Several years ago, I trained at Chicago’s storied Windy City Boxing Gym. (It has since closed due to some building code violations in the old warehouse where the gym owners had rented space.) It was in a fairly rough part of the city and was a classic boxing gym, with a rich past, like something out of a movie.
Aside from Todd Collins, my first coach at Windy City, no one there knew my name. All the guys just called me “Lawyer.” It seems everyone had a nickname–Mad Dog, Underdog, Crusher–and “Lawyer” was mine.
Although I was a “serious” amateur boxer who competed, I guess some of the guys there at first dismissed me as someone who was just trying the sport as a fitness regimen and was not going to work hard. I didn’t even perceive that until the first time I sparred at Windy City, but that experience let me know some of the men thought I was merely dabbling in the sweet science and not to be taken seriously.
In those days, I was training regularly with the rest of the amateurs in the late afternoons. The coach we had was a smart guy; he would not just “throw me in there” for sparring until he was convinced that I really had boxed before and knew what I was doing. Even so, after a week of training with the guys, our coach told me I was going to spar that day.
After putting on my foul protector, headgear, and gloves and inserting my mouthpiece, I climbed into the ring and began to move around a bit as I waited for my sparring partner to get suited up. I had sparred in that ring before (while training with my previous coach), so I felt comfortable there. As I did a little shadowboxing, I saw a few of the other boxers standing outside the ring talking quietly and chuckling. Two of them put their hands over their mouths and pointed to me and laughed. They expected me to get my ass handed to me and may even have been eager to see that happen.
Eventually, my sparring partner entered the ring. He was a Hispanic kid whose nickname was El Gallo ("Rooster"). I was 33 at the time and he was about ten years younger than I. The other fellow clearly felt as comfortable in that ring as I did. He was friendly enough, but I knew he’d be all business in the sparring. My assessment was accurate: El Gallo was all business in there, and so was I.
He and I mixed it up for three hard rounds before our coach said, “Good work, men,” and told another pair of boxers that they were to be next in the ring. Although El Gallo and I were pretty evenly matched, I felt good because if it had been a scored bout, I was pretty sure I’d have won every round. It was close, to be sure, but my partner had a habit of holding his right out a bit too far from his face and that made it fairly easy to score with my left hook. Taking advantage of his surprise, I was usually able to follow up the hook with a quick jab to the face, and once or twice even with a good right cross. It was good work, as boxers often call sparring, and we were both fairly tired at the end of it.
After shaking hands and congratulating one another on some good practice, El Gallo and I climbed out of the ring to let the next boxers have their turn. The same guys who had been laughing and pointing before the sparring came up to me. To my surprise, they were all enthusiastic and full of praise. “Great job, man!” said one of them, high-fiving me. Another added, “Yeah, you really looked good in there. Dude, you know what you’re doing. Wow!”
At first, I was a little taken aback by the comments. “Well, what the hell did you expect?” I said to myself. My initial resentment didn’t last long; it was melted by the enthusiastic smiles of the men who clearly considered me a new friend. The price for entry into their brotherhood was clearly to do well in a sparring session, or at least to have the courage to get into the ring and trade some punches.
Their congratulations were sincere. Although they had been skeptical, the guys who had expected to see a young lawyer get his ass kicked by a “real” boxer were happily surprised to see the lawyer hold his own and even do a decent job of pressuring his sparring partner during a tough three rounds.
After that day, I was treated differently. I could sense the changed attitude those men had toward me. In a place where what one does for a living counts for little, if anything, the guys enthusiastically accepted me as one of their own. Everyone still called me “Lawyer” for the duration of my stay at Windy City, but that had become an affectionate nickname rather than a skeptical, even somewhat derisive moniker. I had passed my initiation into the fraternity of fisticuffs. Yes, I was still a lawyer, but far more importantly, in the eyes of my gym mates, I was a boxer. A real boxer. Just like them.