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Where's your left hand?" By way of reply, I pull my fist back, getting my guard up. I throw a combination, but leave my left by my hip. SMACK! I get tagged above the ear with a mitted fist, and I snap back my guard before I get hit again.

When I prepaid for this lesson, little did I know another bill was due -- one of pain. Welcome to the odd world of boxing, where learning the sweet science sometimes entails getting hit.

Boxing is a primal yet beautiful sport, and learning even its basics is a noble endeavor. With a handful of lessons, you can learn to throw a punch, how to stand in a bar fight, how to guard your face and ribs. Stick with it and you might feel inspired to climb into combat at Gleason's Gym, the Brooklyn temple of pugilism.

That's real boxing. Not Tae Bo. Not punching springy bags that make weak jabs look like former heavyweight Earnie Shavers' haymakers. You want lessons with a pro.

After the trainer who believed in the pain principle flees town, I meet with Jimmy Fusaro, the owner of Manhattan's X-Fit (212-725-7991). A boxing ring commands center stage in his gym, flanked by heavy bags. Fusaro, a former middleweight boxer and kick boxer, is a cool character, with a sleepy look that says "I could kill you but I know I won't have to." He wraps my hands so masterfully I feel like I can punch through brick. After working on my rough edges, he puts me in front of a heavy bag. "Three minutes," says Jimmy.

The bell rings. I jab. I cross. I right-hook. Then Jimmy tells me to avoid the ineffective punch, which throws you off balance. I switch back to the cross and add uppercuts. I'm flagging, but the bag becomes an enemy, a creature who won't fall. I hit it repeatedly, urgently, digging in my fist as the bell rings.

My muscles are burning. Boxers are in tremendous shape. Playing one for a couple of hours a week is humbling and invigorating. Give me more.

Learning how to topple Apollo Creed will cost you $70 an hour with Fusaro. You can also try Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles (323-461-4170) or Pug's Boxing Gym in Chicago (847-359-7847.) To read more about one amateur's perilous journey into the world of boxing, go to www.cigaraficionado.com.