This essay was first published in The Bittersweet Science published by University of Chicago Press.
People will tell you that fear and pain are the worst things you have to deal with in life, but this is wrong. Fear is energy. Fear can sharpen you, and people even get addicted to it. Pain also has its uses. It’s the easiest thing in the world to understand, and because it’s so clear, it’s a powerful teacher. Sometimes, because people mistake pain for the valuable things it reveals, they will begin to look for it, especially if they think there’s not enough of it in their lives.
The main danger, the most implacable adversary you face in this world, is not fear or pain but confusion. Nobody ever got addicted to being confused or sought it out for its own sake. But part of the danger of confusion is that people get used to being confused and eventually they forget what it feels like to be unconfused or if, in fact, they’ve ever seen clearly at all.
Confusion was my vocation for many years. I was a stockbroker, and back in 2000, during the last gasps of the dot-com bubble, I had a penthouse in downtown Atlanta that I couldn’t afford, a wife I shouldn’t have married, and a job I couldn’t stand. Most people might once or twice in their lives become grimly aware that large impersonal forces control their destiny. I was reminded of this all day, every day, by the dozens of red, white, and green stock symbols blinking on the screen in my office. In addition, the business skewed all communication toward closing the sale, which means that it didn’t matter what I said, just that I said it in the right tone of voice and to enough people.
I was a pretty good closer back in the day, but I began to realize that, although I spent most of my waking hours on the phone, I never talked to anybody about anything. I just kept going around and around with them. “Blah, blah, blah, fear and greed, yada yada,” ask for the sale, “blah, blah, blah, you’re going to miss it, yada yada,” ask for the sale, etc. Over and over. The object was to keep them in a specific frame of mind until enough hot buttons got pushed or enough little bells rang that a switch in their mind flipped and they bought.
You could make a lot of money doing this, and it could also drive you a little crazy, make you a kind of highly functioning psychotic; that’s what happened to me, at least. Eventually, I began to recognize the same manipulative games of persuasion I was playing on the phone at work were everywhere, pushing and pulling me the way I was pushing and pulling everybody else. In my heart of hearts, I considered myself a con man, and eventually the world felt like one huge con, a jabbering cloud of half-assed rhetoric, brute propaganda, and the lies and low cunning of the marketplace. All of it was for the sole purpose of chasing money, with that game being the biggest bamboozle of them all.
Thankfully, I lived within walking distance from the only honest place I knew, the boxing ring. There was a small gym run by a man named Johnny Gant, whose claim to fame was that he had once gone eight rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard. Atlanta was a hotbed for boxing, and Johnny’s gym was where everybody came to train. When I found out about it, I started going in after work and on Saturday mornings, and, although I had boxed during college, it was at Johnny’s gym where I really learned what the sport of boxing was all about.
I started boxing late. I was almost eighteen when I had my first amateur match, but I’d been a fan my whole life. As a kid my great hero was Jack Dempsey; later I liked Marvin Hagler, Mike Tyson, and Julio Cesar Chavez. I always liked the fighters who were aggressive and indomitable. I grew up in a small town in South Georgia where nobody else cared about the sport and only a few people even had cable, so I followed boxing mainly by reading about it in books, magazines, and newspapers. It was easier to mythologize the sport back in those days and project what you wanted or needed onto your idols. While my friends wanted to throw touchdowns, hit home runs, or play in a band, I always looked up to boxers. I longed to be tough, like the fighters I read about in the Ring magazine or An Illustrated History of Boxing, a beautiful, oversized book with giant photographs from all the great old fights. My most prized possession back in those days was a well-used paperback copy of Jack Dempsey’s book Championship Fighting: Explosive Punching and Aggressive Defense in which Dempsey explained the mechanics of punching, how to train your body to get the most power out of it, and how to always be on the attack, looking for the finish, even when defending. I read this book so many times that this last part became the closest thing I had to a worldview.
When the bell rings, anxiety disappears and you experience a sense of relief, a denouement long delayed, as societal constraints come off and you meet, maybe for the first time, your basic self. You get a similar sensation in a street fight, but usually a street fight is over so quickly that you don’t have time to appreciate it. In a boxing match, and even more so in the many hours of sparring that fighters go through in the gym, you have time to appreciate what’s going on and to understand the nature of physical violence and your reactions to it. I drank up my time in the gym. Outside the gym, I was an onlooker to my own life, swallowed up by the world. Inside Johnny’s, it was different. There, I could see a clear and direct line between what I did and what was going on around me. Like Hamlet in reverse, when I boxed, the barriers between thought and action disappeared.
A good sparring partner is rugged and tough, has good stamina, and is just dangerous enough to keep the other fighter on his toes, but not so dangerous as to represent a real threat. I fit the bill, so I always got a lot of work when I hung around Johnny’s gym. Over the years, I sparred with a lot of really good boxers and a few who were actually world class.
Two of the best fighters I trained with were rising stars when we started working together in the ring. O’Neil Bell was a cruiserweight with ten knockout wins in his ten pro fights. Steve Cunningham was the 178-pound national amateur champion who was about to turn pro. Because all of us were about the same weight, and I had a reputation around the gym as being a good worker, we three trained together frequently. It was hard keeping up with them, of course, but it made me feel good after a long day of self-imposed moral emasculations (guys in the gym would ask me what I did for a living and I would tell them, “Lie”) to be able to hang in there with two legitimate up-and-comers. Plus, I took pride when I felt that I had pushed them a little, which I tried to do every time we were in the ring.
Bell fought like a miniature George Foreman, throwing heavy, clubbing punches that got harder to take the longer you were in there with him. Steve, by contrast, was all technique and physical grace. The trick with O’Neil was to keep him on his heels, because once he warmed up, he’d start killing you. With Steve, I always tried to keep him hemmed in a corner and crowd him in order to make it an infight, where I had an advantage with my shorter arms and propensity to throw lots of hooks.
When they sparred each other, it was better than half the matches on TV. I’d tell people that I could see O’Neil and Steve fighting each other for a title one day. Although that never happened, they both became world champions. O’Neil even unified the cruiserweight title when he stopped Jean-Marc Mormeck, becoming only the only second man besides Evander Holyfield to hold all of the division’s belts.
Sometimes people would see me working with the pros and ask me why I didn’t go pro myself. I was making good money at the time and couldn’t bring myself to stop just to box professionally, but I would fantasize about the idea, especially if I had just done well against somebody I knew was a good pro. An ancient trainer named Pops set me straight one day. I asked him after a particularly violent session with O’Neil whether or not he really thought I was any good. “Boy,” he said, “you’re good enough to get yourself hurt.”
The most famous boxer I was ever up against in the ring is Roy Jones Jr., in 2006 as he was gearing up for a comeback fight against Prince Badi Ajamu. After dominating boxing and barely losing a round or even getting hit cleanly for fourteen years, Roy suffered two devastating one-punch knockouts in a row, first to Antonio Tarver, and then to Glen Johnson. Roy lost his reputation for being invulnerable, and now people were asking whether he was shot. It was one of the quickest turnarounds in the public perception of a fighter I can ever remember and offers a cautionary tale about what happens when people fetishize your talent.
I was surprised by how hard he hit. His punches were so crisp and sharp they felt like electric jolts, zzt, zzt, zzt, even when they landed on my arms. He never threw the jab and worked pretty much everything off the lead right hand; maybe one fighter in a thousand is able to pull this off. By the time I was in the ring with him, Roy’s defensive reflexes had started to slow, but he still had supernatural offensive hand speed. He was so fast that I usually couldn’t even see him start his punches and could only pick them up after he was pulling back his fist after he’d thrown a punch. It was useless to try to slip or dodge his shots, so all there was to do was keep a tight defense and try to block as many as I could with my arms and gloves. It was clear to me that Roy was a different animal than what I was used to and that I had no business in the ring with him. That’s the only time I ever felt that way. Roy had a bad habit of letting himself get caught along the ropes, and with me it was no exception. Whenever I’d get him in the corner or along the ropes, I’d whale away with hooks to the body. One time he chortled out to the gym in his best Muhammad Ali impression, “Joe Frazier! This boy thinks he’s a white Joe Frazier!” “Man,” I thought, “I just got trash talked by Roy Jones Junior. Pretty cool.”
Roy and I sparred on two separate days, and something very strange happened during those sessions. About three years beforehand, I had slipped a disk, and my lower back had bothered me off and on ever since. I’d gotten it under control by doing lots of core exercises and being sure to warm up whenever I did any kind of physical activity, but it would occasionally go out and really give me problems. About a minute into the first round, Roy hit me with a left hook that was so sharp and accurate it made me do a quick, half-wincing semi-convulsion as I involuntarily jerked my upper body over to one side before recomposing my defense. After three rounds, when our sparring was done and I got out of the ring, I realized that Roy’s body shot had thrown my back out again. The next time we sparred, I warmed up well and dosed up on Tylenol, but my back was still tricky. About a minute into the first round, he hit me with the same punch in the same place, and I had basically the same reaction. Except this time, when I got out of the ring, I realized that for the first time in three years my back didn’t hurt at all, and it has never hurt since.
There’s an old myth that some boxers like to get hit. I don’t think this is the case. What they like is the ancient rush that one animal gets when it kills another. And this is so intense that they don’t notice getting hit. Once someone experiences this, he becomes secure in his ability to take the other guy’s best shot. Of course, it is a dangerous delusion, to feel that you can’t be hurt. But it’s an easy one to fall into when you’ve had a big strong man, a trained athlete, try as hard as he can to hurt you, and you realize that he hasn’t.
Of course, as any fighter who hangs around long enough finds out, everyone can get caught. In twenty years, I’ve been hurt by three punches, and they were all the result of being overconfident. One was against a fighter named Walter. You hear about boxers who feel like they have bricks in their gloves? That was Walter, but he was very methodical and I could beat him to the punch all day long. One time, though, I got careless with Walter and walked into a right hand. My legs went stiff, and I toppled over like a statue forward into the ropes. I instantly bounced right back up, embarrassed and completely alert (sometimes a shot like that will actually wake you up). This was the only time I ever got dropped in sparring, and at the time it felt like the hardest punch I ever took.
Years ago, when I was a middleweight, I was sparring with a crude beginner named T. J. Wilson, who was about six feet five and 240 pounds, young and athletic. I was having my way with him when he suddenly did something I never expected: he switched his stance and hit me flush with a left. My knees buckled, which surprised me because it had never happened before.
The next thing I remember was hitting the heavy bag. I found out later that I hadn’t gone down, that I had sparred another round with T. J., and that nobody in the gym had any idea I was even hurt. I’d gotten out of my sparring gear, into my bag gloves, and hit the bag for I don’t know how many rounds before waking up. I never let my trainer know what had happened, but I did stop sparring with fighters who outweighed me by eighty pounds.
The third of the hardest punches I ever took was against a fighter named Ronald Cobb, who, like me, was an amateur light heavyweight out of Georgia. He had a reputation for knocking everybody out with a poleax of a right hand he threw with a shrug straight from the shoulder. When I fought him the first time, he hit me with everything he had and I didn’t blink. In the fight, I was aggressive and had him hurt a time or two, but I was impatient, defaulting to brawl mode, and lost a close decision. After the fight, I was unimpressed with Cobb and his dreaded right. I didn’t see what the big deal was about him. I felt like I should have knocked him out when I had him hurt and was disappointed that I hadn’t. The next time we fought, I was even more determined to blow through him. During an exchange, I caught him with a clipping little hook, and he took a short stutter step back to the ropes. Here’s what happened next as it went through my mind:
“He’s hurt! Get this motherfucker . . . Wow, what a nice pool. I love swimming. The sun feels so nice and warm and the water is wonderful. So crystal clear. Maybe I’ll do a backstroke or even swim down to the bottom. How nice that I can do whichever one I want. I’m so free. Happy, happy, happy, yum, yum. Perfection. Life is wonderful. Hold on, something’s not quite right. How did I get here? This is all beautiful, but wasn’t I just doing something else? What was it? OH SHIT!”
I came to as the referee was standing over me waving the fight off. I said that Walter’s felt like the hardest punch I ever took. The really hard ones, the ones like Ronald Cobb’s right hand, you don’t feel at all.
Here is some of what I learned about how to fight over the years. The three basic principles of effective punching are deception, effective weight transference, and placement. Ideally, a blow will utilize all three, but any one of these is enough to knock somebody out.
If a man is expecting to get hit, if he can see the punch coming and steel himself to its impact, then it’s unlikely the blow will knock him out. It’s better to hit a man with a lighter punch that he doesn’t see coming than a heavier shot that he’s prepared for.
A good way of deceiving your opponent as to the timing and placement of a blow is to “hide” the punch inside a series of lighter shots. Keep your hands up and chin down, tucked behind the lead shoulder, and commit to starting and finishing exchanges with your opponent. It’s within these exchanges that most damage is done in the ring, especially if you are the shorter man. Tall or short, whether you have reach or not, the great nullifier of an opponent’s superior hand speed is a consistent and steady jab.
By feinting to one part of the body and throwing to another you can catch your opponent unaware or make him defend the wrong part of himself. Feinting should be done with the shoulders and head and not just the arms.
Body punching both drains your opponent and makes feints more effective. In addition to setting up a knockout blow to the chin with a sustained body attack, a rarer and more elegant knockout technique is to feint to the head and deliver a well-placed and accurate left hook to the opponent’s liver when he doesn’t expect it. It’s also effective to throw a light combination to the head, getting your opponent to raise his guard, and then shoot a quick, precise left hook touching the short ribs just under the chest, as Bernard Hopkins did to finish Oscar De La Hoya. This shot, when landed correctly, is the single most unpleasant blow to endure and is the only punch that I know of that is so incapacitating it will make a trained professional quit.
Through the correct transference of your body weight, your punches can generate tremendous force over very short distances with little visible movement. This is the secret to infighting. The weight of the body should move up from the feet through the legs, hips, and then the shoulders and arms, finishing at the end of the fist with a snap. The movement is akin to the way one shifts his weight from one foot to another when dancing in place. Fluidity and commitment are essential and punching power has more to do with coordination than bodily strength.
From O’Neil, I learned how to catch punches out in front, with your gloves and forearms, and tire out your opponent by doing so. From watching Vernon, I learned how to beat speed with a jab and also the difference between offensive speed and defensive speed. I once saw Evander Holyfield demonstrate how to subtly extend the distance on your jab by extending your left foot only. This is a good trick with which to keep your opponent confused about your range. I learned how to avoid a southpaw’s left hand by pivoting to my left on the inside while sparring with Robert Allen, a former top middleweight contender who once got so infuriated while fighting Bernard Hopkins that he threw him out of the ring. From Ronald Cobb, I learned that a wide looping right hook to the head or body is a good way to set up a straight one. Also how, if it’s straight enough and hard enough, a punch doesn’t have to be fast. There’s more, some other things here and there. For instance, I could tell you exactly how to throw a sneaky left hook to the head, a real good shot, and a KO punch if it lands, but I won’t, because a true fighter will never show you how to throw his best punch until he’s an old, old man.
When you find truth, things start to flow. Everything becomes easier to deal with. This makes it that much more difficult to stomach the lies and half-truths in which we all have to swim for most of our lives. Once you’ve seen what it’s like to live without the bullshit, your tolerance for it evaporates. The gym also hones your capacity for violence (violence being a kind of truth), but at the same time cleanses you of viciousness, a psychological trait of the weak that is, unlike violence, always a bad thing. But the noble mindset a fighter develops in the gym can be a mixed blessing on the outside. If he doesn’t watch out, disasters will come from odd angles. You’d hear stories occasionally.
Like the time O’Neil apparently lost his mind for a little while after making it to the top. One day, while in training camp, he was doing roadwork in the woods with one of his sparring partners. For some reason, he pulled a hatchet from his jogging suit and chased the guy, who fled hysterically and escaped. The first warning sign was probably when he changed his ring name from O’Neil “Give ’em Hell” Bell, which was awesome, to O’Neil “Supernova” Bell, which made no sense.
One time, Johnny Gant had words with a guy in his gym, another old-timer who had also been a boxer, and they went outside to the parking lot to settle it. The guy threw one punch and knocked Johnny out cold. The ambulance came and carried him away. It turns out the guy had a piece of metal in his hand. He never showed up again. People were worried Johnny would find him and kill him when he got out of the hospital, but he never did, and it blew over. The gym is still in Atlanta, although it has moved and is now called The Atlanta Art of Boxing.
Vernon Forrest, who I first met as an amateur in Augusta and later knew at Johnny’s gym, was murdered on the streets of Atlanta. He got into a foot chase and shootout with a guy who tried to carjack him, and when Vernon ran out of bullets, the man’s accomplice, who snuck up on Vernon from behind, shot him dead. A sad incident, but still, it’s not the worst way to go out, Old West panache and all.
O’Neil also met his end on the streets of Atlanta late one night not long ago. Unlike Vernon, he wasn’t armed and there apparently wasn’t much of a fight. Two guys just drove up and shot him as he was getting off the train.
Walter, the only guy to ever drop me in sparring, died in the dressing room after an amateur fight. It was some kind of heart attack, they say.
Roy beat Prince Badi Ajamu in his comeback fight and then parlayed that brief career resurgence into a big-money match with Joe Calzaghe, to whom he lost badly. Roy and I became friends, and I even went down to Biloxi to watch him stop Jeff Lacy in what I bet was the last bout in which Roy had anything left. He still fights over in Europe from time to time, a shell of himself.
Steve, who fights as the “USS” Cunningham, is still a top contender although he’s getting long in the tooth. He’d be a lot more famous if it weren’t for Tomasz Adamek, to whom he has twice lost.
As for me, I ended up having two pro fights, both of which I lost by decision. They were four-round club fights, and neither of the two guys were anywhere near as good as what I was used to facing in training. I felt and still feel that if they had been six- or eight-round fights, I would have knocked both guys out, but this may or may not be true.
The last time I did any training at all was a few years back when I was in Los Angeles. A friend of mine had an apartment a few blocks from Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym. Roach is the best boxing trainer alive, and he might end up being the last great one. Although it was a business trip and I was on a tight schedule, I made time to visit the gym. Michael Moorer was behind the front desk. Moorer was on the wrong end of one of the great punches in the history of boxing, the right hand that made George Foreman the oldest heavyweight champ in history. That day I also saw Manny Pacquiao come in with his entourage of handlers. This was right when the world was starting to catch on that he might be more than just a star and could end up an all-time great. My friend told me that a lot of the time Pacquiao worked out with everyone else in the gym, but on this day a gaggle of tiny Pinoy hustled him to an area of the gym behind a closed door. I paid Freddie’s brother, Pepper Roach, five dollars a round to work the punch mitts with me and then I hit the bag. Seeing me out of the corner of his eye, Freddie said, “I can see you’ve been in a gym before.” An offhand remark, to be sure, and slight praise, but when I heard him I felt a giddy jolt of elation. I still consider the experience the closest thing to glory I ever achieved in boxing.