by Rebecca Kukla
I’m a 46-year-old philosophy professor and an amateur boxer. I didn’t start boxing until I was 43 years old, which is exceptionally late. I never expected to be able to compete, because of my late start, my age, and my deep lack of faith in my own athletic abilities. Also, most pragmatically, I never expected to be able to find a match, because according to the rules I can only fight people within 10 years of my age (namely, really old to be doing this!) and in my weight class, which is the rare under-105-pound or ‘light flyweight’ division (namely, reall small to be doing this!). But as some readers of this blog will remember, I got in the ring for my first sanctioned match last year. It was intensely exciting, and while I did not win, I held my own and everyone agreed it was an extremely close fight. That was more than good enough for me! I was thrilled that I had managed to get my skill level to the point where a real competition was plausible; that I had found a match; that I had mustered the courage to get in the ring; and that I had survived three rounds without getting knocked out and with my dignity intact.
It took a while to get to a second fight. In between I had surgery and a long recovery, a fight that got frustratingly cancelled at the last minute, and various other slowdowns. But this past Saturday I got back in the ring, once again fighting at the legendary and atmospheric Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. And I’m going to admit something that’s kind of at odds with a lot of the norms of this blog: I really, really, really needed a win.
I was coming off several months of personal, professional, and family stress – stress of the sort that eats at your self-esteem and your basic feelings of being a competent and worthy person. My boxing was stuck in a destructive spiral: Although I had been training really hard, the closer I got to fight time and the more anxious I became, the worse I got in the ring. When I sparred I felt like I was moving backwards instead of forwards. People yelled at me to be more aggressive, to be faster, to move more … and the more frustrated I got the less I could put all these pieces together. Things degenerated to the point where one coach who I respect enormously shouted at me in frustration that maybe I should consider a different sport. I left in tears. My trainer was coming up to New York from DC for the fight on his own dime, just to corner me, and my sweetie and my son came up with me too, and I felt like I would let all three of them down if I lost. I was beside myself with anxiety and self-doubt.
Making weight was easier than usual for me this time, as I had recently done a powerlifting competition and I was pretty good about not letting my weight bounce back up after the weigh-in for that. So a few days of low-sodium, high-fiber eating and a day of semi-dehydration let me weigh in safely at 101.2 pounds. My opponent weighed in at 100.6, so we were a perfect match. Getting into the ring was also a helpful mood-booster, as the crowd always enjoys seeing the tiny little women fight, so we were greeted with big cheers. (My sense is the tiny fighters and the giant fighters are the biggest crowd pleasers.)
As soon as the fight started, my anxiety let up quite a bit. I realized that unlike during the first fight, I could actually hear and focus on what my coach was telling me to do from the corner. The first time, the noise just overwhelmed me and I was too caught up trying to stay in the fight to have a lot of control over my strategy, but this time his orders translated almost immediately into my bodily responses. I could also tell quickly that I was doing a good job of ‘controlling the ring’ – that is, I was able to move my opponent where I wanted her in the ring, rather than chasing her around or running away from her. I could also tell that I was much better conditioned this time and the rounds were not going to tire me out (unlike last time when I almost passed out and threw up once I was done).
About half way through the first round I managed to get my opponent on the ropes and keep her there until the referee broke us up. I had tried to do that probably fifty times during sparring, and I never could manage it. I would always back off too soon, or my opponent would slip away from me. Once I had her on the ropes, somehow the last of my anxiety and under-confidence vanished. The rest of the fight was fun and I managed to stay aggressive right to the very end. My opponent and I were really well-matched and I think the fight was exciting the whole way through. (Oddly, it helped that I adore her. Counterintuitive as it may sound, I am much better at punching people who I like and care about outside the ring.)
To be honest, when they announced that I had won, I burst into tears of relief. Please understand that I really, truly don’t think that something like boxing should be all about winning, especially not when it’s just a hobby on top of a full life. But on this occasion, a win was something I needed. My sweet wonderful partner has told me several times that he would have been equally proud of me whether I had won or lost, because of all the hard work and the courage it took to get into that ring in the first place. I believe him and I see his point. But I felt like the universe had been harshing on me pretty hard, and a win was just what I needed.
Watch all three rounds here!
Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. She does research on the making of medical knowledge, health and risk communication, body diversity and inclusion, the culture of eating, and other issues relevant to this blog. She is also an amateur competitive powerlifter and boxer, a loyal and enthusiastic bike commuter and pleasure rider, and a certified sommelier. She sometimes runs races with other FFI folks and is training for the Key West Half Marathon in January. She lives in the middle of Washington, DC, with multiple human and non-human animal kin.