If the ring is where a boxer comes face to face with his opponent, the changing room is where he struggles with his emotions.
Prior to the fight, usually between one and two hours before, he arrives with his entourage, consisting of his trainer, trainer’s assistant, cut man, and perhaps a friend or two. Unless he’s the main event, he’ll be sharing the changing room with three or four other fighters appearing on the same bill. Each camp stakes their territory in a different corner, where the respective trainers begin unpacking the tape and gauze, Vaseline, and assorted other items they need to get their fighter prepared. The easy relaxed banter that passes between the various camps, between fighters who in most cases already know one another from so many nights like this they’ve lost count, belies a tension which comes with the knowledge of the physical and mental test to come.
Each fighter runs the same questions over and over inside his head: ‘Am I ready? Have I trained hard enough? Have I done enough roadwork? Did I get the right sparring? Am I over that last defeat? Do I still have what it takes? Can I really beat this guy?’
These are private questions the fighter asks himself, all the while smiling and laughing with the other members of his team and the other fighters in the room; this in a studied effort at maintaining the aura of confidence he’s perfected over time.
As the time moves perilously closer to the fight, the fighter finds it impossible to sit still. He walks up and down, playing around with his iPod, periodically exploding into a short burst of shadow boxing in front of the mirror on the wall in the centre of the room. In every changing room at a boxing event a boombox is obligatory, with the music on it is changed constantly according to the different tastes of the various fighters there.
With forty minutes to go it’s time for him to get his hands wrapped. His trainer does this with the concentration of a surgeon performing an intricate operation. There’s an intimacy between the fighter and his trainer now, a trust rooted in the co-dependnacy of their relationship. A good trainer knows his fighter’s strengths and weaknesses more than any other person in his life, including his wife in many cases, and to a fighter this is akin to the possession of a state secret.
During this time various officials appear. One arrives with a clipboard and pen requesting the names of the fighter’s trainer and cornermen; another asking to see the shorts the fighter will be wearing to make sure the colours don’t clash with those of his opponent in the interests of the television coverage.
Then in comes the referee. He introduces himself before going through his prefight instructions: “No holding. When I tell you to break I expect you to do so immediately. No punching on the back of the head. If you go to the body keep your punches above the waist. Obey my commands at all times. Good luck and God bless.”
The referee leaves and it’s now that the cutman applies the vaseline required to help prevent cuts. He spreads it above the fighter’s eyes, around the nose and across the cheeks. There’s just half an hour left now before he’s due on. Hands duly wrapped, the fighter removes his tracksuit and puts on first his protective cup, then his shorts, followed by his gloves.
Here comes the culmination of months of cold lonely mornings pounding the streets to get the lungs in shape; hard sessions in the gym consisting of dozens of rounds of sparring, pad work, endless rounds on the bags, floor work, strength and conditioning; of watching his weight, denying himself the food he enjoys; of sacrificing nights out with friends, denying himself all the comforts and pleasures of a normal existence – all of it for this one night.
As soon as the gloves are tied and taped, he starts warming up. He begins with some perfunctory stretching, then a minute or so of shadowboxing to get his arms loose, before the trainer slips on a set of pads and the fighter starts throwing combinations, his punches echoing like gunshots in the room, comforting the fighter with a magnified sense of his own power. Periodically, other members of his team leave the room and arrive back with an update on the progress of the preceding fight.
Finally, with the tension near breaking point, with the energy in the room electric, the door opens to reveal another official. “Thirty seconds!” he barks.
The fighter takes a drink of water from one of his team, while his trainer quickly checks to make sure he has everything he needs in the corner. It’s time, the door opens and out they go, the fighter acknowledging the words of encouragement and pats on the back of his peers as he leaves.
As soon as he’s gone and the door closes behind him a fleeting morbid silence descends among the fighters left behind. It briefly rips the mask from the masquerade of nonchalance to reveal anxiety and nerves. Outside the womb-like sanctuary of the changing room lies the unforgiving and hostile attention of television cameras, the crowd, and an opponent just as determined to win as you are. At stake is more than pride. At stake is your future, your family’s future, your dream of attaining the title and financial security that comes with it.
The banter resumes after a few seconds, banishing both the silence and the muted noise of the crowd on the other side of the door.
In no time at all, it seems, the fighter who just left for the ring returns with his team. If he’s victorious the energy level is sent rocketing with euphoria as he basks in the congratulations of all and sundry. Family members arrive to share in his victory. His spouse or girlfriend peppers him with kisses, crying tears of joy and grief at the sight of his bruised and swollen features. Overriding every other emotion is relief. At last she can relax and look forward to a few weeks of a normal life doing the things that other couples do and take for granted. His manager or promoter appears with talk of bigger fights and paydays ahead, precisely what he wants to hear as he gets ready to return to the hotel to celebrate.
If he returns to the changing room defeated, the gloom he brings with him is an unwelcome intrusion. His face bruised and bloodied, shorts and boots spattered with specks of dried blood, he engages in a futile attempt to keep up a brave face, smiling as he begins the process of explaining himself, the reasons for the defeat and his performance to everyone he meets. In truth, inside he’s crumbling with despair and humiliation and all he wants is to be alone. He’s been checked by the doctor, the cut above his left eye has been stitched, and he’s fine. Distraught and upset family members arrive to console him. His spouse is in a wretched state, knowing what the next few weeks will be like as her man floats in and out of depression struggling to cope with the defeat.
On the fighter’s mind is the future. ‘Is this the end of my career? Will I be able to get another fight? Will the promoter renew my contract? Do I have enough money put by just in case?’
As this emotional rollercoaster continues, in another corner of the room another fighter starts to get ready.