“Thunder, thunder, lightening.”
Nabiha landed a cross to the head, a sharp left hook and a right roundhouse to the ribs that pushed me back a few paces.
I held up the Thai pads and watched her eyes for a flinch, a giveaway. The dark brown discs were still, on my chest. Her shoulders were static and her punches landed without warning. Jab, cross, jab, cross! Fast and strong, her leather fists smashed the leather pads with satisfying whacks. She moved in and out on her toes.
Her front teep kick took me by surprise and I fell back against the ropes and bounced forward.
“Come forward, yes!” As I placed the Thai pads, keeping up with her speed, she pummelled them “Aish, aish, aish!” breathing out with each strike, her eyes fixed and her mouth a grimace. A low roundhouse across the legs, a jab to the head, a cross to the body and a jumping roundhouse to the head.
“Ok, now take it easy, recover. Think about the combinations, think about the surprises. Keep your distance.”
Nabiha moved around the ring and I followed her. I moved in and raised my leg then pulled it down and aimed a cross to her head at the same time. She parried it and countered with a left hook and then I was too slow with the pads and she put a bony knee in my stomach. She almost winded me.
The bell rang. The three-minute round was up.
I put the pads down. Nabiha put her gloves together and bowed her head.
She dropped her guard and wiped the sweat from her brow on her T shirt. Her mascara had smudged on the crescent bone above her eyes. She pulled a glove off and undid the Velcro with a zip, then tightened the hand wrap carefully around her wrist. I whiff of stale sweat came my way.
“Good. Much sharper on the teeps. You’ve got rid of that flinch. I didn’t see it coming.”
“Yeah, thanks,” she said, drawing on her water bottle. “I’ve been thinking about it. Thought I’d iron out each crease. One at a time. Be methodical about it.”
She took off the other glove and pulled her long hair out of the ponytail and then tied it up again, smoothing the hair from her forehead, the sweat slicking it back.
“We need to make that left roundhouse a bit tighter though. The right one’s perfect but on the left you switch too big, then your leg goes right round the world before it lands. Too obvious. They’ll see it coming, get out the way and you’ll be off balance.”
“It’s powerful but too in your face, yeah?”
I motioned to her to leave the ring. I held the ropes up for her and she ducked under and I followed. Her ponytail was drenched with sweat. I took her up to the wall.
“Let’s wait for the next round.” She nodded. Breathed a while.
“You told your family about the fight yet?”
She looked at me like I couldn’t possibly understand. She might as well have rolled her eyes. Thing is, I’ve trained a lot of female fighters and most of the time it’s the same story, just told a different way. People always want to hold them back some way or other. Some people don’t even understand the sport per se. Let alone women competing. But it’s always different reasons than it is for men. For men their female relatives worry they’ll get badly injured. It can be bloody, everyone knows that. But when it comes to women some people don’t even want to understand why they fight, they don’t want to know what it means.
“Tell them, and soon. Or your head will beat you up before your opponent does. You’ve got three weeks. And you’re ready now – today. You could do this fight tomorrow, if it was just your body fighting. But it’s not only your body fighting.”
“I know, I know. When I‘m in the ring, it’s just me. I have only myself to rely on.”
“Your family will be there, before and after your fight, whether they support you or they don’t. Everything we do together, your body remembers. Don’t let them weaken your mind.”
“I can do this. I don’t need them.”
“No doubt, but this is holding you back, keeping the secret, worrying about it. It’s distracting, I can see it. Tell them. What’s the worst that could happen? If you don’t tell them, something like that might mean you lose your focus in the ring.”
It was quiet in the gym apart from Andy and Andrew who were pacing around like wild dogs. They were bored on the bags and wanted to spar in the ring. They’d only joined the gym a couple of weeks ago but they walked around the tiny basement like they were its biggest shareholders. They were both over six feet tall and built like inverted pyramids.
“Hey, you still using the ring?” I motioned for him to go ahead. “Thanks man. Hope we weren’t edging you out,” said Andy. He was wearing a sleeveless vest and the top of his arms ballooned out, the skin slick with sweat. A sour stench and strong after shave hung around him.
Andy said to Nabiha, catching her eye, “How’s it going?”
She looked up, not realising that he was talking to her. It was a bit out of the blue. A bit of an awkward approach. As if he felt he had to say something. “You look good, I wouldn’t chance it myself.” He stood over her with his full mouth guard grin and touched a glove to her arm. It always amazes me when even men who train struggle to speak to women who fight without making it about something else.
“You both boxers?” asked Nabiha, unwinding her hand wraps methodically and carefully as if she was folding precious silk. There is, I thought, an elegance, an aesthetic thing about Thai boxing that people who don’t practice don’t understand. These boxers wouldn’t get it.
“Yeah, we do amateur boxing,” said Andy with his mouthful and then took his gum shield out and balanced it in his gloved hand. His saliva smeared the leather. “We’ve been training together a few years now. Different places round town. Keeps you fit. Makes you confident.”
“You Muay Thai guys are all gangly limbs,” said Andrew, standing next to Andy. “Like daddy long legs or something, I never know where you’re gonna go. I reckon it’s all show but it freaks me out.” He laughed and elbowed Andy. “Give me a straight boxer any day.”
“The art of eight limbs,” I said. “You should try it someday. Change it up, vary your training.”
“We should spar some time,” said Andy to Nabiha. He stood over her and she didn’t bother to look up from folding her hand wraps. He must have been about eight inches taller than her but she could still kick him in the head, I thought, and hard. “See how we stack up against each other.”
“I’d give it a miss until after her fight, if I were you,” I said. “She’s hitting all sorts of PBs.”
I looked at Nabiha and she grinned. It was nice to see her smile for a change. She liked a challenge and that’s why she could be an amazing fighter. Any challenge gave her joy and joy was a light, positive thing. Western male fighters had too much ego.
“If you think we’re on an equal footing, I’d be willing,” she said, finally looking up at him then, with a cocked head and a cheeky grin. “We might both learn something.”
“So long as this isn’t some kind of Rousey-Mayweather altercation and we can still be friends at the end of it. All I ask is you don’t KO me.” Both Andy and Andrew laughed with each other, big and loud, at this in-joke they’d just made.
Nabiha turned and rolled her eyes so only I could see and went to the changing rooms. Andy watched her walk away in the few seconds of silence. I followed his eyes to her lithe, brown legs.
“You teaching classes here, bro? Me and Andy just joined, we work round the corner.”
“Nah, I only do PT. Classes are pretty good here though – conditioning, fighter training. There’s also a cabbie class, a women’s class and a gay class. Something for everyone.” I couldn’t help but accentuate the last, a gay class. My little dig for laughing at my student.
The bell rang.
Andy gave me a funny look, like he was checking me, looking for a bit too long and then stuffed his gum shield into his mouth. He motioned to Andrew and they got back in the ring.
The next day Andy and Andrew were the only ones in the gym, sparring in the ring again with sweat in their eyes like they were serious about something. They looked the same, apart from one being black and one being white. Both cut, square-faced and clean-shaven. Bald heads. Brothers from another mother.
“Hey Danni, how’s it going?”
Danni was sitting behind reception as usual but she wasn’t pressing on her iPhone and looking bored like she did most days. She was peering at the computer screen with a fuzzy printout of a fight poster on the desk next to her. 29th November, 2015, White Collar Boxing – Always wanted to get in the ring? Now’s your chance!
“White collar boxing. Charity thing,” she said.
“Oh yeah? Let’s have a look,” I said, taking the poster.
“Steve’s got me doing all the marketing, social media stuff. It’s a lot of fucking work. I’ve been on the phone to the charity every day this week, trying to join up on promo, sell tickets. Running reception at the same time. I’m fucking knackered.”
“You got any fighters yet?”
“Yeah, them two just signed up,” she said flicking her head at the ring without taking her eyes from the screen.
Those two are exactly the kind of lads that would put someone in hospital, given half a chance, I thought to myself. As if white collar boxing didn’t have a bad enough name already. They looked like a couple of Ridgebacks on their hind legs.
Later on Andy and Andrew were hanging around the punch bag arcade game, looking at it like a new toy.
“You got a pound coin for that machine?” said Andy. His huge frame cut the air in front of him and a tidal wave of breeze reached me before he did. His body sweated and breathed heavily in front of me. Why doesn’t he ask Danni, I thought to myself.
“Yeah, not sure if it works though. Never seen it on,” I said, putting a pound coin in his free palm. The other hand was still gloved and clasped the spare red glove to his chest.
“Just flick the switch at the wall,” shouted Danni from reception.
I used to play the boxing arcade game when I was a kid hustling around different arcades in North London. It had been years since I’d had a go. I don’t know why Steve had one installed in the gym. Probably thought it was funny, watching his professional boxers have a go on that silly machine.
Andy turned it on and the lights started flashing, like the machine had been brought to life. A light ran run around in circles highlighting cartoon boxers and gloves and then the scores appeared in red digits on two central panels.
Maximum score 999!
Top score 556!
“I reckon I can do better than that,” said Andrew, flicking a pound coin into the air and catching it in his fat fist. The veins in his arm had surfaced like breaching blue whales on the pale skin.
The bell rang.
“What you gonna go for?” said Andy.
“Left hook, gotta be my left hook.”
“The punch bag only goes back in a line though.”
“I’ll angle it, don’t you worry,” he said.
I stood around, fingering a pound coin in my pocket. These two clearly had no clue. I’d won bets against grown men when I was a scrawny fourteen year old. I knew the knack of the machine. I might have been smaller than them, but I had speed and kicks. And I was on form, with all that vitamin D floating about in late summer and Nabiha’s fight coming up. You always train harder when your fighter’s coming up to a fight. And then I thought to myself, why do I care about these idiots and that stupid game? Adolescent bollocks. Still, despite myself, I was transfixed on the flashing numbers like I was fourteen again and winning was everything.
Andrew put the coin in and the lights started circling and the punch bag came down slow like an upside down Dracula rising from his coffin. He put on his spare glove. He started moving around, bobbing and weaving, as if it was a real opponent. His shoulders were solid, pumped. He took a few steps back and then came forward, right foot following the left and then a couple of side steps and he pulled back his left hook and swung it round, his whole body into it, his hips rotated forward and snapped back fast.
The scores rose through 100, 200, 300 eventually slowing down and stopping at 636.
“What? Out of nine hundred and ninety-nine?”
Andy threw his head back and laughed a big deep laugh.
“That was a hard punch man!”
We all laughed.
“That thing’s rigged,” he said and pulled off his gloves. “I’m taking a shower.”
Nabiha arrived soon afterwards. We started sparring in the ring. We were going to do six three-minute rounds every day until the fight, along with the other technical work and strength and endurance with weights. The first two rounds were ok. Then we were warmed up and became more aggressive. She missed a parry and I caught her jaw with a cross. It could have had her on the floor in a real fight. She came back with a half-arsed right knee to my stomach. She looked really pissed off.
The bell rang.
“What’s up?” I said to her.
“I told them,” she said, her shoulders hunched over and her head hung low. She swung back and forth against the ropes, stared at the boxing ring floor. There were old spots of blood and new drops of sweat on the canvas.
“My mum says she’ll never be able to show her face in the community if anyone finds out. She said good Bengali girls don’t do things like boxing. She asked me what I wear when I fight and, well, let’s put it this way – she wasn’t happy. My body being exposed to a crowd of strangers.”
“Is that what she’s worried about?”
“Yeah, she wears a headscarf, prays five times a day. It’s all that matters to her. She thinks women should be hidden away.”
“I must say, I’m surprised at her reasoning.”
“She doesn’t really know what Thai boxing is.”
“That’s probably a good thing, to be fair.”
“How can I do this when she’s so against it? She’s not even talking to me.”
“And at least the secret’s out and it’s for her to reconcile with now. You can feel good about being honest. You’re not the first female fighter to face this. You’re gonna win this. I know you are. You’ve KOed an opponent once, you’ve won exhibition fights. Getting to this level is tough. Look at what you’ve achieved already. And that’s because you never cruise, you always fight harder than you can, so you get better. You’re an animal in the ring.”
Nabiha lifted her chin, forced a smile.
“Thanks,” she said. “I just wish they could try and understand. Be proud of me, you know?”
“Harness this and take it as a strength in yourself that you’re honest, committed and want this.”
“I want to win so badly,” she said, looking at me with those huge brown eyes.
“Take your forehead off the ground, be proud of yourself. I’m proud of you. Chin down and guard up. Be here, be sharp. You can have this.”
“My dad said I was a disgrace to the family. That they’d have to lie to the community now because of me. But why? I’m not doing anything wrong. Boxing isn’t a sin.”
“Thai boxing is a practice with hundreds of years of history. You’ve trained your body to be a weapon, stronger than the flesh and bone you were born with. Your parents care about you – they’re just tied by tradition. It’s not your stuff, ok? This is your stuff.”
A tear rolled down Nabiha’s cheek and clung to her jaw. She wiped it away with the top of her hand and breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth resolutely.
“We don’t have to train today if you don’t want to.”
She shook her head and put her gloves back on and smiled.
We went back into the ring and after a couple of duff rounds she started to focus. I gave her lots of encouragement. She became quicker, more focused, faster. I could feel it. She winded me with a body hook and got some great clinches in. It was technical work, she was a flexible and intelligent fighter. And she wasn’t getting tired either.
“Nice, very nice,” I said. “Do you feel lighter? You have more flow now, these last couple of rounds.”
“Yeah,” she said. “It feels good.”
“Remember one thing you have to your advantage. That girl’s good for sure, she’s done three professional fights, two more than you. But – all in Bangkok, all with Thai opponents. You’re different, you’ve got good boxing skills, European style. She’s not used to your style of fighting. Remember, she’ll kick a lot and you’re a great defender and you can clinch so good.”
“I found a fight video of her,” she said, smiling. “She uses low left, right roundhouse combination a lot.”
“Good girl. Let’s make sure we can counter those.”
Andy and Andrew emerged from the showers. It was funny, I’d never seen either of them in their civilian clothes. They dressed in the same kind of office-wear. Their muscular backs and shoulders looked like they might burst out of the thin cotton, like lackeys for the Incredible Hulk.
“Hey,” said Andy. “When we getting in the ring then, love?”
I could feel Nabiha’s anger burning off her body like dragon’s fire.
“Not anytime soon, I reckon,” she said. “I’ve got bigger fish to fry. I never forget a challenge though, don’t you worry.”
“How about an interim challenge?” said Andy, walking over to the punch bag game which was still flashing its red, green and blue lights. Nabiha laughed and looked at me and I shrugged.
“Why not?” she said, walking over to the machine with a swagger.
Andy and Andrew looked out of place in their tailored trousers, shirts and shiny black shoes. They both got their gloves out and put them on. They looked like poster boys for the white collar boxing night. I had to stop myself from laughing.
“Ladies first,” said Andy.
“No, no, I insist,” said Nabiha. “Show me how it’s done.”
She looked at me and I flashed her a wink. I didn’t know what she was up to but she was up for a fight.
The bell rang.
Andy did some pulsing squat movements, his trousers stretching across his bum, and then hopped forward and back, foot to foot on his leather shoes. Danni walked over and we all stood around the machine. He went in for the left hook again. It looked strong. The score tripped through the red digital numbers on the screen: 100 to 200 to 300 and eventually settled on 731.
“Not bad,” said Nabiha, nodding, her hand under chin, one arm resting on the other. I grinned to myself. Not much had changed since I was a scrawny fourteen year old hustling in the arcades.
“No one’s ever scored 999 on this machine,” said Andrew.
“Maybe you’re the guy to make it happen,” smiled Nabiha, dimples appearing on her cheeks. She looked way more capable of making it happen in her Thai boxing shorts and shin pads than two burly office workers.
Andrew moved forward, punched the air with a jab, jab, cross, hook, warming up I suppose. Then he was ready. He stepped forward, his left foot first, the right behind, the heel lifted. He faked a jab and then BAMB! He hit the bag with a cross and it went back with a hard snap. The numbers rolled up through the hundreds like before and the red lights stopped at 846. New High Score! flashed the screen.
“Oh, so close mate!” said Danni. “Nice one!”
“Not close enough though,” said Andy, smiling, stepping aside. “Let’s see how the pros do it.” They stood next to each other, arms crossed.
“I’m not even sure I can be precise enough to hit it,” said Nabiha, stepping up.
I put the pound coin into the slot and it dropped inside the machine in the silence and the bag came down slowly. Andy nudged Andrew with his shoulder and grinned at him as if this was great entertainment. She reached up to the bag with her fist, measuring the distance carefully. She was precise, alright. I’d seen her work a tiny punch bag with roundhouse kicks with the accuracy of a pro fighter. Problem was, there was a huge metal frame along the top of the bag. It wasn’t designed for kicking, only punching from below. To kick it right and hard enough she could easily catch her foot on the metal. And if she caught her foot, at that speed, she’d easily injure herself enough to badly impact her fight. She only had a few weeks left. But still, I found myself quiet. I had to trust it. This suddenly seemed important.
She lifted her right leg and whipped it round, the knee slightly bent, cutting the air as she slammed it down. Her foot drew a curved triangle in the air. She stepped back, put her guard up. She was practicing the move, making sure it was on target. I prayed her assessment was right. Her hair was moist around her temple, the ends of her ponytail were wet with sweat from sparring. I can’t let her do this, I thought, she can’t risk injury for these idiots. But the words wouldn’t come out.
Then she stepped forward, left foot, then right foot, all on the balls of her feet like a panther. She lifted her right leg in a high arch, the foot pointed in a smooth curve and then slammed the bottom of her shin down on the punch bag. I stepped forward as if I could stop her from there. Her foot narrowly missed the metal frame above.
The bag snapped back.
The numbers rolled through the hundreds again, slowing down as it reached 900. Andrew and Andy looked at each other, their eyes sidelong. I looked down at Nabiha’s right foot which was dainty and clean of injury. The numbers slowly rolled up and then stopped and flashed her victory: 999! Top Score!
She turned to me and smiled and I raised a hand to meet hers in the air.
The bell rang.