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A priest, a lawyer, and a fat guy walk into a basement…

OK, I’m the fat guy. And also, well, the punchline. Here’s the setup: I tried boxing, despite being several years and several stone from being physically fit. My ring career, as it were, lasted just seven weeks, and ended with me alone in a hospital room wearing a gown too small to cover my ass, carrying a jar of my own pee while in the worst pain since (I’m guessing) circumcision. But I learned so much in that short time. Such as: There’s a reason that most sane, sober adults don’t put themselves in a position to get punched. The circumstances that put me in the ER were ridiculous enough to make me laugh even in misery—for one, my fight club really was just a priest, a lawyer, and me in a church basement, and that’s funny. 

I’ve been mulling my daffy dalliance with the sweet science a lot since seeing poor Ryan Garcia take a knee after eating a Tank Davis liver shot. I felt your pain, Ryan! Really! 

It all started in January 2020. I’d recently had some pipes burst behind a kitchen wall and was sure repair bills would leave me underwater. But amid my saga, a lawyer friend of a friend named John who happened to be a veteran of such matters took time to tell me everything would be OK and why. Everything he said turned out to be right. I liked being around him, and wanted to thank him for his goodness and wisdom. 

I’d heard from our mutual pal that he was into boxing. I also love boxing. I grew up in a golden age of the sport, watching Muhammad Ali with my dad on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Then local-boy-made-great Sugar Ray Leonard became a teen idol in the D.C. area, where I grew up, taking a gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, and going on to be the biggest non-heavyweight superstar the fight game had ever seen. In the early 1980s, some buddies and I approached a limo parked outside a D.C. bar that had “World Heavyweight Champ Larry Holmes” stenciled on a door and, sure enough, there was heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, sitting alone in the back. “Champ!” we yelled. “Fuck off!” responded Holmes, while rolling up the limo’s very tinted windows.

In later years I also got to see some great fighters in the ring when they came to town. I saw Roy Jones Jr. decision Bernard Hopkins for the world middleweight belt in 1993, and Leon Spinks get knocked out by a construction worker in 69 seconds in 1994, and Mike Tyson quit on his stool (with Ali in attendance) in his last fight in 2005. I’d even met Tank Davis in 2016 when the Baltimore native was an up-and-comer training at Bald Eagle Recreation Center, an amazing public gym in D.C. 

So I called to ask John if he’d be into taking in a fight night with me. John confirmed that he was into boxing, but, unlike me, more as a participant than a spectator. He said he laced up the gloves during his days in the Army, and that he still went to weekly training sessions at his church. He invited me to come to one, and promised whatever stress burst pipes and Nationwide had caused me would disappear at his fight club. 

I assumed I was being invited to some sort of boxercise version of boxing, where a dozen people in Lululemon ensembles meet in a dance studio full to throw synchronized air punches between burpees. It was at a church, for crissakes! Can’t hurt, I figured. I’ll be there, I said. 

“Bring a mouthpiece,” John said.

Uh oh. 

But come Saturday morning at 6:30 a.m., there I was with my fears and my new mouthpiece outside the doors of Saint Rita Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va. John soon arrived, along with a short musclebound guy who turned out to be Father Daniel. 

We went downstairs into the basement, which was set up for dining, and I helped move tables and chairs to form a big ring at the back of the hall. While the priest set up a small clock with a one-minute timer and turned on a Bluetooth speaker playing a classic rock stream, John gave me a quick lesson on how to wrap my fists and properly put on the Everlast gloves. And the priest delivered the briefest pre-fight instructions: 

“We take turns,” he said. “One-minute rounds. Two rounds on, one round off. No head shots!” 

Then the bell on the timer rang and John and the reverend went at it. This was the first time I’d ever seen John out of a suit, and though I could tell even in his lawyer get-up he was a fitness guy, when he ditched the tie and button-down shirt the transformation was Clark Kent–like. He was huge. Father Daniel, who I’d just learned was a former wrestler at 135 pounds, was no slouch. I hadn’t come across such an ass-kicking priest since Father Barry in On the Waterfront.

These guys were just beating the crap out of each other, with punches that even up close looked really pretty. Any leftover notion that this church session would be merely aerobic was exorcized in a blaze of clearly schooled jabs, hooks, and crosses with both hands from both guys. 

I had a minute to get ready for my first turn.

I’d been in plenty of fistfights as a kid, like everybody I hung out with at school or in the neighborhood. Hell, I even fought everybody I hung out with at school or in the neighborhood. (I recently went to a funeral of my neighborhood buddy Wally, whose sister in her eulogy reminded everybody that her brother’s nickname was “Black Eye;” Wally and I got suspended in eighth grade for brawling with each other at lunch.) I was never good at it. If there were cellphone cameras in the ‘70s, there’d be enough footage of me getting punched in the face for a dedicated YouTube channel. But fighting had some payoffs. Life is for the retelling, for one, and the more dumbass the throwdown the better the story. And, being young and stupid, the biggest fear we had about brawling was losing a tooth, and I never lost a tooth.

In my minute of waiting my turn, I focused on those payoffs: Sure, I’m gonna get my ass beat, but I’ll have a tale to tell. Plus, I have a mouthpiece, meaning I won’t go home toothless, assuming I go home. So here goes nothing!

Then the bell rang, and I faced Father Daniel. I knew he’d take it easy on me, and in lieu of completely beating me to a pulp he only hit me with a few hard shots, and instead spent most of the time yelling at me to throw, throw, throw punches. John came in after a minute and did much the same, nailing me some and encouraging me more. I tried as hard as I could, and threw every misthrown punch with a vision of Sugar Ray or Larry Holmes in my head and a giggle. Even without headshots, this felt so real to me. This felt like boxing! 

My first two minutes in the “ring” seemed like 10, while my initial break was over in a New York minute. And then it was back in for more of the same. After my first four two-minute rounds, I was soaked from head to toe in sweat and surely looked like death. I hadn't worked that hard at anything athletic since high school football, and that was 40 years ago.

Father Daniel, out of fear of having to administer last rites, made me take longer breaks while he and John kept going at it. At the one-hour mark the final bell rang, just as the sun was coming up. While we rearranged the tables and chairs I couldn’t stop laughing at the ridiculousness and greatness of my morning. Even the fatigue felt like a revelation. I had no idea what I was doing boxing-wise but an overwhelming intellectual awareness that I shouldn’t be doing it. But I didn’t care. At an age when finding new and exciting things becomes just about impossible, everything that happened from the fist wraps on was new and exciting to me. Hell, I was in heaven in that church basement. 

My whole body was sore by that night and my arms and chest were covered in bruises. Badges of courage to me. I couldn’t wait to again serve as a heavy bag with legs for the lawyer and the priest. And the second session a week later was just as wondrous. Saturdays immediately became my favorite day of the week. I’d set my alarm for 5:30 a.m. but get up around 4:00 from worry I'd oversleep. I'm never on time for anything, but I was showing up early every week to Saint Rita. Soon enough I was watching lots of fight films online and even doing some shadow boxing in front of a mirror. John and Father Daniel showed respect for my progress by hitting me with harder shots with every passing week.

Alas, my ring career ended in Week 7. With maybe 15 seconds left in what would have been my last round in the wee hours of a Saturday in early March, I lunged at John with a right hand but missed. And as I stumbled forward a step he hit me just below the rib cage on my right side with the hardest punch I’d ever taken in my life. I immediately felt like I had been stabbed. I felt like all my innards had been dislodged. As all air left my body, I was aware that boiling-lobster sounds were coming out of my mouth, but I could do nothing to stop them. (I finally knew exactly what Mike Tyson was talking about when he described the noises Tyrell Biggs made after taking a barrage of body blows from Iron Mike back in 1987.) 

“Don’t go down! Don’t go down!” yelled the priest as I gasped and staggered around the hall. “Don’t give him the satisfaction!” I would have given him all the satisfaction in the world if I thought it would help me get air into my lungs. 

I’m far from a tough guy, but I’ve known some pain. Like, I’ve had a bunch of kidney stones and several arthritic episodes where my knee blows up to the size of my ass and my tendons turn to what feels like glass shards. But this was uncharted pain territory. I drove to Sibley Hospital in agony and worry for my internal organs. Even in my pitiful state, I had to laugh while explaining to the emergency room staff that my injury came from getting punched in a church basement. 

And I chuckled some more, between groans, when I heard a nurse on the emergency room PA ordering X-rays and organ tests for "the boxer in Room 8." 

The boxer! That’s me!

As it turned out, there was no blood in my pee or obvious rib fractures. I was told I’d suffered a torn intercostal muscle, an injury generally caused by a blow to the rib cage that doesn’t do permanent damage but hurts a lot and won’t go away. I spent the next eight weeks not sleeping and dreading sneezing or laughing, either of which would make me cry from hurt. 

Even before the results came back, I concluded that my participation in the basement boxing sessions was ludicrous and promised myself that no matter the diagnosis, my fight career was finished. I’d lived out my favorite Richard Pryor skit of all time, the one about how his own boxing dreams were crushed by a body blow. 

I posed for a selfie in the emergency room holding my vial of blood-free urine, to commemorate the moment that I accepted me and boxing were doneski. I knew I’d miss it.

As luck would have it, the world shut down from COVID a week later. Several months into the pandemic, by which time all exercise had moved outdoors, I went with my son to toss a football at a park across the street from my house. Two 30-something guys walked into the park decked out in full boxing regalia, and as I watched they tapped gloves and started whaling on each other. Good god, did they look ridiculous. And they didn’t care. I was so jealous.

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