An English teacher finds literary completeness in a most unlikely way
The cynicism that regards hero worship as comical is always shadowed by a sense of physical inferiority.
The electronic bell rings, a high-pitched staccato-shriek signaling the start of a nightmare. In it, a 43-year-old English professor is trapped in a boxing ring with a 22-year-old tattooed bruiser. For the next three minutes, the younger pugilist will have but one goal in mind—punching the older man’s face clean off.
I’m the older man and, unlike the times when I struck the heavy bags that never hit back, I feel the sluggish weight of every birthday. Worse, I can’t wake myself from this violent dream because it is, to my utter horror, actually happening. My padded headgear enhances my sense of standing in the corner like a punch-test dummy. My mouth guard makes it difficult to breathe, saliva coagulating in my throat to the point that I might choke. My legs feel boneless, but I propel myself onward, into the center of the ring. I bop my glove against my combatant’s, indicating there are no hard feelings for the hard blows we’re obliged to rain down on one another.
Gloves raised, we begin to size each other up, moving around, throwing jabs. My opponent, Geo, is faster, stronger and has the reach advantage. He rapidly cuffs my mitts, which nudge my own face. It’s nothing more than a glancing prod. But because this is only my third sparring session, I panic and make a spectacularly dumb error.
I decide to show this Henderson-spawned punk how we like to do it downtown.
I throw a strong jab and step right in front of Geo with a savage right hook, smashing the side of his cranium. He covers up, but my left hook is already there to clock the other side of his head. And because he’s slightly off balance now, my right hand returns with a follow-up blow. Three wicked shots landing easily and with impact.
I got this. He isn’t going to walk all over me now.
Then, in the span of 30 seconds, Geo introduces me to the crystalline truth of what I’ve really accomplished in the ring with him:
I haven’t hurt him in the slightest. I’ve merely angered him. And now he’s going to walk all over me.
* * *
* * *
Months earlier, before Geo bloodied my face and blackened my eye, I stood before a classroom of college sophomores, dressed in a polo and jeans, with my textbook open to Homer’s epic war poem The Iliad. I glibly mocked poor Hector, the Trojan prince who had killed the best friend of Greek raider Achilles. Hector, who symbolizes all that is good and noble and civilized about a warrior, runs in fear around the walls of his besieged city three times, struggling to escape his fate: to die under revengeful Achilles’ blade.
I derided Hector’s fear because, to cite Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, I had a cynical view of heroism. Yes, in my heart of hearts, I knew Hector, even running from his slayer, was braver than I ever could be. But because individual greatness today is so often scorned in favor of elevating collectivism and collaboration, it was easy to take a cheap shot by saying: “So much for the mightiest Trojan warrior.” It cost me nothing to announce this, because I had no skin in the game.
It was a shameful moment in my teaching. And I would’ve continued playing that false note, too, semester after semester, if not for my boxing experience. Geo and my fellow boxers taught me that squaring off against someone you know will wipe the canvas with you is a heroic gesture. Tocco’s gave me the blessed gift of humility.
* * *
* * *
Geo steps up, and I move to greet him. But my jab is ineffectual while his lightning fist catches me square in the forehead. It sets off a chain reaction of agony, a domino effect of punishing jolts because, as I’m reeling from the stiff left, his right hand smashes me between the eyes, and now I’m on the retreat.
Our boxing instructor, CJ, calls out: “Dodge, Jarret! Tuck and roll your shoulders!”
But I’m beyond help now. Like Mike Tyson famously said: “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth.” Pain and fear have stripped me of reason.
Geo doggedly pursues. My lungs are burning. I curse my stubborn refusal to do proper cardio in between boxing workouts. Holding my breath while punching at and running away from my opponent doesn’t do me any favors, either. I don’t want to collapse in the ring from lack of oxygen. I don’t wish to expire this way, a gasping goldfish jettisoned from his bowl. I prefer to die on my feet like a warrior. So I make another stand for pugilistic glory.
It is not mine to have. CJ yells at me to move, but I’m not running anymore. Geo, again, is too fast for me, blasting my nose as my own jab goes nowhere. This is the harshest punch I’ve taken, unkinder than the tags I earned in a long-ago high school scrape. When I taste the blood pouring from my nostrils, I spit out my mouthguard and say the words I promised I’d never hear myself say:
There are still two minutes left in the round, and I have already thrown in the towel.
Blood runs down my face, onto my gloves, my shirt, my shoes. Blood splatters on the canvas, adding to the already-existing Jackson Pollock-style drip painting of stains. I step through the ropes and out of the ring, heading to the bathroom. Another guy in our boxing class, Mark, makes his way onto the canvas to take a turn against Geo.
I couldn’t care less about that. I’m worried my nose is broken. If it is, I might have to cancel the class on Dante’s Inferno I’m scheduled to teach in the afternoon.
There’s a mirror in the bathroom at Johnny Tocco’s. I stand over the sink and run the faucet and watch my blood decant onto the porcelain. My blood mixes with the water and flows down the drain. I think about how it’s taken me five months of sweat-inducing, body-transforming, violence-nurturing boxing classes at Tocco’s to reach this point of abject submission, of existential self-awareness, of masculine wholeness, of literary completeness.
Then I recall that Dante reserves the seventh circle of hell for the violent—those who commit violence against others, against themselves, against God. Judging from the Italian poet’s masterpiece, I seem destined for the Phlegethon, a river of boiling blood brimming with the souls of vicious tyrants and brigands. Or maybe I’m doomed to the Wood of Suicides, my body rooted and writhing in eternal anguish due to my desire for self-harm.
Until this moment, though, I had no idea how hellish small-scale violence really is. Thanks to my trainer CJ and to Tocco’s, I’m discovering what it really means to inhabit an unfair world and how to teach ancient literature at a higher (or more grounded) level. I won’t lie: An ivory-tower academic, I learned to suppress the physical side of me in order to elevate the intellectual. But as I bleed in the bathroom of this no-frills gym, I quickly unlearn things in order to find balance, perspective, health and—dare I say it—professional happiness. I also learn that trying to wallop someone at the onset of a round isn’t a strategy.
More significantly, I learn that having no real experience with violence has created gaps in my teaching. It’s time to armor up.
* * *
* * *
The antithesis of fitness center chains, the three-room Tocco’s doesn’t look to harbor grandiosity. In one room, heavy bags hang like cuts of meat from chains bolted to the rafters. Stepping into the main ring, you don’t feel you’re gracing a gladiator stage; it feels instead like you’re settling into a creature’s maw. Originally a speakeasy, Tocco’s, for 60-plus years, has served the greatest fighters: Sonny Liston, Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather Jr. Photos of pugilists, many of whom trained here, line the walls, some fighters posing with Tocco (who died in 1997). There are peeling vintage posters of huge bouts at Caesars, too. You can smell blood, sweat and dreams.
I want to add my own funk to a gym that has given me a chance to grow. A chance to, like Hector, be a hero in the face of sure defeat.
What I’m going to tell my students now about Hector: His courage might have lapsed momentarily, but in the end he met the challenge. There’s a reason The Iliad concludes with Hector’s funeral and not Achilles’. Homer reminds us that heroes aren’t flawless. Sometimes they run, bleed, die. But they always stand up and fight.
* * *
* * *
Toilet paper shoved in my nostrils, the bleeding has ceased. I wipe gore off the sink, head back into the main room and don my gloves. Done sparring, Geo and Mark drink water. I’ve guzzled a pint of my own blood, but there’s only one option for me.
“Ready to go again, Jarret?” asks CJ. “How’s your face?”
“Perfect,” I say, jogging around the ring three times before pushing past the ropes for another go at Geo.
CJ gives me a quizzical look, shrugs, then triggers the bell.
I bash my gloves together and soldier forward.
Jarret Keene teaches literature and creative writing at UNLV. He has authored poetry collections and a rock-band biography and has edited or co-edited several books about Las Vegas.