Three minutes on, one minute off,
Hidden by a railway arch, under a streetlight, it’s not a door opened by regular folks. Some people have lived in the town all their lives and don’t even know it’s there. Inside lies simplicity, a new way of being.
For the few that venture in, there’s damp in the wall and the toilets stink, but insecurity draws them to it. Most arrive as kids, all bone and sinew, spitting with hate, full of anger, masking fear in aggression. But you can’t hide fear, not really. They come carrying it in their scowls, in pimp-roll walks and mother-cussing, under their hoods, with the blank eyed stare of the streets. This isn’t football or rugby, this is a fight.
Why do you want to fight, son?
There are boys of all colours there, all faiths. Once stripped to your kit, no-one cares which God you follow or what you’ve been taught. And no-one cares where the cigarette shaped scars on your arm came from. Muslim? Bluenose? What the fuck. Every lad starts as a blank canvas.
They say it’s bad for your health, this game of ours. And it is. But gangs are bad for your health, weed is bad for your health, the 24/7 wealth-and-fame obsessed crap on TV is bad for your health, monotony, petrol fumes, loneliness, accepting your place in the scheme of things, they’re all pretty bad for your health too. More than anything, fear is bad for your health.
In here there is hope. You can channel your mind, son, acknowledge sweaty truth. You can stop pretending.
The old ex-pro in the ring knows all that. He has for a long time. That’s why he’s been in the room throwing punches for thirty years. He moves well on the canvas for 46, showing that boy half-his-age around. See his face, how much he means it, for a moment he looks like the killer he used to be! He feints his way in, traps the lad in the corner, gives him one each side of the ribs, then steps off. His eyes soften. He breathes hard, cheeks the colour of raw steak beneath his head-guard, then the youngster takes over, pressing forward – age and youth, ebb and flow.
The round is done and the old pro glugs half a bottle of water. His lungs are screaming, his legs like logs but he grins and says, “just one more, come on.” His words travel round the bags and the buckets, round the boys moving, skipping, punching shadows. Hands carve shapes, soles of shoes slap boards.
Some will drift away, this room only a diversion from their journey, for others it is an endpoint. They can never leave and will undergo a familiar transformation, slow and relentless as a sliding glacier. Muscle grows on their bones, scars on their eyebrows, lumps on their knuckles. Eventually they too will be old-ex pros with cheeks like raw steak and contentment, not rage in their hearts.
On his chair by the back office, the governor sits, 80 and long past his dancing days. “In my place there can’t be two bosses” he says, rolling his hat in his grizzled hands. “I…am…the…boss. I’ve been in this game since when slums were slums, when fighters breathed bad air and fought for meals, not like these kids today with cash in their pockets who don’t know how to laugh, fiddling on their phones. They don’t come in here, not them show-ponies. I end up with the boys touched by madness, or the sad ones. They’re my favourites, they’re my boys. I never turn no-one away. If I didn’t let them in, where could they go? I look ‘em in the eye and say to each of them, you have a choice. From here you can make yourself miserable or you can make yourself strong. The amount of work is the same.”
He watches from his chair, alert for the unusual. It can be a look in an eye, a quick pair of feet, the potential to emulate…
…the champ has lived half his life in the room, ever since he was all bone and sinew, spitting with hate, full of anger. In two months he fights for the world. He emerges from the changing room, long limbed and lithe like a horse. He winks and waves. The atmosphere peaks. He is a glimpse of a possible future. Fat wallets tried to take him away, but still he returns to the room. His rhythm is tight, eyes clear. Boys up their pace. The champ is here.
He first opened that door at twelve, eight stone soaking wet, with natural balance, fierce pride but a temper like a hand-grenade. Dad had gone to jail. Mum worked two jobs. He was ragged and regular folks laughed, called him ‘gyppo’. Look at him now, the smoothness, the confidence. The room gave him that. He had to learn to use the ring, to understand it, to live with his fear. The room taught him to respect himself. It taught him that work brings improvement, the sweaty truth.
The champ learned it all in here because instead of wasting years on self-destruction, instead of becoming miserable, he opened the door and gave the room the only precious thing he had. He gave it his
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
Image by Solblight http://solblight.deviantart.com/art/Rundown-Boxing-gym-106134243