Boxing 101: The Teacher’s A Tough Cookie

The first thing you notice is the smell. It hits you like an artillery shell, an odor of sweat and grime bold enough to fell a Harley-riding warthog. As you stand in the vestibule, you close your eyes and inhale it deep into your lungs.

You’re here to discover your own heart of darkness. Yet you are far from the source of this stink. Soon, you’ll find that it has wafted from the stairwell, climbed two stories and snaked through the door as if to warn you of ugly things below. Head down those stairs, the smell says, and you will experience intense bodily harm.

The message is clear. This is no pretty-boy gym. There will be no fancy diagrams telling you how not to strain a back muscle. This gym will pummel you to the mat. Make you ache and holler in pain so bad you’ll wish you never set foot inside. And there will be no sauna afterward. You’ll be lucky if the tap trickles out cold water. And bring your own soap if you must. For you shall learn to love your stink. And after your workout, you will climb the stairs, realizing that you contributed to this apocalyptic stench. And you will feel proud of your accomplishment. You will ride the subway home in your gym clothes, stewing in bodily odor. You will even return for more. Because you are here to learn the sweet science. Even if it kills you.

Such is the scene at the Church Street Boxing Gym, a downtown hole in the ground that promises to make fighters out of regular guys. Most of the gym’s clientele are real boxers training for actual bouts. But Church Street’s also a place where flabby-armed yuppies can shed their office garb, throw on some gloves and pretend they’re prepping for a 10-round title fight.

It is a place where I intend to test my manliness.

A dozen of us, including a few women, have signed up for a class called Boxing 101. A classified ad enticed me: It showed an angry-looking man, sweating profusely, his fists raised to his face. I pinned it to my bulletin board and stared at it throughout my workday. If I took this class, I’d get tough enough to handle myself in a “situation.” I had no illusion I’d ever take out a bruiser like the guy in the ad. I just wanted to casually tell chicks, “Yeah, I box,” hoping they’d suddenly thrust themselves at me with ravenous sexual hunger. Of course, I didn’t expect to be getting medieval on anybody. Not until the class was over, anyway, in five weeks.

My trainer, I hope, will whip me into shape. I imagine a grizzled old Irishman, a Burgess Meredith-type with a name like Dukes McCoy. But my heart sinks when I see my liege. She is a tiny woman named Cookie Melendez.Cookie is a name that makes me feel, well, doughy.

“Holyfield trains here,” she tells me, perhaps trying to ease my doubts. “It was a zoo.” She gives the class her bio. She’d toughened up in Harlem, brawling with the local girls. At 14, she’d started martial arts, rose to black belt and kick-boxed professionally before retiring at age 35. She’d even made a kung-fu movie in China.

I decide to give her a chance. She looks like a fireball and is promising to make boxers of us all. She lays down the rules. “We’re gonna start by skipping rope; then we’re gonna shadowbox. I’m gonna demonstrate the basic punches. If you’re not hurting when you leave, you haven’t worked hard enough. You’ll be sore the next day. Every muscle will ache. And you’ll thank me for getting you in shape.”

I survey my fellow fighters. We’re a sorry-looking bunch. Mike, a money manager, looks about as ready to take a punch as a librarian. Dave, a playwright, looks like he belongs in the theater. Some of the women look tougher than the guys. “I broke a guy’s nose when he tried to get fresh with me,” says Holly, an advertising executive. But it’s the steely-eyed blonde who speaks with a tough Bronx accent that attracts our stares. In warm-up, she thwacks the bag like a female Camacho. Her punches seem a blatant challenge to us weak-kneed men. I decide not to mess with her.

Cookie pops a tape into the stereo and we skip rope to the sounds of the Mortal Kombat video game. I have no idea how to do it and jump pathetically. Most of the other guys fare no better, though, and Cookie sees we’re struggling. She quickly ends the warm-up and has us stretch everything from our fingertips to our toes. Finally, we get to Lesson 1: the left jab. “You want to keep your opponent at arm’s length with the jab,” she says. “Do it quick and always bring your fist back to your face.” I check myself out in the mirror and like what I see. The sweat flies; I can feel my arms getting cut. And the odor in our room, a converted squash court with no ventilation, gets downright rank.

A week later, my jump-roping has improved and I feel like a champ in training. I’m ready for Lesson 2: the left hook. “Bend your knees, chin down, head and elbows tucked in; turn sideways; lead with your left jab; reserve the right as the power punch,” Cookie says. “Then pow -smack him with the hook. He won’t know what hit him.” Sure, I think, if you’re the one delivering it. As I discover, the left hook isn’t easy to master. In a single motion, it requires a half-spin of the body, a left-foot pivot, a quick elbow motion and a return of your fist to its starting position. It does not feel natural and synchronizing my torso, arms and feet takes more coordination than I have. We practice it for the remainder of the class. But we’ve lost some of our confidence. The blonde drops out after this class, as does a banker. We’re down to 10.

By Week 3, we’re coordinating combos of punches with dodges and weaves. “Start with two jabs, duck, right uppercut, weave, right cross, then end with a left hook,” Cookie said. “Got it?” We nod our heads, though no one will master this combo. But we’re in high spirits. Cookie had promised us handwraps since the first class, and finally putting them on spikes us with adrenaline; our fists feel lethal as we slide them into gloves. We practice, one guy throwing punches, the other parrying. Cookie sets the timer to three-minute intervals and in between drops us for 40 crunches. My T-shirt gets drenched. None of us has thrown or blocked a real punch. But I leave the gym satisfied with my progress.

I return to the next class ready to rumble. “You’ve come a long way,” Cookie tells us, “now it’s time to spar.” All 13 of us climb into the ring. We crack jokes, trying to lighten the atmosphere. Then Mike and I go at it. “Keep it to the body,” Cookie instructs. “And no contact.” All our training quickly degenerates. I flail and swipe. He parries. He flails. I block. We look like a couple of dopes. But it’s the closest we’ve come to real fighting. And it’s exhilarating.

Which brings me to the final class: a 10th-round downer. Cookie’s late and we warm up too long. Mike and I try the jab-block motion for a while, but it gets dull. Then the timer buzzes and Cookie orders us out of the ring. It’s all over. A couple of guys exchange numbers with the women. The gym’s owner signs up six guys for another class: Boxing 301. It occurs to me that I still don’t know how to handle myself in a situation. Nor have any party chicks thrust themselves at me with untamed lust. A friend is raving about his tae kwon do class and I decide to try it instead. It occurs to me that I haven’t learned much from this class. For a few moments, though, it has made me feel like a contender.