This is not a history, or a series of reminisces. I wasn’t there. I couldn’t possibly tell you how it started, or how it grew and came to be what you can find today. At least though, I can say what you would find today, if you went, if you go while there is still time.
There are mirrors for your form or your glare, whichever needs work. A black rubber floor that’s carried a thousand soles back and forth. Those new to the steps, those underconfident, those over confident, those who know exactly what they are doing.
Dents dot the back wall from past leviathans. The big guys make the bags shudder and leap. Two nervous young girls tap the bags. They’re new, and it’s a toss-up as to whether they will quietly apply themselves, and stick around, or if they will equally quietly never come again.
The pairs spar between the ropes, helmeted heads bowed low, jaws clenched, fists pinned to those jaws or slacking down to hips. They circle and jab, cross and hook, clinch and grunt and sweat. It’s a guy and a girl, her taller, him heavier but too slow to make it count. She keeps him away with the jab and occasionally dashes to the body. He cuffs her round the back of the head and it’s not very pretty.
Red gloves, blue gloves, white gloves and black gloves flash back and forth, rat tat tat on the pads. Rat tat tat. Rat tat tat. Exhaled breath with every strike as the feet push and the hips pivot and the shoulders rock back and forth. They skip rope, work pads, pound the bag until their dreams don’t quite seem so far away as they did at the start of the day.
It’s Saturday now and that means the bags are cleared away and the ropes are folded, and instead of the pacing feet there are chairs on the rubber. The women behind the bar laugh and joke with the punters and tease the regulars, while the fighters scowl into their hoods or pass the time with their friends, nerves tamed by the routine. Two young girls move round selling raffle tickets, their hair neatly plaited, as this is a family event too, with the door operated by someone’s dad and cake made by someone’s mum. More parents sit in the seats as their sons and daughters lace up the gloves, look themselves in the mirror and walk out to find out if they will create a great deal of pride or a small tick of embarrassment.
The fights on the night are mixed, as they tend to be. There are a couple of debuts; the curious thrill of watching two 12 years olds lay into each other, the only fact tempering the spectacle was that it was a bit one-sided. Some muscular young tyro walking through his opponent’s flailing arms, powered more by fear than rage, a cross to the nose causing the lad to sag forward like a suddenly deflated balloon. I sit on my chair and grip my pen and consider how these boys have the courage to stand up there while I sit here. I write this and try to claw back some of their heroism.
There is the youth who looks like he can make it, and the one who I don’t think ever will. One fight that had real potential ended early by a clumsy headbutt, another ended early by a capricious trainer not pleased with his fighter’s work, even as her opponent came on and on; rat tat tat, rat tat tat.
Home fighters are greeted by friendly roars from the mildly lubricated crowd. Spells of nervous silence come as we wait for them to assert themselves, groans if they don’t. We forget ourselves and watched in sickened silence as one comes under the cosh, a crunching blow waking us to try and raise them; remind them it’s not just their own pride they defend but ours as well.
Fighters mingle afterwards, winding down and stretching out. There’s the girl with the black eye, the lad with the squashed nose, and the one as beautiful as the day she was born, as she doesn’t get hit, doesn’t get beat, not really beat anyway. Everyone is pretty happy, the ones that weren’t are long gone, denying the strip lights strung from the ceiling the chance to illuminate their loss.
When it’s all said and done, and the doctor goes home under-employed, it’s a success. Just making the damn thing happen: bringing them all together from the gyms tucked into the corners of other town and cities, selling the tickets and the beer, running the raffle and eating the mother’s cake; that’s a success. It’s the last one too, before the diggers and cranes move in to flatten the place, clearing land to make more land for the dollars to pour into.
I hope those that started it get to close it, that last time. I hope that they take down the bags, fold up the ropes, pack up the pads and set up the ring up in the new gym, and then come back to the old place. I hope they stand and take in the space one last time, remember how it started, how it grew, and how it came to be the thing they created. I hope they pace the well-worn space one last time, leaving footprints in the gathering dust, a warm body disrupting the still air one last time. As the last of the help leaves, and as they weight the key they’ve used a thousand times to open the door at the start of the day and close it at night, I hope they breathe in that rarefied air one final time, and exhale the way they taught. Rat tat tat.
Then, as they turn to leave, and the tears they held back all this time finally drip down their cheeks and dot the floor, I hope that as the door closes all the atmosphere rushes out of the place, and it is preserved perfectly in that final state. Like the astronaut’s footprints preserved in the lunar dust. I hope no one else gets to see it again, after those that built it, and that it is preserved at the end as it will be forever in their memory, when the wrecking ball comes and the walls shiver and collapse and they wish that gym goodbye.