“We gon’ float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Ah! Rumble, young man rumble!”
-Do I really need to attribute this quote?
I took many walks during my first year in Korea, mostly by myself, and often at hours my mother would probably rather I had spent indoors. I needed a hobby, but I didn’t have any real interest in Taekwondo, and decided that I wasn’t quite depressed enough to start frequenting bars alone. However, there was one thing that the city offered which I had never been able to find in the small towns in which I had always lived: boxing. Not some eastern variant on the sweet science, where they bow before landing a right hook flush on their opponent’s jaw, but western style boxing taught by far east Koreans.
When I started going to the Lion Boxing Gym (“Raeeyon Bokshing,” in the local parlance), there were few if any members who spoke both English and Korean. Having only studied Korean for seven weeks at the time, my singular saving grace was that Korean “bokshing” terminology consists largely of loan words from English. My coach, the 1980 Korean Flyweight Champion, taught me the “whook (hook),” “jabuh (jab),” “uppoh (upper),” and my personal favorite, the “won too (one two).”
Perhaps you have seen a movie in which an elderly gentleman or lady, of some Asian extraction, seems to be either showering strangers with delicious food, or scolding them for something, anything. If ever a stereotype did, that one holds water. The guys at the gym were, like the bathroom and workout facilities, rough in the Clint Eastwood sense of the word. There is clearly something to be said for the military conscription they endured. When I returned to the US and tried to find a boxing gym, for a while everywhere I went I heard the same spiel: you shouldn’t be using the ring, or even the heavy bag, without supervision, a legal affidavit, a full medical exam, and a wholesome breakfast filled with vitamin D. In the Lion gym, by contrast, they would occasionally throw the pencil-thin, bespectacled middle-school students (sent by executive order of their mothers to man up) into the ring for a few rounds of hilarity for the spectators, and panic attacks for the participants. When I would throw the wrong punch or weave incorrectly during mitt work, the coach would smack me with whichever hand he thought would reach my temple fastest. “Ayu! You bastard, I said ‘won too!”
Many writers have made the boxing ring out to be some kind of battleground for men of Herculean strength. It isn’t; it’s just another athletic stage, albeit one I found more instructive than many others. Among the things learned: defense is key. My usual sparring partners were much more experienced than I was, and while they weren’t out to scar any green thumbs like myself, all it took was one good sting on my part to make them remind me who was superior in the ring. In my third sparring session a wiry Muay Thai specialist named Min Hyok, no more than 150 pounds, knocked my 180 pound frame to the mat not once, but twice, within three rounds (followed of course by the customary denouement: the post fight pat on the back and cool-down chatter designed to reinforce that, while he was clearly competent in wiping the floor with my fractured remains, he would never do so without my express permission). I wanted to cry afterwards, but apparently the blows jarred my tear ducts out of commission.
While I was learning to cover my head, I was also picking up bits of Korean that the language school I attended couldn’t teach. I learned, to both the chagrin and amusement of my more metropolitan friends, how to speak in dialect and how to swear. More importantly, I learned how to understand the previously incomprehensible chatter of the Korean ajosshi (아저씨, middle-aged man), whose accent is at least as strong as that of a South Boston resident. My Korean friends assure me that if I had wrinkles and a different skin tone I would make a good Korean grandfather (if only a mildly literate one).
Before I became proficient in the language, the members of the gym were largely a mystery. They don’t speak English, and without Korean any discourse with them had to be limited to gestures and cursory interpretations. Gaining competency in Korean was a bit like getting a decoder ring in the mail, and finally solving the code I had been looking at for the past several months. I was thankful when the secret message turned out to be something other than “Drink more Ovaltine.”
Min Hyok, who, as previously mentioned, had wiped the floor with me, also turned out to be an amiable fellow for whom the fitness-boxing ladies at the gym (by far the best part of my evenings) always seemed to be gunning. I sat and talked with him most nights while taking off my hand wraps and boots; sometimes about the ladies, sometimes about boxing, sometimes about both. He had spent some time, he told me, as a professional Muay Thai fighter in Thailand. I asked him if the women were pretty because, well, at eighteen years old what else is there to know about a country? He responded that yes, they were quite attractive, but with a significant catch. One day while eating lunch he had asked his friend to introduce him to an attractive girl milling about the training facility. The friend, shaking his head and making an “x” with his arms, pointed out the adam’s apple on the lady’s neck.
Hyun-Il, or as I called him, “hyung (elder brother),” was my main sparring partner, and like a child who has recently discovered caffeine, a force to be reckoned with. I don’t remember what he did for employment (outside of the occasional professional fight), though I do recall that his justification for wearing a gaudy white suit was that he was a “gentleman.” A cultured one at that, he enjoyed a wide variety of exotic music. His favorite song was an American techno piece whose lyrics included such poetic lines as “pussy pussy dicky dicky tonguey tongeuy licky licky.” He made sure to blast it on the speakers whenever he was about to spar.
While warming up to the song one day I asked him, “Hyung, do you know what that song’s lyrics are?”
“No,” he replied.
“Ah…that so?” He smiled, and continued his workout.
As my departure drew nearer, the coaches said that they wanted to take me out for a farewell lunch. After finishing my penultimate workout with them, the three of us went to a Korean barbecue dive in one of the alleys surrounding the gym. I know that the men weren’t poor, but neither were they particularly wealthy. The question of who would cover the bill, however, was never much of a question. Growing up, my coach told me, he never had a ready supply of food, much less the means to eat at restaurants. “I had no rice. No money!” Like most Koreans I met, he seemed happy to currently be in a position to offer a meal.
The next day, after the final mitt workout with my coach, I gave him an American style bear hug, which, though it confused him a bit (Middle-aged Korean men are not much for physical contact), he probably chalked it up to simply another mysterious cultural difference. I had an appointment for which I was already late and so I hurriedly showered and dressed. My coach had left on an errand and wasn’t back by the time I left, but I figured that I would see him sometime soon.
I did, in fact, see him exactly one year later, only hours after I had arrived in Seoul. My apartment was in the building directly across from the gym, and I decided that during the summer I would take advantage of the free time I was afforded as a student at language school. I would spend around two hours in the gym most days, not necessarily because I was an exercise fanatic; in part I needed something to take my mind off of the copious amount of alone time I had.
In many ways boxing constitutes a way for me to compensate for my various shortcomings. I don’t dare say that this is the correct approach (in fact I often question it), but there is something inherently, almost stupidly, masculine about the sport. When I was a freshman in college, before I had even had my first sanctioned match, a drunk student on my floor attempted to start a fight with the more sober me. Several of our classmates held him back as I entered my room to sleep. The next day I seemed to have gained a newfound respect from the school community: apparently someone had told the drunken student that I was a triple degree black belt, a Kendo master, a fencer, and the Korean boxing champion (none of which, sadly, were true). I took a Korean girl on a date shortly thereafter and she was rather disappointed when I told her that I was not, in fact, her country’s champion. But it didn’t seem like such a bad title, and so I jumped at the chance to enter the National Korean Collegiate Tournament, a novice-level event for university kids, that summer.
In a sport where strength seems paramount, there is a great deal of emphasis on decreasing size. Everyone wants to drop a weight class, thinking they will have some advantage as a big fish in a smaller pond. I’m not sure how accurate this logic is (I’ve known a number of people who found themselves so exhausted by weight loss that they could hardly throw a jab come the date of their fight), but I bought into it, rightly or wrongly. At my lowest, I dropped below 160 lbs, at a height of six feet and a normal weight of somewhere around 175. For a month and a half I ate less than I wanted, drank less than I wanted, and frankly, I didn’t mind. I wanted the middleweight title, even if it was only a novice-level accolade.
I improved my Korean that summer, to be sure, but I wasn’t terribly concerned about that. Though one never knows the ultimate outcome of seemingly insignificant events (my life since age fourteen is in large part a result of an article assigned by an otherwise forgettable ninth grade literature teacher), at the time I couldn’t say that I had made much tangible progress toward my future that summer. I didn’t find an internship that might lead to employment, I didn’t gain any college credits, and I didn’t even have a girlfriend. But I did have goals: namely I needed to beat three people in sanctioned fights.
I had trouble keeping food down at the tournament. I had diarrhea two or three times per day all three days of the tournament, and pissed in steadily decreasing intervals until the start of each fight. This was not helped by the food options available; my teammates, being Korean, ate tofu paste soups with rice for breakfast, which, while I consider a suitable side dish, by no means qualifies as a meal. When I mentioned this the trainer turned to me and said, “Ya! You are domestic product! You can eat this too (야, 넌 국산제품이야! 너두 이런 걸 먹으면 돼),” before kindly ordering me two fried eggs.
Boxing seems like an individual sport, and in many ways it is. There are no teammates to tag in when the opponent seems too strong, you can’t blame your loss on poor play on the part of anyone but yourself. Yet while in this sense it is an individual sport, the fight in the ring is fundamentally a team effort. There is of course the sparring with fighters at the gym, the mitt work with the trainers, the instruction from sonbae (선배), one’s seniors in the gym. More pressing, though, is the need for a group of friends at your corner. Of course the boxer wants to win; why else would he enter the tournament? The seconds, however, seem to live almost vicariously through the fighter, and not in the selfish manner one sees countless soccer moms and dads prod their children towards the high school varsity squad. I remember there being people all around the ring, but I only remember hearing and seeing my seconds and friends. Taking out someone’s mouthpiece and spraying them with water may seem inconsequential in a short three or four round amateur fight, but people aren’t solitary creatures. The ice bag on your neck lets you know that someone else wants the same thing you do.
I won, and then it was over. The tournament seemed increasingly less important, the competition increasingly less competitive, and my accomplishment increasingly less impressive. To quote Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t “want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” In the years since that tournament, having boxed in America against more legitimate talent, my estimation of my own boxing skills has only continued to decline. But I plan on earning a living outside the ring, and think I’ve learned enough about being “tough” to move on happily. That said, I can assure you that proficiency in the fistic arts has little to no bearing on one’s ability to hold onto a wallet full of cash and avoid dumpster diving for your iPhone at a McDonald’s on the edge of the Chicago housing projects when mugged at gunpoint. Hypothetically, that is.
At this point I imagine the (one) reader is probably growing tired of this tirade, so in the words of Roberto Duran, "No mas"