“I feel like a clapped-out hatchback stalled on a level crossing with the Dublin-to-Westport train bearing down on me…”
On a brutally cold Saturday morning, we sign our lives away. There are 25 of us in all, mostly men in our 20s and 30s, fanned out in a semicircle on the clubhouse floor. We are wearing winter coats and our breath is visible in the freezing air.
We have been recruited to participate in a white-collar boxing event as a fundraiser for our local GAA club. I agreed to participate at Christmas, when inhibitions were low and goodwill was at an all time high.
The under-14 hurlers need new floodlights for their training pitch, I was told.
“Well, bless their cotton socks,” I cried. “New floodlights they shall have.”
Now it is January 2nd. The Christmas tree was turfed out the back door this morning, and with it the last of my festive cheer. I haven’t seen a more fearsome assemblage of bruisers, brawlers and scrappers since the third act of Blazing Saddles. And I am standing next to them in a tracksuit, wondering what the hell the under-14 hurlers have ever done for me.
There are various health and insurance disclaimers to be signed before the session begins. (We are also told to purchase gumshields because “you’ll be getting punched in the face a lot over the next eight weeks”.) On one sheet of paper we are asked to record our vital statistics. I state that I’m 36 years old, 5ft 11in tall and weigh 13 stone.
“This information will be used to pair you against a similar fighter on the night,” the instructor explains.
Hmm. Scratch that. I’m 58 years old, 4ft 9in tall and weigh 8½ stone.
My car windshield is frozen over, so I’m a couple of minutes late for our first fitness session. We do press-ups and sit-ups and skip rope. That is followed by jumping jacks, half jacks and explosive jacks. Then we pair up, with gloves and pads, and practise endless combinations of punches, jabs and hooks. I am sweating like Christy Moore. My punch is decent, but my jab wouldn’t knock a bottle out of a baby’s mouth. During a break from our exertions, my partner asks if I fancy nipping out to the pub across the road for a sneaky pint. I pause a beat, until I am 100 per cent certain he is joking, before scoffing at the notion.
Our first sparring session. Body contact is forbidden. We throw punches and block them with our gloves. Afterwards, I text my friend Ollie, who is training separately for the same event in Galway, with a progress report. My phone, which hasn’t yet caught on to my dramatic lifestyle change, autocorrects the word “punches” to “lunches”.
Footwork lessons. It is interesting how many common expressions I now realise have their origins in boxing. A boxer constantly shifts his weight from one leg to the other. When he’s attacking, he’s on the front foot. When defending, he’s on the back foot. But if he gets caught flat-footed, he ends up on his arse.
By now we are working out three nights a week and I am running 8km a day on the other four. The results are starting to show. Every day, in every way, I’m getting fitter, faster, stronger. Of course, the same is equally true of whichever one of these gunslingers I end up fighting.
Tomorrow is my debut training fight. It feels time. I have been training hard. Now I am ready to unleash the beast. To whet our appetites, Ollie and I go to see the new Rocky film in Galway. Young Adonis Creed is handsome, chiselled and a born fighter. I am going to come right out and say it. He reminds me a lot of me.
Lord, I’m discouraged. Getting punched in the face isn’t quite the thrill ride I had anticipated. I’ve been in fights before, in the schoolyard or outside late-night chippers. But as epic as those contests loom in my imagination, the truth is that most of them were over in 10 seconds flat.
This is different. For starters, my opponent isn’t some pimply kid who likes the same girl I do. He is a grown man with kids and a mortgage. I can see his punches coming. I can even feel the air rushing out of the way of his advancing glove. But I can’t unscramble my defences in time and it lands on my temple with a sickening thud.
There is no teacher or screaming girl on hand to break things up, either. Just another 4½ minutes’ further punishment to come.
A third fight and a third defeat at the hands of an opponent who is quicker, more aggressive and more courageous than I am. I’m still terrified of throwing a punch. At the beginning of each round, I feel like a clapped-out hatchback stalled on a level crossing with the Dublin-to-Westport train bearing down on me.
In my downtime, I have been reading Norman Mailer’s The Fight. Apparently, when he was training for the Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali enlisted top heavyweights, such as Larry Holmes, just to punch him repeatedly, over and over, so that his body would grow accustomed to absorbing the blows. What are the odds? Ali and I have the exact same training regime.
“The thing you need to appreciate, Eoin, is these guys have reputations to protect. You don’t.”
Another reluctant warrior and I are in the pub, analysing potential opponents. My worst-case scenario is a guy who was one of my best friends in school. What a punch he has. I remember he gave me a dead arm back in 1992 that was like stubbing your small toe on the base of a marble fireplace.
My friend is more concerned about an old slugger who had a reputation as a streetfighter in his youth.
“But he’s married now,” I say. “He’s a family man. I’m sure he has mellowed.”
My friend isn’t convinced. “He didn’t get that nose kissing babies.”
The official programmes for the club’s white-collar boxing night are about to go to press. We are required to give ourselves a ring name, such as Eoin “the Bullet” Butler or Eoin “the Bonecrusher” Butler. Unfortunately, neither of us is in boastful form.
“The Punchbag?” he suggests.
“The Tomato Can?”
“The Draft Dodger?”
“The Conscientious Objector?”
Fight or flight? I remember being at a music festival once when it started raining and the ground underfoot turned to sludge. I had just bought a shiny new pair of sneakers and I didn’t want them to get dirty. So I spent the weekend tiptoeing from one patch of green to the next, trying to avoid the mud. The sneakers got ruined anyway.
Well, that’s kind of how I have approached boxing. Up to now I enter the ring each time secretly holding out hope that my opponent and I can resolve our differences amicably. But the truth is, I have been punched and I am going to be punched again. It isn’t pleasant. But it isn’t the end of the world either. Tonight, I land a couple of punches in retaliation. It feels good.
March 5th-present day
Contact training has now ended. I am still running 8km per day, but that too will be abandoned as fight night approaches. Speed (as in mobility, rather than quickness of hand) is definitely my strongest card. I am hoping to be paired against a heavier opponent to press that advantage. But in truth, speed isn’t much of an advantage. Whoever I get, they are going to punch me repeatedly in front of 800 people. Here’s hoping I can stand up to them and land a couple back.
With thanks to shirt sponsor Sada Architecture. Donations can be made to help fight sudden adult death syndrome at mycharity.ie/event/ballyhaunisfightnight. The fight takes place at the McWilliam Park Hotel, Claremorris, Co Mayo on March 11th. Money raised will go to Ballyhaunis GAA club and the Mater Sads (in memory of the late club man Jason Morley)