It wasn't supposed to be this way. Boxing classes were supposed to transform me into one of those Abercrombie & Fitch shirtless studs, passing summer days by woodland rivers with college nymphets who rest their heads upon my organic fiber cargo shorts while they lay out in the nude. Even Lilia, who usually frets excessively over my smallest blisters and bruises, seemed to like the idea (notwithstanding the nymphets), perhaps relieved that her bookish boy was finally making with the macho.
"This ain't no bullshit Tae Bo. This ain't no ladies' gym," Sarge told me and two other new students during my first class at the Atlanta Art of Boxing -- a Spartan gym with two battered boxing rings, an old car seat for a bench and punching bags patched with long lengths of duct tape. (For the record, several impressive women train at the gym, including Natalie Brown, the No. 1 ranked amateur welterweight in the country and No. 2 in the world.) The gym is run by Johnny Gant, who was once the No. 2 ranked professional welterweight in the world.
Sarge is actually Keith Samuels, three-time Georgia Golden Gloves Champion (bantam weight) and three-time North Atlantic Navy Champion. Nowadays he works as what he calls an "entertainment investigator," which I suspect involves hunting down peer-to-peer network traffickers and breaking their faces.
Sarge got his nickname from the boot camp techniques he uses in his boxing classes. (He was in the Navy for 17 years.) In one class, when we had already been training hard for an hour, he asked me how many push-ups I wanted to do. "Thirty," I replied rather optimistically. "How many you want to do?" he asked Alondo "Nine Iron" Brewington, a software analyst and golf fanatic who had joined the class the same week as me. "Thirty," he said. He asked one more student. "Thirty," again. So Sarge said, "OK, 30 plus 30 plus 30 is 90, so we're going to do 90." Yeah, he's that kind of hard ass.
The class is definitely old school. We do sit-ups, push-ups, deep knee bends. We jump rope, throw medicine balls at each other and practice uppercuts by ducking under a clothesline. It was Sarge who suggested the Epsom salt. (I imagine a "bullshit Tae Bo" instructor would have had me soaking in lemongrass and blunted pine needles.)
I hadn't joined the class expecting to be any good. That whole "pen is mightier than the sword" thing is just something we writers say because our atrophied arms can't actually lift swords, and we hope our nemeses (yeah, we use words like that to confuse them) will agree to duel us with fountain pens at 20 paces.
So when Sarge came over and stopped me a few minutes after I started practicing jabs on a punching bag, I assumed I was doing something horribly wrong. "Have you taken boxing lessons before?" he asked me. I told him that I hadn't. He seemed surprised and told me that my form was exactly right.
My mind leapt wildly to thoughts of big-ticket title fights, dangerous sounding nicknames and what color of shiny shorts would best complement my complexion (a pale, freckled, Celtic pink). I'd have to rewrite the adjectives of my life story, replacing "studious" with "dauntless" and "friendly" with "fierce." I would need to cultivate some menacing affectations.
My stepmom, Kammie, was not at all surprised when I told her that her gentle stepson could throw a good punch. "Pent-up aggression," she pronounced. "I figure a quiet guy like you must have a lot of it."
Explosive inner demons or not, my flights of pugilistic fantasy were short-lived. My boxing form was good, but I had neither the strength nor the speed to make it count.
Every Wednesday is sparring day. The advanced students get into the ring and spar with each other. Beginning students spar with Sarge, who doesn't hit back (though he warned us he would "tap" us if we dropped our guard). Inside the ring, I hit Sarge in the head, in the arms, in the ribs, in the chest, in the stomach ... over and over with all the force I could find, but still he kept yelling: "Come on, hit me! Get aggressive!" If I was hurting him at all, I certainly couldn't see it. "Nonstop punches!" he shouted, and I flailed my fists around in some crazy kind of hissy fit.
Sarge is substantially shorter than I am, and probably weighs a bit less. (It was his small stature that first prompted him, at 14 years old, to start training as a boxer.) But he's built like an ox. When my punches weren't aggressive enough to satisfy him, he pushed me away as easily as an ordinary mortal might brush away a yipping lap dog.
So far, I've only been hit once -- and not that hard -- by a fellow student who had misunderstood Sarge's directions, but I lived on Advil for the first three weeks. Punching the bags sent shockwaves up my arms and rattled my skull. The muscles of my back and chest seized up and spasmed under the unaccustomed demands I made of them. One night, it took me a half-hour to crawl out of bed and stumble to the bathroom (for more Advil), finding creative ways to move my body without firing the muscles of my torso.
Here's a little tip: Never expect sympathy from a man called "Sarge." I came to class one day with my chest and back still cramping from the sparring two days before. I explained this to Sarge and told him I would have to be selective about what I did that day. "You mean you're sore," he said, and he pushed me as hard as ever.
With Sarge shouting at me, I discovered that I could hit the bags hard, even when I was hurting. I fought through the pain, and eventually it went away.
I'm still a long, long way from that A&F porn shoot, but my arms and shoulders are noticeably better defined. My abdomen and back are dramatically stronger. In the ring, I move in on Sarge with greater confidence, if still without much efficacy. And I haven't needed an Epsom salt bath in more than a week.
The Atlanta Art of Boxing is at 96 Linden Ave. Classes are $150 a month, or $300 prepaid for three months. Gym access only is $50 a month. 404-870-8444. www.artofboxing.net.