“Two to the body, right hook to the head.”
Smack, smack, smack. Alex’s eyes were locked on the blue pads in my hands; nothing else existed.
“Two to the body, left hook to the head.”
Smack, smack, smack. We were both in white tank tops, black shorts and black boxing boots. The only difference between trainer and trainee was that my outfit was drenched in sweat while his looked fresh off the laundry line.
“Two jabs to the head, right straight to the body.”
“Oof – I said two to the head,” I repeated, rubbing my throbbing side.
“That was two Nate,” Alex said, confusion distorting the fierce concentration on his face.
Hands of lightning indeed.
“You retired just in time Natty,” Tommy called from ringside. “You’re moving like a glacier in there!”
“Would you like to show me how it’s done?” I asked, offering the practice pads to him. Tommy shook his head, put up his hands, and backed off a few steps. “Why not – are you running late for your daily octogenarian meeting again?”
“You’re doing just fine in there,” he replied. “You might want to put in some work on his head movement before you call it a night though – his footwork is great and his punching is solid. Get his defense in the same league as his offense and he’ll be a nightmare in there. I’m off to Sunday dinner – I’ll see you boys tomorrow.”
I thanked Tommy and Alex did the same before we squared to face each other again. I held the pads at shoulder level and took a deep breath.
“Your head doesn’t need to be a constantly moving target,” I told him, “it needs to be an unpredictable target. If you can make your opponent think you’re moving right when you’re about to go left then you’ll have plenty of counterpunching opportunities. Counterpunches finish more fights than anything else, so we’re going to work on slipping punches.”
Alex nodded and brought his gloves to chin level. Of their own accord my hands began to rise to mirror his stance before I caught them in the act. The corners of his lips twitched slightly – that was the third time he had caught me doing that in the last hour.
“If I come at you from the sides I want you to duck under and fire a hook to the body,” I said. “Slip my jabs and come back with a straight over top of them. Ready? Let’s go.”
He was slow to escape my blows for the first minute or so but then he found his rhythm and suddenly I was having trouble getting my pads in place before his punches arrived.
“That’s right – make me miss but stay in range so you can hit me before I can set up my defense again. Make me hesitate before throwing that punch again. Get in my head and you have the match half won already.”
Alex kept dodging and throwing crisp punches as sweat finally began to form on his forehead. A grim smile crept onto my face and I pushed harder, wanting to find his limits, to see how he would perform in those final four rounds known as the championship rounds.
“Okay, that’s enough for today,” I said five minutes later as I sucked down air and his chest rose and fell in ragged waves. “Get a good sleep and I’ll see you tomorrow morning – we’ll take a break from the physical and spend the day on the mental, alright?”
“Sounds good Nate – thank you again. I feel so much more confident in my abilities now. I think you find my weaknesses and beat them into strengths, like a hammer on cold metal.”
“I’m trying my best,” I told him as I sagged onto the stool in the corner. He flashed me a smile before slipping between the ropes and dropping to the floor like a cat from a table. I watched him leave the room and tried not to be jealous of his youth and vitality.
I watched the two businessmen sparring in the next ring while I waited for my heart to return to its normal pace. Their red protective headwear and top of the line training wear made them look like Olympic hopefuls; their technique, on the other hand, reminded me of a butcher with a dull knife – brutal and ineffective.
Once my energy was restored, and I had decided which of the ten things they were doing wrong was the easiest to address, I exited my ring and approached theirs. They listened attentively while I suggested some minor adjustments, thanked me sincerely, and returned to exchanging looping haymakers while offering little defense outside of prayer.
I shrugged, accepted that they were happier doing it their own way, and hit the showers.
I arrived home just before six o’clock and found my sous chef cutting up parsnips and carrots in the kitchen as she was serenaded by The Four Tops. I gave Cara’s red curls a quick kiss before pulling the chicken broth out of the fridge. We had made a huge batch of it the day before and the remainder was tucked away in multiple containers in the freezer.
“How’s Alex doing?”
“Good… really good, actually. I think he’ll be more than ready for next weekend. He’ll still be rough around the edges at the opening bell but his athleticism will take care of that.”
“I wish I could come,” she said as she diced up the last carrot before throwing it into the sizzling oil with the dancing onions.
“Me too – I’m really sorry I’ll have to miss your basketball game,” I said as the phone rang in the other room. “But you know I won’t miss another one, no matter what, right?”
“I’ve heard that one before Daddy,” she said with a smile that softened the blow. I left to answer the phone, wondering who would be calling; the boys usually made plans at the gym and I wasn’t even sure how many of them had my home number.
“Hi Nate, it’s Dawn.” My stomach made an uncomfortable maneuver before righting itself. “Sorry to interrupt your Sunday night.”
“It’s not a problem, at all, no big deal.” I clamped my mouth shut and squeezed my eyes shut. I felt like I had just gone from over the hill at the gym to a fumbling teenager at home. “What can I do for you?”
“I know it’s last minute but I was wondering if you’d mind coming tomorrow night instead of Tuesday,” she said. “My Monday night had to go out of town for business and wants to switch nights. If it’s a problem…”
“No, that’s perfectly fine. I’ll see you then.”
“Okay, great. Thanks Nate, have a good night.”
I replaced the phone in its base and looked down at the street below. It looked like Alex wasn’t going to be the only one working on his mental game tomorrow.
“Two to the body, right hook to the head.”