Lightweights Farrand Papendang and Huswatun Hasanah and flyweight Kornelis Langu warm up before a training session.

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Lightweights Farrand Papendang and Huswatun Hasanah and flyweight Kornelis Langu warm up before a training session.

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During the months of May, June, and July, 2019, I shadowed the Indonesian national boxing team at their training camp in Kupang. One of the coaches, Hermensen Ballo, lives twenty minutes away from me in the city and was himself a former Olympic boxer who represented Indonesia at the Atlanta and Sydney games.


Our "gym" was airy and cavernous and reminded me a little of the ballroom of a cheap hotel. Red and white banners had been stretched across the ceiling lengthwise and metal posts lined the walls, spaced apart at intervals of about twenty feet, a heavy bag dangling from each one. The floor was made of white tiles, which become dangerously slick after a few minutes of shadowboxing and sweating. To help with this, hard, foam mats had been laid underneath all of the heavy bags and over half of the floorspace (the other half remained bare). In the middle of it all was a regulation-size boxing ring raised three feet off the ground, complete with a stretched canvas surface, ropes, and red and blue corners.


I'd done a little boxing in college and followed the athletes' practice routine faithfully: warmup, shadow-boxing and partner drills, heavy bag work, and even light sparring. My skills were slow and choppy though and it showed. Early on, I remember feeling both embarrassed by and astonished at the fact that my presence was somehow tolerable.


After each practice, the athletes would gather in a tight circle, extend one arm into the middle, and chant together: "Juara, juara, juara, bisa!" or "Champions, champions, champions, we can!" The first time this happened, I hung back, certain that it would be inappropriate for me to join in. But Kornelis, one of the older and more experienced fighters, paused, looked around for me, and beckoned me over. "You're already Team Indonesia, no?" he asked.


All the athletes—even the ones who were local—were being put up in a hotel down the street from the facility, right next to an open-air produce market. This much seemed to prove just how official the whole outfit was. Nevertheless, like many other "official" institutions and proceedings I have observed in Indonesia, this one also displayed a curious commingling of refinement and roughness, high-minded seriousness and cavalier casualness. There was the tile floor, for one thing—an obvious sign that the space was not originally meant to be a training facility and was simply converted into one due to its size and proximity to the athletes' living quarters. Behind the heavy bags (brand new) hanging from their posts (sturdy and installed especially for the purpose), long lines of ants marched across pale yellow walls and smoke from trash fires drifted through glass window slats (some cracked). On sparring days, the referees, who I assume must be licensed, arrived and refereed the matches dressed in graphic tees, jeans, and leather slippers while throngs of local children crowded in to watch or attack the heavy bags. The athletes themselves certainly looked the part, bedecked in official Team Indonesia gear and working up a sweat beneath polyester track suits. One day, though, after practice, Libertus, a soft-spoken light welterweight, took his trainers off and walked back to the hotel barefoot, his shapely, rock-like calves glistening as he tip-toed nimbly around broken glass and litter and the market's fly-bitten refuse.


As time went on, and as my skills improved incrementally, it occurred to me that this training camp, by virtue of its being somewhat rough around the edges, perfectly exemplified the idea that success doesn't depend on having the nicest conditions, but rather on simple grit and discipline. And realizing this helped me to realize that I wasn't in the way at all—that it didn't matter that I wasn't good. My being there wasn't stopping anybody from working hard. We arrived each afternoon cheerful and relaxed and left most nights utterly exhausted. The tile floor got grimier and grimier. The air smelled staler with each passing day. We didn't care. We were getting better.


Kupang, Indonesia

July 2019

Boxers stand at attention and wait to hear their matchups for a sparring session.

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Boxers stand at attention and wait to hear their matchups for a sparring session.

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The training space.

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The training space.

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Lightweight Farrand Papendang and middleweight Michael Muskita shadowbox.

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Lightweight Farrand Papendang and middleweight Michael Muskita shadowbox.

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Flyweight Aldoms Suguro, welterweight Samada Saputra, and light welterweight Libertus Gha stretch their necks while warming up.

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Flyweight Aldoms Suguro, welterweight Samada Saputra, and light welterweight Libertus Gha stretch their necks while warming up.

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Kornelis Langu and Aldoms Suguro stay warm on the heavy bag while waiting to spar.

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Kornelis Langu and Aldoms Suguro stay warm on the heavy bag while waiting to spar.

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Saputra Samada has his pulse taken before stepping into the ring for a sparring bout.

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Saputra Samada has his pulse taken before stepping into the ring for a sparring bout.

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Michael Muskita throws a jab at Saputra Samada during a sparring bout.

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Michael Muskita throws a jab at Saputra Samada during a sparring bout.

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Saputra Samada recovers after suffering an accidental blow to the groin area while sparring.

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Saputra Samada recovers after suffering an accidental blow to the groin area while sparring.

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Michael Muskita shadowboxes.

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Michael Muskita shadowboxes.

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Bantamweight Jil Mandagie and Aldom Suguro shadowboxing.

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Bantamweight Jil Mandagie and Aldom Suguro shadowboxing.

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Coach Barbaro Fernandez Jimenez of Cuba demonstrates techniques while coach Adi Swandana of Indonesia looks on.

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Coach Barbaro Fernandez Jimenez of Cuba demonstrates techniques while coach Adi Swandana of Indonesia looks on.

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Saputra Samada listens to instructions during a shadowboxing drill.

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Saputra Samada listens to instructions during a shadowboxing drill.

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