“I’m gonna to beat you up. I’m gonna to give you a bloody nose and a black eye.”
“I thought you were going to make me spew today?”
“I am. I’m going to make you cry.”
Welcome to Saturday morning sparring at City Boxing gym in Kingsland, Auckland. With nervous anticipation I put in my mouth guard, tighten my headgear and get ready for the onslaught of punches to come.
Boxing was not an obvious choice for me. I am not what you would describe as athletic or possessing any natural sporting prowess. When I first started fighters’ class in November 2014, the trainer stopped me mid-skip during the warmup to explain how to skip properly. I suspect after watching me get tangled in the rope several times he took pity on me. The first time I got hit in the face I wanted to cry but in a class of mostly men there is no crying, you shake it off and keep going.
I decided I wanted to box after attending my first Fight Night. It had taken a bit of convincing to get me to go, I’ve never liked violence and I had viewed boxing as glorified aggression. The Auckland Boxing Association is a small venue and on a hot, humid Auckland night it felt alive with anticipation. I stood up the back, sweat pooling at the base of my back, and I had my first taste of the excitement of boxing. I got a bit savage shouting with the rest of the crowd as two fighters fought to knock each other out. A different person emerged that evening – I thought to myself, I want to do that.
It’s not the physical aspect of boxing that is hard – it’s the mental toughness. Boxing is an individual sport but the people you train with become your team. You need cheerleaders to tell you not to stop, to help you to push past the voice in the back of your head that tells you: you can’t do it. Also, when the shit hits the fan in life, your team will be the ones who will be there to scrape you off the ground and help you put the pieces back together.
I learnt this when life gave me multiple punches to the stomach earlier this year. They say relationship breakups and job losses are two of the biggest stressors in life. They don’t tell you that when they happen at the same time it feels a lot like you’ve lost your mind.
It’s not easy explaining why you’ve left someone. Especially when that person is kind, caring and decent. When someone is a jerk it’s obvious why you have left, but when they are ‘one of the good ones’ this confuses people. ‘Can you not work it out?’ We tried. ‘Have you tried counselling?’ Yes. ‘But I thought you guys were so happy!’ I guess you can’t trust what you see on Facebook.
I was the one who left, so I didn’t think I had the right to feel sad, but grief seeped in regardless. It winded me. I spent a lot of time lying on my friend’s living room floor staring at the sky and wondering what would happen next. I felt safe on the floor, sprawled on my back, feet hanging out the door. I ate a lot of Malteser bunnies because it was Easter and New World Birkenhead sold them for 70 cents. I watched Geordie Shore, becoming obsessed with their bizarre relationships, transfixed by their plumped up lips and other enhancements. I cleaned out my friend’s fridge and shower. “You don’t need the soya sauce that expired in 2008 right?”
And I boxed. I had been cast adrift and boxing was something to hold onto. It was an hour in the day where I didn’t have to think about the mess my life was in. I wasn’t Helen: unemployed, separated and generally imploding. I was just another boxer training.
Boxing is a dangerous sport, there is no denying it. Possible head injuries, bloodied or broken noses, black eyes, split lips, the list goes on. Turning up to training every morning gave me a sense of purpose and helped me move through the initial stages of grief. The mornings I didn’t want to get out of bed, I forced myself up and into my training gear. This perseverance I learnt going round for round with the strong, grown men. A jab to the head was countered with a jab cross. Punches to the stomach I learnt to anticipate and block. A flurried attack of punches – form the wall and jab out.
Ironically, anger is the one stage of grief that does not mix with boxing. You might think punching someone would be cathartic, but an angry boxer is not a boxer thinking straight. On the angry days I punched the heavy bags, I went for long walks listening to loud music, sometimes I ran up hills. ‘Hills’ and ‘running’ are two concepts that should never be paired, but slogging up hills teaches you to keep going. Lungs burning, legs wobbling, I didn’t stop until I finished.
The grief has softened for now, though I know it can come up at any time and hit you over the head. Life does find a new normal. People slowly accept the decisions you make and the unrelenting sadness gives way to pockets of genuine joy.
Through it all, I continue to box. I hope to get in the ring one day and I do so with the knowledge whatever happens in those three two-minute rounds will not be as hard as surviving grief. Because grief transforms you.
Boxing does the same. You cannot get into the ring without knowing you are capable of digging deep and coming out fighting. Win or lose, it’s the fight that counts.