Cigar Aficionado

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

Volume Three: Sparring
"You're not a bleeder," Jimmy said.

That's one of those classic good news/bad news statements. Let's take it in parts. First, the good news: I'm not a bleeder. That's great. As a wannabe pugilist, training under the tutelage of Jimmy Fusaro at Manhattan's X-Fit to learn the sweet science of boxing, the fact that I don't cut easily can only be a good thing. Especially because eventually I'm going to step into the ring and do battle for real.

When you're a bleeder, and you box, things typically turn into a horror show. After a few rounds of getting smacked in the eyes, nose and chops, bleeders look as if they've been thrown through a window. Odds are, they're going to look even worse in the morning.

Chuck Wepner bled so easily he was dubbed "The Bayonne Bleeder." Ed Schuyler of the Associated Press once said Wepner would begin bleeding during the national anthem. In addition to being known for looking like a guy who kissed a lawn mower, Wepner was tough. In a fight in which the boxing world expected he would get murdered, he lasted 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali . He lost, but he got in a punch good enough to knock the champ down, and his gutty performance inspired Sylvester Stallone to hunker down in a closet and speed-write a script called Rocky.

So I'm no bleeder, and that makes me happy. But here's the bad news. How, you may ask, did Jimmy determine that I'm not a bleeder? He hit me.

Now I had been hit before (see Volume Two of my boxing journal) but that was different. Now, we were sparring. Very different. Very hard. And just a little bit scary.

The first time we sparred, Jimmy dropped his mitts -- those circular, flat things he uses to "catch" my punches and to occasionally hit me -- and bent down to pick up gloves. As in boxing gloves. Then he put in his mouthpiece and strapped on some headgear.

It was go time.

Call me a wuss, but there's something inherently terrifying about standing alone in a boxing ring watching an experienced boxer putting on boxing gear. Jimmy and I had traded punches before, but now he was gearing up for real hits. I was going to punch him, and he was going to punch me.

I'd been practicing on the heavy bag and his mitts for nearly two months now, but this was another world. I like hitting the heavy bag. First of all, it's a pretty hearty target, and very hard to miss. Second, it doesn't hit back. The mitts are great, too. Jimmy puts up the mitt, I aim my punch for the white circle, there's a loud pop and we move on. Sometimes he hits back, but usually he doesn't.

Not so when Mr. Fusaro's own skull is on the line. Jimmy fought as a middleweight, and now he weighs 168. I'm 50 pounds heavier. Sounds like Advantage: Savona, but it isn't. Weight is all I have on this guy. He has longer arms than a typical middleweight, so I don't have a reach advantage (at least not one to write home about), he doesn't get tired in the ring (at least not when I'm the one he's fighting) and he's a former pro.

Not to mention that he does this six days a week for several hours a day. I get paid to sit in a chair and smoke cigars while pecking at a keyboard. I should have some coworkers come into the gym and fire up Cuban cigars. I figure the smoke will slow him down, but I should be like Aquaman in the water; I can only get stronger in my natural, smoky element.

No time to think -- the bell rings. Jimmy comes at me, and very quickly his jab lesson snaps into perfect focus. I taste leather. Jimmy's gloves clomp into my mouth, ribs and protected forehead. I'm wearing headgear and a cup. The former helps keep me from getting cut, and I really hope I won't need the latter. I'm also wearing a mouthpiece, which will keep my teeth in my head.

None of these devices stops the hurt. Long ago Jimmy told me the headgear wouldn't help much, and he's right. A shot to the forehead rings my bell, despite the gear. As Jimmy feeds jabs into my teeth, I feel my lips being pressed into the plastic mouthpiece.

Shots to the head hurt. Shots to the body are bad, too, but Jimmy's strict regimen of crunches is paying off. I still don't have a six-pack, but my stomach is noticeably flatter than when I first embarked on this quest. More important, it's stronger. I can take a body shot without the punch sinking deep into my guts. It hurts, but it doesn't stop me.

The sparring tires me like nothing I've done before. Jimmy is extremely hard to hit. I make contact with jabs, and get him against the ropes at times to fire body blows. I feel good. My jab has some snap. Many of Jimmy's punches are landing, but I'm blocking my fair share. Some of his jabs hit my upturned gloves. Body blows are deflected with my arms, tucked against my body. I cease flinching at the jabs that stop a half inch short of my eye. I feel more comfortable.

And I get a good one in. Jimmy slides to his right to avoid my right hand, but moves into my left hook. My fist smacks his headgear and I see his head move back as he tucks his chin to his chest. I feel inspired.

After sparring, Jimmy puts me on the brown reaction ball. It used to dance away maddeningly when I was a novice, but now it's a slave to my fist. I hammer away at it for three minutes, feeling a groove. Sweat covers my body.

"When do I graduate?" I ask.

"You've already graduated," Jimmy answers. "You got hit in the mouth and you came back."

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 Four: Fight Night