My brief boxing career
Muhammed Ali inspired me to take up boxing in my college days. But it was very different to his fights.
As mentioned in a previous article, in my youth I had three great sporting heroes: Muhammed Ali, Bobby Fischer and Franz Beckenbauer. Nobody else came close to them. Fischer, of course, was the American chess legend, a man who took down the Soviet chess hegemony all by himself; and Beckenbauer was the most sublime football player Germany has ever produced.
In my college days I took up boxing, mainly due to my hero-worship of Ali. I watched all his fights, which in the beginning were only shown as trailers to blockbuster movies, and decided to try this sport myself. It was a great advantage that at the time I go to know Lionel. He was a few years older than me, and a championship boxer. We became friends, and he took it upon himself to train me. He told me which gloves to buy, and how to behave in the ring. And he gave me full instructions on the techniques involved.
I tried desperately to emulate Ali’s style. He was pure magic. What he did was not brutal boxing, it was ballet. Nobody came close to anything like it before, and nobody has since. It is described and illustrated in this article.
I need to tell you a little about Lionel. He was a very successful college boxer, short and stocky, sinuous. And very confident. One occurrence sticks in my mind. After a cricket match, when the crowds were leaving, there was a commotion: a West Indies student had just beaten up someone and stood there shouting: “Anyone else wanna mess with me?” It seemed the last thing anyone would want to do: he was huge and daunting. But Lionel walked up and calmly said: “Now that’s enough, just go home, please.”
There was a look of abject surprise on the West Indian’s face: Lionel was more than a head shorter than him, and nowhere near as big and muscular. With a roar he lunged at my friend, striking out with his bare fists. But he only connected with air. The agile boxer had simply moved his head out of the way. And now he repeated: “Just go home, and I won’t hurt you.” That enraged the big man even further, and he lunged a second time at Lionel.
This time Lionel moved deftly out of the way, but delivered three blows himself, one to the head and two to the body. The West Indian lay on the ground. When he stumbled to his feet, Lionel once again calmly repeated his admonition: “Look, I really don’t want to hurt you too much.” After a third failed punch, and a hefty body-blow by Lionel, the aggressor finally gave up and slunk away.
I wanted to become like Lionel, and he did his utmost to make this possible. There was extensive training in jabs, which involved him dropping a coin and me trying to grab it in mid-air. I became very good at this and retain the fast reflexes to this day. He also taught me how to anticipate punches and move my head out of the way. And of course, we had a heavy boxing bag on which I strengthened my punches.
I tried desperately to emulate Muhammed Ali’s style. I was skinny and underweight, but could come nowhere close to the speed and agility of the heavyweight boxer. I floated like a beetle and stung like a gnat. And interestingly, our college bouts went over three rounds, at two minutes per round. I found that exhausting, and could not imagine how heavyweight boxers manage fifteen rounds at three minutes each. And that in sweltering heat and humidity, as in Manilla or Zaire.
We had a lot of fun in our bouts. Most ended in draws, and nobody really hurt anyone. Until one day when I was pitted against Vernon. He came from another college, and I was not impressed by his exceedingly cautious and defensive style. So I went after him aggressively. I threw a flurry of punches, none of which connected, and suddenly found myself sitting on the canvas, bleeding from my nose. Vernon was kneeling next to me, saying: “Why didn’t you defend yourself?”
The point was that, before the match, some evil soul had told Vernon that I was a great boxer, really dangerous. Hence his initial caution. And when he stuck out, he expected me to take counter-measures, which of course I didn’t. I became friends with Vernon, and he became my new trainer.
So was this boxing stint in vain, a futile pastime? No, it gave me very fast reflexes, and most importantly confidence to confront threatening people, knowing I would be able to defend myself if they attacked. For this I am grateful to Lionel and Vernon.