Cigar Aficionado

Rocky Road -- Our Man's Journey Into the World of Boxing

Volume Two: Getting Hit
Ever get punched in the stomach? I did. Not too long ago, I was punched in the stomach for six minutes -- a pair of three-minute rounds with one minute's rest in between.

"It sucks," said Jimmy Fusaro, after slamming me in the gut with his punching mitts. "There are better ways to spend a lunch hour."

Damn straight. While my buddies are off chomping burgers and smoking robustos, I'm training for my fight. At this point, eating raw eggs looks rosy.

In late January, I signed up to train for a "white-collar" boxing match in early May. (If you missed it, click here to read Part One of my boxing journal.) I'm working out with Jimmy at his gym in Manhattan called X-Fit, and this is the part where I get hit.

The early part of my program has been centered on conditioning, namely getting my cigar-smoking butt in (some form of) fighting shape. That means plenty of punching the heavy bag, punching the mitts, moving around in fighter style and doing many other exercises in three-minute bursts. It sounds easier than it is, but as the weeks pass, my wind is improving and I can do more.

One of Jimmy's tools that's paying dividends is a little contraption he calls the Gizmotron2000. It's a hellish device involving a chest harness and a bunch of cables. First, I get strapped into the harness, then Jimmy attaches cables to the harness and to the floor, which pulls my body down. That strengthens the legs. Then I take handles in each hand, attached to another cable that goes around a pole, and I punch against the power of the cable. That works the arms. Together, it's just plain hard.

The first time I do the exercise, I do it for a minute and a half. At the end, I slump to the floor like a beaten animal, sweat streaming from every one of my pumping pores. My shoulders ache. Like everything else, I have to do it two more times. The resistance makes me a stronger puncher and builds my endurance. Soon, I'm doing the exercise for a full three minutes.

The conditioning is proceeding nicely, but there's a technical problem. My jab sucks.

The jab is the ham sandwich of punches -- you see lots of them, and they should be simple but gloriously effective. For a right-handed fighter such as myself, the jab is a straight left hand, darting out in a straight line at the opponent's nose, chin or torso, with the left shoulder muscle tucked against the cheek of the thrower. At its best, it strikes like a cobra, fast and hard. Watch a Larry Holmes fight on ESPN Classic to see the very best of a heavyweight jab.

My jab at this stage is Holmsian, but it's more Sherlock than Larry. "I don't like that jab," says Jimmy.

Big guys like me tend to get gassed quickly. They fight in spurts, throwing hammer blows for a while, then taking it easy to get back energy. The heavyweights who can swing away for an entire round with knockout blows are rarities; those types of performances are typically reserved for mythic heroes like Rocky Balboa, or real-life supermen like Rocky Marciano, who had the stamina to throw haymakers into the wee hours of the morning. I'm no Rocky, imaginary or real, so I need my jab.

Jimmy explains that the jab should be my recuperating punch (he insists I'm going to tire, despite all the training). After I'm out of energy, instead of just standing there absorbing punishment in defense mode, I should snap the jab to keep the other guy away, Jimmy says. But the way I'm throwing it in late February wouldn't pop a ripe pimple on a teenager's forehead, let alone give pause to a 200-pounder.

"I want to hear that jab pop," he says, as I work another three-minute round in front of the heavy bag. This punch just isn't clicking for me, and I'm a little concerned. I'm flicking instead of jabbing. My deltoid needs to be closer to my chin, the punch thrown with a straight, hard fist. I spend the better part of the workout training the punch. Until this is ready, I'm not fit for sparring, let alone a real battle. I have two months to learn how to throw the most important punch in boxing.

By March, the jab has improved, and I'm learning how to get hit. Boxing is a two-part sport. There's the part where you hit somebody, then there's the part where he hits you back. I prefer the former, but I have to practice the latter if I'm going to survive my fight.

Jimmy is a good teacher, and he never rushes things. A week before he hits my stomach, he hits my arms. He instructs me to hold my arms in the defensive position, mitts close to my head, elbows against my body. Then he swings, harder and harder. That's another part of boxing -- strong arms. A boxer's arms are akin to a knight's armor at times; they need to be able to take a pounding to keep your head protected. But sometimes, your arms just aren't going to be there. That means you're going to get hit, and the punch is probably going to land on your head or in your guts.

No force on earth is going to make this head of mine any larger or thicker, but my stomach can certainly be tuned up. Now it's time to see if all those crunches have made a difference. Jimmy tells me not to defend myself, then starts whacking away at the belly.

His first punches are like little karate chops, fingers first into the stomach. "Keep your abs tight," he says. I thought they were tight. Then he starts hammering away.

I'm a pretty loquacious guy at times, but all I can manage here are a couple of loud OOFs and OOOMPs as his gloves slam into me, from the front, from the side, and occasionally into the oh-so-tender solar plexus. The sound from the hardest punches actually hurts my ears. Did I really sign on for this?

My stomach is sore the next day, but the ache feels good, like a rite of passage that I've passed.

Not long after, Jimmy and I put on the headgear and do some mock sparring. We trade punches for a few rounds, and Jimmy shows off some of the tricks he's learned from his years in the ring. Between rounds, he gives me advice. Turns out, I've let him dictate the ring pacing, which is a mistake. I'm following him, instead of going on my own attack. It's a new world. I back him into a corner a few times. I'm doing OK, until I throw a right cross that Jimmy masterfully slips, and I walk into his right hand.

I didn't see the punch until it hit my face. Jimmy has thrown it softly, and it makes the barest of contact, but my eyes open wide. I know what it would have felt like had he thrown it full power. Something tells me I would have smoked my next box of cigars through a straw.

I'm getting better, but there's a world more to learn. It isn't long before I do this for real.

Photos by Mike Marsh

Follow senior editor David Savona's path to the ring here on Lessons at X-Fit are $70 per hour. To learn more about X-Fit, call 212-725-7991.

Volume Three: Sparring