“The first thing I learned in boxing is to not get hit. That’s the art of boxing.”—Wladimir Klitschko.
“Keep your hands up! Keep your hands up!”
I was three or so, sitting on my father’s lap, and he was giving me a boxing lesson; it was sort of like playing “paddy-cake”; I was punching at his palms, and if I dropped my hands, he’d give me a little (very gentle) tap on the side of my head with his finger. We were laughing and having a good time; my mother was behind us, cooking dinner, listening to the radio. We were having such a good time that my father lost his concentration and dropped his own guard.
And I broke his nose.
He was bleeding, my mother was laughing, and I was bawling my eyes out.
“No, no!”, my dad said, giving me a hug. “I’m okay, and I’m proud of you. You did a good job. See? That’s what happens when you don’t keep your guard up.”
And so it began.
If you were a boy where I grew up, you had to learn to box. Otherwise, your life was going to be a living hell. It was going to be a living hell anyway, but at least you had a fighting chance.
My mother tolerated my father’s tutorials until we watched a fight one night between Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and a Korean fighter, Kim Duk-Koo. Both of them were in the lightweight class; this was the type of match I liked the best, because they tended to go on longer, which allowed me to stay up past my bedtime.
I was rooting for Mancini, and he won.
The fight went fourteen rounds, and Mancini was taking the worst of it almost the entire time until nearly the end.
Then he came back strong, hit Kim with a hard right, and knocked him to the canvas. Richard Green, the referee, stopped the fight, which my father had been yelling at the television for him to do for several minutes, as if he could be heard.
Kim Duk-Koo managed to pull himself up by the ring ropes, but soon lapsed into a coma and died four days later.
Both his mother and Richard Green later took their own lives.
“That’s it,” my mother said. “No more boxing.”
But there was more. So much more.
As I grew older, my father taught me to box properly, by which I mean he taught me to fight dirty.
“Don’t look at a man’s eyes when you’re fighting; they can trick you, and make you weak. Look at his shoulders. The only time you look into his eyes is when you step onto his foot, so it looks like you did it by accident; when he tries to move back, he’ll start to fall, and that’s when you hit him as hard as you can.”
“That’s not a fair fight,” my mother said.
“The only fair fight is the one you walk away from.” This was one of the very few times my father contradicted my mother.
He also taught me how to head-butt, wrench elbows in the clinch, and even eye-gouge. The last was not to be used in the ring; only in a street fight.
“If he can’t see you, he can’t hit you.”
I realise all of this sounds brutal, which it was and is, and also the product of a dysfunctional family, which you could make a case for, except for the fact that I’m still functioning.
My father was not a violent man; he was just aware that we live in a violent world; he’d seen many of his friends taken by violence, and did not want any of his children to suffer that fate.
So when I turned eleven, my real education began.
I’m going somewhere with this, hence the “Part I”.
Stay tuned for the next episode.