3 weeks until fight night
The hardest thing about training for a fight isn’t actually the training itself. I mean, of coursetraining is hard. But as you get fitter, stronger and better conditioned your body adapts to the pressure you put it under. Before too long, you’re running further, punching harder and working longer than you thought yourself capable of, the natural results of any fitness program. Training, simply a part of the game, is the easy bit once you get your head around it.
Rather, it is the consistency with which you have to train that starts to bring out the cracks in people, and not only in the gym but in life in general. As the margins get tighter, you start to miss the things you had previously taken for granted, or hadn’t appreciated properly before you had to sacrifice them. The end of week pint at the pub after work? I can’t make it, sorry – I’m training. The catch up with the guys while watching the football? OK, but I might be a bit late; I’m training in the afternoon, and I won’t be drinking in the evening. That meal with the fiance and family? I’ll just have a salad and orange juice; I’ve got training tomorrow.
It was six weeks into camp that the cracks in me finally began to show, when I realised that training three times a week, even with a strict diet and clean living, wasn’t enough. I had lost 7 kilos in those six weeks and looked trim at 80kgs, but I was still 5 kilos away from my fight weight and it wasn’t coming off as easily as it had done before. I had no choice but to make further allowances, which included cutting out carbs in the evening, reducing portion sizes for the rest of my meals, and upping my training to four times a week.
This worked, but I felt the increased strain almost instantly. I developed a mood swing, which I found frustrating and childish, and yet became indignant when people didn’t extend their sympathies towards me because of it. Everyday things like washing up and paying bills would randomly and inexplicably annoy me, and I would stomp around in my pajamas asking why these damned insurance companies/electricity suppliers/dirty dishes wouldn’t just leave me alone for five minutes so I could train.
I eyed every food dish suspiciously, wondering how many calories were really in that pasta, or that soup, or that salad dressing. I was becoming slightly weird, and was starting to do slightly weird things, like wondering whether there was anything to gain by running up a short flight of stairs instead of simply walking up them. Would it perhaps make me just a tiny bit fitter? Does the guy I’m fighting do this while I don’t, and therefore have an edge over me? In a sport of tight margins where every little counts, COULD THIS BE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WINNING AND LOSING?! After I nearly barrelled into a work colleague when charging up the steps to my office, I decided I should either get a grip on myself or find some other steps.
It all made for a wholly negative experience, which came to a boiling point one Thursday night at Gumshield. With the fight edging closer I wanted to get some more sparring, and decided that training with the senior amateur squad would do the trick. I made my way there after work and, after the usual hugs and handshakes with coaches, was told to skip the warm up and glove up immediately, then head to the ring where the amateurs were already putting each other through their paces.
“Maaaaaaaatt,” cooed Steve from the far corner, grinning. He hugs me, slaps me on the head guard and invites me into the ring to stand opposite a lean, fit-looking guy who was sizing me up from across the canvas. “That’s Charlie. You’ll be sparring him tonight” Steve said in my ear. “He’s had 14 amateur fights. He’s good. Stay sharp. Stay relaxed.” Sharp and relaxed. Righto. A minute later the bell rang, the cue for sparring parters to switch over. “Good round you two,” Steve said. “Matt, Charlie, away you go.” We touch gloves and put our guards up. Instantly, I could see he was a capable operator. His movement, his pressure, were economical and well thought out. I circled him cautiously. A minute or so passes; we both throw jabs, mine lands cleaner. A brief exchange in one of the corners causes Steve to split us. Then Charlie closes the gap and we trade again. His head weaves between my clunking fists. Suddenly, BANG!
The world froze for a second as the right hook from Hell cannoned off my jaw. Charlie lowered his hands in a gesture of ceasefire while everyone standing around the ring drew breath sharply. Ouch, they were thinking. I bet that one hurt. They were right; it did. I hear Steve’s voice through the bells in my ears. “You OK son?” he asks, partly out of concern, partly out of impatience. No, I thought.
“Yes” I reply, because of course I do. “Just a bit buzzed, that’s all.”
“OK, well, let’s go then.”
By the end of the round I have reasserted myself a little; a right hand of my own caught Charlie’s attention (provoking the standard head-shake, ‘that-didn’t-hurt-me-but-I-felt-it’ response) but I was also fatigued; my ears were still ringing, and I couldn’t close my mouth properly. The bell sounds, and I’m grateful to hear it. “Gooooood” purred Steve. “That’s a goooood four minute round. Right, you two, out. Sonny, Nathan, away you go.”
I ducked between the ropes and hung off them, stretching my dodgy shoulder and panting. I could feel that, when the adrenaline wore off, my jaw was going to hurt badly. The trickle of sweat running down my lips turned out to be blood; he’d split both of them, too. I turn my attention to Sonny and Nathan, who are tearing lumps out of one another, literally trying to knock one another’s head off. They punch one another around the ring, to everyone’s approval and encouragement.
As the action in the ring intensified, for the first time in many years I felt like I didn’t really belong there. These guys looked to be better than me in pretty much every department; they were younger, fitter, quicker and more experienced. My mind starter to wander; what am I doing here? Why am I putting myself through this? I don’t want to be in this boiling hot room with these young lions; I want to be at home, watching terrible TV with my fiance like any other 30-something. I want a nice, long, hot shower. I want a cup of tea. I wonder if I still have that steak in the freezer? In fact, when I get home, the first thing –
Steve’s bark cuts me short: “Great round you two. Matt, Charlie, away you go.”
Urgh. Already? I got back in the ring full of self doubt. But, most importantly… I got back in the ring anyway. I was aware of two things as I did so. The first was how much I didn’t want to go again (if another one of those hooks landed I’d be in real trouble) and the second was how I would feel if I didn’t. How could I continue to train while weighed down by the knowledge that I’d failed The Test Of Grit? What would I feel like in a few weeks time, sitting in a changing room with my hands wrapped, waiting for my name to be called and knowing, at the back of my mind, that when the going got tough I could be found wanting? That I could be broken? That I could be beaten?
I looked over at Charlie, who was up on his toes, waiting.
Fuck you, Charlie.
I banged my gloves together as the bell rang.