Category: sport

This is not a history

This is not a history, or a series of reminisces. I wasn’t there. I couldn’t possibly tell you how it started, or how it grew and came to be what you can find today. At least though, I can say what you would find today, if you went, if you go while there is still time.

There are mirrors for your form or your glare, whichever needs work. A black rubber floor that’s carried a thousand soles back and forth. Those new to the steps, those underconfident, those over confident, those who know exactly what they are doing.

Dents dot the back wall from past leviathans. The big guys make the bags shudder and leap. Two nervous young girls tap the bags. They’re new, and it’s a toss-up as to whether they will quietly apply themselves, and stick around, or if they will equally quietly never come again.

The pairs spar between the ropes, helmeted heads bowed low, jaws clenched, fists pinned to those jaws or slacking down to hips. They circle and jab, cross and hook, clinch and grunt and sweat. It’s a guy and a girl, her taller, him heavier but too slow to make it count. She keeps him away with the jab and occasionally dashes to the body. He cuffs her round the back of the head and it’s not very pretty.

Red gloves, blue gloves, white gloves and black gloves flash back and forth, rat tat tat on the pads. Rat tat tat. Rat tat tat. Exhaled breath with every strike as the feet push and the hips pivot and the shoulders rock back and forth. They skip rope, work pads, pound the bag until their dreams don’t quite seem so far away as they did at the start of the day.

It’s Saturday now and that means the bags are cleared away and the ropes are folded, and instead of the pacing feet there are chairs on the rubber. The women behind the bar laugh and joke with the punters and tease the regulars, while the fighters scowl into their hoods or pass the time with their friends, nerves tamed by the routine. Two young girls move round selling raffle tickets, their hair neatly plaited, as this is a family event too, with the door operated by someone’s dad and cake made by someone’s mum. More parents sit in the seats as their sons and daughters lace up the gloves, look themselves in the mirror and walk out to find out if they will create a great deal of pride or a small tick of embarrassment.

The fights on the night are mixed, as they tend to be. There are a couple of debuts; the curious thrill of watching two 12 years olds lay into each other, the only fact tempering the spectacle was that it was a bit one-sided. Some muscular young tyro walking through his opponent’s flailing arms, powered more by fear than rage, a cross to the nose causing the lad to sag forward like a suddenly deflated balloon. I sit on my chair and grip my pen and consider how these boys have the courage to stand up there while I sit here. I write this and try to claw back some of their heroism.

There is the youth who looks like he can make it, and the one who I don’t think ever will. One fight that had real potential ended early by a clumsy headbutt, another ended early by a capricious trainer not pleased with his fighter’s work, even as her opponent came on and on; rat tat tat, rat tat tat.

Home fighters are greeted by friendly roars from the mildly lubricated crowd. Spells of nervous silence come as we wait for them to assert themselves, groans if they don’t. We forget ourselves and watched in sickened silence as one comes under the cosh, a crunching blow waking us to try and raise them; remind them it’s not just their own pride they defend but ours as well.

Fighters mingle afterwards, winding down and stretching out. There’s the girl with the black eye, the lad with the squashed nose, and the one as beautiful as the day she was born, as she doesn’t get hit, doesn’t get beat, not really beat anyway. Everyone is pretty happy, the ones that weren’t are long gone, denying the strip lights strung from the ceiling the chance to illuminate their loss.

When it’s all said and done, and the doctor goes home under-employed, it’s a success. Just making the damn thing happen: bringing them all together from the gyms tucked into the corners of other town and cities, selling the tickets and the beer, running the raffle and eating the mother’s cake; that’s a success. It’s the last one too, before the diggers and cranes move in to flatten the place, clearing land to make more land for the dollars to pour into.

I hope those that started it get to close it, that last time. I hope that they take down the bags, fold up the ropes, pack up the pads and set up the ring up in the new gym, and then come back to the old place. I hope they stand and take in the space one last time, remember how it started, how it grew, and how it came to be the thing they created. I hope they pace the well-worn space one last time, leaving footprints in the gathering dust, a warm body disrupting the still air one last time. As the last of the help leaves, and as they weight the key they’ve used a thousand times to open the door at the start of the day and close it at night, I hope they breathe in that rarefied air one final time, and exhale the way they taught. Rat tat tat.

Then, as they turn to leave, and the tears they held back all this time finally drip down their cheeks and dot the floor, I hope that as the door closes all the atmosphere rushes out of the place, and it is preserved perfectly in that final state. Like the astronaut’s footprints preserved in the lunar dust. I hope no one else gets to see it again, after those that built it, and that it is preserved at the end as it will be forever in their memory, when the wrecking ball comes and the walls shiver and collapse and they wish that gym goodbye.

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Rugby: A Feel Good Story

There’s been a lot of feel good stories around rugby recently that have been giving me the warm and fuzzies. So I thought I would collate some here and share them with you, so you can feel warm and fuzzy as well.

First up, my team Wasps signed Nathan Charles, who is probably the only sufferer of cystic fibrosis to play a contact sport professionally, let alone internationally. Thats right, cystic fibrosis.

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Dubbed “the most remarkable rugby player on the planet” by the Telegraph, Nathan, who “seems to defy science and logic” according former Australia coach Ewen McKenzie, takes between 20 and 30 pills a day to combat a condition that typically results in a greatly shortened lifespan in normal people. Of course this guy isn’t normal, he’s a frigging superhero. So of course his chosen sport is rugby.

Next up, Ian McKinley was a talented young rugby player, tipped to be competing with Johnny Sexton to ease Ronan O’Gara out of his position as Ireland’s lead 10. Instead, an accidental boot blinded him in one eye. This derailed his rugby career, but only temporarily.

He got into coaching, moved out to Italy, and then, thanks to some special goggles, started playing again. Then he got signed by Italy’s top professional club, Benneton Treviso. And then this weekend he made his debut for Italy, qualifying on residency ground. The Irish weren’t willing to engage in trials using the goggles, but the Italians stuck by him and now he wears their shirt with pride. Banged over a penalty too to keep them ahead of Fiji

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Given his charity work I will forgive Doddie the tartan suits. Just…

Also this weekend, a bit of a tear-jerker, as former Scotland lock Doddie Weir, battling motor-neuron disease MND, delivered the match ball ahead of Scotland vs New Zealand. Clearly he, and I’m sure the rest of the stadium, struggled to keep the emotion down.

Earlier this year, rugby lost of of its greats in Joost van der Westhuizen, also to MND. Joost, a world cup winner in 1995, was an incredible competitor on the field, and battled MND relentlessly off it. To see his interviews, so full of fight and hope, is an inspiration, while to watch him walk onto the field in 2014 before South Africa vs New Zealand, is to witness courage:

To hop over over to the “other” code briefly, the rugby league world cup has been taking place. And one of the hosts? Papa New Guinea. Apparently rugby league is a phenomenon there, with the whole country fanatical about it.

Sadly England didn’t read the script, and defeated them in the quarter final. But in that semi final England will face Tonga. Tonga scraped past Lebanon (yeah I know right, they play rugby? Cool) and in the group-stages were involved in this epic Haka vs Sipi Tau show-down:

Also in the quarter finals are Fiji, who defeated the afore mentioned Kiwis in a a bit of a wonderful upset to the form book. Loverly.

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Back to Union, and in more “player battles life-threatening condition” news, Christian Lealiifano is now back playing rugby after dealing with leukemia. Following a come-back with the Brumbies, he’s now plying his trade in sunny Ulster. Of his battle with cancer, Lealiifano says: ““It has changed my outlook on life. I would go through this 10 times again for the person I am today, the journey I have been through and the person that I have become.” Nice recent interview here.

Finally, everyone’s favourite Courtney, Mr Lawes, showed he is still up for crushing play makers as Kurtley Beale felt his wrath during England’s eventual pummelling of the Aussies. All the right kind of good feelings.

I’ll leave you with this:

In our country, true teams rarely exist . . . social barriers and personal ambitions have reduced athletes to dissolute cliques or individuals thrown together for mutual profit . . . Yet these rugby players. with their muddied, cracked bodies, are struggling to hold onto a sense of humanity that we in America have lost and are unlikely to regain. The game may only be to move a ball forward on a dirt field, but the task can be accomplished with an unshackled joy and its memories will be a permanent delight. The women and men who play on that rugby field are more alive than too many of us will ever be. The foolish emptiness we think we perceive in their existence is only our own.” – Victor Cahn

and this:

 

Warm and fuzzies out.

 

 

Saturday night’s alright for fighting

 

On Saturday, 1st April, there was an event which gave you a few more stories than most Saturday nights. It was the 22nd, and my 2nd, instalment of Dynamite fights, a series of boxing matches organised at the TNT Boxing Academy in Guelph, Ontario. Read a rather breathless summary of the last one here. If it was anything like that last one, this means the potential for thrills and technical kills, displays of superior skill and brutal power. This one carried an extra special edge to it however, as TNT got international. Thanks to Boxing Canada, one of the fights featured a boxer specially flown in from England. Jade Ashmore arrived Thursday to face Canadian Olympian Mandy Bujold. Given that Bujold is a ten-time national champion and a two-time Pan-American champion, while Ashmore has recently been elevated to the GB Podium Potential squad, expectations and excitement were running high. A sprinkle of glamour to complement the scent of canvas and sweat.

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Full house at TNT. Picture from twitter.com/MercerRecord

The promise of a trans-Atlantic war wasn’t the only thing that had got the locals excited. Got them skipping dinner to head down to the ring at 5:00pm to grab the last of the seats. Got them snapping up every ticket left, right and centre. Some 200, maybe 250 in attendance. They were drawn by the prospect of epics, of grudge matches, of super heavyweights, young unknowns and old favourites. It’s a heady cocktail, and the place was buzzing. Standing room only, onlookers jostling on benches at the back, craning necks round corners to catch a glimpse of the action. Hungry for a taste of it, feeding off the glamour, the aggro, the coiled energy from the boxers stalking though their warm-up routines. There are many different routes to a properly entertaining fight, and we were blessed with a full range of match-ups.

 

First there are the unknowns. Three fights featured two out of town fighters, so their prospects were harder to judge prematurely. We scrutinised the fighters beforehand, trying to judge who was faster, cleaner, meaner, by their warm-up and the set of their jaws, like watching thoroughbreds out in the circle before the Derby. The bell rings and we lean forward eagerly, keen to have our hunches upheld or quashed. In the first we’re proven right, Dustin Howick of Caged Dragon, living up to the gym’s name, came out like a hurricane, flying into Hansel Espino, Gideons, from the off, cashing the cheques his uber focused warm-up wrote. This brutal assault won applause from the crowd, but a puzzling lack of response from Espino in blue. His corner exhorts him to get over his trigger shyness, but he never does, and Howick takes the unanimous decision.

The other two fights involving non-TNT boxers follow similar patterns to each other. Jean Benoit, Celtic Hammer, and Daniel Payne, Battle Arts, both had a reach and a class advantage over their opponents: Erik Hodgons, Paschtime boxing, and Adrian Calestani-Winacott, Celtic Hammer respectively. Payne looks good, fast and with some crunching blows that lead to three standing eight counts in the 2nd round, the last of which ends the fight. Benoit also looks tidy, ripping out rapid strikes that repeatedly have the crowd groaning. Hodgons, in his first fight, does well to last it, having some success when he gets in close, but ultimately is unable to pin down his opponent. He takes an eight count, and a call from his corner to “walk in with something, not just your head”, while Benoit takes the unanimous decision.

A good match has ebb and flow, attack morphing to defence, big leads cut down by resolute resistance. The first fight of the night followed the latter path, getting the crowd going, suggesting the pre-night promise would be met. Kyle Allen, TNT, gave us a scare against Mathankan Ivanjan, Gideons. For the first two rounds crashing over-hand rights weren’t quite enough against the slicker Ivanjan’s rapid combos. Still Allen came on, his connections drawing roars from the crowd, Ivanjan’s corner bawling at their man: “Don’t stand in front of him!” (“Stand in front of him!” is the reply from a wag in the crowd). For my money Ivanjan is up heading into the final round, but Allen digs deep in the third with a heroic effort, chasing him around the ring, giving everything. Was it enough? We wait on tenterhooks. Yes, by split decision. Thrilling.

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Bynol takes the win against Bongelli; picture from twitter.com/Deborah_Currie

Unfortunately, two TNT fighters can’t quite pull off such comebacks. Craig Bongelli probably needed one more round to complete a turnaround, but as it was his giant (225lb/102kg) opponent, Randy Bynol, Battle Arts, took their super heavyweight contest after some heavy blows in the 2nd led to a standing eight count, and ultimately the win. There was a case for Greg Holley, TNT, having done enough at the last against the tall, cocky O’Neil King, Dewith’s. In a classic clash of styles King evidently did just enough off the back foot to take a split decision. Desperately unlucky for Holley, but definitely an improvement over his last fight.

Contrast the raucous crowd for these duels with the pin-drop silence for our international events. Sheer anticipation gagged the crowd for two fights featuring TNT’s past and prospective Olympians. In the latter category, Sara Haghighat-Joo is a big draw, the gym’s golden girl, having won a recent international event in Sweden, and generally considered a medal chance that the next Olympics. She faced Ali Rosen, representing Caged Dragon, who flew up from Miami. Rosen is taller and heavier than Haghighat-Joo, and perhaps this worries the crowd, who are deathly quiet. They needn’t have been, Haghighat-Joo is clearly faster, and stays on top throughout a cagey encounter to take the unanimous decision. Her career marches resolutely on. Mandy Bujold, Team Canada, also looks faster than Jade Ashmore, Team England, in the eye-catching trans-Atlantic bust-up. At one point Bujold darts in an in a flash delivers a three punch combo the English woman can’t even get her gloves up to. The crowd, whispering at the start, get louder as the result becomes more clear: Bujold on all cards.

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Bujold takes on Ashmore; picture from twitter.com/Deborah_Currie

This was not lacking from the remaining two fights. What adds a bit of spice to any encounter is a touch of history, and that came in the fight between home favourite Carolyn Redmond and Max Turcotte-Novosedlik, Celtic Hammer. They had previously met in the provincial finals, with Redmond beaten to gold by Turcotte-Novosedlik. A bit of a grudge match then. Huge roar from the crowd for this one. Its a hell of a fight too; two very good, very well-matched, very committed boxers putting it all on the line. Perhaps it’s the desire for vengeance, perhaps it’s the roar of a home crowd; Redmond takes the fight to her opponent, demanding that gold back. She never lets up. Turcotte-Novosedlik was the champion. Past tense. Redmond takes the unanimous victory, crowd going wild, 10/10 on the volume.

Somehow though, it went up again for the final fight. Before the night, and aside from the international element, this was main thing people had been talking about. Brock Stumpf, TNT, and reigning Canadian heavyweight champion, against Daniel Akota, Dewith’s. We had been promised entertainment the value of the entire admission alone from this one by half a dozen people. Appetites whetted by the previous nine courses, we still hungered for a 10th. They didn’t disappoint; I’m not sure its in them to fight cute. Even all the little extras were there to make it particularly enthralling; chest bumps after the bell, sparks of outrage when it is his punches, but not yours, that are slightly out of order, corners adding their words of the maelstrom of action. Alongside this side-show the fighters are doing their best to drop bombs on each other, that one huge punch to fell a man and make the crowd howl. Stumpf gets his gum shield punched out, but to the tune of 200+ people chanting “Brock, Brock, Brock” he launches himself forward in a flurry of punches. We double up with nerves when we hear it’s a split decision, but Stumpf takes it. The crowd roar with delight for a final time. We grin at each other, and eventually start clearing out. A fitting end to a dynamite night.

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Competition coach Stevie Bailey, and boxers Carolyn Redmond, Sara Haghighat-Joo, Mandy Bujold and Brock Stumpf after their wins. Picture from twitter.com/MandyBujold

An odd shaped mirror

It seems obvious that a country’s culture is reflected in its art. The two are essentially inseparable. Art depicts what matters most to the culture, and changes with the flow of this collective stream of ideas. You assume that if a culture is particularly obsessed with heroism, the natural world, or family, then the art produced will mirror these feelings. Art also has the power to inform culture, guiding budding trends and movements, but it still must innately appeal to people to do this, and therefore must be built on some existing foundations.

I’ve argued quit a lot in this blog (here, here and here) that sport, like art, is a fundamental spoke of any culture. Although it may lack intellectual glamour, for me sport is as important to helping us understand the cultures of the world. What children get up to, what people do in their spare time, what they talk about with friends; know this and in some small way more know the people. So, if sport is fundamental to a culture, does it reflect it? Are sports where individualism rises to the top more popular in countries who favour the deeds of the individual? The charismatic megafauna I thought I found in Hungary suggested so, but by the end of the day I wasn’t so sure. The Indian Premier League, the crash-bang-wallop kaleidoscope of cricket that is insanely popular in India is colourful, loud and energetic. This is much like the India I and many others have experienced. Does the IPL also possess the same inequality? There are certainly haves and have-nots.

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Now I’m living in Canada, I keep an interested eye on the sports like hockey and baseball, to see if they will tell me anything extra about the country that has taken me in. There is only so much you can learn from watching on TV however, so I had to attend some games in the flesh. I’ve always loved going to sporting events, there is always something visceral, another sense stimulated, when the men and women are pounding up and down, or into each other, right in front of you. Another layer to the live experience is being in a crowd. You, and tens, hundreds or even thousands of people are all tied together by string from your eyes and heart through the ball or fists or feet of the players before you.

So, the live, Canadian experience, come at me. I’ve not been to any ball games, but a couple of hockey games. Ice hockey of course, as if I need to say. The Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL, and the Guelph Storm in the OHL. So friggin’ Canadian, eh, I imagine. Cold and rugged. But enough of the landscape for want of people, does this frenetic game, and the live experience, tell me anything. Well, Canadians are meant to be very tolerant and accommodating, and they’d have to bear all the breaks and distractions served up for us. It was bad at the lower-level Storm game, with cars on the ice and lights and pounding dance music for any or no reason, but it was excruciating at the Leafs game. Watching players standing around idly while some TV advert blared on somewhere, I got the perverse feeling we were not there to watch the players but that they were there to provide entertainment alongside the dancers and explosions and hot-dog adverts. Its altogether quite a passive experience, some applause for every goal but not a great deal more noise than that, the biggest cheer of the Storm game when they score a 5th, rewarding everyone with some free buffalo wings. I enjoyed the matches as a general rule, despite my difficulty following the tiny black puck up and down the ice. The Leafs game especially had a wonderful, tragic air about it, the home team succumbing to a home defeat from a short-handed goal despite young tyro Matthews raging against the mediocrity around him.

Contrast this with the meaty roar that greats Peter Betham’s knock on, sealing Wasps win against Leicester tigers. Or the unfiltered disappointment when Queen’s Park Ranger’s second short on target sinks Wolverhampton Wanderers [what a combination of team names!]. Or the unbounded joy when Cambridge United’s Luke Berry, from down on his backside, knocks anoter nail into the Notts County’s coffin down at the Abbey* on Newmarket road. These provided natural and timely contrast to the two Canadian hockey games. They felt poles apart. One polished and gleaming like the ice, the others a little grubby, but essentially savoury experiences. Nowhere was the contrast more stark than at Cambridge United, where in a tin-roofed terrace behind the goal in the 4th tier of English football the songs and spirit were legion, and the energy marched down the concrete into the legs of the never-will-bes in the pitch. Its an experience that sets me grinning from ear to lobe just thinking on it again.

Does this then inform me of the difference between English and Canadian culture? The English passionate and filled with fervour? Ha, ask around, I think you’ll find we’re famously reserved. Canadians superficial and passive? In a country where people hunt for meat and fur, where everyone has snow tires and tales of digging out of snow drifts? I think not. If you think the English accent is sophisticated, come shout “wanker, wanker, wanker” with us at the way goalie, it might change your perceptions. Certainly settles which of the two countries is more polite.

In fact, out in the icy oval there was a frivolousness and a gaudiness that I don’t think you see in other aspects of life here. Maybe its that US of American influence, perverting the natural order of things**. Maybe what this reflects is the diversity of ideas that are allowed to coexist here, even if they grate or grind somewhat. So it is allowed to be like this, rather than an overt expression of a people. Because if these experiences are meant to mirror what a country is like, it fails to reflect half the things I’m fond of. A mirror that’s got bent all out of shape.

 

 

 

 

*it may have another name now, but it will always be the Abbey

**of course it is also possible that I am attributing the things I like to Canadian and as Canadian values, and the things I dislike as American, and so casting America the role of pantomime villain is has often assumed recently. There are certainly Canadians who are jerks, and plenty of lovely, cultured Americans who too dislike the things I’ve mentioned here.

Fight night

 

They promised to train like beasts and fight like monsters. We came to see if they were true to their word. In a simple square ring, in an old garage, at the back of an unheralded industrial unit, down a small road in the city of Guelph. The smell of deep heat and old sweat hangs in the air, like every pre-match changing room I’ve ever known. Some flicked though the last few combinations with their trainers, others chatted with well-wishers, others buried themselves in a hood and their own apprehension. I felt nervous for them, paired up and walking out in a Saturday night for the TNT boxing academy 10th anniversary. The cake would come later. The cake was a joke to the fighters, who had been fasting and sweating to drop that last pound to make the weight. Lean, wiry and chiselled, some tall, some short, male, female, junior, older, but all filed down to the necessary sinew, muscle and heart for the task at hand.

We grabbed a beer, a seat, and exchange greetings with old friends or made new ones. Joel Yip Chuck said some words of thanks to those deserving. The bell rang, and the first bout commenced. Two juniors. Probably less than 10 fights between them. Proud parents urged them on. Proud parents take every blow with their sons. Romano Watt, TNT, Guelph, took a few stiff punches to the head from the stockier Keeyan Trotman, Boomerz, London. Watt took his standing 8 count impatiently and tried to get his rhythm back. “Forget his head”, “Work the body” offer the crowd. Trotman by unanimous decision.

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Red and blue leave the ring, red and blue enter. Old opponents, new champions each time. This time red claimed Hunter Lee, Windsor amateur boxing; blue took Satwinder Thind, KingOfTheRing, Brampton. He was tall. Thind towered over Lee, a wonder they were the same weight; does Thind have a bird’s hollow bones? It is Lee who does the early flying, crunching Thind with some meaty blows. Thind’s coach is too letting fly, a constant stream of advice, instruction and critique. “Let your hands go, let your hands go.” He does in the 2nd, “Oh yeahs!” rising from the crowd as his long brown limbs flash out. Lee gets back on top in the 3rd, only for a white towel to flutter out from the blue corner, and the fight ends in puzzlement. The crowd ripples with energy, the climax taken from us like the snap of a guitar string. A Muhammed Ali poster watches on. How many millions of fights have 1000s of Ali posters in 1000s of boxing gyms around the world watched?

TTNT2.pnghe crowd regain their energy for the next fight. Home fighter Mary Anne Zamora-Grepe, red corner, to go with her hair, 37 and her first fight, commands a vocal following. Visibly moved by the volume of support, it is not surprising she doesn’t start fluidly. Samantha Rhodes, BigTyme, Orangeville, forces her back with furious blue gloves. Not many are clean strikes though, and Zamora-Grepe goes well off the back foot. The fast start was hard on Rhodes, longer on her chair between the rounds. Rhodes lands a few solid shots that worry the crowd, but despite a slip to the canvas Zamora-Grepe does enough to take a unanimous decision. The crowd raise their voices with another volley of “Lets go Mary Anne” and nerves are washed away like sand by the wave of genuine happiness for the home fighter. She looks thrilled.

Lucca Coppala, Rough boxing, Windsor, defeats a hunched Clay Whiting, Jamestown boxing club, Oshawa, in a fairly one-sided bout, Coppola’s pounding body shots causing a pale Whiting to grimace his way back to his chair. The 2nd standing 8 count in the 2nd round brings a welcome end. You wonder which you would be if you wore the red or blue and did this. Graceful victor or battered loser. Gently squeeze your hand into a fist and imagine letting your hands go. Do they find the target or only air? The boxers who have been know the answer.

Greg Holly, TNT, apparently lost 5lb in a day to make the weigh for his bout with Jesse Maillet, Motor City, Oshawa. The hours in the sauna in a sauna suit, the effort of sweating out all that water. Its therefore a bit of a shame that he loses by decision to his tattooed opponent. He made a hell of a fight of it mind, coming on hard in the 3rd, a baying crowd urging him on, advancing relentlessly, landing some good shots and occasionally walking into one from the retreating Maillet. In the end it was not quite enough, a standing 8 count in the 2nd probably sealing the deal, although that clearly hurt Holly’s pride more than his flesh. Its all smiles later, playing keepie-uppie with some of the kids, but steel enters his voice when he talks about why he does this. “You play soccer, you play hockey, you don’t play boxing”. Can’t say I doubt that, its like so many other sports events I’ve been to; the nerves, the opponents, the support, but its different as well. A bit rawer, a little bit more fear living in the eyes alongside the bravado.

The penultimate fight is perhaps a victim of this, a scrappy, cagey affair between Philip Conlin, TNT, and Dylon Shankland, Clubb Canada, Scarborough. Its punctuated by shouts of “Fuck him up Phil”, which is easier to say than do, and “He’s off the couch” which is easier to say than understand. Eventually Shankland gets on top in the 3rd, Conlin never really gets going. Shankland by unanimous decision.

The main event arrives to put a cap on proceedings. In blue, a few months post-childbirth, is Sukhpreet Singh, another from KingOfTheRing. Facing her is home favourite Sara Haghighat-Joo, TNT, queen-elect of the ring. Gold at the recent provincial finals, ranked #2 in Canada, its clear to see why this fight received top billing. Its clear too she’s a class apart. Lithe, focused and viper quick. Where others try and land combinations she’s already hit home, working head and body, slicing in and out. Canny as well, catching Singh whenever her hands drop. Haghighat-Joo is all smiles on her chair, unlike her opponent, which tells enough of a story. Singh survives a brace of standing 8 counts but not the judges. Haghighat-Joo by unanimous decision. Never in doubt.

It’s a good end to the night. As the fighters unwind their hand-wraps, we grab a last beer and bask in the reflected glow of their honest endeavour. Puzzlement still reigns over the fluttering towel in the 2nd fight. Rival gyms mingle. The ringside doctor packs up; no one sad they were not required. It was a packed house and a good show; the next instalment of the Dynamite fights will not doubt be equalled well greeted. By then the limbs that are aching will be refuelled with nervous energy, the scent of deep heat will be back in the air and another set of boxers will be wondering if they will sting or be stung. But for now, as we slip out into the night, visiting teams head for the highway, and the last of the sweat dries on the blue canvas, those questions are answered. Promises kept.

Keep moving, just to be still

New country, new me. New sports, new food. New people, new office, similar routine. New bars, new beers, still get drunk, same old hangover. New job, same mission. Same blog, but from Canada.

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Pretty much what I was expecting (Jessica Wood, thecord.ca)

Having finished wandering through Morocco, Spain, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and India, I am now becalmed in Southern Ontario, Canada. I have a new job, a new(ish) culture to learn about, but more importantly I have new sports to take in! Wintry, white framed sports. Apart from a minimum of skiing on a glorious and impromptu day in Iceland, and the compulsory skidding down a hill on a farm fertiliser bag in my childhood, I’ve never really dabbled in winter sports. The same is true for the vast majority of the world’s population, which does make me wonder whether they can capture what makes sport such a global phenomenon. But a Miracle on Ice, Eddie the Eagle and Jamaica’s bobsled team, these titular tales suggest the medium of movement, the degrees of the air, may not matter. But currently its summer, the ripe Ontario peaches fill the punnets of the market traders, and I have to find something else to talk about.

So Xingyi it is. A relative of Tai chi and Bagua in the Chinese martial art family, it is an “internal” art. This means that the focus is on activating body structures such as the ligaments, tendons and the skeletal system, to generate powerful motions and strong positions rather than the big muscle groups used more heavily in the “external” arts such as karate. It is part meditation, part fighting skill, and, perhaps because I get to wield a spear some of the time, I really like it.

Despite years of rugby, drinking in pubs, and being ginger, I’ve never got into a proper fight. So I’m not dreaming of cutting foes down or being admired for my prowess in the ring. Was always probably a bit scared of getting hurt. Probably afraid of getting knocked down by someone I didn’t expect it from. Probably just didn’t care about anything enough to want to fight someone for it. But I digress. For now, what I’m really loving is the constant, near mindless repetition.  Now that sounds daft, so let me explain. Learning is enjoyable, new things are enjoyable, and James Saper and the others at Stone Lantern are enjoyable company. Buts it a different aspect to it that I’m enjoying. You do an action: a cross-cut or a drill or the dragon, and then you do it again. Again. You or someone else tweaks it, and you go again. Something else now goes wrong. Tweak it, go again. We march relentless up and down (or for Bagua, step in endless circles) towards some distant ideal of the perfect form. The after work squat merchants grip, clean and jerk after us, they too in search of it. Dancers like us stare at the mirror, move, assess, criticise, and go again. Until skin chafes and blisters pop and blood seeps into seat-soaked socks. Have you ever been doing something and thought “nah that’s not what I wanted, I need to do that again”. Scoop up the can and aim for the bin you’ve just missed. Go for that keepy-uppy record again. Delete that last line and write it again.

James Saper (the boss, sensei, coach at Stone Lantern) set me up, going up and down with the crushing fits, or perhaps the pounding fists, and then went to help someone else. I stepped up and down, squeezing my punches closer to the midline of my body, or trying to spring off my back foot a little sharper each effort. James came back after a time, to see how I was getting on. “Fine” I remarked, and carried on. “Oh yes” he said, “you’re a rower aren’t you. I had one before, very happy with the repetition; just leave them to it”. I stopped then, as that link hadn’t occurred to me. In the year before leaving for Canada, rowing, specifically gig rowing had been my main sport. Now I was out of a boat, on land, learning some relatively obscure martial art form. They hadn’t seemed connected to me at all.

Hmmm….

But the link is of course repetition. When rowing, our mantra was “every stroke better than the last”. A straighter blade, a cleaner catch, a smoother exit, neater returns.  Every time, again and again. Describing it now, it sounds mind-numbingly dumb. Surely something like football or ice hockey over here where the fluidity keeps you permanently on your toes and so much more mentally stimulated was more attractive. As a spectator sport, the numbers speak for themselves.  But participation wise, martial arts are extremely popular. Do we all really like fighting, or is it some aspect of the repetition? Even other incredibly popular past-times such as fishing have the same element of the simple repetition. Cast, reel. Cast, reel. No fish? Never seems to stop them going back. Now any fisherman will tell you this is relaxing, not mind-numbing.  Rowing; its not dumb, its intense focus. Those martial art routines aren’t stationary repetitions; you’re constantly moving towards your inner goal. Call it centring, zen, relaxation, it doesn’t really matter. The point is we seem to achieve an inner calm, a stillness, when focusing on some repetitive action like this. Not just repeating it, but striving over and over again to make it better. In these modern times of shares and likes and retweets, there is still clearly plenty of room for the individual road, the long journey towards some pointless but simultaneously essential perfection.

Make that reflection in the mirror that bit taller, that bit brighter and that bit closer to your perfection. Smile. But you’re only one step of many, many closer. Step up. Go again.

One went to the cricket

 

Crash. Bang. Wallop. Hashim Amla smacks the ball over the boundary for a 6. The crowd roar. We jump and dance, throw confetti and wave signs. Cheerleaders gyrate around the ground. I’ve made some new friends and together we celebrate these batting heroics, this “rampage” as the bright video screens inform us. We settle down and wait for the next ball, eager for another explosion. Amla goes again, carving the ball high into the air. Only this time the ball falls short. Into the grateful hands of the fielding side. Out. The crowd roar. They jump and dance, throw confetti and wave signs. Cheerleaders gyrate once more. No matter that now the home side ebb where before they flowed. We celebrate the explosion, the action. This is Twenty20 cricket in India, the IPL (Indian Premier League) and it is brash, loud and immensely proud of it. Teams are assembled for millions, plucked from all corners, dressed in bright colours and set to do battle for our entertainment. Its curious to be at a ground where fans cheer both teams almost equally, but I guess that is why they are here. Not for their team, hard to feel attached to a constructed franchise, but to be entertained.

The home side, Kings XI Punjab, lost in the final over, to Sunrisers Hyderbad. So I was certainly entertained. But it was also a little perplexing. Wickets and runs from both sides were cheered, heroes on both sides adored. The only real spontaneous name chanting was for David Warner, the destructive Australian Batsman on the away team. He took the whoops and cheers with a nod and a wave, a bit bashful. Embarrassed perhaps, that the home fans favoured him over one of their own stars. Over their own team even. In fact It was very much about the stars rather than the teams. We weren’t here to see these two made up sides, but to see Warner and Amla swing their bats. Miller and Yuvraj Singh lay waste to the bowler. Who cares what the overall score was, how many runs did he get, how fast did he get them? Which bowler got the most wickets, who did he get out? Cricket, and the shortened format Twenty20 especially seem to lend itself to that. Individuals bowl, bat and catch. It lends itself to the creation of standout individuals: their contribution quantifiable, their worth valuable, their services hireable. The IPL is the pinnacle of this idea. It’s a funny mixture of an odd English game and a hyper-commercialised American entertainment sport. Its got colour, its got razzmatazz, and its oh so incredibly Indian. Its bright, brash and vivid for all of its existence, one massive party. Oh, and there were people taking selfies everywhere.

The selfie is obviously a modern phenomenon. But it is also a global one. East, west, north, south, everyone is holding their camera phones at arm’s length and taking a picture back at themselves. In India though it seemed to e to reach new heights. On the streets, at the mall, in pars and at sacred monuments: nowhere is safe. Do they really like themselves? Are they desperate for attention? Certainly they get uploaded exhibited on social media to be liked or favourited or shared. Bu where does that lead, what is the point of it all? Are we now so obsessed by ourselves that we just want to flood the world with our image, and the Indians more so? Why go to the cricket or the monument at all if it is really all about you? It’s a strange phenomenon, a curio of modern life with no end product.

However, perhaps we are weaving something. Creating a story, an identity, a hyper-individual of ourselves. Want to know about me? Here it is: freely available online to view, complete with a tally of likes and shares and comments to help you gauge my life’s performance. Putting statistics to the individual. Quantifying our contribution.

Selfies are like this, this Mid-Atlantic-Indian cricket is like this, and other sports are like this. We’re recording, judging and rating everything. Prizes for the winners. At the basketball there was a car on the court: Best social media post with the corporate hastag and YOU WIN THE CAR like like like Bazinga! How very American. At the bull fight too everyone was dressed up to the nines, and putting and preening in front of their own small screen while massive bulls died below. Are these the modern times?

This movement felt particularly strong at the IPL game of all the sport I’ve seen probably because its cricket, which lends itself to individual performances, and because it was India, where they seem obsessed by the cult of the individual. And yet the funny thing was I had some lovely personal moments with other fans while at the cricket. I met tons of people, shook hands or high-fived umpteen times. Danced with scores at every 6, cheered along to the music with every four. It may have been very temporary, but for that match (and about half an hour afterwards) I made so many friends. Face painted, grinning, shouting, waving friends. Yes, they all wanted to take a selfie with me. But I’m certain they would’ve approached me without their phones. I hung out with some policemen, some telecoms employees on a corporate gig, but mainly I got on with the other denizens of the North stand. It was wonderful. I beamed all the rest of the night and the next day. I too took a few selfies with these exuberant fans. But what I’m taking home is the warm glow from being with a group having a great time We had a lovely day out at the cricket.