“I need to do this,” I told Mike. We were sitting in our room. This resolve had been building in me for a long time. Mr. O had been a big part of it.
Mike was scowling at me. He didn’t agree with what I’d said, what I was going to do. “No you don’t. It’s stupid. Joe likes to box. He’s good at it, and he’s cocky. He doesn’t mind getting hit. You do. And you have issues with him from that first day. If you’re going to box, if you insist on it, at least choose someone more at your level. You have no idea what you’re doing. Choose some rank beginner; that’s what you need. And for God’s sake, choose someone who doesn’t hit hard!”
“Mr. O has been showing me some things. How to stand, how to throw a punch, how to move and block and all that. I’m not saying I’m good; I’m not. But that isn’t the point! The point is to get up in the ring. To face someone in a fight. I need to do that, Mike.”
We’d been having this discussion for some time—days, really, on and off—and we kept going around in circles. “Let me try to explain it again. One more time. OK?”
He scowled again and didn’t answer. I plowed ahead regardless. “All my life, I’ve been terrified of being in a fight, in facing another kid and getting hurt. The thought of it scares the bejesus out of me. It’s been the underlying theme song playing in the background for me every day as long as I can remember. Mr. O has convinced me that being hit is much less hurtful than that song that keeps playing, the one going na na na na NAA NAA with lyrics like, ‘Luke is a coward, Luke is a coward.’ A childish melody that tells me what I am. That does hurt. It’s crippling, really, holding me back, making me hesitate before doing things other boys don’t even think about. So, I want to find out if what he said is true, that being hit isn’t the monster that I’ve been making it. Facing someone, knowing I’ll get hit—I need to do it. I have to develop the courage to stand up and let it happen, knowing I’ll be hit.”
“OK, but why Joe?”
“Because he won’t pull his punches. He’ll box me as though it was a championship match. That’s who he is. He doesn’t have any compassion, any empathy, and that’s exactly what I need. If I can face that, face someone who can see I’m scared and not hold back because of that, I can prove to myself that I’m not a coward.”
“Well, I think you’re crazy.”
“That’s because you’ve never felt what I have. You’ve never been afraid of other boys. At least, not scared senseless by them.”
Mike shook his head, grimacing at either my stupidity or obduracy. Maybe both. I began changing into my athletic gear.
“You’re going now?” he asked.
“Yeah. Joe spars in the afternoon on Saturday. I want to be there when he is. Then I’ll challenge him.”
When I was ready, I nodded at him and opened the door of our room. I was feeling very shaky, but didn’t want him to see it. I’d been terrified of fighting all my life, and now I was headed out to do exactly that. I believed what I’d told Mike, but it was still hard to make my feet move forward. The pounding of my heart was making my head feel a little dizzy.
“Wait,” Mike said. “I’m getting the others. At least you can have moral support. And people to carry you back here afterwards.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said, trying for sarcastic and achieving maudlin.
Derek and Tyler agreed to come. I even had to wait while they changed so they were dressed like I was, saying they’d use the time to spar themselves or work on the bags so they’d fit in. Derek looked funny, dressed to box, and the idea of him sparring with Tyler was ludicrous. Tyler looked like he was made for the ring.
It was funny, though. Derek may have looked funny in boxing gear, but no one ever laughed at him no matter how he was dressed. It was simply the way he carried himself, I thought. There was an inner dignity to him, even if he looked frail. I knew he wasn’t that. This was now near the beginning of the winter/spring term. We’d been practicing rowing for a few months, and he was as strong as any of the others. Mr. O had made a wonderful choice of him for stroke.
The four of us, Mike, Tyler, Derek and I, entered a room off to the side of the main gymnasium in the sports complex where the boxing was done, coming out of the cold wind outside. There were several types of punching bags here: heavy bags, speed bags, uppercut bags and double-ended bags. There were other training supplies as well, including some sets of weights, skip ropes, medicine balls and mats. Additionally, there were three boxing rings. This was where the boys who liked boxing hung out training, exercising and sparring. They evidently liked the atmosphere of the room and being with the other likeminded boys who frequented the place. This was not where I belonged, that was for sure. I felt like chum in shark-infested waters just entering the place.
I tried to act natural once inside. Tried not to show what I was feeling. I looked around, attempting to be oblivious, but there was really nowhere to hide here. The place was well-lighted, and most everyone there turned to look as we walked in.
Tyler and Derek moved off, found two vacant speed bags and started hitting them. I found a heavy bag to hit and started in using the form Mr. O had shown me. While loosening up hitting the bag, I danced around it, actually looking out over the room. Looking for Joe.
It wasn’t hard for me to spot him. He was in one of the rings, sparring with a kid about his size who looked to be a year or so older. They both had head protectors on and padding wrapped around themselves to protect their ribs and vital lower parts. An older student was acting as referee.
I had to force myself to do it, but I left the heavy bag and moved closer. There were several kids around the ring, watching and shouting both encouragement and jibes. Joe and his opponent were dancing back and forth, in and out, throwing the occasional punch. Most of the punches were blocked, but some made contact. As I watched, I could clearly hear the splat of gloves against flesh or protective gear, and the oof expelled by the one being hit.
The one being hit was almost always Joe’s opponent. Joe was quick and unafraid. He was the aggressor, his opponent the one who was trying to dodge, constantly moving away, playing defense to Joe’s offense.
Then Joe’s opponent apparently saw an opening and moved forward, faking a left and throwing a hard right. Joe blocked it, skipped forward and countered with his own left, then both a right and another left in quick succession. All of them connected, and his opponent staggered and went down on one knee.
The ref quickly stepped in, pushing Joe back, but Joe was reluctant to move. Instead, he stayed over his foe, calling out a litany of macho braggadocio, then raising his right hand high and doing a little dance.
I gulped. Did I really want a part of this?
Mike, standing next to me, was of like thinking. “Come on. You don’t belong here. Let’s go, Luke. Now!”
He grabbed my arm. That was what I needed, I guess, because pulling away from him also strengthened my resolve. I’d told Mr. O I was going to do this; he knew my fears, and he’d encouraged me, and I’d bought in. I’d told myself I was going to do it. And I would. I’d test the theory that my fears were worse than an actual beating. And in so doing, I’d prove to myself that I wasn’t a coward.
At this point, Joe was walking along the ropes inside the ring, calling out to the small crowd of observers, yelling, “I’m the champ. I’m unbeatable! I’ll take on all comers. Are you guys all chicken? Show some balls. Get up here. I’m numero uno. The best!”
No one was responding. The other kids were looking at each other, but none moved. Then one guy did. One guy stepped forward.
It took awhile to outfit me for the match. I had to put on the gloves and protective gear. The ref helped me don what the losing kid was taking off. Joe was dancing around, staying loose, and shooting me baleful looks. I was trying hard to control my breathing. I could do nothing about my racing heart.
Joe was a strange character. He was the one who’d been so aggressive with me at The Kennilworth House, pushing me, going through my suitcase, taking part in the destruction of my teddy bear and picture. I’d wanted him expelled, but Dr. Rettington had thought he deserved another chance.
I’d seen no change in him since. I had nothing to do with him but did see him at a distance now and then. He’d been moved to another house, The Mason House, and I’d heard he hadn’t made any friends there. His cocky attitude and overbearing, obnoxious attitude of superiority made him an outcast, but he didn’t seem perceptive enough to notice. Popularity, friends—neither seemed important to him.
The only redeeming quality I could see in Joe was that he hadn’t told anyone about what had happened that first day I’d arrived at the school. If he had, I was sure I’d have noticed or heard about it from other boys, but there had been none of that. As far as I knew, only my three closest friends at Culver House knew. Whether Joe had kept to himself what had happened because of the stern warning Dr. Rettington had given him or for some other reason, I had no idea, but I did have to give him credit for his silence.
Facing him would be hard, because it was easy to see how much he liked to not only outbox his opponents, but to dominate them. Dominant boys had always been my bugbear. I turned to Jell-o in front of them, cringing and trembling in anticipation of what was to come. And Joe, even though he was much my size, exuded that dominant confidence which brought forth terror from every pore of my body.
You can do this, you can do this, you can do this—kept running through my head, a mental mantra that didn’t seem to be doing a thing to assuage my fears. I forced my thinking to move in a different direction. I thought of Mr. O’s kind eyes and calm support. I thought about him telling me my childhood fears needed to be left behind as I worked my way towards being an adult. He told me he had faith in me. I’d be letting him down as well as myself if I didn’t go through with this.
The ref called us both to the center of the ring when I was finally ready. Ready, as in wearing the proper gear. Not necessarily ready if it meant willing to go fight a kid who looked eager as a bull in mating season. But there I was, trembling a little but putting on a good face and thinking it would be over before I knew it.
Joe took one look at me—pale, skinny, unmuscled, trembling—and scoffed. I probably would have done the same in his position. The ref was talking to us, probably reading off rules or something, but my blood was rushing through my system at light speed due to my heart working overtime, and I couldn’t hear him at all. Then he must have asked us to touch gloves because Joe put his up. After a pause, the ref reached down and pulled my arms up so my gloves met Joe’s, and then he had us step back a few paces and a bell rang. Joe’s smile became feral.
“Courage,” Mr. O had told me in his soothing voice, “is doing what you’re scared to do because it’s the right thing to do at that time.” OK, this was what I was doing, showing myself I had courage. I was certainly scared enough, so this fit that part of the equation. It was the ‘doing’ part I had to accomplish now.
Joe’s gloves were raised, and that reminded me of Mr. O’s talking and training we’d done. I raised my gloves defensively and shuffled my feet so one was slightly behind the other, making my left side face Joe as he moved forward to press the fray. He wasn’t bothering to dance. He didn’t see the need.
He came close and shot out a left hand, which was what Mr. O had said he’d probably do. I blocked it, moving slightly to my left and backwards; he moved forward to stay close. I instinctively moved back again, and when he took a step forward, I shot a left jab at him. I wasn’t close enough to reach him, but it did slow him down for an instant. He grinned.
I suddenly realized my heart had slowed down. And, for some completely unexpected and unknown reason, much of my fear seemed to have disappeared. Maybe thinking about what I was doing played into that. Maybe thinking about being afraid had been the worst part of being afraid.
Joe kept coming forward, just as I expected him to. I kept moving backward, circling so I didn’t get caught on the ropes. This was all going exactly as Mr. O had suggested it might.
Then Joe got tired of the game and rushed forward. I’d expected that, but it didn’t mean I could counter it well. He shot a combination at me, a left, then a right, and nailed me on the side of my headgear. It staggered me. I sort of stumbled backwards, and on Joe came. I did what Mr. O had told me to when this happened, somehow remembering it even though I was a little dazed: I shot out a straight left hand. It caught him in the chest and momentarily stopped him.
But not for long. He stepped in again, probably thinking I was ready to be put away, which I probably was. I only had one trick left in my bag. Mr. O had told me that when Joe approached with blood in his eye, if I moved closer to him, he wouldn’t be able to get much power in his punches. If I had to, I could even go into a clinch with him and rest until the ref separated us.
So, in he came, and I suddenly stepped forward to close the distance, not even thinking of throwing a punch, my gloves held up together and high to defend against what was coming.
What was coming was entirely a surprise. While I was thinking of warding off his blows to my head and ribs, he was thinking of putting me away with a devastating uppercut; he’d been setting me up for it. He lowered his right glove and then shot it upward, meaning to hit my chin and clean my clock all at once. He didn’t hit my chin, however. Because I was stepping forward quickly to close the space between us, and because he was coming up from way down below, expecting me to be a few feet away, what he did was nail me, full-powered, in the nuts.
I went down like a sack of cement falling from a rooftop. I was wearing a belt with padding that ran down between my legs. That was probably the only reason I survived. And my parts survived. Even with the padding, however, the pain was immediate and debilitating. I lay on the mat, curled up in a fetal ball, and I moaned.
I was there for a while. The pain does go away, eventually. And it did. But not quickly enough. Not nearly quickly enough.
When I could, I sat up. Mike and Derek were there to help me. Tyler was over in Joe’s corner, standing very close, looking down at the shorter boy in a very ominous way. Joe, for once, wasn’t dancing around gleefully. He looked…well…he looked ashamed. I’d never seen that look on him before, and I was never to see it again.
When I gingerly got to my feet, Derek on one arm and Mike on the other, Joe approached. He came close, looked me in the eye, all his macho bullshit absent from his demeanor, and said, “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I wouldn't. I like fighting but not dirty fighting. I was trying to score an uppercut, and suddenly you were on top of me and, well, it happened. I didn’t mean it. Honest.”
That was the only time I ever saw Joe in a way where I could have liked him.
At that point, Tyler stepped in. “You think you’re so hot, such a great fighter. Let’s you and me go a round, huh? Let’s see how you like fighting someone who knows what he’s doing.”
Joe looked up at Tyler, who was a good three inches taller and probably thirty pounds heavier, saw the expression on his face and the look in his eyes and hesitated. Maybe it was the first time since he’d been seven that he hesitated at the prospect of a fight. Before he could respond, however, I got a surprise so shocking that I forgot I was in pain.
Derek let go of my arm and stepped between Joe and Tyler. “You can fight me,” he said, in the most self-assured voice I’d ever heard come out of his mouth. “Now!”
Having said that, he helped me peel off all my equipment, put it on, flexed and stretched for about a minute, then looked at Joe, who’d been watching him, and said, “I’m ready.”
Derek was slighter and shorter than Joe by a little, not much, but it was easy to see, looking at them together. Joe looked uncertain, glancing first at me, then Tyler, then back to Derek. I could imagine what was going through his mind. He’d decked me with an entirely illegal blow, whether it was planned or not, and now he’d be beating up on a littler kid, who was obviously a friend of mine.
And of Tyler.
But Derek was having none of his reluctance. “Let’s go. You don’t have to fight if you don’t want to. Just stand there. Either way, you’re getting a licking.”
That was probably all the incentive Joe needed. This was now simply another fight, and this was again an overmatched opponent. Joe was ready!
He turned to look for the ref or anyone who could ref if the regular guy wasn’t available, but he didn’t see anyone. It was close to dinnertime now, and after I’d gone down, everyone had left. We five were the only ones remaining.
“We don’t need a ref,” Derek said. “Raise your gloves.”
Joe did, and I suddenly saw a Derek I’d never seen before. His posture changed; he adopted a boxing stance, sort of like I’d done, but he looked practiced and somehow dangerous. Joe saw that, too, and didn’t rush forward. Derek was the first one to advance.
He kept his balance, weaved his upper body, and shot quick jabs at Joe. Joe, I could tell, wasn’t used to being on the defensive. His only strength lay in attacking. So, now that he was up against an opponent who obviously knew what he was doing, that was still what he did; Joe moved forward, only to catch a quick jab on the nose.
It wasn’t a hard shot, just a wakeup call, but Joe stopped in his tracks. Derek didn’t, he kept coming forward, and suddenly was bouncing shots to Joe’s body. One after another, and from the way Joe reacted and the way Derek was getting his body into his punches, it was easy to see there was some power in those punches, enough power for them to be felt through the padding.
Joe dropped his hands, bringing his elbows down and in, trying to cover up his ribs. That was when Derek shot forward and put a hard left into the side of Joe’s face. Even with the headgear on, the blow hurt him. Derek wasn’t finished, however. He followed with a right cross, nailing Joe full in the face.
Joe dropped to the canvas, sprawled out on his front side. He wasn’t knocked out; he moved, trying to get his knees under him, probably thinking of rising. Derek knelt down next to him and put a gloved hand on his back, holding Joe prone. Then he got close to his ear, but didn’t whisper. He said, in a voice loud enough for all of us to hear, “You’re an asshole. No one but an asshole gloats when they’re beating someone in a sparring match. No one but an asshole tells the world how great he is. You can get beaten, just like anyone else can when they come up against someone who’s better. Only an asshole thinks he’s the greatest. You may or may not have hit Luke with an accidental low blow, but what you didn’t do was lean down while he was lying there and apologize or see if he was OK and do anything but go stand in your corner. Maybe then you realized you needed to say something, but it was way too late. You’re an asshole who only thinks of himself, and unless you change, an asshole is what you’ll always be.”
Then he stood up. We were all looking at him as though we’d never met him before. He looked back at us and then grinned a little sheepishly. “What?” he said, shrugging. “So I never told you I took boxing lessons. My dad didn’t like me getting picked on and knocked around.”