By Jose Corpas
There’s one or two at every Golden Gloves.
They arrive alone and stand in line with the spectators until one of the organizers shouts from the front of the line, "This line is for fans. Coaches and boxers enter through the doors over there."
You can spot them a mile away not because they look like boxers but because they're alone. Like all unattached fighters.
They line up “over there” behind the boxers and trainers in the matching jackets. The other fighters joke around and shake familiar hands while the unattached fighters brood and try to look like they've been there before. They check in and are directed to the crowded locker room where they stand out more than Shannon Briggs hair.
By then everyone has motioned with their noses towards them. They know they’re unattached and every novice in the room secretly hopes to get the luck of the draw and be chosen to face them in the ring.
The unattached find an empty spot on the bench where they pull their trunks and inexperienced shoes out of their school bag. The other fighters do the same except their bags are larger, aren't filled with rolled up plastic bags from the corner store, and don't carry school books the rest of the week.
The weigh-ins take place. If they're lucky, they've seen those scales in a doctor’s office. If not, they have to be told to stand still when they get weighed and to watch their heads when that metal rod is pulled out to measure their heights.
"What's your name?"
They get that right.
"What's your affiliation?" They pause.
"What gym are you with?"
All eyes in the room light up. Though one unattached boxer gets lucky every five years or so, everyone wants to fight them. It's as good as a bye.
When it comes to working their corners, most trainers want nothing to do with them. But there's always one who strikes up a conversation -- partly out of pity and partly because there's a small chance the unattached fighter is the goods. Brave? Clueless? A fine line separates the two.
A few minutes after the weigh-ins, the list with the match order gets taped to a wall. Someone always has to tell the unattached fighter to check. The experienced coaches are the first to crowd the list. Then the more confident ones check the list. The unattached fighters are the last ones to check.
"Who'd you get?" Everyone asks each other.
The fighters who sigh the sighs of relief crack small smiles. They drew the unattached. Thoughts of being "Fighter of the Night" fill their heads and they start looking ahead to the next round.
Fighters change into their battle gear. The unattached does the same. They wrap a towel around their shoulders when they're done. The other boxers get their hands wrapped and start punching the mitts while trainers shout instructions in code like Kevin Rooney used to do.
The unattached fighter shadow boxes and scowls.
"Ever box before?" A little.
"How did you train?" Roadwork. Sit-ups. Push-ups.
They don't mention boxing shadows in front of their bathroom mirrors while the hot water runs and their moms wonder aloud what's taking them so long to bathe.
"You can't fight without a coach," they're told.
They accept the first one to offer their services. It's usually the only offer. Their hands are wrapped with gauze and tape for the first time.
"So this is how it feels," their faces seem to say.
They tinker with the wraps a bit and punch into their palms. They shadow box. Their combinations look good. Their new coach tells them to tuck their chins in behind their shoulder. A few of the rules are explained. Don't duck below here they demonstrate with their hands. You can't bob and weave.
The crowd outside roars.
Two more fights to go.
The crowd roars louder.
"We're missing a good fight," someone says.
Another person runs inside, "Yo, they're going at it."
Moments later a trainer with a blood stained towel walks in. Behind him, a teen with a busted nose telling everyone before they ask, "It's not broke. It's not broke."
The gloves get slipped on. They're longer, wider, and heavier than any gloves they've ever worn. They shadow box. The punches look much slower with the gloves on. The 10 ounces aren't distributed evenly they find out. Most of the weight, like a pickup truck, is towards the front, sitting on their knuckles. They practice their gloved stance. They find out they can't hold their hands in the same position they did without the gloves on. It's too late to find the right spot. They wait in the aisle until the other fighters exit the ring. Their hands feel like they're tucked inside of too-tight pants pockets.
The headgear goes on. It's uncomfortable, heavy, and they’ll soon find out they are loaded with blind spots.
It's their turn to fight. Focus is hard to keep during their first ring walk. They try not to make eye contact but fans have a way of getting in the line of sight. In the front rows are a bunch of familiar faces with shiny gloves hanging from their necks.
The champs crank their necks to take a look at who's fighting next. They heard it's the unattached and they want to put a face on the upcoming disaster.
The steps leading up to the ring feel steeper than those in residential homes. The ring is a stage. Instead of performers, they're tourists. The canvas is softer than they expected. It swallows their footwork. They plod around like a kid in a bouncy room.
The referee is visibly annoyed to see them. The ref checks their mouthpieces. It's one of those that says authentic but one that none of the pros use.
The introductions start. The affiliated fighters have a small entourage. Gym mates. They cheer loudly. "Unattached" gets a cheer or two from those who always root for the underdogs.
The bell rings. The unattached haven’t developed their ring legs yet. They move well on pavement and bathroom tiles but the canvas robs them of their bounce. Their thighs move faster than their feet. They're leading with their heads and don't even realize it. They swing. They miss. Each punch grows wider. It feels faster to them. The ref separates them. The unattached are warned for infractions they have no idea they committed. The novice looks like a pro compared to the swarmer. They wait because they know an opening will come. A bunch of them do. Within a minute, the ref has warned the unattached about two times and has administered a pair of standing eight counts.
During the second eight count, they remember they had a corner. Coach tells them to calm down and throw the jab. It's a punch they've snapped a thousand times at imaginary opponents. They try a jab. It's a noodle. The elbow is bent and they're too tired to straighten it. They try another. It goes about twelve inches lower than they intended. While wondering what's wrong with their arms, they're blinded sided by a shot that feels like a padded softball.
The fight ends and they don't know why. They're hurt but they don't know it. It's not the same bone against bone pain they're familiar with. This kind of hurt lasts a few seconds and leaves confusion instead of external bruising.
The docs flash their pen lights in their eyes. The referees do their job. Still in a mild state of shock, the wannabe fighters wobble out of the ring as fast as they can. On the way back to the dressing room, coach explains to everyone in sight that he was just helping out. “I just met them a little while ago.”
Back in the dressing room, coach invites them to join his gym. The humbled losers sit there shaking their heads in disbelief. “Damn" is their favorite word.
They jam their sweaty shirts into their bodega bags and sit in the stands for a fight or two but they're not watching. They're waiting until the crowd forgets their faces. Then they slip out hoping nobody notices the leather skid marks on their faces.
The next day they check the papers afraid of what they might see. RSC round 2. It's not too bad. They can do better with training. Maybe next year. They consider going to the gym. But they don't.
Who will win the Sergey Kovalev vs Andre Ward fight?