Walking up the 23-step staircase of Bobby Gleason’s Boxing Gym in Brooklyn is a gut check. But it’s much more than that. There’s sanctity within that musty stairwell. It’s a staircase, dark and thin, that promises a peculiar form of personal Enlightenment.
Boxing is a peculiar sport. It’s half religion and half war.
Few people know that the wooden staircase in the original Gleason’s Gym, in The Bronx, back in the 1960s, also had 23 steps. Ask Jake LaMotta, Muhammad Ali, or any other fighter who trained there, but I doubt they ever bothered to count.
Some eastern philosophers claim there are 8 Steps to Enlightenment. Some say there are only 3. But at Gleason’s Gym, at 83 Front Street, in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, there are 23 steps. These steps lead an amateur, a professional or white collar boxer to a Championship--which is, in a way, Enlightenment.
Here are The 23 Steps of Boxing Enlightenment:
Step 1: Hate. Hate is good. Have lots of it. This propels you. Your job, each day, is to dredge up hate and purge it onto your sparring partner’s nose with left hooks and right hands. Sonny Liston is your role-model.
Step 2: Anger. Find anger and use it. Be anger. When having trouble feeling angry, think: Parents. Girlfriend. Boss. Job. Money. If you’re still confused, watch You Tube clips of young Mike Tyson. That’s anger.
Step 3: Fear. Ignore it! The thought of a punch in the nose hurts much more than the actual punch, so just ignore your fear. In a month, your soft face hardens and becomes exactly like the bottom of an African natives’ foot--desensitized. Just step into the ring and start punching.
Step 4: Inferiority. Let inferiority and insecurity drive you. It’s your gasoline. Use it every single day in the gym. You might be fragile, but your sense of inadequacy makes you dangerous.
Step 5: Denial. Deny your fear and inferiority! Sure, you feel shaky before sparring, but deny it. When scared, tell yourself you’re only nervous. When intimidated, tell yourself your arrogant opponent needs a good knuckle sandwich. Refuse to be honest!
Step 6: Sadness. You are a troubled and tortured soul. Would you be in a boxing gym punching another human being otherwise? Most champs--Matthew Saad Muhammad, Floyd Paterson and Johnny Tapia--are tortured souls who seek boxing psychotherapy.
Step 7: Determination. Determination, resolve, discipline, commitment, conviction—whatever you call it—keeps you clawing to the top. Despite your nausea, (which you ignore), you climb the stairs every single day to kick butt.
Step 8: Confidence. Be confident. Your black eye, busted lip and aching muscles are dues. Your new mantra is: This too shall pass. In 1943, Jersey Joe Walcott’s psyche remained confident and, at the age of 37, on his third attempt, won the heavyweight title.
Step 9: Intelligence. It’s smart to be smart! Listen to your broken-nosed trainer and absorb his dark violent wisdom--but secretly eavesdrop on other trainers. Borrow, mimic, experiment and steal. There’s a lot of technical stuff to master. Keep your eyes and ears open and mouth shut.
Step 10: Compassion. Have compassion for yourself. After your sparring partner beats you up, buy yourself an ice cream. This is a tough sport. You need to be kind to yourself and treat yourself with dignity. Buy a double scoop.
Step 11: Skepticism. Don’t believe everything you see or hear. That muscular beast shadow boxing in the corner looks tough, but maybe he’s a punk; that old bewhiskered trainer sounds smart, but maybe he’s far from the truth. Distrust appearances.
Step 12: Courage. Plunge in. Be brave. Even if you don’t feel courageous, pretend. Lie!
Step 13: Guile. There’s a bit of larceny in us all. Don’t open up entirely to anyone—including yourself! Feint inside and outside the ring. Punch them on the head as well as in the brain. Keep them guessing. A young Cassius Clay is your role-model here.
Step 14: Respect. A boxing gym is a bizarre house of worship. Respect the sport—train hard. Respect others—keep your mouth shut. Respect yourself—set attainable goals and work toward them.
Congratulations! You have punched your way to an impressive plateau of understanding! You are closer to Enlightenment, or a Championship. Few fighters truly want to, or are capable of reaching this higher plane. They escape reality by making lame excuses, inventing sad stories or succumbing to unconscious accidents. You, however, are still there. You are now ready to climb higher…
Step 15: Humility. Never gloat! In a boxing gym, everyone is on someone else’s menu. Your role-model is quiet, humble Joe Louis, the heavyweight champ who held his title longer than any other title holder in any division--11 years, 8 months and 7 days.
Step 16: Honesty. You have embraced hard work, have paid your bitter dues and are now emotionally strong enough to hear the truth. The truth is this: You are afraid! Since day-one you have been afraid! Not to sugar-coat fear, but as Cus D’Amato said: “Recognize, and harness, your fear. When controlled, fear is good. Like fire, it’s a dynamic tool.”
Step 17: Poise. You are exhibiting excellent emotional equilibrium. Your serenity is the vessel in which your violence is stored. You are in control of the hate, anger and fear purring within you. You don’t crack under pressure. Sugar Ray Robinson is your role-model.
Step 18: Courage. Courage is so crucial and profound, it deserves a second step. This is a deeper, more subtle courage. You have demonstrated integrity by not making excuses, not trying to escape and not succumbing to unconscious accidents.
Step 19: Endurance. You are enduring hellish two-a-day workouts, sprints that make your legs puke, gross mental fatigue and nose-break sparring. At the bell, you’re the first guy punching, and the last guy to stop.
Step 20: Trust. You finally trust yourself to be strong and smart enough to not make poor choices. It’s as simple as that.
Step 21: Fear. Fear also deserves a second mention. Your earlier fear was the fear of failure. Now you must rise above a more pernicious fear: the fear of success. You convince yourself you deserve to succeed.
Step 22: Faith. Faith motivates you more than fear. It’s similar to a roadrunner in a race: you don’t worry about the runner gunning for you from behind; you focus upon catching the guy ahead of you. That’s faith.
Step 23: Love. Self-actualization. You have gained skill and confidence and have rediscovered all those important things that you have always known at a very deep level. You have reclaimed your inner spirit that may have been hidden by distorted or limiting beliefs of your ability. You accept your weaknesses, and in so doing, they have become your strengths. That’s love.
Congratulations! Your nose is bent, but you stand tall. You have mastered The 23 Steps of Boxing Enlightenment.
Boxing, of course, is not the only method of self growth. You can more elegantly grow through joy and love. But since you have chosen boxing and are in a boxing gym, the other forms of Enlightenment will be your next steps—but only after you win the championship.
(Peter Wood is a 1971 NYC Golden Gloves Middleweight Finalist in Madison Square Garden; Middleweight Alternate for The Maccabian Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, and author of two books: “Confessions of a Fighter” and “A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion”, published by Ringside Books.)
*photo courtesy Peter Wood
Order Woods' book on Amazon here: Peter Weston Wood
or here: http://www.ringsidebooks.com/