Today is sparring day for the teenage girl with the long brown hair and button round eyes. Gym time starts like it always does at six in the evening. The boxers line up. They are young, old, fat, skinny, brown, black, white–but they share a love of boxing so they’re where they want to be today: among friends.
The warm-up is like it always is. Familiarly named tortures are sorted through scornfully by each vessel under the watchful eye of their trainer. There are push-ups, sit-ups, something called skyscrapers, jumping jacks, etc. Each is meant to make them what they need to be: faster, stronger, tougher.
It seems to be going faster today.
After the warm-up is through, the soldiers are given their orders for the day. Some will jump rope now. Others are on the heavy bag. A lucky few shadowbox. They’re doing the best impression they can of all-time greats. There’s an old, fat man doing his best Jack Dempsey next to a young Marco Antonio Barrera. Two girls are shadow boxing each other. One is Laila Ali today. The other is Claressa Shields. They’ll change roles next time, just like they always do.
Suddenly, the air of the room has gone heavy. Strangers have entered now. They’ve come from a gym no one but Coach has ever heard of. The scruffy, short, gray haired man leading them in is their master. His two sons look like they care more about bulking up to mini-hulks than staying lean and mean, but both of them have deep set eyes that scream they can scrap.
Their girl isn’t as lean as ours. She’s got short, curly red hair and she looks nervous. Her coach takes her up to the ring to give her a feel for things. No doubt, it’s different than the one at her gym. They all are. She scurries across the canvas like a nervous mare. As she does it, he’s telling her secrets we can’t hear.
On the floor, Coach tells our girl what she needs to do. She already knows it. She does it every day on the heavy bag. Jab, jab, cross. Jab, cross, hook. Be aggressive. Be fast. Be first.
The coaches give each other a nod. Coach rings the bell with the sound of his voice. He’s keeping time on his watch.
Our girl comes out like we see her every day on the bag. She glides up to the intruder but doesn’t throw punches yet. It’s different now, she thinks. This isn’t a heavy bag. It has arms and legs. It has a heart and a brain. It’s alive.
The two take some time to get used to things up there. The ring is scarier than they thought maybe. Our girl has had enough of it, so she takes to the lead like she’s supposed to. She jabs still too far away. Everything is fine. She moves a bit closer. She jab, jabs. Good now. Jab, jab, cr—she’s countered!
Our girl knows the score now, but she tries again. Same result. She’s frustrated. You can read it in her eyes. From outside the ring, it looks so easy. In there, though, she can’t see quite see what she needs to see. She’ll be countered every time and she knows it. The threat of it is making her leave her punches short. She’s not as fast as she is. She’s slow, hesitant. She’s lost in there.
Their girl makes ours press the action, then counters. It’s effective. That was the secret her coach told her, we think. The round is over. It’s time to adjust.
Coach tells her to jab. Be first, he says. Be fast! The second round sounds; our girl is wearing a scowl. She’s not as hesitant now. She’s throwing more punches and catching more in return. She rocks her opponent’s head back with a sharp blow. She feels her power now, but she has her own head busted back just in time to keep her humble.
She returns from the round a mixture of devastated and pleased.
The third round is cut to one minute. Both girls are tired now. Their coaches continue to tell them things their fighters can’t really hear anymore. It’s time to fight again. Corner time goes by so fast.
The final round is slower than the first two, even with half the actual time. Both girls have learned much today. They’re almost too tired to stand, but they finish up by trading solid shots to the head. Time is up. They pat gloves like friends and retreat.
Our girl takes her bright red head gear off. Her long brown hair unfurls intact, but one of her button eyes is less round now. She’s proud. She climbs down out of the ring to talk to her friends. She’s telling them all what they just saw. She’s full of emotion. It’s her story to tell and she’s telling it. They’re eager to listen, too.
What she is trying to tell them is what they couldn’t see. She tells them all the things she couldn’t do but doesn’t really know why, and all the things she could do, too. She’s beginning to ramble now, but no matter. The words aren’t telling the story anyway, but they all get the point. At the boxing gym, hitting the bags, performing footwork drills, listening to Coach, what they’re learning is just what it seems: it’s boxing. But in the ring, more is going on than just that – much more. In the ring, they learn about themselves, and our girl learned a lot today.