A concussion is a rare injury in boxing. That’s why fighters wear padded leather gloves, to prevent a sharp blow to the cranium that causes swelling of the brain. Football players wear helmets, but when they hit another hard surface like another helmet, bang, they’re down. Hit hard turf, take a forearm shiver, there’s not much give. Ten-ounce gloves provide protection to cushion punches. Different thing altogether with a foot. Unpadded, all bone, the crushing power of the gluteus and the hamstrings and the quads unleashing whip-snapping force against an unprotected skull, and you have a brain crying out, why? why? and down you go.
In the gym the fighters wear padded headgear surrounding the face and chin so you can pound round after round getting ready for fights. The minute you walk in to a gym, your body knows what its in for. Leather on leather. Sweat. Canvas rings. Bags, mats. Bottles of Gatorade and tubes of liniment. It’s enough to stop you in your tracks, your brain getting the message, saying “No, no, no way.”
Or you thrive on it, and need it, and that’s what Phuong said when he walked in to Max’s. “Yeah, baby.” His nostrils flared and his lips curled. And even though he was a day or two from a doctor clearing him for a couple of minutes on the speed bag, and a longer wait to get in the ring and dance and move and take a shot to the head, he inhaled it.
Phuong watched. I followed his eyes, looking at what he looked at.
The ring. Canvas stretched into the corner of the gym so two sides were against the walls with the short apron extending beyond the ropes in the front, Max up there working the pads with a fighter, Max yelling Move your feet, move your feet. Phuong turned.
The speed bags. Three tear shaped leather bags hanging from black iron rings, one banging into rhythm from a fighter in a grey sweat suit with his hood on. Phuong grinned. No problem, boss, my hands good, watch this, and I had to grab his arm, pull him back. No, no, not yet, tomorrow we go to the doctor, tomorrow. Phuong raised his arms to his chest and made fists and perfect punches at half speed, twisting his hands at impact, bringing the power to a focal point, half-speed perfect, bringing his hand to his chin and he dropped a big, slow, open-palm right hand on top of my hand and patted me on the scalp, rubbing his knuckles on my thin spot. For luck, boss, for luck, he said. I’ll take it, I said.
The heavy bags. Thick leather tubes that took a big body blow or a jab and moved a few inches, rocking back then forward and you slapped it again and worked downstairs hammering a rib cage, imagining the pain from a liver shot that could drop an opponent and end it right there. That’s where it started, with the heavy bags, where you put your feet into position and torqued and twisted to full power.
Phuong brushed his spiky top knot and swung his head back and forth. Hip hop blasted from a tinny box on the apron of the ring and somebody said Get that Snoop Dog CD in there and somebody clicked off the radio and shoved in a CD and turned it up loud. Phuong walked to the side of the ring. Max and the heavy-footed puncher stepped off. Phuong climbed up on the apron and I ran over saying, No, no, and he was under the ropes and into the ring, moving along the edge of the canvas, leaning back, bending the ropes, moving his head to the beat until I climbed up and grabbed him, moved him to the side and under the ropes and back down on the cement floor. Max stood wiping his hands with a towel.
Max waved and I waved back, and I herded Phuong around the ring and out toward the back of the gym. Max yelled out something, but I held my arm up, turned around and said, “Just a taste, just getting familiar with the place. We’ll be back.” We headed out. Phuong wasn’t ready for an interview and questions and all the stares and looks he was going to get standing in there in front of Max. His visceral reaction was enough for now.
We stood in the back small parking area, the sun high, a hint of smoke in the air, Phuong’s eyes sharp, focused. It wouldn’t be long, now. Not long. That was important, that he wanted to be back in the gym, that he wanted to bang, he wanted to punch. The hard work was about to begin.