photos by Adam Rogan
Success in sport isn’t always measured by skill. Sometimes it’s measured by a mere willingness to get punched in the face.
A pro boxer punched me in the face. Several times. It wasn’t as bad as I might’ve thought, but it still sucked. I don’t plan on letting it happen again.
He lets me land a few first, goading me in with predictable but effective insults, telling me how my sister is a w***e and how my mama is fat. Moments later, my head snaps back. I’d apparently been punched, even though I’d never seen the fist. My nose immediately begins to bleed. We’re sparring, and I’m getting my first taste of what it’s like to step into the ring during my first week at the Southeast Des Moines Boxing Club.
The headshots don’t even hurt that much — your skull is the toughest part of the body, head coach Jerry Holman tells me — although my nose felt tender as I blew speckles of blood out of it over the next day. It was the single jab to the stomach that made me crawl out of the ring. Taking one to the gut yanks the wind out of you as fast as one below the belt. Your knees buckle. You can’t take a full breath. When there’s somebody bearing down on you, fists up, teeth clenched around the mouthguard, you don’t get to take a breather unless you let the ref give you a long count.
The guy I was sparring — heavyweight Tristan “Tree” James, an amateur champion recently turned pro — later says that the gutpunch was “only a tap.” I’d figured as much. He was all muscle; I can barely run a mile and had never punched anyone before that day. I’d started training at SEDM three days earlier; he’d been there for eight years.
Practically everyone has dribbled a basketball, tossed a football or at least swung a whiffle ball bat. Despite the popularity of heroes like Oscar de la Hoya, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, not many people have even considered stepping into a ring. I wanted to find out why athletes compete in a sport that includes getting punched in the face; where blood takes the place of grass stains and black eyes replace skinned knees.
Boxing isn’t dying, but it’s taken some hits
The popularity of Mixed Martial Arts has exploded in the last decade, shadowing the more “old school” sport of boxing. From 2011 through the spring of 2016, Nielsen Scarborough found that the Ultimate Fighting Championship – essentially the NFL or NBA of combat sports – has averaged nearly 200,000 more monthly Pay-Per-View subscribers than boxing.
It’s easy to understand why. The average heavyweight MMA bout lasts less than eight minutes, perfect for stunted American attention spans. It resembles the fights people like me drooled over when we were kids — Bruce Lee’s KO kicks, Hulk Hogan’s body slams, Rocky Balboa’s slow-motion blood splatting. MMA is a war of kicks, takedowns, punches, grapples, clinches and chokes borrowed from dozens of different styles and forms. Boxing: a chess match waged exclusively with fists.
In MMA or in boxing, you don’t have any teammates to cover your mistakes. A coach can seal a wound between rounds, but they can’t get you off the ropes. It’s only you. “Football is for p*****s,” Jerry says. “In football, there are 10 other motherf***ers who can help you. In the ring, it’s only you. And maybe, if you’re lucky, me.”
Jerry Holman, known exclusively as “Coach” around the neighborhood, is a fourth-generation boxer from Missouri — MIZZ-ur-UH, as he pronounces it. He resembles a bald, more rugged Jeff Bridges, perpetually smells of cigarillos, and his remaining teeth are thoroughly yellowed. Every day, he brings a cooler full of Old Milwaukee beer to the club. In his mind, SEDM the last “real, hardcore, blood-on-the-floor boxing gym left in Des Moines.” And he is damn proud to be the one keeping it alive.
He’s torn both rotator cuffs and needs to run his hands under hot water every morning so that he can tie his boots and get to work at NAPA Auto Parts by 7 a.m. He says he’s been shot at on several occasions and has scars from the numerous times he’s been stabbed. “It’s just like getting punched,” he explains, “just starts burning after 15 seconds or so once the knife gets pulled out.” The worst one was when somebody thrust a screwdriver into his upper thigh. That was the day he learned never to turn your back on someone whose wife you just insulted.
We come from different worlds, Jerry and I. “I fight with my fists. You fight with your head,” he tells me.
Jerry was 7 when he stepped into the ring for the first time. His dad — “a mean motherf***er” as he’s been described — left when Jerry was a kid. There were days as a child when Jerry survived on discarded popcorn stolen from a nearby carnival. His mom kicked him out when he was a teenager. At 19, he was behind bars. To this day he carries an ID he has leftover from prison, a reminder to never go back.
Nobody would dare call Jerry a softie, but there is some sensitivity. If a young fighter isn’t going to be able to eat that day, Jerry will give them money for McDonald’s. He made sure his seven kids and 15 grandkids didn’t have to run the streets like he did. And that they learned how to fight, just like him.
He tells me about the time his granddaughter punched a boy who gave her an unwelcome kiss. She was suspended from kindergarten for one day. Her grandfather was very proud. “I don’t want my granddaughters to have to fight,” he said. “I just want them to know how to in case they have to.”
“I’m not a racist,” he professes. “I’m going to die surrounded by n****rs, Mexicans, and whatever else. And I’m going to be happy. Because I lived surrounded by warriors.”
There’s another supporter in boxing’s corner: suburban moms.
Faschersize, a web store geared towards women’s athletic wear, had more searches for “boxing gloves” than “yoga” in 2016.
A dozen members of the “overweight moms club,” as Jerry calls them, come in for a workout a couple nights a week. They pantomime punches on the heavy bag, run laps around the ring and gossip throughout their team exercises. They work up a sweat, but nobody bleeds.
Looking around SEDM, you wouldn’t believe boxing might be on its last legs. Open two hours a day and four nights a week, SEDM brings in what initially appears to be a bunch of different breeds. There’s a group of chubby neighborhood kids not athletic enough for a rec basketball team. Others have been working the bag longer than they’ve known how to multiply. A fast-handed middle schooler who probably weighs under 100 pounds shadow boxes around the ring next to a six-time Iowa Golden Gloves champ. It’s an even mix of African-Americans, Latinos and Caucasians, an elusive balance in predominately white Iowa.
There’s no difference between the tykes and the prizefighters here. They all pay the same $10 monthly fee. They share the same jump ropes. Jerry calls them all as he sees them, non-Kosher terms and all. “I’m not a racist,” he professes. “I’m going to die surrounded by n****rs, Mexicans, and whatever else. And I’m going to be happy. Because I lived surrounded by warriors.”
Jerry deals in blacks and whites. He’ll give it to you straight -or at least how he sees it- call you a lazy c**t, and then teach you how to get better. On my second day, he showed me the correct form for throwing a punch. He didn’t ask my name or who I was or why I was in his gym or if I’d paid the $10 – I hadn’t. He doesn’t care about political correctness or social expectations. I see why he’s become a father figure to so many young warriors.
The 14th Round
I’m about to get in the ring again. This time I’ll be facing another newbie whose skill, experience and muscle mass parallel mine. Suffice it to say, neither of us are exactly what you’d call “athletes.”
I’d shown up late the previous day and wasn’t able to stretch before we ran a couple miles. Twenty-four hours later my calves are still stiff. I’m feeling a little under the weather too, which won’t help my stamina. It’s definitely not helping my attitude. Neither is the fact that I’m nervous. The first time I sparred I didn’t really know what to expect. This time I know what’s coming.
I’m making excuses before I even put the gloves on.
For three rounds, nothing really happens. Neither of us lands a substantial punch. We pace around the ring, our mutual apprehension overwhelms our Cinderella Man pipedreams.
I can barely keep my gloves up, a combination of fatigue and broken will weighing them down. I don’t enjoy throwing punches anymore, not even when they land. I just want this to be over.
The newbie connects. It’s a jab to my face. I feel capillaries burst. Both nostrils start spitting blood. The other guy drops his gloves, thinking we’re done. Jerry starts yelling: “Blood isn’t going to end a real fight. Blood means the fun is just beginning.” I’m not having fun.
A minute later, the bell chirps. I fall through the ropes. I’m done.
“Being tired turns a man into a coward,” Tree said. “Ninety-five percent of this boxing game is mental. A lot of it has to do with your mental capacity, if you’re willing to endure and go through the fire and still come back and take everything.”
Today, I’m not willing to endure. I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror. My lips are stained purple from the blood that refuses to clot. I cried after both sparring matches. The first time, it was out of shock. This time it’s more pitiful.
Tree walks in and I put up my guard, impulsively lying about trying to get the bleeding to stop, hoping that sweat disguises the unmistakeable prints on my cheeks left behind by tears. He pretends not to notice. I worry that I might be a hemophiliac. He tells me about when “the switch flipped” in his head.
Seven years ago, Tree started his amateur career with three straight victories but lost the next two. After that, he made the pivotal decision. “I was done getting my ass beat.” His poise and swagger and seven title belts come from not caring about pain.
I never got to that point. I never came back to box. I’d learned enough. I got it. I walked away. Tree and I faced the same ultimatum. He got back up and asked for more. I went back to school.
Boxing is a brutal sport; its violence is raw, naked and pure — synonyms in this instance. A boxer is vulnerable in many ways, the least of which being that they may end up beaten and bloodied. The shame of consistently losing, of not making weight, of becoming a boxing bum and human punching bag for superior fighters far outweighs any physical pain or potential brain damage. Pride can be a boxer’s greatest strength and their ultimate hubris. One of Tree’s greatest victories came after Jerry told him to “Disrespect that motherf***er.” Pride is also what got Apollo Creed killed in Rocky IV.
And yet, the chances of getting seriously injured in boxing aren’t any higher than in other sports; it’s lower in many cases.
Catastrophic injuries are more common in both cheerleading and gymnastics. Getting hurt in general is more likely in American football, soccer, hockey and wrestling, and concussions are twice as likely in American football as compared to boxing on any given play/punch. However, the likelihood of suffering from significant brain damage is comparable between the two sports, according to a study conducted by the NFL itself. On average, more boxers than football players will be concussed at some point during their career. While football has progressively tightened its concussion protocols, boxing doesn’t have any widespread policy at all. If your coach says you can fight and your mom doesn’t lock you in your room, you can get back into the ring.
The primary deterrent, what makes kids and parents apprehensive about boxing, really comes down to the blood. Injuries in football occur underneath layers of pads. In boxing, there isn’t any armor. Everyone can see you bleed. It’s the fact that the goal is to punch your opponent, not just tackle them. I may have chronic nosebleeds, but I prefer blood inside my body, not staining the ring.
In most sports, getting hurt is a side product. If somebody gets cut in an NBA game, there’s a trainer on the scene immediately and the camera cuts away. In boxing, if neither competitor bleeds, it was a waste of a fight.
“You go in there, man for man, we’re going to see who walks out in the end; we’re going to see who’s the better man.”
“I can’t tell…”
Tree is all smiles. “Are you taking a bath?” he asks his daughter through an iPhone. His daughter unexpectedly Facetimed him. Training halted as soon as his phone buzzed. Less than 30 minutes after the call ends, he says boxing is all he thinks about and the only thing he likes doing: “what I’m destined for.” An hour earlier, I’d have believed him. Now, I see through the cliché.
Tree was a basketball and track star in high school, but didn’t make it to the next level. He tried rapping and says he was pretty good at it, but that didn’t pan out either. Boxing hasn’t proven to be sustainable, not yet at least. For the last few years, he’s been selling faux-Mexican cuisine at Taco John’s. He would quit fast food and start boxing full-time faster than you can say “Sting like a bee,” if he could. With two kids to provide for, forsaking the idea has been an easy choice. One pro fight earns him around $1,000, more than two weeks of full-time at Taco John’s. But the fights don’t come consistently. At 32, his time is short.
The money comes secondary, but it’s still an ever-present fantasy. He’s set on earning $100,000,000. $99 million would be nice, but Tree wants all nine digits. He promises to pour at least a million back into SEDM: buy a new ring, add showers, replace the missing ceiling tiles and remove the cobwebs.
When Tree first came to SEDM, Jerry “kicked his cocky a** out.” He was back in less than a week. Eight years later, he’s hitting the bag every night the club is open. He would be there every morning if it weren’t for having to provide for his two daughters.
For Tree, boxing is the ultimate self-test. “You go in there, man for man, we’re going to see who walks out in the end; we’re going to see who’s the better man.”
Tree didn’t start boxing until he was in his mid-20s. Jerry came out of the womb swinging. Me? I’ve never had to fight, I was just intrigued by those who do.
Jerry didn’t learn that violence belongs exclusively in the ring until he was in his 30s. I’m inclined to agree, but not everybody belongs in the ring either. I don’t think I do.
“I can’t tell if you were more scared of getting hit, or that you’d like it,” Jerry tells me on my last day. I couldn’t tell either.
When it comes to fight or flight, I tend to rely on reason. Jerry prefers throwing a punch before the other guy can pull out a Phillips-head. (The screwdriver assailant? He got beaten to a pulp by Jerry’s brother.)
“If you wanted to prove that you were a man, you just did it,” Jerry said as he cleaned blood off my mouthguard. “Most people aren’t even willing to step in there.”
He respects my willingness to get hit. The guys at SEDM see life as a series of blows, knockdowns and bouts. Some of them come from ‘hoods more dangerous than anything Iowa has to offer. Willingly getting back into the ring, then, is admirable. It was up to me to decide whether I wanted to be a boxer or not. I chose the life of someone who doesn’t punch back. At the same time, Jerry didn’t care one way or the other whether I walked into his gym. Or stayed. Or neither. He didn’t even know my name until the last day.
Jerry’s biggest conundrum was figuring out why I even wanted to try. I didn’t have an answer. I asked him the same question.
“We’re Holmans. It’s what we do,” he answered. “Maybe something is wrong with the whole clan … It takes a certain kind of person to stand in here and do this. This is not a sport that you go to practice two nights, three nights, four nights a week and then go fight. This is a sport where you eat it, you live it, you breathe it. It’s your life.”
I didn’t like fighting before or during my experiment, nor do I plan on seeking it out again. But it was satisfying to land my first punch, to battle back and stand toe-to-toe with an unacquainted fear. I ended up throwing in the towel, but at least I climbed into the ring.