Participatory Journalism

Ever since George Plimpton first dared to strap on a pair of shoulder pads, participatory journalism has occupied space in the American media landscape. It's good for novices that want to come to terms with the expectations of their latest endeavor; and even better for intrepid writers searching for compelling stories. The following is my first go at this unique writing style.

This piece was originally written for Professor Ted Spiker's Magazine and Feature Writing course. It is in the process of being shopped for publication.

 Andrea Cornejo / The Gainesville Sun

Andrea Cornejo / The Gainesville Sun

Raw milk: A newbie’s introduction to the world of boxing

My 2011 Volkswagen Jetta gently rumbled down University Avenue. The sounds of Saba’s “World In My Hands” pulsed through the morning air. As I gripped the leather-wrapped steering wheel, I wondered if my choice of music had any symbolic attachment to what I had set out to accomplish.

It had been months since I worked out consistently. As a former rower, I spent the bulk of my undergraduate career at the University of Florida shuttling down the same road, dedicating hours on both land and water to the pursuit of speed. After graduating, I intended to exercise, at a minimum, three days a week; but graduate school has a nasty habit of ruining things.

My classes picked up. My workouts wound down. At one point, it had been a month since I set foot in a gym. I felt like a 55-year-old, on the wrong side of a hip replacement, trapped inside a 22-year-old’s frame.

I had to do something. And I had an idea of where to look.

Hanging a left onto 13th Street, I headed north. I’d driven this road countless times heading to my girlfriend’s apartment; and I could hear her voice in the back of my head.

“I hate those boxers! Why do they have to take up the whole sidewalk when they work out? I just want to bike to class without swerving around them!”

My iPod had switched songs to Saba’s “GPS” as I drove past my destination: A squat, white warehouse bearing the blue script logo of the Gladden Boxing Club. Parking my car, I climbed out of the cabin and shuffled to the front door.

I tugged at the handle. It didn’t budge. An internet search had told me the gym would be open at that hour; and why would the internet ever lie? I peered through the clear glass door. Nothing moved in the confines of the small office within.

How could Google betray me so?

Disappointed, I drove back home. Like I had done so many times that semester, I trudged up the stairs, walked into my room and switched on my PlayStation Four before heading into the bathroom, phone in tow.

I decided to do some research: Giving Google a second chance, I queried for the boxing club’s phone number; and after some digging, found it buried in the information section of its Facebook page.

“Well,” I thought to myself as I dialed, “here goes.” One ring chimed. Then another. Then, a gruff voice.

“Hello?”

I introduced myself, stumbling over my words as I explained that I’d like to try to trial a couple of sessions at the gym. The voice on the other end — deep, slightly raspy — politely explained procedure and pricing structure: $15 for a single class, and call in advance to inform us when to expect you.

Agreeing, I offered to call him back once I figured out my schedule. Hours later, I did, signing on for morning classes on Monday and Wednesday. After a brief conversation, we hung up.

I wasn’t quite sure what I had just gotten myself into. All I knew was that, in a few days, I’d need to come up with $30, a gallon of water and a semblance of fitness.

 

I’m a lot of things to a lot of people. Friend, brother, boyfriend, idiot — you name it. But ask any of them the same question, and they’ll give you the same answer.

I’m not a fighter. Never have been, and probably never will be.

Sure, I grew up doing karate for eight years. Sure, the highlights of my competitive career primarily come from countless rounds of sparring: My flexibility — or lack thereof — limited me from developing into more than an inconvenience for elite forms practitioners.

But I’m not a fighter. Reasons include:

  • Muhammad Ali would beat opponents before even setting foot in a ring. Liquid swagger flowed through his veins. I, on the other hand, get nervous when I have to ask an employee at Wal-Mart what isle the SD cards are in.
  • In his prime, Mike Tyson was a vicious puncher; a fearless competitor. I occasionally feel bad if I step on an ant.
  • Even if they’ve never set foot on a mat or inside a ring, combat sport aficionados get a kick out of watching two well-trained athletes square off. By comparison, my heart skipped a beat (or seven) watching “Hacksaw Ridge” with my girlfriend and her family.

I’m not exactly Golden Gloves material; but despite my predispositions, my brother and I have kicked around the idea of joining a boxing gym for months.

The strategy of the sweet science fascinates me. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the speed at which premier boxers read their opponents, deflect incoming punches and execute combinations of their own.

Beyond that, there’s something inherently cool about the sport. Everyone, at some point, has seen a boxing training montage; and it’d be hard to not feel like Rocky while working a speedbag with a pair of 12-ounce gloves taped over your fists.

The middle-schooler in me always just wanted to be cool. So, for two days in November, I decided to pull my best Sylvester Stallone impression.

 

I ignored the first few knocks at my door. I answered the next series with an audible groan.

It was 8:00 a.m., the morning of my first boxing class. Instead of sleeping — like I so desperately wanted — my roommate Joe came to wake me up. Apparently, the roofers that our landlord had paid to repair our house needed our entire driveway empty; even after Joe moved his pickup to the side of the carport, as our landlord requested, so they could access the roof.

Disgruntled, I agreed to tail Joe to his girlfriend’s place and give him a ride back. At the very least, the hour of sleep I lost would give me extra time to run preparatory errands.

I dropped Joe back at our place, then shipped back to Publix to purchase a jug of water and withdraw $30. Coming back home, I fiddled around on social media; threw on the only piece of Gator-themed athletic apparel I own; inhaled a Fiber One protein bar and headed back into the chilly morning air.

10 minutes later, I had arrived at my destination. The undulating beat behind Smino’s “Netflix & Dusse” did little to assuage the nerves nagging at the bottom of my gut.

As I walked into the warehouse, I felt like the new kid at school. You know, the one that may or may not have been held back a grade.

A boxing ring stood beneath rows of international flags: A Colombian one hung over the nearest turnbuckle. Wandering along the polished concrete floor, I soon met my latest teacher. Stout, sturdily built, with neatly-cropped hair, Lee Gladden Jr. offered a handshake before ushering me into his office. As “Coach Milk” spoke, I looked around the dimly-lit room: A framed photo of Gladden, with a World Boxing Council championship belt slung over his shoulder, hung on a white wall.

Speaking in the same baritone that greeted me over the phone, he laid out basic expectations: “We’re here to give you an authentic boxing workout,” he explained. “We’re not here for any gimmicky, high-five stuff. We’re here to help you reach your goals.”

He continued: “If you stay with us long enough, you’ll be given a nickname to help us know you better. It’s not meant to be offensive, but your nickname will be based on how you train. If you train like a tiger, we’ll call you Tiger. If you train like a chump, we’ll call you Chump.”

Damn, I thought to myself. That’s cool. They don’t mess around here.

As we exited his office, more details solidified that notion: A large photocopy of the national amateur boxing rankings was pinned to a wall, flanked by pictures of boxers clad in red, white and blue. One name was highlighted in yellow — Lee Gladden Jr., the seventh-ranked lightweight fighter in the country back in 1994.

Yep, they REALLY don’t mess around here. I gotta tell my dad about this place.

Phone calls, though, would have to wait. Class was officially in session.

 

Strolling back to the front of the gym, I tried steeling myself for what was about to come. A gym veteran, Irene, gave me a slew of pointers: Keep your shirt tucked in, or else we run; don’t let Coach help you up, or else we run; if you’re tired, don’t lean on the walls, or else we run.

I nodded along, trying to internalize everything I’d just been told. The last thing I wanted to do was run: The closest I’d come to doing that in the last three months was directing Jimmy Garoppolo to flee the pocket in “Madden 18”.

But today was leg day; and I was in for a stark welcome.

The workout began with a few laps around the interior of the gym. Coach Marcell — known as “Slo-Mo” within the auspices of the Gladden Boxing Club — randomly chucked a football at us. Something about keeping our heads up, I presumed.

After avoiding the embarrassment of a dropped pass or an errant throw, our group congregated at the beginning of a strip of green track. So far, so good. Maybe I still have some residual cardio left from my rowing days!

With 30 seconds to get hydrated, I gulped down a few mouthfuls of water, making sure to hustle back to the line before time was done. Our next task seemed straightforward: Sprint to the end of the track, and jog back before Coach counts down to zero. The only catch? Go on “go,” and nothing else.

Dropping down to a four-point stance, I paired up with Irene at the head of the line. Coach Milk began his countdown.

“3!” Ok, here we go.

“2!” Remember, go on GO.

“1!” Wait for it…

“Gay!” Or was it “get it?” Whatever he said, it wasn’t “go.”

Like a defensive lineman falling for a quarterback’s hardcount, I sprang forward. Losing my balance, I tried to stop and returned, embarrassed, to my starting position.

I fell for the same trap another three times before finally getting the timing right; and then stumbled out of the gate for about four steps before recovering and finishing the sprint.

Talk about a good first impression.

Beyond that, the workout quickly proved grueling. More laps followed the sprints. Nausea — induced by one too many swigs of water — briefly settled in, soon replaced by the sear of lactic acid building up in my lower body.

Whatever confidence I had to begin with was soon dashed. Between exercises, I waddled around the gym, trying to flush some of the pain out of my legs. I didn’t fare much better during ab work: Hanging off the side of the ring, my core ceased responding about halfway through a two-minute sit-up cycle. When it came to jumping rope, I couldn’t string more than 10 skips together. It felt like the fifth grade all over again.

All the while, Coach Milk floated in between his charges, motivating them and offering a stiffer challenge as he saw fit. Periodically, he’d let loose a call and response.

“Hard work!” he’d belt.

“Easy work!” his students called back.

At least the first part was true. It hadn’t been 45 minutes, and Coach Milk and Slo-Mo succeeded in making me feel as though I had a meeting with a mafia collections team. I was exhausted; and I loved it.

With conditioning complete, the more seasoned boxers split off with Slo-Mo, facing a mirror-lined wall to shadowbox. Coach Milk walked me off to the side for personalized attention.

Finally, it was time to box.

 

At the beginning of class, Coach Milk told me his plan: He’d ease me into the technical aspects of boxing, increasing the workload as my conditioning improved. I was excited to get going. After all, I figured that eight years of karate would have (somewhat) prepared me to throw a jab.

I was wrong. Oh, was I wrong.

As the rest of class ran through punch progressions, Coach Milk explained the basic boxing stance — how to get “skinny.” Feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart; knees slightly bent; body aimed away from your target; fists clenched, resting below your cheekbones; elbows tucked to protect your ribs.

The barrage of information contradicted everything I had learned as a sportfighting karateka; and my body was quick to let me know as much. My left shoulder soon began to burn. My trapezius muscles grew tense. My jab — the most basic of strikes — was slow, rigid and left much to be desired.

Gaps popped up everywhere, and Coach Milk was quick to address them. At one point, he stopped and stared: My left hand relaxed from its fist and hovered about an inch or so away from my face, a technical holdover from my karate studies. Grinning, he swung a lackadaisical slap at my elbow, sending one of my fingers into my left eye.

Though my eye slightly watered, I couldn’t help but nervously grin. In one fell swoop — and without uttering a word — he made his point clear: Always keep your guard up.

After learning the mechanics of a jab, I timidly worked through a series of motions, struggling to process Coach Milk’s commands. We worked for roughly 10 minutes: him issuing instructions and providing feedback, me fumbling and mumbling through it all.

And then it was over. Seemingly as quickly as our workout started, Coach Milk offered me his congratulations, and headed back to the front to gather the rest of the boxers. Every class ends with a breakdown: Irene led it for the day.

On three, “hard work is easy work.”

On six, “motivation.”

On nine, “let’s get it.”

In an instant, my first boxing class had concluded. My body wouldn’t let me forget it for the next few days.

 

I first felt the soreness later that day, amidst my midday shift at Midtown’s Relish.

Working at a fast food restaurant isn’t exactly conducive to rest and muscular recovery: There’s grease everywhere, nowhere to sit and fewer places to escape to. An hour into my shift, twinges of pain began radiating through my thighs. The same sensation soon spread to my abs and my left forearm, making movement of almost any sort a laborious process. All I wanted to do was lay down, drink my weight in water and lead the New York Jets to virtual glory; but patties needed to be flipped.

After my five-hour stint in purgatory, I slowly biked home. I hadn’t been this sore, this soon, in what felt like ages. Lord only knew what the next few days would bring; and everyone within earshot would be sure to hear me complaining about it.

Combined with the effects of the second class, it took my body almost a week to fully clear the soreness that ravaged it.

But despite the pain, I craved more. The sense of community, the no-nonsense mentality, the structure of group training: Boxing checked everything I wanted in a workout plan. Hours after my second class, I signed on for my first two months.

Since my youth, I’ve always needed a push. Nicely put: I was a notoriously lazy, slightly chubby little kid.

Sports — be it karate, rowing, you name it — always seemed to be the most fun way to get fit. They’ve always drawn me in, even as puberty helped me thin out.

As I grew older, I became cognizant of my family’s medical problems — my dad’s side of the family suffers from heart disease — and sports became an enjoyable way to stave off their onset.

After I stopped rowing, I struggled to find something to fill that void. But in spite of the pain, in spite of the learning curve, boxing finally seems to have plugged that gap.

There’s something to be said of experiencing new things. Of learning new skills. I just hope my new nickname doesn’t involve my inability to discern a certain g-word from another.