The Yes Woman: Even without an opponent, boxing has me on the ropes

As I walk into Underdog boxing gym, I know that I’m not up to what is about to happen

When I recently watched Floyd Mayweather fight Manny Pacquiao in what was generally agreed to be the fight of the century for boxing fans, I was agonisingly bored. I could understand that lots of technical mastery was unfolding before me, but it still wasn't terribly interesting to watch. Mayweather's flittering way of bobbing about the ring makes him almost impossible to punch in the face in a sport that gains its excitement factor from exactly that.

Boxing isn’t something that has ever really captured my interest as a form of self-defence. Since the dawn of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993, and the subsequent evolution of mixed martial arts as practised by fighters such as Conor McGregor, something has become abundantly clear. Although boxing is the purest form of fighting with one’s arms, in a real fight or self-defence situation, which could end up on the ground, it pales. If you can box but you can’t also grapple and fight on the ground, you’re likely to lose a fight. Boxing hasn’t lost relevance, however. Although it’s an integral skill for a well-rounded fighter, people are becoming more aware of its fuzzier side.

The fuzzier side of boxing sets aside the part where you get punched in the face in favour of learning technique and benefiting from the strength and conditioning training that boxers undergo.

Strength and stamina

Since boxing requires strength as well as stamina (all that dancing about on the balls of your feet is exhausting), undertaking some of the training undertaken by boxers is more than enough to keep the average person in pretty good condition.


With this theory in mind, I headed over to Underdog, a recently opened boxing gym just off St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, to try boxing for the first time. En route, I lamented the fact that I keep saying yes to new things that make me uncomfortable. Although that is the idea behind this column, my initial resistance at the idea of a frightening new thing still grates in my gut.

Nothing fills me with greater anxiety than the prospect of strenuous physical activity. I go about my life with the permanent assumption that my body really isn’t capable of much. This is confirmed by just about everyone I encounter. People don’t usually look at short, unathletic-looking women and have any expectation of athletic prowess. The social pressure on men – particularly larger men – to have efficient, capable bodies just isn’t there to the same extent. This has always fed my inherent laziness, but it has also ensured I go into gyms with a resounding sense of shame, as though I’ve failed before I even begin. A near-lifetime of taking pains to avoid that shame isn’t easily cast off.

Vicious stitch

I walk into Underdog, and immediately know that I’m not physically capable of whatever is about to happen. The gym is spotless, airy, bright and clean, and full of frightening equipment. It is the sort of place I feel a most conspicuous sense of otherness. Victor, one of Underdog’s boxing coach, is misleadingly sweet-faced. After going through the very basics of how to punch without falling over, he directs me to “a bag”, and I hope that he doesn’t know that I’m already giving stern consideration to running away. I don’t for one reason: I know I’ll just be doubled over with a vicious stitch before I even reach the door.

After a few minutes – it feels like 17 hours – of taking out all my aggression on an inanimate object, I feel better. My arms feel as though they belong to someone else and have been grafted without anaesthetic on to my shoulders. But I have a new appreciation for the technical skill of boxers. I’m euphoric. I can do anything. I am a capable person. Then the conditioning part of the training starts, and I’m no longer capable. I am, in fact, in a paroxysm of incapacity. After 90 squats, the floor looks like an awfully tempting resting place, and a pool of tears a cosy pillow. Somehow, though, I survive to the end, and I’m reminded that my body is capable of far more than I give it credit for. I mince home as though I’ve just had rectal surgery, but feeling better and proud.

  • The Yes Woman says yes to . . . boxing, and no to . . . shame