The Real Boxer by Meghan MacNamara

empty dingy boxing ring

Terry threw a headgear at me and grunted, “You’re sparring Andrea.”

I tried not to act surprised or panicked. Breathing through the anxiety, I placed two fingers on my wrist, felt the pulse and imagined my racing heartbeat slowing until finally it did. Terry approached with a greasy plastic tub of Vaseline. “To avoid cuts,” he explained and smeared thick layers of the stuff over my cheeks, forehead above my eyebrows and chin. I jammed the headgear over my damp hair, my seemingly anesthetized fingers fiddling with the dangling nylon strap.

The gym was my second home, but even after three years of training as a fighter, my punches never reached past a focus mitt or a heavy bag. I fumbled with the headgear just as I had clumsily wrestled my 16-ounce training gloves. When the opportunity to fight someone was finally in front of me, my first instinct was to pull back.

After a dawdling delay, I clicked the headgear’s snap to lock it in place, and tried to ignore my chattering teeth, the pounding pulse that I felt in my jaw instead of my chest. I was determined not to pull my punches and not to think about what the sparring match meant—that my ultimate goal was to hurt someone badly enough that they could not continue to fight back.

I climbed the shaky stairs to the ring and slid between the ropes. Then the bell, Ding! The mouth guard prevented me from saying aloud what I thought. I don’t want to hurt you but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you hurt me! I felt Terry’s intense stare from the side of the ring and knew there would be no turning back. If I truly wanted to be a girl fighter, I had to silence my reservations, tighten into a fighting stance and jab forward.

 The sweat on my face felt cold, maybe too cold, and my vision blurred a little as though I was going to faint, drop to the canvas before ever throwing the first jab of the first round of my first fight ever.

We emerged from our corners, wrapped hands and 16-ounce training glove. The boxer’s handshake. My heart thumped in my teeth, my wrists, throbbing through my fingertips and the back of my neck as this smallish girl approached. I jabbed; she jabbed. Her eyes were narrowed slits that were focused on hitting me first and hitting me hard enough to stop my advance toward her. A current of retaliatory anger electrified my punches.

Terry was screaming the same instructions to both of us. “Get out a three punch combination!” He acted as referee and circled, hunched over and staring, ready at a moment’s swing. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. I threw a one, two, hook. Sch…sch…sch. I landed the straight right and the hook. The tilt of her head in response to my fist felt foreign. It was unlike the feeling of landing a punch on focus mitts or a heavy bag, where sand or firm pads absorbed the punch. I never felt another fighter’s skin squish as it met my leather glove. I lingered for barely a second, because the feeling—physical and emotional—of hitting another person could not be part of a fight unless I intended to end the fight flat-backed on the canvas.

Shocked that I landed the straight right-hook combination, Terry pressed, “One! Two! Up! Hook! Hook!”

Thoughtlessly, I pulsed my body left, then right, bobbing and weaving with my head, even though my opponent was only throwing jabs and hardly moving her body at all. I wanted to look like a real boxer and besides, I thought, it was good practice for the real thing if I made it that far. I threw my jab, my straight right, dipped and twisted and delivered the uppercut.

She was laid out on the canvas, stunned but conscious. The feeling was something messy—not pleasure, really, but pride. A high like that moment of collapse after passionate sex. Boxing gave me energy and vitality, despite the obvious harm it caused others.

Crunching down on my fitted mouthpiece, I pressed my teeth deeper into my jaw to stop the throbbing.

I had expected my first sparring match to be more challenging. When she dropped to the canvas, I froze in place, half expecting that I would have been the person lying on the ring floor with wobbly-legs and blurry eyes.

Terry waved me to my corner, then he waved his hands in a sweeping “X” in the air. I imagined the bout being called a TKO, but it was just practice, and I was more worried that I had seriously hurt Andrea.

I held the ropes open for her as she climbed out of the ring ahead of me, though she said nothing and wouldn’t look up to meet my gaze. I craved just a word, a phrase to let me know there weren’t hard feelings. Andrea gave me nothing to assuage the small pang of guilt that rose, sluggish and defeated, from the canvas.

Her gait was straight and evenly measured as she approached the water fountain, which made me feel a little better. I didn’t really hurt her, I thought, relieved, but then wondered if a real boxer would be relieved that her opponent walked away unscathed.

meghan macnamara headshotMeghan MacNamara received her Master of Fine Arts degree from Vermont College. The essay published here, The Real Boxer, is an adapted chapter of her memoir, Never Thought of Losing, which explores her journey from amateur boxer to MS patient. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review, Spittoon Magazine and Fourth Genre. Meghan lives in Lancaster, Pa., where she teaches composition and medical humanities, volunteers with a hospice organization and manages a dog rescue.
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