Unfinished manuscripts are like children who just won’t grow up. They have so much potential. You know they do, but for whatever reason, they just won’t move–or they move so slowly it doesn’t feel as though they are. I have a number of this unruly children frolicking around my hard drive and thought I might put one out in the universe and see what happens.
Some of you may have heard me mentioning a story about a young female boxer some time ago…well, here is the never published, unedited first chapter of that book. The working title was/is Agonizing Victory.
Pop, pop, pop! The swift rhythm of a speed bag taking a beating shook Vick out of her sleep. Pop, pop, pop! The sound came in threes—a triplet of distinction that soon rolled into a cacophony bells, whistles and screams. Chatter rippled around a ring and a crowd roared as leather gloves cracked against a sweaty jaw. Uppercut! Bam! And a body hits the canvas.
Get back up! Hang in there. Coaches pleaded for the brawler to keep going. As the chatter continued, Vick reluctantly turned to focus on the digital time stamp on her nightstand. It was 5:25am and the frenzied fight sounds were her morning alarm. She struggled to stay awake in the darkness and slipped back into slumber.
The sounds of an animated coach began to crescendo just 60 seconds later. Push her away! Keep her away! That’s it! That’s it. Jab! Do it again! Jab! Jab! That’s it! Gym sounds filled the room. Vick’s phone jangled and clanged until she finally dragged herself out of bed to shut it off.
“All right, all right,” she mumbled. She’d purposely plugged it in across the room to force herself to get out of bed in order to silence it. The noises were equally motivating and annoying.
Rise and grind. How bad do you want it? The question ricocheted in her mind as she began getting ready for the day. How bad? She’d heard it every day from her coach for months. The words were embedded in her consciousness.
“Get up.” She coaxed herself. “Get up!” The routine was the start of another long, but focused day. Vick had to remind herself of why she’d set the alarm in the first place: to train for the biggest fight of her amateur career. This was the fight that was the key to her going pro.
Twenty minutes after rising, Vick had downed several cups of water and changed into her workout clothes. It was time for her four-mile run but her mind was still rallying against going outside—begging for a few more minutes to relax. Early morning runs were still a challenge for her despite being a former high school track star. She had to force herself to go out into the bite of the pre-dawn air. If she could conquer her own mind and its whining, she knew her opponent would be an easy target.
Vick was two weeks away from the big fight and nothing would break her focus. She had to win. No one else even mattered to her except her team, which consisted of a coach who doubled as a nutritionist, a sparring partner, and cut man who was also her manager. That small group of people was the key to her becoming a champ.
After enduring two grueling years as an unpaid amateur boxer, Vick was ready to prove herself in the professional arena. She wanted to make a big impression and gain attention. She needed to do both in order to jump start her pro career and get more fights. More fights equaled more fans. She wanted glory.
While stretching before her run, Vick had to contend with her thoughts again. Was she training harder than her opponent? Could she cultivate an undefeated record in the pro world as she had done in the amateurs? Was she really ready to go pro—to go toe-to-toe with no head gear? The questions pummeled her as she began warming up. Jab, jab. Move around. Move around! She threw a few punches at the air to fight back. Jab, jab. Double up! Do it again! Vick popped, blocked or countered every nagging question as took off into a stride.
The sky was beginning to lighten as the sun began its ascension for the day. Vick started with long stretches of empty road in the picturesque suburbs of Haddonfield, NJ. I’m ready, she assured herself. I can do it. It’s possible. Every contact her feet made with the pavement bolstered her confidence. Her heart rate shot up but she was in control. Surrounded by the vibrant beauty of fall foliage, Vick would run at full speed for two minutes, the equivalent of a round, and then stop for a one-minute break.
Run, break, run, break, run, break; Vick was conditioning her heart. She’d long ago learned that boxing wasn’t just about hitting hard. It was about technique and tactical moves. It was about the endurance and self-mastery. Run, break, run. Keep going. It was about being able tocome back from a hit. Vick had to be willing to lay everything on the line in order to win. That was the hardest part of all; convincing herself that she would not die just because she was exhausted or hurt. Keep going. Winning was mental as much as physical, if not more.
There was nothing in the world Vick wanted more than to be the strongest, fastest, and most skilled female boxer of her time. She had been fighting since she was seven years old and hadn’t slowed down since. She’d started with tae kwon do, an idea of her father to teach her self-defense. He’d insisted on it for both of his daughters but only Vick fell in love with it. The sport gave her the confidence to take a stand against bullies. Vick had been teased mercilessly for her dark skin and chubby stature; for her thick glasses and funny accent.
Born in her parents’ homeland of Jamaica, Vick found American culture hard to adjust to. She was naturally shy and too afraid to challenge bullies who had taunted her. Kids called her fat, black and ugly until she became recluse, opting to play alone inside rather than out with peers. It would only be a few weeks into her first American school year before her father noticed the depth of her withdrawal and social awkwardness. It was the exact opposite experience of her older sister Marie, but Marie was always more outgoing, feminine and outspoken than Vick. She made friends easier.
Though Vick was reluctant to tell her parents what was going on, they could see sadness weighing down her big eyes and hear her silent cries for help. They enlisted Marie to keep a closer eye on Vick at school and it was after that action they learned of Vick being physically pushed around. All of them were surprised but their father was incensed. He insisted that both girls would learn how to defend themselves in a skilled way. Karate was an easy solution as it doubled as an after school activity to keep them busy during the gap of time when neither he nor their mother was able to watch them.
“You are not to start fights, but you should never run from one if somebody starts with you. You hear?” He’d preached. His patois dialect slipped into the lecture. “You must put people in them place and let them know to leave you alone!”
Vick was initially fearful in her martial arts classes but after a few weeks with a patient instructor, a fondness for sport began to grow. While Marie only participated because their father insisted, Vick began to thrive. She practiced daily, losing weight and gaining confidence with each class. Her posture improved, her smile returned and for the first time since they’d moved to the states, Vick was not afraid to go to school. In fact, she secretly wanted to be challenged just so she could lay someone out. It didn’t take long for her to get her wish. She only had to have two fights before bullies finally backed off for good. Those wins were a turning point and made her focus more on fighting as a competitive sport.
She earned her black belt by the age of 14 and asked her parents to try boxing. Her father refused but she pressed him. Vick was relentless. She asked week after week until her he finally agreed. She didn’t know it then, but winning that battle was the first clue that she was also on her way to mastering the art of patience and persistence.
For the next few years Vick trained at a suburban gym her parents chose for her. As she neared her late teens she pushed to train at a real boxing gym in the city Camden, a rougher part of southern New Jersey.
“Absolutely not,” her father was firm again. He said he would never pay to send her to the ghetto.
Vick argued that the city wasn’t all bad and that she knew how to defend herself. He refused. She pushed back, even negotiating just summer training in Camden for which she would get a part-time job and pay for herself. The back and forth went on again as it had the first time she requested to box, but this time she had to concede a few things to win. Her father would drop her off and pick her up and she would pay for it herself. That was the deal. Vick took it.
Training in Camden soon blossomed into a stellar amateur career. She boxed all the way through high school and opted to go to community college to satisfy her parents’ desire for her to continue her education and her own to stay local. That’s where she was right now, in her second year at Camden County and still chasing her dream. Her only challenge was the fact that there weren’t enough challengers.
Female boxers were hard to come by. To make up for the lack of local female fighter she traveled to Philadelphia, Baltimore and up to New York for matches. She did whatever she had to do to make a name for herself and now she was finally ready for her biggest challenge yet.
She’d spent all mornings the same way for months; training, and training harder. This morning sweat streamed down Vick’s back and bubbled against her temples as she barreled through the last mile of her run. Motivational speeches streamed into her ears from an mp3 player securely clipped to her pants and rays of the morning sun soon poured over Vick; what had started out as a regular morning had become electric.
Jab. Jab. Hook to the body! Hook to the head! She slowed and threw a combo in her enthusiasm. Blood and adrenaline flowed vigorously through her body, and she felt a rush as she brought her run to an end. Vick was ready to guzzle a half-gallon of water and eat a champion’s breakfast the moment she got home. After her meal and a little bit of rest, she laced up her sneakers and headed back out. It was time to hit the Bunker for weight training and sparring.
The Bunker was the basement of an old, concrete building that housed both her boxing gym and a mixed martial arts center. It had an 80s era hip-hop mural on its exterior and unapologetically uncut grass. The Bunk, as it was affectionately called, was a safe haven for athletes and under-privileged youth. It was a life-saver for those who teetered with living on the wrong side of the law and a sanctuary for coaches who’d lived through the region’s glory days of boxing.
Nestled between a Baptist church, cemetery and abandoned glass factory, the Bunk had been there since the early1960s. It was there before Camden became ravaged by drugs, poverty and political corruption. Unlike the rest of its host city, The Bunk managed to survive in spite of being lean. It was still owned by the man who opened it 50 years ago, Sulaiman Mustafa.
When Vick pulled into the parking lot, she walked across cracked pavement with protruding weeds to get to the iron-clad entrance. The building was rough. It was hard. It had seen better days, but it had survived the worst. “Confidence is King” had been scrawled over the doors that lead to the Bunk. It was one of the many phrases that were repeated daily by all of the coaches.
Once in the gym, Vick was greeted by high ceilings, exposed beams and sheets of fluorescent light. Paint peeled from the walls and the familiar stench of sweat and spit permeated the air. Ring-side funnels were connected to hoses lead lead the nasty mucous from the athlete’s mouths to plastic holding buckets on the floor.
“Hello, young lady.” Suleiman offered her a smile. “Work hard today.”
“Good morning, Brother Sulei,” she greeted him. “You know I will.”
“Come on, Vick. Hustle up, let’s get started,” Crock chimed in. It was short for Crocodile.
“I’m ready coach,” she assured.
There were two rings in the Bunk, only one had padding beneath its canvas—the one that younger boxers and female athletes used. Neither ring had stools. There was no seated resting between rounds when sparring.
As Vick walked toward the small area designated for women’s lockers, she passed men shadowboxing and one guy doing pull-ups on a make-shift bar. Images of fists pounding heavy bags blended with rhythmic smacks of jump ropes hitting the hardwood floor. It was the sound of speed—the sight of power. The Bunk was a labyrinth of men developing their bodies into deadly weapons. At the moment, Vick was the only female on premise.
She was used to being the only woman in before 9:00. There were about five other females who trained at the gym, but Vick was the only early bird. She didn’t have time to be in there all afternoon. She was juggling training with a part-time job and school.
“You ready, Vick?” Crock asked when she emerged from the locker room.
“Yep, I’m ready.”
Vick would spend the next two hours doing a mélange of aerobic and anaerobic exercises under Crock’s guidance. He was a squat man with a halo of steel gray hair. He had been Vick’s coach for the last two years—the only one who had taken her seriously when she first showed up at the Bunk. Crock looked past her feminine appearance and saw confidence. It was in her eyes.
At 59 years old, Crock had trained every type of athlete. He had been born and raised in South Carolina, but had migrated north during his own years of chasing boxing dreams. When he got too old for the sport he became a coach. From football players to track stars, male and female; from junior high school to college level athletes, Crock had worked with them all. He had a knack for recognizing heart and knew after one meeting with Vick that she had it. When he’d challenged her to spar a male partner on her first day she accepted.
Vick didn’t shy away because her opponent was a man. In fact, she displayed the energy level of someone ready for an eight-round fight, but Vick needed help with technique. She needed help with her feet, keeping balance and understanding the psychology of boxing. Crock took her under his wing. It was he who had recently decided that she was ready to go from amateur to pro. He believed in her. More importantly, he noted how much belief she believed in herself. He loved coaching her.
“You gotta know the ring like you know your house. Every inch. The highs. The lows. The blind spots. The ring is your home,” he advised when they began mitt work. “You gotta have good eye-hand coordination. Know when to strike, how fast and when to sneak away,” he continued. “It’s your territory.” Crock stole a second to wipe sweat from his brow. “When an opponent steps in the ring, she’s intruding. You gotta to defend your territory. You got that?”
“Yes, coach.” Pop! Pop! Vick tagged the mitts.
“It’s war,” Crock continued. “You’re a shark and she’s in your tank.” He had an endless supply of analogies for the ring but comparing it to a shark tank was his favorite.
“Like a shark…” She circled him, taking heed to his words. “Like a shark.”
“This is your tank,” he repeated as they continued to work. “Come on, Vick. Jab, jab! Bite! Come on!” Crock rattled on.
Pop! Pop! Pop! She tagged the mitts harder as she dance around him.
“Yeeeah, that’s it, baby girl!” He bellowed. “That’s it!”
By the time Vick had finished her training session she was drenched in sweat. The Bunk didn’t have showers so she didn’t waste any time getting out of there and going home. Not only did she want to refresh, she had to work on a term paper for her biology class. Her schedule was formidable.
-End of chapter 1-