• Men's Corner

My Fitness Journey, Part 5: The Frightening Mystery of Boxing.

Updated: Jul 8

“A man needs a battle to fight; he needs a place for the warrior in him to come alive and be honored, trained, seasoned. If we can reawaken that fierce quality in a man, hook it up to a higher purpose, release the warrior within, then the boy can grow up and become truly masculine.”

— John Eldredge, 'Wild at Heart'

For me, the summer of the last year was one of the most fruitful times in my life. I had done a huge amount of inner work, overcome important challenges in myself, and reclaimed a lot of the 'lost territory' of my inner life and journey. But, as it is always the case with unseen things, there comes a time when the reclamation of the inner desires has to be made manifest out in the world, and incorporated into everyday life. Otherwise, it is mere potential, reclaimed but never put to work. And it gives no life; it brings no joy.

While I was in Bulgaria back in August, when I stayed with my parents in my childhood home, I decided to do something I hadn't done in a very long time.

I answered a call from within that beckoned me yet again to the familiar but frightening deep waters of my own personal discomfort.

In the house next door to my parents, now empty, hangs a big and very heavy boxing bag. After the death of the old man who once lived there, his family, scattered around the country and the world, asked my old childhood friend and neighbour who lives opposite us, to look after the garden and maintain the house. So, a few years ago he hanged the bag in the old stable where our old neighbour once kept his donkey, a few sheep, and stored the hay and grain that fed them.

On that particular day in the summer heat of the turbulent 2020, I had not planned to even touch the bag. As far as I was concerned, I wouldn't ever do it again — not 'for real', anyway: not with pushing myself, sweating and timing myself in order to get, what, 'fit'? Fit for what, exactly? I had been there once — hating my body for decades, always pushing, striving, never allowing myself to rest or, God forbid, skip a workout — and I did not intend to be a slave of exercise again. Besides, who really needed to go through this particular grueling form of exercise, just for the sake of the exercise? This was not just practicing and throwing a few punches — I could still do that, but not for minutes at a time!

Forcing myself to do things I did not enjoy, for certain amount of time (like rounds on the punchbag) had always worked for me in terms of losing weight or becoming 'fitter' — back when I was still suffering from that need that drove me — but has never, ever, given me joy. And if the spirit is not engaged and is not seeking to push through the unpleasant task in order to get a victory, and the joy of it, then something is definitely missing.

I was, however, not in a good physical shape (as you can see later, if you keep reading this) and even though my mind needed rest, I knew I needed some dynamic form of exercise during my summer break — besides walking the hills, chasing animals with my camera, and occasionally, doing pull-ups on my father's vine arbor.

So, why not?

Well, what's the point?

Well, what's that tugging inside, if there is no point?

What it is about any martial art that makes us put ourselves through so much suffering, just so we'd be able to execute a number of dangerous moves in order to hurt a person before they hurt us? Why?

How often does a man today need to defend himself or his family with his fists, anyway? And even in that case, wouldn't a few lessons in self-defence serve a better purpose?

Yes, I guess they would...but learning a few moves, although needed, doesn't really compare with being trained as a warrior, ready and 'primed' physically, to respond, to react, to turn, to twist, to attack, to defend, to move, to dance the most dangerous, masculine dance in the world...

I want to be a warrior. Not a boy pretending to be a man, like I once was; not a weak, fearful person needing to feel strong in order to hide his insecurities, but a free man who lives with joy and passion but has the ability to be a warrior not only in mind and soul, but also body as well...

I want to be a warrior. I want to be a warrior. I want to be a warrior.

I decided to take the challenge. And I did. It was very hard, but it showed me that I had neglected something in me.

Something that desperately needed attention.

But, wait, stay with me here. We can't talk about boxing until I tell you what it represented in my life.

If you've been with me for a while, you would remember that my history with such demanding physical activities (especially ones that call upon the need for aggression and perseverance) hasn't been great, to put it mildly. As a younger man I was far more comfortable lifting weights than to actually do anything that challenged and exposed my limited mental strength, physical endurance, and ability to persevere...

But the scariest thing, ever, was to face another man in any form of physical competition.

During childhood, the warrior spirit that lives in every boy was all but extinguished in me.

* * *

I remember using boxing gloves once, one of the few times I did, in my early adolescence. The other boy, who was (I thought) a good friend of mine, hit me very hard on the side of the head, and I saw black spots before my eyes. I remember looking down, trying to regain my composure while protecting myself as best I could, my body slow, my mind too fast — and thinking that this is not for me. I could not take a punch, I could not box, I could not face another boy in a fight, let alone actually win.

Through this experience, followed by a few of a similar kind, something that I had known from very early in life, was gradually being cemented into becoming a part of my future conflict-avoidant, fearful personality.

I was not a fighter. I was not a warrior.

I just didn't have it in me.

During my days in high-school, because I was already into weightlifting (even though I hid it from others as best I could) and had started to look stronger, I was often pushed into playing arm-wrestling with other boys. Often, I lost to them, even if did have the strength to push harder...

I just couldn't bear looking into their faces — their fiercely masculine, frightening faces, set on conquering, set on defeating the opponent, who happened, unfortunately, to be myself on that day.

To them, it was 'just playing'.

But they could play.

To me, it was a defeat.

Every such exposure proved that I did not belong among them. I could not play the games of men.

I retreated into myself more and more. As the years went by, I gradually turned into someone I didn't really like. Sure, I was a 'nice guy', but that didn't mean that I was a good man.

I knew that I didn't have what it takes to take part, physically, in the world of men, and join other men in any dangerous or risky activity that would expose my awkward, fearful inner self to them — like football, the dreaded game my father loved so much...

Like the sport of boxing as well...

* * *

When I first began creating the articles about my fitness journey, I never intended to go into my limited exposure to boxing, save perhaps for crediting it as a great way of building endurance, explosive power and, yes, getting in touch with your 'inner warrior'.

Prior to the time when I first got involved in boxing, which was in autumn of the year 2011, I had been busy keeping my body big and, at least externally, strong — big enough to contain my pain and strong enough to hold my fears. Unbeknownst to others and even myself at the time, however, I was actually quite unhealthy — I was addicted to a number of things, food being just one, and suffered from a very heavy form of depression. Yet, because I did lift weights four times a week, and because I did look strong, (also because I was still too young to manifest too many of the underlying health issues that normally tend to come up later in life) I somehow managed to fool myself into thinking that I was doing well. Yes, I was big, and was also aware of the need to perhaps lose a few pounds around my waist in order to look the way I wanted to, but I appeared well enough to think that I was doing okay... My years between fifteen and twenty-five were dedicated to growing and developing my false self — the man I wanted the world to see; the man I wanted to hide my true self behind.

But in the years between twenty-five and thirty, I was challenged like never before: my true condition was gradually exposed to me, and I decided to start moving away from my old, familiar ways, and enter a new realm of exploration and re-discovery of life — not only in a deeper, emotional and spiritual way, but also physically, through my body...

I was still quite big, still addicted to weightlifting — and proud of it — but the change had begun.

I found out that I had many problems, addiction to sex and pornography being just one of them; I discovered that life and my own conscious and subconscious choices had shaped me and twisted me to a point in which I hardly had any form of control and mastery over my life and being.

Through hitting rock bottom over and over again, I realised how sad I was inside.

I realised that I was still a very young boy inside, and all of my wild partying, my pursuit of joy through romance, sex, and excitement, were attempts to numb me to the pain of the boy inside me.

The happy boy that had grown up to be a 'nice' young man, turned out to be neither happy not nice. And the tragedy was that nobody understood me.

For what seemed like a long, long time, there was no help from anyone.

And so, over the next few years, I dug deeper, and became a student of my own inner world, and I began to discover the hidden pain that I carried...

I put my faith in God, and learned to trust others again.

I sought out mentoring, therapy, counselling, education, prayer, and inner healing, whenever I could get them.

I travelled, and opened myself up to the world again; and, in time, even involved myself in other people's stories...

But, to a degree, I was still the big, awkward guy who didn't always make eye-contact with others and still didn't always say and do what was on his mind. At least in some ways, I was still the guy who would not speak up, stand up, and take his rightful place in his own life, and the lives of those he cared about...

To a degree, even though I had begun to be close to the few men that I had started opening my life to, I was still avoiding being close to men in general.

I was still avoiding the situations, conversations and confrontations that challenged me.

I was still in hiding. Joy was still lacking in my life.

It was around that time, the early period of my inner transition from boyhood to manhood, while I was in many ways still too young inside, too undeveloped and 'soft' — it was at that time, when boxing came into the picture...

Adur Boxing Club, formerly a fortified drug cafe. The place no longer exists...

The boxing gym was a grim place with troubled history. Having previously been a heavily-fortified drug den, often raided by the police, the building had finally been taken away from the dealers and turned into a boxing gym. Apart from the sign that was painted on the bricks outside, the boxing bags and the ring erected inside, the place had been virtually untouched since the last police raid. The concrete-filled car tyres that fortified the walls, the heavily-barred windows, the massive cast-iron sliding front door that took two people to open, together with the deep marks from the police's angle-grinders, made one feel the heavy spirit and history of the place in his bones. Being only yards from the train-tracks, the place shook with the vibrations and the defining sound of the passing trains.

Today, with the gym long gone and the place developed and changed beyond recognition, I still marvel at the fact that my very first experience of a boxing gym had to take place in such settings. Images of inner-city boxing clubs in films, and certainly 'Rocky', come to mind every time I remember it...

But let us go back now, and return to that story...

To me, the boxing gym really was an intimidating place — especially for somebody like myself, who at the time felt deeply fearful of men who appeared confident and strong; and there were quite a few of those men around. Indeed, while I was back in Bulgaria, working for a shady security firm, my true self was in constant 'hiding' from the men I worked for and those I worked with; I could only be relaxed around them when I was intoxicated by alcohol, cocaine, or both.  

But that tough environment was exactly what I needed to be challenged, to the point of becoming that weak little boy again: to have my facade removed and pulled out of the way for a while, so that the true 'me' could be reached behind it, and engaged.

The boy inside me needed initiation.

'I went through (Rites of Passage) in military school, and I’ve talked to people who’ve gone through special forces, and became New York firefighters, and all sorts of occupations that have real rites of passage...

They’re always the same structure and it’s really interesting. They’re first designed to scare the heck out of you somehow, to reset you, to take you down a notch so it can build you up into what you really need to become through this rite of passage.'

Frank Miniter , in conversation with Brett McKay

on the Art of Manliness Podcast

But that 'initiation' did not just involve the training of my body or the ability to be a warrior. It was needed, so that, in time I could start becoming myself in front of other men and be relaxed in my body again. Unbeknownst to the boxing trainers, they were tools in God's hands, being used to give me what I never had — yes, challenge, but also input and care at the hands of older men. And also, 'tough love'...