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Although Billy Conn claimed boxing was simple -- keep your chin down, your hands up, and your ass off the canvas, as a teenager you found you could learn a lot in the gym, if you could take the pain.

First off, you learned that if you went into the ring, you were bound to get hit. No matter how good you were, you got hit. Even the best got hit. Skeeter McClure, Willy Pep, even Sugar Ray Robinson. So you didn't need to feel when you ate leather that it meant there was something wrong with you. And when you got hit right, your eyes watered. But you learned that tears meant nothing, they were only an involuntary reaction, they were nothing to be ashamed of. It was the same with everyone. It was like bleeding -- you got cut, you bled. Like getting tagged on the side of the jaw where a nerve crossed over the bone there -- when the nerve was pinched, your legs jackknifed and you went down. It was automatic, it had nothing to do with character, toughness or will, it was just structure and mechanics. One of the many hard facts of life, as your coach explained, which you might as well learn now as later.

You learned that you could get cut and knocked down and still go on, that you were not as breakable as you'd secretly feared.

You learned that feeling afraid before a bout was nothing to worry about. Everyone felt the same way just as everyone bled. Fear was your friend, your coach taught you, because it made you careful. Show him a man who said he felt no fear going into the ring and he'd show you a liar or a fool.

You learned because you listened to what you were told: he can run but he can't hide; make him miss and make him pay; kill the body and the head will fall. You listened because you believed it could save you from humiliation, pain and loss.

You learned to your surprise that your opponent was not your enemy. He was there to help you find out just how good you were.

You learned things that no one ever told you, things that you never told anyone. How morning roadwork was like serving the early side altar mass, it was lonely but helped you to believe in yourself. How gym work -- skip rope, medicine ball, light bag, heavy bag -- was like saying the stations of the cross, a penance for weakness, yet giving you hope of being redeemed.

What didn't you learn in the ring? If your nose bled, you were to clinch and press it into your opponent's collarbone to help stop the bleeding. With a puffy eye, you were not to blow your nose as you risked closing the eye and having the referee stop the fight.

You learned that everything was a matter of timing. Don't let your man get set to deliver. You see him get ready, either beat him to the punch or change the distance between you. Everything was a matter of angles. Never square up, come in on the angle. Don't ever back up in a straight line, always slip away to the side. Everything was a matter of knowing. Know what it was your opponent most wanted to do and then stop him from doing it. Be smart, don't fight the other man's fight, fight your fight. Box a puncher and punch a boxer. A big hitter against a stick-and-move jabber could make lots of mistakes and still win, but a boxer against a puncher could not afford to be wrong even once.

Life was not fair. A man with knockout power was like someone born rich, he had an edge you'd never have. You could be Rocky Marciano, come along and knock out over-the-hill Joe Louis and grandpappy Walcott, have a tough time beating a second rater like Roland LaStarza and lightheavyweight king Archie Moore, never fight one heavyweight of note while in his prime, yet have people call you a great champion. Or you could be Ezzard Charles and give it your all -- brains and moves and beautiful technique, have everything but size and a big punch, and people hadn't the sense to appreciate your talent.

But you didn't whine about it. It wouldn't change anything. If you felt bad about falling short of the mark you'd set yourself, you kept it to yourself. Because that was what it meant to take pride in yourself and in your craft.

You learned to take whatever came your way -- tough loss or dull draw -- as you took roadwork, another step along the way, something to face without crying why me? or trying to blame it on anyone else.

Because that was just in the nature of things. That was the heart of what you learned. If you got into the ring, you were bound to get hit.

* * * *

Adapted from a passage in the novel CHAMPIONS by Robert Flanagan, copyright 2001. Adaptation published in THE CIVIC ARTS REVIEW, Bernard Murchland, editor.


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