Pretending to Fence – SG Phillips
February 13, 2021
A local boxing gym, ten minutes from my old apartment, offers adult training on Sundays for $10 a month, from 3-6PM. It is called Columbus PAL Boxing.
PAL is stereotypically a boxing gym: concrete floors, a ring built from 2x4s and carpeted plywood. A small bluetooth stereo that clips at higher volumes. A smattering of old and new equipment. Loose weights in one area, a used up heavy bag and medicine ball (to repeatedly slam on the said heavy bag, for conditioning) pushed to a corner, and a five-gallon plastic bucket set by the ring for catching leaks from the roof when it’s not used for spitting blood.
It is a space where training is compulsory. Already lived and worn in. The setup is ergonomic: 15-20 people can train at a time without stepping on one another. There are multiple heavy, speed, and double-end bags, and old treadmills. A collection of full-length mirrors are leaned up against the wall next to the ring to shadowbox in front of, right next to a wire shelf full of loaner gloves. There are multiple fans and a single space heater that are used in accordance with the weather. A mesh bag of freshly laundered hand wraps is plopped on the carpet by the main desk, entangled like a forgotten pair of earbuds. Seasoned hand wraps that keep your hands pickled until the following Sunday. When I bring a friend, I loan them a set of hand wraps so they don’t use the community pile.
It is famous for its youth program- some of my high school classmates became golden and silver gloves boxers training here. It is an old gym, black and white photos of previous trainees hang on the walls. Multiple plaques, posters, and trophies are displayed in the locker room and training space, some dating back to the 1950s. It is funded entirely by donations, all coaches unpaid volunteers or former fighters.
This is a place people train. The space itself is worn in by people who want to win fights. Appearances of athleticism are reliably, even gleefully demolished by a well-placed liver shot.
The main coach, who I’ll call Seth, is about 4 years older than me. He is married with a wife and kids. He has trained fighters professionally and has competed in Golden Gloves as an adult with a full-time job and two kids (I think three now, but don’t hold me to that if you read this, Seth). He will sometimes rib, heckle, and yell at newer trainees to induct them into the culture, but will only truly give someone shit if 1) they are actually training for a fight and 2) are clearly half assing it.
On the first day I arrived, Seth was training a local heavyweight for his first professional fight, as well as my friend Matt who was training for golden gloves. The rest of us sort of stumbled around them, staying clear out of their way on whatever equipment they were using. They made focus mitts look natural and easy. I eventually took videos of myself training, and more clearly saw how wide the gulf was between myself and someone like Matt, Seth, Dylan, Trevon, Eric, etc. Like seeing a second-hand photo, or listening to a recording of yourself practicing an instrument, your faults are immediate when you are the observer. Focus mitts in particular are something that looks incredibly easy if you’ve never done them, and I was (am) slow, stiff, and clunky. I pushed my jabs and dropped them from exhaustion, and my right cross went from passable to a weak push punch 45 seconds into a round. The following section sums up what I learned over the course of my first year.
“Boxing is fencing with your hands.” – Seth
Like any martial art, or combat sport, or actual sport, different schools and programs will focus on different aspects of the metagame within their sport’s ruleset. This is the case from football to golf to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Boxing is not any different, but unlike grappling the specializations are a bit easier to pick out for the uninitiated. There are a few important aspects of boxing’s ruleset, and the physics of striking, that are good to know when watching a match or deciding to train.
1. Only punches to the face and body are scored as hits.
2. The impact of a punch is reduced exponentially if you simply move in the same direction as that punch. Instead of a strike, it turns into a sort of shove or push.
3. Placement of punches is as important as landing them. A shot to the abs or forehead do almost nothing compared to landing on the jaw or liver.
PAL focuses on fundamentals that transfer to many different levels of athleticism, I.E. keeping your hands up, your feet beneath you, somewhat basic but where any athletic or body-type gaps can be filled in by game planning, conditioning, and the individual fighter’s heart and intelligence. Seth referred to it as mexican style, in the vein of boxers like Julio Caesar Chavez, Canelo Alvarez, and Gennady Golovkin. It is not focused on shoulder rolling, stealthily ducking, or necessarily even avoiding blows as much as minimizing damage and looking for tendencies in the opponent’s behavior to exploit with textbook perfect punches, and adjusting your gameplan accordingly. These tendencies can be anything from shyness at brawling to dropping a hand slightly after a certain combination. At a certain level of conditioning, the one who maintains focus will likely win regardless of any gap in innate athleticism between the two fighters. If your fighter has these fundamentals ingrained into their movements and behavior, then their opponent will not be able to tell when your fighter is uncomfortable, dazed, tired, or nervous.
Fighters and Coaches
These tendencies in movements and behavior are simply habits. In the fighter, they are unarticulated in the spoken language of thought, that is, they are merely felt and intuited during the match. Reflexes matter, but they matter only in terms of when the fighter reacts in accordance with those ingrained habits. These habits are patterns of notches of behavior and movement that are carved into the fighter during training. They are meant to be carved so thoroughly that these movements will be the only ones the fighter can make in the ring, to be relied upon at all times. This approach can appear reductive, as not allowing for innovation or unorthodox techniques that might find success if ingrained properly. The opposite is true- this is the very aspect of coaching that allows for innovation and unorthodox success in the first place, but I will get to that.
Carving out a fighter’s habits in this manner lets the fighter use their mental capacities for reading their opponent, and for hearing their coach’s reads. It allows the fighter to occupy and remain within a particular mental space shared by their opponent: this is the mental space where the fencing match actually happens. It is within this space also that the unorthodox, the unexpected, the innovative, actually find the footing to happen, and where the unorthodox finds success from intention instead of luck. If the fighter falls outside of this space, his habits are all that he can rely on to stay in the fight long enough to find his way back.
The converse is true of the coach. In the coach, these habits are carved in, but are also fully explicit and accounted for in their mind – every slight gesture, a millimeter of leaning too far forward, or back, a right hand falling millimeters before a cross – are seen explicitly and their relevance (or irrelevance) is spontaneously understood. In this sense, a good coach is akin to a sculptor or calligrapher. The content of the movement is just as important as the manner in which it is conducted, the form and style are one, and any deviations from this unity, whether minute or glaring, have to be called out and corrected. The web of relations of all the behaviors that a coach seeks to make habit all affect one another. This is regardless of whether the behaviors are that of a brawler, a technician, a pressure fighter, as these can manifest from the fighter’s psychology. After ingraining the basics, the coach then curates the fighter’s behavior holistically: he identifies their disposition and attitudes, reinforces their strengths and ringmanship, and buttresses identifiable weaknesses. This is where boxing got its moniker “The Sweet Science.” At a certain level of conditioning, you cannot make a fighter’s punches faster any more than you can make their arms longer, you can only modify their habits accordingly.
The best example of what is termed mexican style succeeding vs. a more unorthodox technical style is Julio Caesar Chavez vs. Meldrick Taylor. A gloss on Taylor vs. Chavez: Taylor styles on Chavez throughout the fight. Taylor is faster, younger, and is approaching his athletic prime. A fresh olympic gold medalist. He dodges or accounts for many of Chavez’s comparatively sluggish strikes, while landing an impressively high volume. Taylor’s hands are kept lower and move quickly, while Chavez’s are kept floating around chin height, and strikes how a person is trained to strike from the first day they walk into their gym – this sounds unimpressive, but what it really means is that Chavez is almost incapable of throwing a punch that is not perfect.
Taylor lands a monumentally high volume throughout the fight, but the amount of damage on Chavez many viewers perceived as being outrageous wasn’t necessarily so, be it physical or psychological. This is usually called “heart,” but I don’t think he was near the brink of giving up the ghost and relying on sheer grit. Watch his technique, how he takes and throws a punch. If Taylor attempted a jab, Chavez could move his head slightly and absorb much of the blow with his glove. If Taylor went for the body, Chavez only had to move his elbow a short distance to absorb much of the impact, or bounce back an inch, or simply grapple.
Chavez’s lower output allowed him to conserve energy and stay focused on minimizing the impact of Taylor’s punches. He did this at first by reflex, then by sticking close to Taylor. Chavez did not headhunt (too much) or overextend himself on the much faster Taylor throughout the fight, as that would have been a waste of energy. He instead punched with the same speed, accuracy, and power throughout, while stepping inside to grapple and pepper Taylor with additional fatigue. Chavez gradually moved the fight to place where Taylor’s strikes stung a little bit less, that Chavez was conditioned for and was comfortable in. He relies on his innate training, fundamentals, and conditioning, in accordance with his natural strengths, to keep his instincts and intellect intact. Even near the end of the match, at the knockout, he isn’t overextending himself or swinging wildly. He operates in a detached, clinical manner in accordance with his training. This is clever but more so it is savvy. He outfenced Taylor in the overall metagame.
This isn’t the only way people are trained at PAL. Seth’s idol was Roy Jones Jr. so he keeps his hands lower to watch his opponent and conserve his handspeed. Trayvon defaults to a shoulder roll stance. Eric’s style appears to be focused on fundamentals. Matt’s I have yet to pin down. Maybe next year. My style is nonexistent, and will probably stay that way, but I will still go faithfully, putting ten dollars on Seth’s desk on the first Sunday of the month. I will do three rounds of jump rope to warm up, and then 12 rounds of pretending that I can fence.