(Originally published in Off-Centre Magazine, January 2010)
It’s just another Wednesday night in K’town, and I have skipped yoga class to find myself standing barefoot on the mats at Madkatz Boxing Club. My red toenails perfectly match the red walls of the club and the overhead lights catch the sparkle of my bow-shaped toe ring. I am the only girl at Madkatz tonight.
Owner and trainer, Geoff Lawrence, has started us off with a short cardio workout and now has set the timer for interval training. “Find a spot on the mirror and shadowbox,” he instructs me, and I do not have the guts to tell him I ain’t got no clue what that might be. I watch, and the guys in the club begin staring down the mirror and boxing the heck out of the air. Oh. Shadowbox.
“Boxing is a sport about imagination,” Geoff tells me when he comes over to correct my stance. “Just look into the mirror and imagine you are good.” Well, then!
For Kevin, who decided to leave town just when things between us were starting to get interesting, a jab to wake him up -- so the next time he has a chance with someone as wonderful as me he will pay attention.
For Scotty, who peed in the parking lot of my work on our first and last date, a hook to the side of the head -- trying to knock just a little sense in there.
And for Mike, who blew me off on Halloween one hour before I was meant to take his son trick-or-treating, making my daughter, Sheena, cry, a couple of good hard body shots -- because Geoff says body shots hurt. And Mike made Sheena cry!
Turns out, I may not be so good at the boxing thing. I seem to spend much of my time at Madkatz fighting giggles as I watch myself awkwardly stiff-hand the air. But I am doing just fine with the imagining. And for whatever reason, when the workout is done, I can’t seem to stop smiling.
When I ask Geoff about the best thing the sport of boxing has to offer, he doesn’t hesitate. “It’s the release. It’s a place where people can go to fight and not have to feel they are bad for it.” Then he tells me that he has been contacted by a Kelowna school principal who, in dealing with a couple of students, has instructed them to find anger management counselling – or a boxing class. If they become model citizens by Spring, Geoff will offer them a discount. “Reward them the Canadian way,” he laughs, “With money.”
Originally, Geoff opened Madkatz in Santa Rosa, California, in the second largest gang territory in the state. One morning he went to work expecting no one to show up -- only to find twenty Mexican kids standing on his front doorstep. That began a period of his life which Geoff describes as ‘full of scenes from a movie I will never forget.’ I ask him to tell me one, and he throws out too many stories for me to recount.
He tells me of Lucky, so named because at thirteen he lived between two gangs who both wanted him to affiliate. Lucky refused and still managed to walk home daily without getting his ‘ass kicked’.
There was also Junior, a “fat Mexican kid with a lisp living in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the States.” Junior wanted to be a marine. “Why a marine, Junior?” Geoff asked, and laughs as he remembers Junior’s reply. “Oh coach, those uniforms. I’d like to have one of those!”
And so Geoff promises to help Junior train. He includes him in a group run, telling Junior to take it nice and easy. Instead, Junior takes off like a shot and is soon outdistancing the group. Geoff, who used to triathlon, tells me that it took to within a block of the club for him to catch up to Junior, and it was a footrace to the end. Then, with Geoff still huffing and puffing and sweating in the California desert heat, Junior looks over and says, “Good run, huh, Coach. What’s next?”
I ask Geoff if he ever lost anyone to the gangs, and he says yes. At first it hurts, then you get to know it is inevitable.
Such hardships make a difference in the ring. Here in Canada, Geoff says, the competitive urge is about glory; the desperation is gone. In neighbourhoods like Santa Rosa, boxing is about survival. If you make it, your mother doesn’t have to work, and your sister can go to school, and your brother won’t have to deal with the gangs the way you did.
The respect Geoff feels for these athletes and for the sport is both palpable and contagious. Boxing, he tells me, has been called ‘the sport all other sports aspire to be’ since it is a contest of pure skill and fitness with very little luck involved. Boxing is also, according to Geoff, one of the few arenas left in life where people regularly attain that unattainable more from themselves. Just about every boxer he has ever known is afraid prior to entering the ring. Then they find themselves there, and they don’t back away. They throw their punches and take their knocks, and when it is all over, they want to do it again.
I ask him to name the best boxer of all time. “Geez,” he says, “wouldn’t that be fun if you could say there is one?” His tone becomes almost reverent when he tells me his two personal favourites – Ali and Hollyfield.
“They’re two of the most opposite fighters,” he says, appearing to find his own selection ironic.
“Ali was just sweetly gifted with every gift a boxer can have – power, brains, heart, everything. And Hollyfield had no real natural gifts. He was just solidly trained from start to finish. Everything he throws is textbook perfect; he’s rough and tough.”
It is, Geoff says, one reason to love the sport. You don’t have to be gifted to achieve; you just need the idea, your two fists, a pair of shorts, and the desire to compete.
Most, I would imagine, can see the appeal in that.