The big question for me on this Sunday morning is whether I can punch a girl in the face. A related and equally vexing question is how I will feel if some girl punches me in the face. A subsidiary concern is whether, if I manage to punch at all, I will punch like a girl. The way, I imagine, I have always punched. Being a girly-man and all.I am standing in Sully's Gym, near Bloor and Lansdowne, staring up at a photograph of its one-time proprietor, Sully (no longer with us), and remarking to myself that he bore more than a passing resemblance to Liberace. Clearly, I'm a little desperate for homo reference points that might make me feel comfortable. I never expected to enter a gym quite this butch.
I'm used to the sterile, muted gloss of the Central YMCA. Nothing like that here. This is very neighbourhood. It's on the grungy side of authentic. A real, regulation-size boxing ring in the centre of the room. Those big, heavy bags dangling from the ceiling like so many hanged men. For god's sake, there's even a signed photograph from Sylvester Stallone ("To Joe, A real champ").
And lots of photos of tough young guys who might like to get their hands on me -- though not, I'm guessing, in ways I'd like. I'm here because two friends, filmmakers Maya Gallus and Justine Pimlott, have just completed a six-part series on women's boxing, called Punch Like a Girl. (It premiered on the Life Network October 11.) They tell me I should try a boxing class; they've recently gone coed. They introduce me to Savoy Howe, the young woman who started what she calls the Newsgirls Boxing Club.
I don't tell her, right off the top at least, that boxing, predictably for someone of my class and lefty/liberal sentiments, is a major creep-out, like bullfighting. Mind you, I know it only from the papers. From reading about big guys who pound each other into imbecility for big bucks. Rape girls. Bite ears off. And there are other, more personal, disincentives. If my father could have been called an artist with his fists, then Mommy and my brothers and I were certainly his canvas.
There are 11 of us this Sunday morning, nine women including Savoy, and two men -- a friendly young playwright named Wes Berger and me. The class lasts two hours. The first half is more or less a version of what you might get in any aerobics class. It's tough: skipping, jumping-jacks, push-ups, various kinds of sit-ups. Savoy monitors and encourages it all, stop-watch in hand.
Then we "wrap." I like this part -- it reminds me of how, as an alter boy in the Catholic church, I would put on my vestments and watch the priest move methodically through the ritual donning of his. The wrap is a long, narrow strip of cloth that's wound in a very particular way around your wrist, fingers and thumb to steady and protect them for what's coming. And what's coming is a series of punching exercises that climax with sparring. You shadowbox, facing yourself in a mirror. You punch those big bags. You try to keep a little bag punched into perpetual movement. (It seems impossible.) I'm guided through all this by Christine Brubaker, vivacious and encouraging. Then I'm facing her in the ring.
I haven't the faintest desire to hit her. But Savoy is showing me that, if I step to the side as Brubaker punches at my face, I will discover an unprotected quarter that will allow me to punch her in the stomach, the back, give her an upper cut to the jaw and then punch her in the side of the head.
We do this repeatedly and, for me, gigglingly, since I'm making only ritual gestures of the punches. Till near the end of our time, when I'm just a bit slow and her glove just grazes my nose (prominent target that it is). I'm startled. There's a split second of bristling indignation. Then smiles. Of course. We're civilized. It was an accident. And my time is over. But I stay to watch Berger spar with Sarah Burns, who I discover later is a pacifist and practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.
Watching them makes me crazy. He's a tall guy; she's a short woman. He has long arms, so he can keep her at bay, no problem. He's not really hitting her; his role in this exercise, Savoy explains, is merely to be defensive, to fend her off, but it seems so vastly unfair, she flailing at him with all she's got, he dancing out of her way, using those long arms to keep her out of his space, to make a gesture of a punch he could clearly deliver if this were for real.
At the end of their three rounds, I speak with them. They're exhausted and sweating. They're also extremely thoughtful and analytical. Savoy had already explained to me the differences between the Olympic style of amateur boxing ("You don't have to clock your opponent, just show the judges you've got a clear shot") and the brawling style of professional boxing ("It's like volunteering for a car crash"), so our discussion can take that much for granted. They speak of the sport's intimacy (Wes: "It's a kind of dance. When it's over, you embrace"). Of its emotional weight (Sarah: "I do it to take up space. It's the opposite of what we're taught as women"). Of its contract with nature (Sarah: "It's a clean, controlled expression of our animal side"). Of its creativity (Sarah: "There are three in the ring -- two fighters and The Fight").
I think later of the ways we have chosen to cope with our deepest fears. It seems to me that we often opt not to flee them but to face them head on -- in the context of ritual. The secular version of this (though it didn't begin that way) we call theatre. Incest (Oedipus), human sacrifice (Iphigenia At Aulis), senility and madness (King Lear): these are dramas (and there are many more) that put us in the ring with our deepest anxieties. There is religion itself, with its ritualized re-enactments of its founding traumas. Like Passover. Like the Stations of the Cross. And now, I'm beginning to sense, boxing. I'm still not sure whether I could punch a girl in the face. Or whether I could take a punch. But as to whether I punch like a girl? No way. I'm nowhere near that good.