A Personal Taste of Nelson de Gouveia

nelson boxing gym

Boxing and the Fear of Being Punched

in Life by

Today was the first day I had my ass handed to me in a boxing lesson.

For the first time in the boxing gym I've been training in, I deliberately allowed someone to punch me in the face.

Since January I’ve been attending the fitness classes, visiting twice or three times a week. All year I’ve aimed for a better physique, wanting to look good for the day I finally marry the lady that has been the best person I’ve ever met.

But each time I went, I saw other guys training, hitting each other in small sparring sessions, weaving and ducking, swerving and swooping. All for avoiding being hit, and getting hit.

And each time I wondered, can I do that?

So tonight, for the first time, I joined a class…and it was terrible. I had no form, my mind was racing and I kept averting my eyes. I was punched, slammed, hit and rocked. Relentlessly and without remorse, the blows kept coming. And I write this now, the evening after the lesson, with a very tender nose.

Halfway through the lesson we went into the ring, and I was fighting an opponent for 30 seconds, thinking I’d be swopped out quickly due to my lack of skills. Our trainer kept me in though and my opponent was replaced twice. Jabs, hooks, all landed on me, and the feeling of fear, of hurt, of pain overwhelmed me. I had to time-out. I jumped out of the ring, threw everything off and lay on the side, about to cry. It was unfair, why was I failing miserably? Why did I think I could do this? Who cares even if I try?

Nothing was as it seems though. As it being a boxing class, the others all knew it was my first time and allowed me leave to take a second worth of a break or two in-between each 2minute session. They gave me breathing room, allowed me the chance to catch my focus.

So I returned. And in each turn, I knew it wasn’t about them, it was about me. I wasn’t fighting them…I was fighting myself. Regardless of my lack of skill or expertise, it was about my lack of courage. Can I do it?

shai mashugana boxing
This guy punched me hard and fast, but worth it.

Short answer: no. I am not a boxer, but most importantly I am also not a confronter. From the beginning I was reluctant to even hit anyone. Deep inside, there was a morbid fear of hitting them in the face, knowing that by instinct if I did so I would be at the receiving end of a retaliatory strike. It was hereditary, years of conditioning to avoid getting hurt.

But within all that fear came anger. So much anger, boiling up to the surface and raging from the unfairness and the bad luck of being the recipient. I volunteered myself to be here, but yet my mind returned to a time when I didn’t.

With each strike that landed on the side of the head, it wasn’t a fellow student who I had done push-ups at the gym with before; it was a bully that clapped the back of my head in the hallway and ran laughing, or the fucktard that sent a half-eaten apple flying at my head, chunks embedding into my eye.

As each blow that shot pain through my nose to my brain, it wasn’t by a 20-something who joined last April and is just trying to stay fit; it’s my sister yelling at me, my parents hitting me, or my brothers ignoring me. My ex-girlfriends screaming at me, all of them reminding me about the bad things I’ve done. How I don’t think of them, how I’ve wronged them and how I’m worthless, will die alone and go to hell.

For every reach I made to hit my opponent, it wasn’t someone I barely knew that ducked and responded with a good hit. It was a job interview failed, a report that was scrutinised. A rejection, a disciplinary. It was blank faces as a joke or an entire set didn’t land. A “no” from everyone in a meeting room after I offered a suggestion. A scam artist that prevailed.

Tonight, I felt so much rage. Not only was I getting punching and missing my own, I was fighting the obstruction of a mouthguard impeding my breathing, the headgear that felt restrictive and unfamiliar, and all the punches I took. My annoyance turned to anger. And the anger wasn’t channeled into a focussed determination, but with brutal animosity I lunged out. I pushed back, made excuses, overthought yet couldn’t make anything out. As I got hit, I wanted it to stop, to end, no more. 

And yet when I looked up, I didn’t see people that were disappointed, dissatisfied or indifferent to my presence. I didn’t see a self-involved mother or a depressed father, an angry sibling or a reluctant employer. I didn’t see a friend that never really opens up and never speaks to me again, or someone from my past I cared for accusing me without provocation. It's not a poor person that wishes I would die because I’m white and privileged.

No, instead I just saw a guy. Someone that was once there where I was, for his own reasons. Someone that has his own journey, his own mistakes to make up for. Someone that wants to learn and do better, face his own demons and make amends regardless come what may. I caught his gaze each time, and in that extraordinary I was drawn back in.

It wasn’t about all that crap I grew up with and been accustomed to. He was testing himself too. He was offering me the chance to hit him, and it didn’t matter if it did. He was going to hit me regardless, but the rules allowed that I returned the favour. His personal safety was his own property, and in his eyes I could tell he was saying, “please hit me, I’m still learning”.

So my lesson tonight was not really about swerving or weaving, hooks or jabs. It wasn’t about who was awesome. Tonight was probably the most important lesson I’ve learnt for a very long time, a lesson we keep forgetting  to teach ourselves. It’s written in books we never bother to read, blaring at us from tiny screens in memes and stupid Instagram posts, and even from the smallest advice peers provide in small teardrop moments of closeness. 

It’s the lesson I’ve kept teaching myself in all my years of living in London on my own, or doing stand-up comedy, or being a good husband for a gracious wife.

Can I do it? No…but I really want to try.

Check out my Instagram story where I watched guys I usually fitness train with battle it out.

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