It wasn’t just a coincidence that Brian ended up in the gym. His father is the parking attendant in the parking lot where Santa parks his car. They became friends, and the father decided that Brian was mature enough to train with at age 12. He would pay his gym fees by helping with the clean up.
For Brian, it was a liberation.
“When you hit something or someone, you relax,” he explained.
Like many strong young fighters, Brian leaned on his strength in sparring matches. But Santa’s mission was to teach him the subtler arts of boxing, finesse and strategy, and read an opponent and fully know how to move your body.
“You should learn to box instead of digging through everything,” said Santa. “Once you learn that, he’ll get his way with a lot of people because he’s strong.”
“He wants to be world champion,” he added. “I told him, ‘Be an amateur champion first.'”
And so here was Brian, climbing that ladder, looking for his first win. He had woken up more excited than nervous. He’d eaten yogurt and a banana and stretched, trying to imagine victory.
“I thought about how it felt to lose,” he said, “and that it didn’t feel right.”
His opponent was Robby Ball, who was 14, but slightly shorter and slimmer. Everyone except the fighters wore masks in the damp gym. Outside, people pressed their faces against the glass window to see.
They circled. They pricked. They got tangled in corners. Their heads darted right and left as blows fell, and their coaches proclaimed the kind of direction that reverberates through the gyms and goes back to the days when people fought bare fists.
“Raise your hands!”
“Keep petting him.”
“Straight in the face!”
The match was three rounds of one minute and 30 seconds each. Time passed even faster for the boxers.
The problem with the first fight, Brian was told, was that he wasn’t aggressive enough, so he tried to solve it with Robby. To the untrained eye, this looked a bit like a fight in a high school cafeteria, with pillows and gloves, of course.
But the blows were counted and the score was absolute and accepted.
Brian, a good student, lost a year in school with distance learning. He lost a year without the gym vibe that infuses fighters with knowledge and savvy, and made up for it with the impromptu home workouts and light pole battles. He is sure that he would have been further as a boxer.
Now, among a sweaty crowd of young fighters waiting for their chance, a referee led him and his opponent into the center of the ring, grabbed their wrists and hoisted a boy’s arm.
The result didn’t really matter. For Brian, it was liberating to be there, punch and get hit, lower his head and make his way to the future he wanted. It was four and a half minutes of fighting en route to… who knows?
For now it was his arm reaching for the sky.