Boxing: Stepping Through The Door

By Nick Porter: It's a scenario familiar to thousands. The alarm goes off, and they lie there in the dark after it has stopped sounding. They have sworn this task to themselves, but for every person lying in every house in the darkness, there is that single moment's hesitation; a battle of body and mind against the spirit. Many will lose this battle and stay awake just long enough to reset the alarm, but for those with fortitude enough to put their feet on the floor and turn on a light, the battle is over, the ritual is set and the die is cast, as they prepare for their morning run.

As exponents of fighting disciplines, we already get plenty of exercise, much of it cardiovascular. We sacrifice several nights a week to it, so why too are we willing to sacrifice our mornings? Why do we put ourselves through this additional stress?

The short answer, and the one I am more prone to give to a neophyte boxer, is “Spar a couple rounds and get back to me.” Any person who has been involved in a fighting discipline with any seriousness can tell you the importance of physical fitness. While proper training can certainly overcome disadvantages in size, weight, strength and speed, proper anaerobic and cardiovascular fitness can be the difference between victory and defeat. Simply put, if two equally trained fighters engage one another, the one in better shape will win.

Therefore, in a sense, one's additional cardiovascular work can be seen as an additional form of training, complementary and even necessary to ones' martial education. However, as anyone who has awoken before dawn, eschewing their warm bed for a cold floor can tell you, there is more to roadwork than the physical.

Muhammad Ali famously said "Champions aren't made in gyms... they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill." This saying corresponds directly to ones' commitment to training, of course, but even more so to one's roadwork. Almost all fighters, and especially the ones who are on the roads before dawn, will run alone. They have the roar of no crowd, the threat of no mugger, the exhortation of no coach urging them onwards. Instead, running becomes metaphor for the greater path itself.

From the moment they begin their training, every fighter, no matter their discipline, has to deal with the same questions. The boxer is asked why he doesn't just do MMA. The aikidoka is asked repeatedly “So does that stuff really work?” The kyudoka is asked if he's been eating alright and if he perhaps shouldn't see a doctor. One can detect an experienced exponent of any martial art by their response to these questions: a light smile and a polite, if patronizing response. The passionate and lengthy responses of the beginner fall on deaf ears; and so the martial artist marches on alone, ignoring the nagging cacophony of those who, to his eyes, just simply do not understand, and continuing on his path, seeking enlightenment, victory in competition, or perhaps just a few moments of quiet to a hectic day.

Similarly, a runner feels the same things. Running alone, with no one around, there is no real reason to keep going: the body grows weary and rebels and the mind, following the body, quickly follows. Hitting “the wall”, a runner, boxer, or budoka must be able to break through. For a fighter, to stop is, in many senses, to die. As we reach that point (Muhammad Ali once described his physical exhaustion as "the closest thing to death"), the body is no longer running and the mind no longer thinking. For any athlete, the only thing that remains at the precipice of physical exhaustion is that same voice that willed them into a boxing gym, into their running shoes, into anything they had initially doubted or feared and then grew to love; the quiet voice of the human spirit, always present if not necessarily heeded. As Kipling was apt to put it,

...Force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

That is the paradox of the martial ways and running, their complement. It is something, unfortunately, that I as a trainer have never been able to teach, especially not with words. The willingness to endure discomfort and pain solely for the sake of physical refinement and spiritual growth is someone all must learn for themselves. All we can do is continue on our paths, leaving the doors which were left open for us open for those who will follow, and hoping that as a new days begins we are still willing to honor our commitments and continue, against the wishes of so many forces in our lives pushing against us, to put our feet on the ground and step out the door.

Article posted on 12.03.2008

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