of injury while my friends continued to play in the front yard. I squirmed instead of being quiet. It was more important to get outside again, and play. Overriding pain in pursuit of joy is one of the ways I know about sports.
All sports are under scrutiny because of concern about head injuries, especially among the young—the myelin coating in their brains, which shields their nerve fibers, is not fully developed. And like bobblehead dolls, they lack the strength in neck or core muscles to prevent them from suffering whiplash. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon from Massachusetts and an expert on sports injury research, makes the topic of concussions accessible to parents in his book Concussions and Our Kids.
Cantu puts the 26 post-concussion symptoms in four categories: cognitive (the skills needed for school such as memory, attention, insight, judgment), sleep (too much or too little, trouble falling asleep), emotional (anxious, panicky, depressed feelings, or loss of impulse control), and somatic (headaches, altered vision, dizziness or balance issues). These are all signs that something has gone wrong with the brain.
According to a survey published in The American Journal of Public Health, about 16 percent of all high school players suffer a concussion in any given season. Football gets more attention than boxing, because in football the guidelines are more lenient for players returning after a concussion. Mature athletes may accept that head injury is a hazard they are willing to risk. But for youth, responsibility falls on parents; on coaches, promoters and athletic commissions; and on players to monitor each other and be honest about acknowledging injury.
Youngsters are always prone to mimic adult behavior, and, at least since Teddy Roosevelt’s time, boxing has captured the interest of American kids. As New York City’s police commissioner, Roosevelt established boxing clubs in tough neighborhoods, which tended to do away with knifing and gunfighting. In his 1913 memoir he wrote, “Many of these young fellows were not naturally criminals at all, but they had to have some outlet for their activities.” Things have and have not changed since then.
At the south end of our Pioneer Valley, a boxing program recently originated in Springfield. “The Officials Club” (TOC) is a youth boxing program that accentuates peace, pride and hope. Getting kids into the ring is the very last step. Soon TOC will be available at the Holyoke Boys and Girls Club and at Morgan Elementary School in South Holyoke. TOC was born from the City of Springfield Mayor’s Citywide Violence Prevention Task Force.
Ed Caisse, heavyweight division Golden Gloves winner in 1990, works with the Hampden Sheriff’s Department heading the South Holyoke Safe Neighborhood Initiative. SHSNI is organizing the boxing show with other supporters, including some boxing gyms. Caisse heard about the program from a volunteer member of the Community Accountability Board, which oversees the Restorative Justice Program that helps reconcile offenders and victims.
In Holyoke, Caisse and others have brought back boxing in a modern way, working with other organizations to give kids opportunities outside of joining gangs or other unsupervised activity. Programs like his build on community activities like family/parent engagement, art integration and opportunities to play sports. They rely on collaboration with community-based organizations (Holyoke Boys and Girls Club and South End Community Center in Springfield, for example), colleges and universities, and other agencies.
The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control has created one example of a social-ecological model aimed at the ultimate goal of preventing violence. Researchers examine individual histories for factors such as age, education, income and history of abuse, which may indicate increased likelihood of becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence. They also examine close social relationships, community settings (schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods) and societal factors to encourage social awareness, health and well being.
In the case of The Officials Club, created for at-risk youth, the program is taught by a professional and certified boxing coach, and integrates a Character RISE character development curriculum. Character RISE is a Springfield citywide initiative that empowers youth to create their own code of character.
Programs such as Character RISE can be developed anywhere, shared, and tweaked with other like-minded groups. In this case five piloting agencies, all based in Springfield, originally collaborated. They are the YMCA, SECC (South End Community Center), VACA (Vietnamese American Cultural Association), Square One, and the Springfield Boys and Girls Club on Carew Street. All of them comply with agreed-upon standards for evaluation.
In the boxing program, academic achievement receives special attention; boxing dovetails with the needs and aspirations of students and their families. The studied practice of boxing, as stated in The Officials Club Proposal 2012, reinforces skills that are transferable to other areas of the youths’ lives: academic, social, and later, career directions. Boxing, especially in a program such as this, promotes the awareness of a person’s responses and responsibilities. Students learn other defensive strategies, and will not be shy to stand up for themselves if confronted.
Everywhere I go I find good role models for youth involved in boxing. Chick Rose, a one-time Olympic coach, certifies coaches like local coach Hector Torres for USA Boxing New England. Rose was himself a boxer. He worked, among other jobs, as a corrections officer for 21 years at Walpole Prison. “Doing time is a waste of time: it’s like going down a one-way street the wrong way,” Rose tells me.
He now regularly invites me to the workshops for coach certification, like the one in Lowell, where I learn about precautions that coaches must be aware of. The burden lies with them to protect youth from injury.
It feels good to be around people who have actually lived some of the same experiences as the youth they are helping—grounded, congenial people, who gladly shared their stories of the people, programs and experiences that moved them along.
As my foray into boxing came to a close, I received a new email from McGrath. During an afternoon, while I was sitting typing, he was at the Y (of course). He was excited—he’d just met Josue Lopez, a Collegiate national champion and UMass student, who trains in Holyoke.
If I get into thinking that everyone’s “way” in life should be like mine, then maybe I need to remember what Mark Twain said: “Comparison is the death of joy.”
From Spitalfields, in the East End of London, Sylvester Mittee, European Welterweight Champion 1985, shows up in a book of photostories of London boxers I checked out. He says: “The boys in the playground who beat me, they were the ones who bought tickets to see me fight and they were cheering me on, supporting me. It gave me heart. I like to think it changed them, made them better people.”•