Of Pugilistic Encounters and Uncanny Resemblances

In high school, I boxed for a year in the flyweight division. In the year-end boxing tournament, I lost in the final. To my best friend’s identical twin.

Most people who I recount this story to are struck by the apparent weirdness of fighting an opponent that bore a striking resemblance to someone who I counted a near and dear one: Did it prevent me from landing blows? Was I afraid I would hurt him? Was my mind confused by seeing a supposedly friendly face contort into the determined aggression of a fighting counterpart?

The answer to all those questions is a ‘No.’ I wasn’t thrown off by the resemblance. I lost because a) I didn’t throw as many punches as my opponent did, and b) the referees forgot that punches that land are more valuable than ones that are aimlessly thrown and don’t make contact. I think I wuz robbed. When the fight was over, and we had retired to the changing room, my fellow boxer walked over to me and said, ‘You should have won that.’ Right.

There was another complication. My opponent was not a popular boy in my school; I had been urged, by many, to beat him, to teach him a lesson. But thanks to my father–a school boxing champion in his time, who disdained the idea of the boxing ring as a place to settle scores–and my coach–a former Navy boxer who stressed the ‘sweet science’ aspect of boxing–I felt uneasy about any such agenda. More to the point, I had learned enough from my coach to know that the way to box was to stick what I did best: moving quickly, defending well, looking for openings, sidestepping, jabbing, and landing straight hard lefts when I could. And to not confuse myself with thoughts of exacting retribution on the behalf of others.

But on the day of the fight, I did some things wrong. I didn’t attack enough. I was too defensive. I was content to wait and watch for openings. I landed the two best punches of the entire fight, ones that glazed my opponent’s eyes and hushed the watching crowd momentarily. But I didn’t move in after that; the fight was there for the taking. Somehow, I had become too invested in not losing control, imagining that I could just calmly pick off my opponent, scoring points casually, racking them up on my way to a unanimous points decision. That strategy didn’t work. It would have helped if my seconds had alerted me to what was happening but instead I was told, rather confusingly, that all was well.  The referees rewarded my opponent’s aggression. I had assumed they would reward me for the greater percentage of punches that landed from my side. They didn’t. I had left too much to them.

Some thirty years on, the defeat still rankles, a classic missed opportunity. I never boxed again after that; I changed high schools, moved to a school with a better academic program but a non-existent sports one. I dreamed often of getting back into the ring, but by the time the opportunity arose again, too many years had passed. I had been out of the ring too long.

I can still jump rope and shadow box; tiny leftovers from a memorable year that ended in crushing disappointment.

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