My Fitness Journey, Part 5: The Scary Mystery of Boxing.
Updated: Mar 7
“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 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...
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'...
So, this was what I immersed myself in, in the year 2011. I decided to enter a new unchartered territory, and do something I had always been afraid of doing — expose myself, with all my weaknesses and vulnerabilities, to other men...
Men who were tough and, frankly, scary to me; men who had the confidence I longed to have, and who could teach me things I longed to know.
Men who had what I did't have.
The sessions in that place exposed and challenged me like nothing had ever done before...
I remember being made to hit the bag without stopping, for a full minute — that terrified me and pushed me to my limit...
I felt intense heat building up inside my body and the old days of school came back to life as invisible ants crawled all over my skin and the heat inside me threatened to suffocate me, making me feel, again, trapped in my own clogged-up, slow, clumsy self...
I sparred, but most of the time that was either against people who were lighter than me, to help me improve my speed, or those who were a lot bigger, stronger and better than me; there were very few people there who were both similar in size and fitness/skill level.
At the beginning, I really struggled with the 'banter' that went on between the coaches and some of the guys. I was also too aware the fact that I was one of the 'older' guys there; most of them were teenage boys from the surrounding neighbourhoods.
I was the big, clumsy guy who was too old to be there but, unlike some ex-boxers who came, and unlike the coaches, I had no past worth talking about, when it came to boxing.
I just didn't belong there. I wanted to hide.
But those feelings were not surprising to me — it has always been my story. The world of men had always been scary to me, and I never belonged there. 'Banter' was the privilege of those who were free to live outwardly — and I was not one of them...
It was not always easy for me to be there.
Yet, I made myself stay.
'Masculinity is not something given to you, something you’re born with but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.'
— Norman Mailer
I learned many lessons in that gym. Some of them came in the form of a broken nose, bruised ribs, and the feeling of humiliation that was often present in me during those sessions. Some came in the form of learning myself and seeing that I, too, had hidden, 'latent', masculine abilities — that I too, like some of the boys I feared and admired growing up, could persevere, endure pain, and fight when I felt like quitting. Some lessons came through the eyes of the man in the other corner of the ring — a man who took me seriously enough to protect himself from my punches and attack me with his own. It does something to a boy, when he is taken seriously, and the boy inside me felt honoured.
Through this, I also learned to respected myself more. I also started to see that, when other men first met me, they did not automatically judge me as pathetic, soft, weak, and therefore, not being worthy of respect...yes, even men like them — the 'type' (if such a thing should even exist) of men whom I had grown up fearing, seeing them as unfeeling and cold, cruel in their outward coarseness...
I learned that I was indeed a warrior inside, and that I was not in any way inferior to any of the more-trained and better-developed 'warriors' I ever saw.
And, surprisingly, instead of making me more fierce or driven to prove myself, that realisation made me relax a lot more — both in myself and in the presence of others.
Initiation works, on every level. The fighting spirit can and must be regained, in every man, regardless of his age or physical abilities. Only then would that man, and those around him, truly know peace.
* * *
There are many stories from that time that I want to share with you; but there is one particular moment from all those years which, although seemingly insignificant, is I think worth sharing.
I was sparring against someone, I don't remember who, and my nose was bleeding. My nose bled a lot in those days...
As the bell rang, I moved back into my corner where the coach — a burly middle-aged man with an 'old-school' approach to boxing and life — started talking to me about everything that I was doing wrong. Then suddenly, in the midst of his tirade, he reached down and grabbed the front of my T-shirt, pulled it up to my nose and squeezed it.
For a second, I froze inwardly. It always happened to me in such moments.
I could feel his strong fingers through the fabric. I could feel the strength of his grip around my bleeding nose. Then, after I had recovered from the initial jolt, I could also feel that he wasn't squeezing my nose to hurt or humiliate me, but to help me...
'Blow,' he said to me, the stronger, older hand clutching my nose in a vise-like hold. 'Blow!'
And I blew.
And while I was blowing, I felt like a boy who was being both reprimanded and cared for. In that moment, I felt safe.
The older, stronger hand, who had reached down and grabbed first my shirt and then my nose, had not attacked me after all. It had helped me.
That man, who had quite a tough past and at the present worked as a prison guard, did not know the impact that his behaviour, banter and all, had on me. Neither did I at the time. Now, years later, I realise that, while I was feeling weak and vulnerable — a little boy trapped in a big body — I was open to receive the masculine training, mentoring and indeed, the fathering which I had never had.
When you're in a 'strong place', feeling good and in control of your world, even God can't do too much for you. But when you're 'weak', when you are vulnerable and afraid, you are 'taken down a notch' — your self-made inner fortress of self-protection is 'torn down' to a degree, so that the boy inside can be reached, so that you can then be rebuilt...
Blessed indeed are the poor in spirit.
* * *
Needless to say, my body began to reflect the changes in my inner- and outer life; but nothing changed my body the way this new training did. I learned to move again, really move; and I learned to see myself not as someone who was slow and clumsy, but as someone who just hadn't been trained yet — in mind, body and spirit.
And my body began to feel alive again. And the pressure to perform my weightlifting rituals began to ease off. And the weight began to drop off me...and that before I had even made any changes in my diet or began addressing my addiction to food.
Having done a lot of work on and through my body and, in time, seen great results — like finally defeating the depression that held me back from living through the body and tapping into more and more of life as I deconstructed the unhealthy, false person that I had become — I had no time or desire to look into doing boxing training again. Those times were hard and challenging. Even the training in the years after my initial time of testing (and humiliation, at least in my eyes) in the public boxing classes, when I trained and sparred with my friend Nat Clark on a weekly basis — even those sessions were too tough for me to be remembered fondly. I did not miss that intensity one bit.
And even though I have retained some knowledge of the training and techniques, and by continuing to use them in my work with men, I have remained on 'friendly' terms with boxing, I did not really want to go there again on that summer day.
As far as I was concerned, my (physical) journey with boxing was done. It had helped my ability to throw a punch and become more confident and generally 'sharper', shed some bulk, become generally healthier and, most importantly, teach other men how to use those techniques to better themselves in many areas of life — from aerobic fitness, co-ordination, explosiveness and speed, to regaining their long-lost confidence and self-respect'...
Boxing, I thought, had served its purpose in my life. I loved to use it helping others, but it was no longer for me. I had more important things to do with my time. As for working out, I had easier things to do...
But the heavy bag that hung next door had other things to say. It stood there, beckoning, challenging, defying me...
So I decided to give it a go...
It was very hard.
But well worth it!
I must say here that although I have benefitted immensely from the boxing training, and even after years of sparring and seeing for myself that I could indeed take a punch as well as deliver it, I still feel that I am lacking in my warrior ability and confidence. Perhaps this is still lingering because, although I pushed myself to attend their classes and train, I refused the offers of the trainers to actually prepare me for a real amateur boxing bout. Frankly, the thought terrified me — not to mention the idea that if I really wanted to have a chance of winning at the time, I had to drop at least fifteen kilos off my 14+ stone body if I really wanted to have a chance, and not be put in the 'big boy' division!
But none of this is an excuse...the truth was simple: I was afraid.
Thinking about it now, I can honestly say that I was afraid not only from the grueling training I would've had to undergo if I wanted to even get to the point of simply being ready for a fight, but I was, most of all, afraid of the boxing match itself. I was afraid of facing an opponent who, unlike most people I sparred with, would try to destroy me, and would allow me no excuse for losing — a man who was in my weight class and had been trained the way I had.
Being alone, with another man in the ring, with no excuses and no way out...
In the words of Adam in the garden of Eden, 'I was afraid, and so I hid.'
I think that, back then, in that relatively early, fragile stage of my inner rediscovery and development, if had I lost a fight, fairly, to another man, this might have brought me more harm than good. It might've taken me a few steps back. But a loss would not have been nearly as harmful to my pursuit of inner integrity, than if I had won. I was not yet in a position when I felt secure enough in my manhood, so that a large part of my self-respect did not depend on winning or losing a boxing bout.
So, for better or for worse, I left the world of boxing without ever fully entering it, without going 'all the way' — but what I did gain, in both my spirit and body, was indeed priceless.
End of Part Five.
'My Fitness Journey':
'On Taking a Punch' by The Art of Manliness
'Boxing: a Manly History of the Sweet Science of Bruising' by The Art of Manliness