By Eileen Dougharty
“The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs,” famed boxing coach Cus D’Amato said. “It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.”
I wasn’t feeling particularly heroic as I entered the IFC Gym looking to hire a boxing coach. I chose Freddie Cuevas before meeting him as he was billed as being big on fighting philosophy as well as form. Cuevas retired from boxing professionally in 2006 after putting in 11 years as a popular Chicago middleweight fighter. I hired him not for his record, which was certainly respectable, but because he is a boxing coach for thinkers. I was counting on my brain to overcome my physical limitations. I am smart, but I am far from sporty. I felt that boxing might be the best crash course on fine tuning my concentration and my coordination, two areas that have kept me out of sports generally.
My aversion to fitness started early; I forged notes from my mother to excuse myself from PE class as I couldn’t bear to be the last person picked for every team. I’ve always been that person in aerobics class that’s facing the wrong direction, while practicing yoga I’m always struggling with the right side when everyone else is effortlessly doing the left side. In dance classes advertised as “there’s no wrong way to do this,” teachers have proclaimed after seeing my attempts, “Except maybe that way.” Eventually I took up running as it was something I could do alone, free from being judged on my performance. I became determined to find a sport that worked for me, and if that sport involved hitting things, I was all for it.
While wrapping my hands at our first session, Cuevas asked me a reasonable question. “Why boxing?” I joked that it was because I’m Irish and I don’t play well with others. I went on to explain that some of my interest came from family tradition. My grandfather was a professional boxing referee; I grew up watching all the men in my family glove up and hit the heavy bag. We watched fights on television with great regularity, there were many discussions of technique and strategy as we watched the likes of Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks and Joe Frazier.
I was seven years old when my extended family gathered excitedly around the television to see my grandfather in action, moderating the heavyweight championship between George Foreman and Ken Norton. Foreman knocked Norton out shortly into the second round so my grandfather’s time in the spotlight wasn’t lengthy, but it was memorable.
The IFC Gym was not like the other slick places I’d gone to work out in the past. It is a simple, two-room space with a standard ring in the front, heavy bags and speed bags in the rear, as well as two treadmills, a bike, some kettle balls and a few basic weight lifting machines. The walls are adorned with photos and clippings of the employees doing what they know best: fighting. There is no air conditioning. There is no juice bar. They are often blasting hard rock or rap, or if Cuevas has his way, salsa. It’s all about function, no fancy stuff. It’s not a health club, a spa, a studio, or a dojo. It’s a straight-up boxing gym.
Cuevas started by teaching me the four basic punches: the jab, the cross, the hook, and the upper cut. Our subsequent workouts have varied a little but generally we do something close to the following program each time we meet. After a brief warm-up of windmilling my arms, doing jumping jacks followed by squats, I do two rounds of shadowboxing. This warms up not only my core and my shoulders, but my comfort level with looking stupid. I find it hard not to feel self conscious as I’m throwing punches into the air in a boxing ring in clear view of passersby on a busy street in Chicago.
After my ego and my arms are ready to go, Cuevas puts on mitts to field my punches as we do three rounds of different punch combinations that he dictates. I then move to the heavy bag for two rounds of punch combinations of my own choosing. Then to the speed bag for two rounds, which is a nice relief to have something that’s less about punching and more about hand/eye coordination. Then there’s the two rounds of jumping rope, a round of chasing mitts—remember Rocky chasing the chicken? It’s the same principle, working on speed and agility, but with Cuevas throwing mitts around the room and me retrieving them like a dog—and three different kinds of sit ups, a minute of plank pose and we’re DONE. All rounds of every exercise are three minutes, just like boxing rounds in a standard match. Each round is capped off with 15 jumping jacks and 10 squats as well, just to keep it moving.
After being a runner for several years I was in fairly decent shape when I took on the boxing regime, so my stamina wasn’t an issue. But my coordination problems made learning the punch combinations challenging, and jumping rope was an aggravating impossibility at first. It was six minutes of pure frustration, punctuated by whipping my legs with the jump rope, further cementing my anxiety and disappointment with myself.
A majority of fitness instructors I’d had in the past would take to barking instructions on how to do things the right way at me, to no avail. I’d just shut down after getting yelled at. I started noticing that when I would make mistakes while working with Cuevas, he would simply stop me, and we’d start over. He wouldn’t sigh or make any sort of face indicating displeasure or exasperation or comment in any way that was negative. We’d just stop and do it over, however many times it took until I did it correctly.
Cuevas also gave my mind a work out, discussing how the better boxer is not the tougher one, but the smarter one. I found the mix of strategy and footwork to be akin to playing chess while dancing, with the mind and body finding harmony working together in unison. After much practice, I started picking up the punching combinations more easily, which Cuevas always took note of and commented on positively.
In my early struggles with the jump rope, he would tell me repeatedly in a calm voice, “You control the rope, you control your legs. You just have to get those two things to work together.” And slowly but surely, those things did start working together. I now can jump rope smoothly for most of the six minutes, and I whip myself with the jump rope much less now.
Cuevas taught me not only how to be a boxer, but how to be a teacher. At no point have I felt judged by Cuevas, or anyone else in the gym for that matter. I often get high-fives and words of encouragement from the other staff and sometimes the other patrons of the gym. Cuevas trains many women who fight as amateurs, who are strong and beautiful and awe inspiring to watch as they spar with men who are much bigger than they are.
After training for a month or two, I noticed that not only were the exercises much easier to perform, but my confidence while tackling new exercises was enhanced. When I returned to running, I’d taken about a minute off my average mile, an unexpected plus. I take a jump rope with me when I travel. I look forward to working out for the first time in a long time, as I feel a real sense of accomplishment every time I finish a session. Dale Carnegie once advised that you can’t conquer your fears by sitting around and thinking about them, you just have to go out and get busy.
I’m sure I won’t ever be skilled enough to fight someone else in any official capacity, but I fought my fear of all things athletic and emerged victorious. I think D’Amato would approve.