The good fight

A tale of boxing, Sun Tzu and the enemy within

Keep the head up. Focus on the target.

The distance from gym to home is a long stretch of asphalt that smells of burnt tires in summer. Wheels rolling, shoes reaching the ground for another push forward.

Keep the head up.

You can feel the fresh air hitting the skin as you skateboard across the neighbourhood. The background pass through in a moving blur of cinetic lines, like long-exposure lomography on the retina.

Focus on the target.

Home is near, the place where you’ll find a meal and a bed to sleep for the night. The place where you’ll find your mother complaining again about your sole existence. The place you have to divide with your older brother and his posse of friends that storms in every goddamn day to watch Netflix, porn and play some loud RPGs.

Keep the head up.

The coach always says that, keep the head up! You’re used to always keep it down and that’s why you get hit so many times. It still hurts, but the fresh breeze has an healing effect. What’s wounded is not your body but the spirit. You should be more focused and yet you got distracted again and again. What’s wrong with you?

Focus on the target.

“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? ” Mom is yelling and is angry again, better heading straight to the room. You zig-zag through empty pizza boxes on the floor and fall over the bed. Your brother has probably been here already with his friends and fortunately they have left before you. Behind, a sticky mess of food and sodas left for you to be cleaned up.

Nothing matters. Maybe is true that “every day has its pain” and for today it has been enough already.

Focus on the target.

You rehearse the moves in the mind: jab, jab, hook. Keep moving: jab, jab, hook. Is always easier when you’re in your mind and you punch the bag, but is trickier with real adversaries. The bruises still hurt.

WWhen it started? What made you the target of that bunch of guys from senior high? You only know one of them: Dave, David or something. You know him because you heard girls in your class saying his name and you saw him playing in the football team. You’ve never seen all the others, they all look like a year or two older and they all seem to enjoy laughing at his jokes. They’re laughing about you, you know.

It’s easy for them to yell at you, to push you and laugh. Four of them against you alone, too small and skinny to demand respect. (Too coward and scared to react, that’s the truth, but you prefer not to mention this in your mind).The first time it happened you didn’t say anything and you didn’t protest. That was the first mistake.

You remember from biology class that wild wolves offer the soft skin around the throat to the dominant male when they surrender and that’s how they determine the complicate hierarchies of the pack. Maybe you just followed the rules, you showed the soft spot and wolves prey on you now.

One.

One.

Two.

Punch, punch, hook and come back.

ONE, ONE, TWO.

Again, keep the rythm.

I follow the coach and I punch the bag as he says.

One, one two. Boxing is about rythm, is a dance, he continues: the force is not in your hand or biceps, but in the hips. Forget all the bulls**t that you hear, learn to control all the muscles of the body and keep dancing.

If you rely only on the force of your arm, you’ve already lost: you’ll grow easily tired and you’ll be ineffective. The real strength comes from knowing how to leverage the gravity and kinetic energy to your advantage. This way you spare energies and you will be and much, much stronger in the end. Is all in the mind.

Now stand firm on the ground and dance with the legs and the hips. Keep punching that bag until it bleeds.

One, one, two.

At the end you are a fountain of sweat. While you drive home you can’t help but thinking that another day went wasted without much progress.

One, One, two.

You wonder why you’re even doing this. Because “you have potential”, that’s what the coach said and that’s what got you excited since the beginning, but now you start to doubt all of it.

Clouds cover mercilessy the last drops of sun, before darkness will finally take place of the day. You’re too tired to really think about your doubts, you’re too tired to even think. The shuffle has just rewarded you with your favorite song, you crank up the volume of the headphone and for a moment you let everything disappear. Alfa Mist’s Organic Rust is piercing the silence while you disappear in the night.

TThey called you n — -a, they called you names. Some are laughing. You snap. Next thing you remember is you on the ground trying to punch him in the face. You want to cancel that sardonic smile on his face by crushing it with your bare knuckles. Suddenly you remember from biology how silverbacks assert dominance by fighting their opponents to the last blood, deep there in the jungle. How can you even have the lucidity to cristallize this notion in your brain while you’re fighting?

— “ Adrenaline”, the couch would say. But you still don’t know at this time.

You want to win, you really want to win this time. But he’s bigger and stronger than you and he’s punching back now. It hurts. He punches again, it hits somewhere between the cheekbone and the right eye and you don’t see clearly anymore.

His friends are all around. There’s also Dave, David or whatever his name, from senior high among them. You want to kick him too, so girls will finally see you and talk about you from other classrooms. But another punch hits you in the face, stronger this time. Is all black and red for a second.

Blood on your face, students around are screaming. A P.E. Teacher passing by run to the scene to intervene. He divides you from the other guys. He kicks the guys from senior high away and helps you getting up.

Now that the show is finished all the other students quickly disperse in the corridor in a swarm of murmurs and chatting. You’ve probably become the clown of the entire school, now. Great.

A punch has hit the vascular fabric around the eyes. It doesn’t hurt much, but there’s blood everywhere. The teacher takes you to the infirmary room.

“Look, I saw what happened, but honestly, that’s not how you punch people” — He only says. You don’t answer.

You never asked for an opinion and he keeps going: — “I have a gym and I teach to fight also to people older than you. If you’re interested, I can teach you how to do it better.”

Twenty minutes later you leave the infirmary with a big bandage that covers half of your face and a small note in your hand with an address and a a couple of specific hours. “Usually I teach until late night to all the other people, but you can come a little bit earlier if you want to practice by yourself.”

One, one, two.

“The strength is all here”, he says pointing at his head with the finger: “discipline is what makes you a good fighter in the end”. This is your first assignment for today. He hands me a book, some 80s translation of a Japanese writer.

“That’s it?” Is all I can say.

The first time you leave the gym with a copy of Sun Tzu in the hands. No punching bag and no exercise, only reading. The first day at the gym ends up being completely disappointing.

Whatever. As soon as you’re back home you have already forgotten everything and turned to Netflix, as you always do.

TThe second time at the gym you discover that assignments are for real. You haven’t read a page of the book, as he told you to do, and now you have to pay the price with tight rounds of crunches and push-ups, until every fiber of the body screams in exhaustion and you feel like throwing up.

One, one, two.

Mom is yelling again in the kitchen. Brother is screaming back at mother. The room is still a mess, but you’re too busy doing the exercises you’ve been assigned to even bother this time. A round of push-ups, followed by a round of squats and step ups. Play pause and repeat. You end the cycles only when you fall down exhausted. That was the first time you slept well at night in a long time.

“Know yourself and you will win all battles” Those are the words you keep underlining in the book. The whole book is torn apart, filled with notes and smudged corners.

One, one, two.

SSomething changes. It’s too slow for you to notice, but now you have started to look at the other people in a different way. You keep the head straight up when you walk, you’re not afraid of anyone anymore. You have discovered something that none has: you have found a purpose. And this, alone, is giving back some order to your life.

Keep the head up.

When school ends you run straight back to the gym for another round of exercises. Jab, jab, hook. One, one, two. You sweat between sessions but you don’t stop.

Focus on the target.

You learn to control the movements. You learn to defend, cover yourself, dodge before hitting back. You learn to think quickly and process everything in your mind before giving orders to any single muscle. You learn about the silent euphoria that comes with pain and hard work.

You learn to dance: one, one, two.

One day you appear to the gym early with the book in your hand and a single “thank you” to the coach. The colors on the over of the Art of War are faded by all the times you touched it. Finally is time to give it back to its original owner.

The coach smiles back at me: — “is yours, you can keep it”.

Back home you repeat again: one, one, two. You’re insatiable.

Forearms, biceps, upper and lower abdominals, quadriceps. Every inch of your muscles deserve attention and exercise. You change you’re eating habits, you change your routines. Now you’re a little bit too conscious on what you do, what you eat: is all about chicken breasts, eggs and broccoli and you have ditched McDonald’s and Dunkin’ altogether.

At home, mom keeps yelling at your brother and your brother keep wasting his life, but it all blends in the background, now. You keep going: one, one, two.

JJab, jab, hook. You dodge the last hit and return back to position. fists on your face and eyes to your opponent. The semi-finals of the local tournament. You’re younger than all the other participants, but the coach pushed you to participate anyway. According to him, “is good experience”. According to you, a good victory, but you don’t say that, you don’t want to sound too arrogant.

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” One of the words underlined multiple times in the book keeps coming back in your mind.

You watched the other players, they’re good. But they’re all slow. You’re still not strong enough and you lack technique and experience, but you know you can hit faster.

You keep your eyes on the other guy, jumping quickly from foot to foot. You can see his muscles tense and you can anticipate his next moves: right, left, left, right, back. You see it.

Dodge and react: hook, hook, uppercut. You’re fast. He’s slow. You close the distance and you keep pushing from the side with a series of punches. You press his side. Punch, punch. Don’t let him react.

Focus on the target.

HHe’s stronger, but you want to win this time. You want to show yourself that you can do it. There’s some money for the winner. You want to bring those money home, you want to make mom happy for a day. You want see her smile.

Keep the head up.

He’s faster this time and he hits you with the force of a rock thrown at your face. For an eternal split of a second you’re left confused. One second later the pain receptors signal to your brain the magnitude of the impact. Pain always come a little bit later, like a deep thunder after the flashlight. The mouth fills up with a bitter, metallic taste. Something is broken, but is hard to say.

Your opponent is ready to do it again. You shift back just in time to avoid another hit and take time for your mind to recover. You know very well this situation. You’ve been here already, remember? The older guys at school and how you clumsily reacted. The punches, the blood, the anger and the impotence.

How stupid you have always been. How hopeless.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. You were weak and they were stronger. what you hoped to accomplish? The coach showed you the way, through hard work and discipline. You forged the body and mind with exercise. It’s been through sacrifice that now you’re ready to face anyone.

The other guy advance cautiously on the ring, stretching his arm forward to keep you at distance. He’s studying you to find the weakest spot to hit.

Keep the head up.

You won’t give him another chance. You know him enough already, he’s predictable: he’s going to jump forward with the right, his strongest hand, and you’re prepared for it. You leave an opening for him to your side.

Focus on the target.

TThey called you n — -a once. They provoked you intentionally. Your reaction was what they wanted all alaong: they want to defend themselves and punch you harder. You fell into it because you didn’t have the right mind.

Your opponent jumps in with all his weight. He found a weak spot on your left, but his attack left him uncovered. You knew it.

You jump over him: hook, hook, hook and again from the other side: punch, punch, punch another hook. One, one, two. You start to dance around him, forcing him to retreat in defence.

You want to taste your victory today, you feel it already.

You keep punching harder and harder.

In a way, you’re thankful to your shitty life. You wouldn’t have discovered how to fight. You wouldn’t have met that P.E. teacher that then became your coach. You wouldn’t have changed yourself and you would have probably remained a loser. You wouldn’t have found a purpose.

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”. Sun Tzu was right, probably.

One, one, two. Is all a matter of rythm and technique. You keep pressing your opponent closing him to the corner of the ring. He’s stronger than you, but you’re relentless. One, one, two.

Human mess in search of enlightment, living off second-hand advices and refrigerated dreams. Daily average man. Feel free to call me Frank.

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