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Knock Down, Drag Out 

Or how I learned to stop worrying and punch the bag

The bell rings, and I float to the center of the ring, bouncing on the balls of my feet, quick and agile. I throw a few snapping jabs, tagging my opponent at will. He tries to muscle me into the corner but I expertly slip away, peppering him with a few more jabs in the process. I throw some body blows, a few combinations. The poor sap doesn't know what hit him. Finally, I decide playtime is over. I drop my hands, drawing him in. He throws a lazy, straight right. I bob to the side, come over the top, and bam! I drop like him a bad transmission. The crowd goes wild; applause fills the arena, throngs of squealing women rush to the side of the ring, all vying for my attention. "Thank you. Thank you. I love you, too," I say. But then I hear this loud beeping sound. I don't like it. It's persistent and nagging. Beep! Beep! Beep!...what the hell is that? I open my eyes and turn over. The alarm clock. I smack the snooze button and roll back over. Oh well, it was a nice dream while it lasted.

But the lung-exploding fatigue and noodle-armed weariness I'm experiencing now isn't a dream. My editors, obviously harboring some deep-seated resentment toward me, suggested that for this year's Summer Guide I do a story about what it's like to take boxing lessons. With complete disregard for my safety and good looks (well, my safety, anyway), I arrange to take an introductory course at Southside Boxing under the tutelage of Joe Mayer.

Southside Boxing is not your typical pretty boy health club where folks come in wearing coordinated exercise outfits to preen in front of the mirror and check out the opposite sex. It looks -- and smells (particularly the gloves, "like someone took a dump in them and put them back on the shelf," observed one fellow student) -- like a real boxing gym. There's a full-size ring, two heavy bags, a speed bag, two double-end bags and a fully equipped weight room. Boxing posters and memorabilia cover the walls, and along one wall Mayer has posted Polaroids of all his students.

It's here, in this testosterone-and-sweat-soaked gym, where I first meet Mayer, the man responsible for my previously mentioned fatigue and weariness. Mayer, 36, first got into boxing in 1987 for the purposes of self-defense and fitness. Over the years he's competed in various amateur and Golden Gloves competitions. In 1996, he slugged his way to victory in the Kings Mountain Toughman Contest. He started Southside Boxing in 1999. Since then, he's had close to 700 students (including several dozen women), as well as some promising pugilists of note, like Omar Pena, who won a state title in Fort Bragg, and Carlos Rascon, a 16-year-old Junior Olympian.

Then there's me. The last time I got into an actual fight I was wearing a Van Halen T-shirt (pre-Sammy Hagar days) and wearing roller skates, so that gives you some idea as to how prepared I was going into this assignment. Besides, I'm more of a lover than a fighter -- no doubt about it, I love not getting hit in the face. I thought I was in pretty decent shape coming in to this, but I soon found out just how taxing the sport of boxing is. Don't believe me? Stand up, set the clock, and just throw punches for three minutes (one round). It's only a measly 180 seconds, but chances are you'll be panting and sweating at the end. Now imagine trying to keep that up for an hour.

Mayer offers an introductory six-session package. The first three lessons are based on height and reach advantage, using longer punches. We started with the basics -- proper footwork, how to throw jabs, straight rights and combinations. We also worked on body positioning, where you learn to circle and move around your opponent -- in this case a heavy bag -- while keeping proper distance and form.

As I did my best Rocky Balboa impression, Mayer -- with good-natured and infinite patience -- peppered me with instructions: "Don't lean into your punches, keep your hands up and elbows in to protect your head and body, and angle your body to present less of a target."

This is all stuff that most guys, including me, assume they can instinctively do simply by way of having testosterone and having watched countless kick ass movies. Yet once I got in the ring and tried to do it for real, I soon realized I wasn't nearly as fierce -- or coordinated -- as I thought. After my first lesson -- which entailed throwing several hundred punches at the heavy bag -- my arms felt like spaghetti noodles, and my hands were sore and a little swollen, which made typing a slow-going affair.

As the lessons progressed I tackled other key skills like slipping punches and countering with hooks and more elaborate combinations. By the third lesson I felt like some of my punches and combinations had a little more snap, and that I wasn't flailing around like Jerry Lewis. It was still much harder than I imagined to maintain proper footwork and form while simultaneously throwing decent punches. And I was going up against only a heavy bag, which, lucky for me, can't hit back.

The final three lessons are designed for the smaller, more compact fighter, who attacks from the inside, coming in low and strong. More focus is put on hooks, uppercuts and body blows. Unfortunately, I completely blew out my ankle -- ironically enough while playing the far less manly sport of tennis -- before I could finish my final lessons. I won't be floating like a butterfly or stinging like a bee any time soon. But I can whoop a punching bag like nobody's business.

If you're interested in learning more about the sweet science of boxing, contact: Southside Boxing for Fitness, 1405 Tyvola Rd., Charlotte, NC, 704-527-8624. The six-session introductory package costs $125.

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