During the months of May, June, and July, I shadowed the Indonesian national boxing team at their training camp here in Kupang. One of their 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 a hotel ballroom. 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 corner.
I followed the athletes’ routine faithfully: warmup, shadow-boxing, heavy bag work. But it went without saying that I was not allowed to spar or do partner drills, because the simple fact was that I was a beginner, and bad, and they were semi-professional. Early on, I remember feeling both embarrassed by and astonished at the fact that my mere presence was somehow tolerable. Boxing just isn’t a sport you can play around at.
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 are 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, which seemed to confirm just how official the whole outfit was. But like many other “official” institutions and proceedings I’d observed in Indonesia, this one also displayed a curious mixture of refinement and roughness, seriousness and casualness. There was the tile floor, for one thing—an obvious sign that the space was not meant 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 credentialed, 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. But they never strutted in public or seemed to care much for image, the way that even serious athletes often do. One day, after practice, Libertus, a soft-spoken light welterweight, took his trainers off and walked back to the hotel barefoot. I remember his shapely, rock-like calves glistening as he tip-toed nimbly around broken glass and litter and the fly-bitten refuse of an open-air produce market.
I certainly cared more about how I looked in their company than I had any right to, and even spent a third of a Peace Corps paycheck on a pair of boxing shoes. I felt confident wearing them—that is, until the one and only time Pak Hermensen let me into the ring to spar with an inexperienced, junior fighter. It was a trainwreck, and I was totally exposed. The technique I had been practicing for months went up in smoke and within a round, I was completely out of control. I couldn’t figure out how to deliver a clean combination against my taller opponent. Nor could I muster up the energy and presence of mind to defend or counterattack effectively. Instead, I spent most of the three rounds frozen inside of the “danger zone”—the range where he can reach you with his longer arm but you can’t reach him—and ate many withering punches to the face and body. In the days immediately following the fight, with the exception of my ears and the bridge of my nose, my head felt surprisingly pain-free. The left side of my torso and upper abdominals were a different story though and for at least 48 hours, coughing, lying down, and sitting up were agonizing ordeals. Like I said, you just can’t play around at boxing. You can’t not do partner drills and expect to know what to do when suddenly there’s an opponent in front of you.
Everything I’d ever heard about getting hit in the body now struck me as true in the way that only personal experience can make it so. I believed it all before. But now I knew it (and I think that’s why Pak Hermensen let me spar—so that I would know it). In amateur boxing, clean knockouts resulting from clean shots to the chin are pretty rare and always flashy. Pounding away at the liver and guts, on the other hand, is a slow but surefire way to score points and crumble a fighter.
Most of the bout is a blur in my mind. I hardly remember anything that happened during the three rounds and think this is probably due to the nervous, frantic state of mind I was in. One moment does stick out relatively clearly though. It was the moment at which it actually dawned on me that I was underprepared and very much struggling—when any remaining illusions I might have harbored about my readiness to apply what I’d learned and box with a semblance of legitimacy dissolved before my eyes. Hours after the bout and out for some celebratory (or perhaps compensatory) drinks with friends, I described that moment as one in which I felt suddenly overcome by a feeling of “pointlessness.” I’m still not sure that’s the right word. It’s not like I forgot what my purpose was inside of the ring. Nor was it the simple agony and desperation you feel at the end of a workout that brings you to the very edge of your capacity and forces you to look over the edge into the abyss. I’ve had those and the bout didn’t get me there—at least not fitness and conditioning-wise.
I guess what getting punched and feeling powerless to return fire does to your mind and body is a little different. Well before it actually puts you down and out, it intimidates you and infects you with fear. It suffocates you with a feeling of unpredictable, looming danger that mere fatigue never produces by itself. Other sports involve human opponents, physical contact, and psychological warfare and intimidation too. But in those sports, the specter of live resistance gets filtered through the “game” itself—through balls and nets and lines and protective gear and the sense of having an objective besides the literal felling of your adversary. And this somehow imparts a sense of safety and distance.
Put it this way. If I am getting beaten in a sport that isn’t boxing, it usually only means that I’m not as far along as my opponent in achieving a common goal that exists outside of us both. And in an attempt to regain my footing, I can try to focus on this goal and everything else that isn’t the other human being trying to beat me. Boxers are also buffered and protected by the rules and regulations of “sport,” the most obvious of which is the wearing of gloves for the express purpose of minimizing damage. But still, if I am losing a boxing match, then I am quite literally being beaten with my opponent’s fists, which, gloved though they may be, are still meant to cause me physical pain. In the meantime, there is nothing for me to focus on except this threat in front of me—the very person who is trying to hurt me before I can hurt him back. Indeed, a boxer’s skill is largely measured by his ability to “ignore” this violence and pain to whatever extent possible and treat the purposeful, human threat in front of him as mere, mechanical stimulus—to respond equally mechanically and efficiently (thus the art of counterpunching). But an inexperienced fighter will clam up instinctively when he realizes what is actually happening to him and thereby turn into a punching bag. (Actually, this happens to experienced, skillful boxers too. Less frequently, perhaps. But a fight is still a fight and it is only a matter of time before somebody succumbs).
Therein lies the pointlessness—in the juxtaposition of proactivity and passivity, in the ridiculous impossibility of outrunning a storm that you are already caught in the middle of. The boxer on the offensive is indeed a kind of storm. Escaping him is a lot like trying to escape a tornado that is already upon you. And like that tornado, he does not have to or know how to stop, allow for a change of possession, get back on rule- or protocol-mandated defense, or give the other side any kind of fair chance at scoring or even breathing. He is a natural and inevitable phenomenon. And all he can do is ramp up the onslaught while his paralyzed opponent descends further within himself, experiencing all the feelings of helplessness and futility that punching bags probably would if they could feel.