There was always more to practice—combinations, defense, footwork, strategy. He knew baseball was my favorite sport, and he explained why Sugar Ray Robinson was an athlete equal to Willie Mays. For my 11th birthday he bought me a pair of pillowy, oversize gloves. I’d wear a football helmet, and we’d spar, me bobbing and weaving while Chino flicked jabs, until I was flushed and could hear both his slaps and my breath echoing in the helmet.
He never hurt me. He’d tighten his stomach and insist I punch him in the solar plexus: “No mosquito bites, a real punch. Pretend I’m a heavy bag.” I didn’t want to hit him, which he found hilarious. “I’m like the great Houdini—abs of steel—you can’t hurt me, and if you could, no pain, no gain, right?” Then, in answer to his own question, he’d have us on our backs doing the elbow-to-knee twists he called pug-ups, guaranteed to make my solar plexus impervious to punishment too. “Surviving a right-hand world gives lefties an advantage,” he assured me. “Fast hands run in our family.”
I believed him about hand speed because I had fast feet. I could outrun everyone at St. Roman grade school and every kid including the older guys in Lawndale Gardens, the housing project kitty-corner from our apartment building. On the football field, I’d never been caught from behind. If not for Chino, I’d have never been the only güerito enrolled in the Hermandad de Boxeo program at the Marshall Square Boys Club. We entered the ring there armored—padded headgear, a mouthpiece, mandatory jockstrap and a kind of ill-fitting padded corset that protected the ribs. A knockdown, let alone a knockout, was all but impossible at the Boys Club. Occasionally a fight was stopped because of a thumbed eye or a split lip, but fights were decided on points as if they were fencing matches with tipped foils. My strategy was to attack just as my opponent was adjusting his rib pads or the headgear obscuring his vision. I expended my energy dancing like Sugar Ray. That grace might reside in the economy of motion never occurred to me. My long, skinny arms gave me a reach advantage and no one I fought had learned how to take a fight inside. I flicked my right-hand jab and kept my left cocked, ready to erupt into the rhythmic combinations I’d tattooed against Uncle Chino’s palms. Mostly they glanced off my opponent’s gloves, but landing a punch was secondary to the flash of throwing it. My Brothers of Boxing weren’t connecting either, which I attributed to my savvy defense.
A year later, I was on the boxing team at St. Augustine, training for my first freshman fight in the Catholic Youth Organization tournament. We trained three days a week, hitting the light and heavy bags, doing sit-ups and running endless laps up and down stairways through the corridors of the school. The only actual boxing up to then was sparring matches in which I’d held my own.
The CYO hall was packed and over-heated. They’d propped open the doors, and a haze from the men smoking outside hung at the exits as if the wet night were smoldering. There was a holiday feel, something almost jolly about the boisterous voices of the dads, most of them white. Some had boxed CYO themselves. They were there to relive their glory days and to cheer on their sons. My father wasn’t among them. I’d forged his name on the permission slip required for me to box. I had left the house that evening with my sax case stuffed with my gym gear. The sax was hidden under my bed. My father thought I was going to band practice.
Freshman fights didn’t affect the standing of the varsity team. We were the warm-up act, the preliminary bouts. The teams were all from South Side Catholic schools. I drew a guy from St. Elizabeth, a predominantly African American school that for the past few years had challenged St. A’s domination. The St. Elizabeth team wore orange tees with the school name across the front and the boxer’s last name stenciled on the back. Maybe I had run too many laps because I weighed in a few pounds under lightweight. Ward, the kid I was fighting, was a couple pounds over, but approximations were apparently all right for the freshmen. He was a head shorter than I was and built more like a tackle than a lightweight. He had an inordinately thick neck, a pubic-like scruff on his chin, and he was dripping sweat as if he’d already gone several rounds. I had started grade school early and was a year younger than most of the freshman class. If Ward was a freshman, I couldn’t help wondering how many times he’d been held back.
There are doorways we treat as ordinary, although in stepping through them one enters another reality—a church, a bar, the ropes of a boxing ring. I never had worse butterflies than when I climbed into that CYO ring. To ease the tension, I pounded my gloves together and danced in my corner. It was an unintentionally gung-ho, badass display. One of the dads at ringside, a freckly, rusty-haired guy working overtime on his beer gut, picked up on it immediately and began taunting the kid I was fighting, referring to him as N-Ward: “Yo, N-Ward, Bean’s gonna beat your black fireplug booty.”
Ward stripped off his sweat-soaked tee. From across the ring, his booty appeared as muscular as his thick neck and biceps. He nonchalantly glanced my way and we locked eyes. I involuntarily smiled. He turned and spit into the bucket beside his stool. I tried to pretend I had only been stretching the muscles around my lips in preparation for the mouthpiece. A clichéd observation struck me as if I were the first person ever to realize that, unlike on a ball field, in a ring you stood disrobed with nowhere to hide.
“Dat mean Bean gone tear youse a new one, N-Ward,” the rusty-haired guy announced in a mocking accent through hands cupped like a megaphone. It amused his drinking buddies. “Dat be a rabid rottweiler Bean, boy!”
Ward stared furiously at me. He banged his gloves together, then punched himself in the face so that perspiration flew. Boxing, like baseball, had never been about anger for me. What anger I managed to summon now was toward the rusty-haired drunk calling me Bean as if we were teammates. Bean? And then I got it: Stringbean. With his every racist insult, I could see Ward growing more enraged. That he had every right to be made it worse.
The bell rang and Ward bull-rushed across the ring, windmilling wildly as he came. Father Cross, our boxing coach, had posted a sign in the training room that read, I THINK THEREFORE I STINK. But thoughts flashed through my mind as they do during the suspension of time between diving from a high board and hitting the water. I thought the windmilling exposed Ward as totally undisciplined, a street fighter with no appreciation for the science of boxing; I thought how a ringwise boxer would turn that free swinging into an advantage and play his composure off Ward’s rage, exploiting it, maybe slipping to the right a half step inside Ward’s wheelhouse and nailing him as he rushed in, careless with aggression, clueless as to defense, then tying him up, frustrating him even more. Like a diver in midair, I had time to think that those were strategies I’d heard from Chino, moves instinctive for him, as they decidedly were not for me, and that I was in an uncontrolled free fall, a nanosecond from belly flopping into water as unforgiving as concrete.
Blows hailed down wild, mostly glancing, but harder than I’d ever been hit in my life. I tried to dance away. I’d imagined foot speed to be an asset in boxing. It was no more an advantage in the ring than it was in a swimming pool, where guys on the swim team, whom I could easily outrun, left me behind in the crawl. I was too busy running to fight. Rather than chase, Ward allowed a few steps separation and then rushed again like some inexorable squat engine of war, forcing me into a corner where he’d catapult haymakers. Defense was a glorified term for what little nonstinking instinct I had. I was merely trying to survive, keeping my chin tucked and my elbows tight to my ribs and my gloves up. Ward hit so hard that blocking his blows hardly mattered. Each roundhouse rammed my gloves back into my face as if I was beating myself. I bobbed and ducked from side to side like Chino taught me and tried to spin out of the corner, and Ward head-butted and body-slammed me back against the ropes, then clinched in a way that trapped my gloves while he stomped my foot and tried to knee me in the balls. His knee, which caught only my thigh, would leave a deep purple knot that served for the next eight months as a souvenir of a moment on the ropes.