Climbing Out of the Basement

By Peter Weston Wood on July 22, 2012
Climbing Out of the Basement
I didn’t do introspection too well; all I knew was punching a heavy bag felt really good.

I ignored my mind’s development. Unlike my belligerent stepfather who battered us with his intelligent tongue, my body was my weapon—not my brain…

When I was eight, my artistic parents divorced and my mother married an intelligent lawyer who took us from a small house to a much bigger house. The basement in our new house is where I learned to box.

I was like a small mole, burrowing down into the dark, dank soil of that basement, and it quickly became my new home. It proved a refuge from the verbally violent atmosphere my mother unwittingly got us into. Boxing became my passion—the heavy bag, the light bag and the brown leather, 16-ounce boxing gloves became my allies. I was a young boy and didn’t do introspection too well; all I knew was punching a heavy bag felt really good.

The rigors and ecstasies of boxing lasted throughout my childhood. Anger became an exciting and profitable emotion, and now that I knew what to do with it, I refused to give it up. Boxing was brutal and bitter, but I loved it. At least that’s what I told myself. The truth was I hated boxing as much as I loved it. Boxing was my successful dysfunction.

The angry dropouts in school became my tribal family. Ours was a rough clan of punks whose cardinal rules were: Shut up or put up and Never start a fight, but always end it, and Walk softly and carry a big stick.

Our pastimes were sports, hanging out in town, and neglecting homework. For me, the ultimate goal of my dark angry existence was to one day fight in Madison Square Garden for a Golden Gloves title. Throughout my school years I honed my arms, chest and legs in preparation for my forthcoming epic battle in the Golden Gloves.

Growing up, I purposely ignored my mind’s development. My deep underlying belief was the strength and nobility of my body. Unlike my belligerent stepfather who battered us with his intelligent tongue, my body was my weapon—not my brain.

At eighteen, I finally entered The Gloves. Week after week, I beat my opponents until I reached the finals. The night of the finals, I was sick with the flu and weighed six and ½ pounds lighter than normal. Weakened, but still confident, I stepped through the ring ropes of Madison Square Garden and lost a close three-round decision. Losing was horrible.

Soon, my boxing family began to break up, too. Some guys entered the pro boxing ranks, some went to work and others landed in jail. I, somehow, squeaked into college. I quit boxing as if I were quitting a drug. I was afraid it would fatally distract me from my studies and I didn’t want to become an occasional boxer. 

So I plunged into a life of books, libraries and endless studies. I began hitting books instead of people. The classroom became my ring, but I had to work double-time in order to overcome my lackluster academic past. Of my previous life, I rarely spoke. There were too many clichés and preconceptions about flat-nosed pugs to overcome.

Years later, in my mid-30s, I found myself working as an English teacher in New York. Me being a high school teacher was like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime. I had always convinced myself that I was born with more fast-twitch muscle in my body than quick synapses in my brain. College proved to be an emotional rollercoaster, but it was there where I discovered that punching out a perfect paragraph was fundamentally more profitable and exciting than punching someone’s face.

One afternoon, after teaching school, I entered a local boxing gym. Although I never truly abandoned boxing, it set about saving me once more—this time from a gnawing sense of middle-aged alienation and hollowness. I didn’t drop to my knees in great happiness or feel a rush of adrenalin. I was older and wiser and the youthful fantasy of Golden Glove redemption had long melted away.

When I first hung up the gloves as a kid, I was relieved not to be getting smacked on the nose anymore. Life was gentler. I could eat juicy hamburgers and tasty cupcakes whenever I wanted, but I always felt like something had been subtracted out of my flesh. My blood never pumped so fast. Did I miss the human contact?

I began training again.

One day, the gym owner called me over. “Wanna be my head coach?” he said. “You c’n work nights, after teachin’.”

I looked at his damaged face, the sweaty fighters and the grimy gym. What I once saw as brilliant, beautiful, even magical, I now saw as ordinary, ignorant and even pathetic.

Was I too soft for this again? Was I more comfortable with the civility of teaching? 

“In’erested?” he slurred.

New York City is the Mecca of boxing, and there is truth in that name. Many confused young boys have started out as punks in these dark violent gyms, fought in the Golden Gloves, and ended up world champions. Two of my friends did. But did I want to be part of this wild, dangerous, stupid, crazy sport anymore? Beating people up? Damaged faces and brains?

“Well?” he said.

Did I want to burrow down into my stepfather’s dark, dank basement again?

I looked at the man’s flat nose. “Boxing is stupid! I hate boxing. I hated it the first day I laced up my first pair of gloves down in my basement. I hated it ten years later when I quit. But boxing saved my life. It was the blood-sucking leech that fed upon my anger, my hurt, my hate, and my fear. Boxing purified me. That’s why I love it,” I said to myself.

“Okay,” I told him. 

A month later, a middleweight named Denny, walked into the gym. “You the coach?”

I nodded.

“I wanna enter The Gloves,” he said, dropping his duffle bag to the floor.

What personal pain had brought Denny here? Did he have the same appetite for violence that I once had?

He continued looking at me.

Was this the circle of life? There were still so many unhappy memories breathing in my gut about my stepfather’s sad basement.  Could I convince myself that by my coaching Denny I could sculpt beauty into his body and brain? When a kid moves sweetly, is that art? Does a coach chisel a human statue?

“Why don’t you get outta here and learn how to write a perfect paragraph instead of learning how to throw a perfect punch,” I almost spit.

“I need a coach,” he said, rolling his wide shoulders.

I stared at Denny and saw my own face. “Okay,” I whispered, “suit up.”

Sure enough, Denny’s past was miserable: a mother’s suicide, a father’s death and his own heroin addiction. I watched him gracefully punish the heavy bag and murder his reflection in the mirror. Here was a boy-bomb with beautiful muscular violence just begging to be molded.

If Martha Graham can sculpt a ballerina, I can sculpt a fighter. If she can educate toes—I can educate fists.

Three months later, I pried the ring ropes open with my foot and arms and Denny stepped into the ring to fight for the middleweight title in Madison Square Garden. We looked at each other silently, but at the same time, held back, afraid of what each other’s eyes were saying. There was a patina of Vaseline and sweat on his chiseled face.

The bell rang. I sat in the corner and watched him pound out an elegant, passionate and lopsided decision over his opponent. Denny was a thing of great beauty—a wonderful work of art. 

Boxing is insane. But it’s a healthy insane.

As the referee raised Denny’s hand in victory, and the crowd cheered its approval, I realized that I had climbed out of that dark basement and a part of me was up in that ring with him.

Peter Wood, an English teacher at White Plains High School, is the author of “Confessions of a Fighter—Battling Through the Golden Gloves” and “A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion,” both published by Ringside Books.

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  1. Bill Angresano 08:11am, 03/17/2015

    Beautiful , poetic and sad. Redeemed ! When I left your “basement” one day , my heart pounded my mind awake my ears RINGING. A toast to Boxing and Art .

  2. James 08:56am, 09/28/2012

    Hey Mr. Wood! I enjoyed reading your piece. I really love how you ended it. It’s one of those endings that sticks with you.

  3. Anonymous 08:49am, 09/28/2012

    I really liked it and relate well to the quote, “The truth was I hated boxing as much as I loved it.” I am a runner and even though I hate it, I love it and it keeps me going. It was well written and insperational, I believe many people can relate to this in many differnt ways, whether it is through a sport, a hobby or something different all together.

  4. Erin Parker 04:02pm, 07/25/2012

    Fantastic piece.
    “As the referee raised Denny’s hand in victory, and the crowd cheered its approval, I realized that I had climbed out of that dark basement and a part of me was up in that ring with him.”
    As a former athlete turned coach myself, I could’t help but smile while reading your closing line. A truly special feeling.

  5. bill 09:27am, 07/24/2012

    Great job, Mr. Wood.
    Loved this story. However, never say never or that this is your last writing on boxing. Explore other topics? Sure why not, but you always write from the heart and the sweet science will always hold a place in yours and rightfully so. It helped break it, build it and make it believable and strong. Boxing takes a lot of heart and courage and for those of us who have never lived it, great storytelling from those that have is inspiring. Thanks.

  6. Bill Pierce 09:19am, 07/24/2012

    Pete,

    Just wonderful! I really enjoy your writing. Intelligent and edgy. Never say never on writing about boxing again, Pete. You write from your heart and from this latest… it is safe to say that the “sweet science” will always command a piece of your heart. Your writing is even more special than your once devastating left hook.

  7. Al 08:04am, 07/24/2012

    Basements are safe kinds of places till you realize that there’s another life up there on street level—and beyond.  Peter’s figured out that the idea is to keep rising; it can be even more vicious up here than in the basement, but the rewards—in terms of breathing more freely and being free of the shadows—can be much greater. Keep levitating, Pete.

  8. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 01:21pm, 07/23/2012

    Brando….Street Car…..Kowalski kicking ass in the Fiji Islands in ‘58…what a site!

  9. Don from Prov 09:06am, 07/23/2012

    Good stuff.
    I really enjoyed reading this piece.

  10. Joe 03:50am, 07/23/2012

    Very nice.

  11. Kowalski 09:06pm, 07/22/2012

    Hey mate, forgot to say hello from Australia. The Wallaballoo Center here in Wind Ridge. Tea time now so bye bye till next time. I am 68 and fit. But I miss the ring and the showers with blood and glory. Keep telling stories. There’s people here don’t believe I was a fighter in New Zealand and the Fiji Islands in 1958, so they might need a punch up the throat.
    Cheerio.

  12. Bob 09:03pm, 07/22/2012

    Forty years after his fistic glory, Peter Wood comes back with another knockout.  No surprise there. Would love to read him more often. There is so much more to his story that he is too modest to tell us about. Pete is as unique and interesting of a fellow as you will meet in boxing. Watch some of his knockouts on YouTube. The younger readers will be shocked that amateur boxing was once so exciting, and few people had a more exciting style than Pete did. He was perpetual motion with a savage left hook. The high school students he teaches now would be shocked to view his ascension to the 1971 NYC Golden Gloves finals. So much grit, power, determination and righteous anger, all of which he used to maximum effect. He was, and is, the real deal. A great person who used boxing for all of the right reasons and was smart and savvy enough to get out on top.

  13. Kowalski 07:37pm, 07/22/2012

    Good on ya mate. I boxed for years in the fifties till I had no ears and I felt good about it. Then my legs went but I still felt good about it. Then my eyes and finally my arches and I realized I had been waging war against two things. Myself and that other guy in the tights who reminded me of myself mate. Well, I’m in a home now and have most of my brains and all of my heart but your article tickled me so I went to the gym here at the home and suited up. The security guard watched me over time and suggested I go to Mister Winchester who runs the entertainment on weekends here at the Wallaballoo Center and suggest a couple of matches here at the home . I thought it might be a good idea as there are a few people here who could use a good left hook so I am ready once again thanks to your article. Good on ya mate.

  14. Community News 05:31pm, 07/22/2012

    A joy to read. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Peter.

  15. MIKE SCHMIDT 04:15pm, 07/22/2012

    SUPERB!!! Both my wife and I have read your books re: “Golden Gloves” and loved them. Keep em coming Sir.

  16. the thresher 01:36pm, 07/22/2012

    An interesting diversion and very well written. Thank you.