There are a few moments in life when our mettle as men is tested. Getting into a fist fight is one. Having a baby is another. You can prepare for either of these, but until you go through it, you never really know how you will respond. I began learning martial arts 32 years ago, in 1983, and since then I've perhaps had a few more than my share of those mettle-testing moments, mainly inside boxing rings.
As a person who makes a living with my brain, getting punched in the head is not a good policy, and as a new father, I feel an added responsibility to protect my son--as well as a common sense need to protect my health. According to a recent story in the New York Times, cadets at West Point are required to learn to box, because officials believe there is "no better way to teach the grit needed for combat, and to expose them to fear and stress and teach them a confidence to respond." But boxing accounts for nearly one out of every five concussions at West Point--more than twice as many as football. Is the risk of brain damage worth a boost in confidence?
Of course, there are many metaphorical similarities between raising a baby and combat--but those are metaphors. When you have a newborn, nobody is actually hitting you in the face (not very hard, anyway). The stress is real but other than sleep deprivation, it's mental not physical. The conditioning required of boxers is certainly a great way to prepare for the arrival of an infant, and I did a lot of that during the month's of Michelle's pregnancy: jumping rope, hitting the bag, and running. But sparring is another story.
When I was in high school. a Korean boxer named Duk-Koo Kim died after a world championship match Ray Mancini and that manslaughter turned me against boxing. Who could cheer for a sport in which men were sometimes beaten to death?
But a few years later, in 1990, when I had already earned my first belt as an instructor in aikido, I was working at Andy Warhol's Interview magazine when I wrote a profile of a man named Bob Ciocher (pronounced "chocker"). Ciocher was a tough man in his late 70s, who had been a boxing coach to the U.S. military in WW2. Through meeting him I began boxing at the YMCA on 63rd street.
I bought gloves, a mouth piece and head gear, but we didn't really "learn" to box. We just sparred with whoever showed up, and often it was more like a fight to the death than a sparring match. Just a bunch of New Yorkers with issues punching each other in the head. I would leave with my face all red and I don't think I learned much except maybe, through youthful bravado, how not to be afraid. From fighting all kinds of people--white, black, Asian and Hispanic, men of all sizes (mostly bigger than me) I also learned a kind of anti racism: we are all equal in that we don't like pain. We all react to getting hit hard. It was a great social equalizer and also a real way to build confidence.
In the 25 years since I started boxing at the YMCA, I earned a second black belt in a different martial art, and in the intervening decades, sparred with a lot of other guys, including a trip across Thailand that culminated in a ring with a guy who had 250 professional fights including 50 undefeated boxing matches as a pro. My face was bloody and my youthful confidence equally bruised.
I am not a great fighter by any means. I am five foot five and 150 pounds and I will turn 50 in a few months, so I have no business in a boxing ring. But a few months ago I began training with a Korean boxing champion named Tom Kim. He was a national champion in South Korea and then won a gold medal at the Asian games, before turning pro for a decade. This weekend he asked me to take part in a boxing exhibition as part and when I showed up he asked me, in broken English, if I had head gear and a mouth piece.
I do, but I haven't used them in a while. As a new dad, I have not had much time or energy for fighting in the ring or out of it. But soon I found myself facing a former pro. We were just sparring, but in boxing the smallest difference in skill can mean a lot. A centimeter can be the difference between a broken nose and a harmless tap. Milliseconds matter.
This might be why it's so pleasurable to spar. You have never been so hyper aware before. It's almost like time stops. Your mind cannot wander for a second or you get punished immediately. It's a great freedom from the past and the future. Physically it requires a lot of conditioning, but even more crucial is the mental aspect. You have to relax under fire. You can't quit when it hurts. You can't allow fear to control you.
As a man, these are all valuable lessons. As a father, they take on a whole new level of meaning. It's not that I want to set a violent example for my son. But what kind of role model do I want to be when it comes to being a man? We are living in an age when--rightly so--women are increasingly being empowered, and the relationship between the genders is changing. Men today are reassessing what masculinity means. We no longer hold the door for a woman for fear of being old-fashioned. We don't wear a suit or know how to tie a Windsor knot or carry handkerchiefs or know how to change a tire or make a martini because all of those skills seem to belong to a Neanderthal age and now we live in Brooklyn and wear a pork pie hat and eat artisanal cheese. We don't know how to chop wood or throw a left hook.
Maybe I'm old fashioned. I'm not saying it's a good thing, but I do know how to throw a left hook. And that's not that hard part of fighting. The hard part is facing a man you don't know and dealing with his punches. Dealing with aggression. Dealing with the unknown. That's something I do want my son to know how to do: deal with fear.
When you spar in front of a thousand people, as I did yesterday, that introduces a whole new level of adrenalin. I woke up today and my skull was bruised and my lip was busted but something inside me was stronger.
I am not in favor of violence or brute force by any means. And repeated head trauma is definitely not good. But facing one's deepest most primal fear, squaring off against a champion, has a value that's hard to put a number on. Not because I think I will need to protect or defend my son by force. I'm not even sure I would allow Lev to learn to box. But the ultimate battle is always against our own self doubt and fear. Yes, boxing takes skill and effort and that's the easy part. That's the part you can learn and practice.
But overcoming the sheer paralyzing terror after you've been hit hard, not quitting and coming back with whatever you have, remaining calm enough to observe what's happening and doing your best until the bell rings, in that three minute eternity, lies a prize we lose at our own peril.
I don't want to be a punch drunk old man. I don't want the signs of brain damage I already see creeping in my boxing coach. But I do want to be the kind of father who has earned his fearlessness.
Three decades later, I'm still fighting for it.