Though I'm one of the most non-violent men you will ever meet, I adore boxing. To me there is no purer sport than the sweet science.
Years ago I dabbled in boxing and loved it. In my mid-20s, I could throw a mean left hook and there were few things I enjoyed more than the feeling of striking a bag. I sparred a little but, not being particularly quick or skilled at defence, I got tagged a couple times hard enough to see stars. That was enough for me to walk away from the sport.
Now 40, I've returned to boxing, minus the sparring. But there's a catch. I'm one of the few men who trains at a women's boxing gym. And it's quite the humbling experience.
As an English major who has worked in creative departments for years, I'm no stranger to being the lone man in a group of women. But this was different. This was boxing. To me, the ring was a sacred place where true masculinity was displayed. I've watched hundreds of fights where men fought and bled and showed toughness like no other athletes.
So initially, it took some adjusting to receiving advice from women on how to fight. But the awkwardness quickly vanished when I discovered that instruction at my gym is top-notch: footwork, balance, weight-shifting, strategy, tips to improve hand speed and power. … Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson could learn a few things here.
Though grateful for the coaching, I still often have to swallow my male pride because in this gym gender roles are knocked down for the count. I've worked away at a speed bag, imagining I'm Rocky Balboa, when I noticed the woman next to me, half my size and weight, was striking her bag twice as fast and hard.
On other days, my punches on a heavy bag sound like gentle love taps compared to the thunderous booms from the punches of the lady next to me.
How did my return to the ring take me here? Earlier this year, a female co-worker expressed interest in boxing, and her curiosity immediately renewed my interest. Being fairly new to Toronto, she didn't know where to go. I did. I was familiar with this gym, as female friends had trained there and raved about it.
She discovered co-ed classes were offered and urged me to go with her. From the minute I wrapped my knuckles and slid on the gloves, I was hooked again. But the goal is a bit different. All I want is a little exercise and the chance to channel some aggression - all without hurting myself, particularly my face.
Under gym rules, men are allowed twice a week - Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons. But that's it.There are times I feel out of place. I've spent afternoons training and noticed I am the lone guy among 15 women. I feel self-conscious and wonder what they think of me. And yet, feminine is the last word I would use to describe the atmosphere.
This gym is no fitness club. There are no flat-screen televisions above rows of shiny treadmills. There's no tanning booth or sauna. There's no over-cheerful staff in bright training uniforms wanting to assess your personal fitness level.
A collection of well-used heavy bags and speed bags surround a ring that has seen thousands of rounds of sparring. The faded canvas is spotted with blood stains and patched in places with duct tape. A locker is filled with scuffed head gear and worn gloves that must have struck both leather and jaws countless times.
The "change room" is simply a corner of the gym behind walls of lockers. If I want to use the bathroom inside, one of the coaches has to do a "change room check" to make sure no women are dressing. Or, if they're busy, someone just yells, "Boy entering the change room!"
The walls of the gym are decorated with weathered posters of famous fighters and fights, alongside framed photos of the gym's women boxers in various poses, looking fierce and fearless.
Only once did my being male cause trouble. One Tuesday evening, I walked into the gym a few minutes early. A woman lifting weights took offence at my presence. She stopped, glared, pointed at me, then at the door and yelled at me to get out. Humiliated, I stood frozen as she continued to yell. I bowed my head, turned around, closed the door and stood in the hallway, feeling absolutely foolish.
Thankfully, the majority of women have no problem with me and work out here for the same reasons I do - a love of boxing as a great form of exercise and an unequalled stress reliever.
However, some of these women were born to fight. There are a number of highly skilled boxers who train for amateur fights. They are something to watch. And when I watch them spar or train, anything to do with gender vanishes. What I see is dazzling footwork, silky-smooth defence and lightning-quick punch combinations. What I see are fighters.
And yet while these accomplished pugilists train hard to destroy their next opponent, the gym has a remarkably friendly vibe, a refreshing change to the "bet I can kick your ass" mentality at some men's boxing gyms. At my age, my days of puffing out my chest are long gone. Here, the atmosphere is unintimidating and informal. There's nothing to prove.
And I've discovered boxing with nothing to prove really is sweet.
Sean McNeely lives in Toronto.