“This IS your party.”

Keppner Boxing ring, Athens, GA

“I like you. Let’s fight.”
-Robert Bly

One of the first things I did after I got out of the hospital was go to Keppner Boxing, a local ‘old-school’ gym where several prominent fighters trained under the supervision of husband and wife fighters Keith and Lissa Keppner.

I’m not the kind of person who has any business in such a place. I’ve been in training all my life to be a poet–a lover, not a fighter.

I started with their super-intense cardio class and barely made it through the hour without tapping out. I felt like I was going to puke in front of everyone and I was ashamed of how weak and uncoordinated I was. It was hopeless. This shit just wasn’t for me.

Because of my schedule I could only get to one class a week, and every time that class rolled around my mind started putting up very logical excuses….I’m too tired, maybe coming down with something, my shoulder needs to heal, I’ll go next week. But I went anyway. Every time. I always felt thrilled and proud when I made it through another grueling workout.

And then something amazing happened: I got better. Don’t get me wrong, it sucked. It sucked for a long time. It still sucks. But there were these little surprises along the way—burts of irrational happiness while I was trying to hold the plank position. The thrill of getting a combination right. Finally.

As I got more confident, I could feel my mind reluctantly, sluggishly come around. I rearranged my schedule so I could get in the gym three times a week and I started to look forward to every workout like it was Christmas.

The classes I added were called Boxing Bootcamp, and consisted mostly of strength and endurance training. They were fun. But there was a problem. While we trained at bootcamp, on the other side of the gym the full contact guys, the ‘real’ fighters were having their class. They were fighting in a real boxing ring, hitting each other, brawling, big shots, slips, jabs, more big shots. It was thrilling to watch, a ringside seat. But my mind started chattering again: you are afraid to do this. You could try it maybe. No. It’s not for you. You are afraid you’ll get killed. Now…you know what you must do. Or else. Or else what exactly? My mind and I are not friends. Never have been.

I checked the gym schedule and my work schedule, and I was afraid and thrilled.
I bought a mouthguard and I was afraid and thrilled.
I got new handwraps and learned to properly wrap my knuckles, and I was afraid and thrilled.

As I drove to the gym I thought about being at summer camp when I was a little boy, maybe 7 years old. I watched enviously as the older kids and some teenagers stood in line to go up the ladder and off the high dive into the pool. I wanted to do that. I wanted to be like them. So I staked my place in line and waited my turn. Up, up, up, they went. Finally it was my turn. I climbed the ladder. I was afraid and thrilled. When I got to the top it was a lot higher than I thought. I can’t…this isn’t for me, I thought. So I climbed backwards, down the high dive ladder while the teenagers laughed and grumbled, annoyed at having to wait.

When I got to the gym the cardio class—my class—was just ending and I chatted up some friends. I don’t belong here, I thought. Someone stop me. Tell me it’s ok. Tell me cardio is enough.

“Full contact, let’s go!” shouted coach Keith. I looked around. “Start shadow boxing, Chris.”

Shadow boxing.
I would say if I were a poet.

After warmup Coach Keith had us get on the heavy bags and start jabbing, then hooks, practicing our shots. The other coaches walked around correcting our form, giving tips. This wasn’t too bad, but after twenty minutes my arms were exhausted.

Then Coach starts calling out fighters. “Matt and Gavin up to the ring.”

Finally I hear my name. This is it. I’m so tired though. I can barely lift my arms. I need water. I need a break. Too bad. I look up at the ring, elevated off the floor. I’ve been in a lot of sacred circles, beloved of the goddesses of hearts, music, and poetry. This one is sacred to Zeus. I’m afraid and thrilled. But I can’t do this. I don’t belong here. I’m old, I’m asthmatic, I’m hurt, sick, tired. This is madness. I think maybe I should climb back down from the high dive.

Keith matches me with a young guy who looks barely older than my son Mclaren. I expect him to tell the kid to take it easy on the poet but he doesn’t. His instructions are to me: “Chris, you aim for his HEAD. If I see you punching for his gloves or out to the side, you do fifty push-ups.” This goes against everything in my nature and he knows it. I try to make some jokes about ‘my first night at fight club’ but with the mouthguard in it comes out as gibberish and Coach doesn’t have any patience for my stalling anyway. The bell is about to go off.

That’s it. The electronic bell dings. And we fight. Jabs. Defense. Keep moving, jabs. It feels like an eternity. I get hit a few times. I hit him. I start to pull back afraid of hurting him. Then I’m afraid of him hurting me. It goes on and on, Coach shouting instructions to both of us…there you go, move, cut off the ring, keep your hands up.

When the bell mercifully dings again I touch gloves with my opponent and say ‘thanks, man’ through my mouthguard. I mean it. I’m so grateful for this. All of it. The fear and the thrill.

When I get back to the heavy bags I feel like celebrating. I tell the guy next to me, “I just did my first round of full contact! I feel like I should throw a party or something.” Pow, pow, pow, he hits the bag, barely looks over and says, “This IS your party.”