I drove past three times before going in. A squat concrete building surrounded by a fence with a barbecue moldering in the parking lot, only a small poster for an upcoming fight marked it as the boxing gym. A lone fighter was going through a workout. When he came to a break I asked if a trainer was around. He said he was probably at Greektown and I should come back later in the afternoon. I introduced myself, shook his hand, and walked out to my car, waiting to wipe my hand of sweat until outside.
Greektown, that was something: maybe I could offer to trade poker lessons for boxing lessons.
When I come back a handful of high school kids are jumping rope in front of a mirror. I introduce myself to the adult watching them and explain that I want to get into boxing as a workout. My other reasons for being there I keep to myself. The current chess boxing world champion has an ELO rating of about 2000. My rating is close to 2300. If he can teach me to survive a few rounds in the ring, I can be a world champion. He asks me where I’m from and I say Ann Arbor.
“Why are you so uncomfortable? They got black people in Ann Arbor.”
I want to point out that I’m uncomfortable in all new situations, not just those involving black people. Anyway I would have been disappointed if I went into a Detroit boxing gym and didn’t catch a little flak for being white, and let’s be honest, part of the reason I’m uncomfortable is that I’m the only white person there. Well, not the only one.
“Look at Mike,” he adds, nodding to a muscled and mohawked teen. “Mike’s not uncomfortable.”
He has me start jumping rope. I compare my form to the kids in the mirror. They look like boxers, shifting their weight easily from one foot to the other. I look like the world’s worst hopscotch player, bounding clumsily over the rope and often whacking myself in the shins. From there we move on to the punching bag. At the start of each round I feel great, shuffling around and thumping the bag, but by 15 seconds in my blows are as feeble as flies hitting a screen door. Then it’s on to weights and stamina exercises. Altogether it’s about a two hour workout, which sitting at a poker table slurping coffee for eight hours a day has not prepared me for.
The next morning I can barely lift my arms, but no one said being world champion would be easy.