An Excerpt from 'Bruising'

Chapter 3: Girls from Bendigo

It is impossible, I think, to overemphasise the importance of proper movement.
John Famechon, The Method

I DEVELOPED WHAT MANY DESCRIBED as a knockout punch. A beautiful, hard, solid right hand. It drew many compliments from people who knew what they were saying - seasoned campaigners - when I slammed it into a focus pad. Let me brag here for a moment, let me revel briefly in my one and perhaps only natural asset as a boxer. My strength is my strength. Possibly my only strength. Other than that, I am average, not what you would call a natural athlete. There are times when I am slow to react, a bit of a sitting duck. It was particularly true when I began sparring, when I struggled most to avoid someone else's punches.

The technique of evasion gets to the heart of what is artful about boxing and explains why so many people feel justified in calling it scientific. The sweet science. How else can you explain the almost magical powers that are the defining features of really fine boxing? At best they render the violence of the sport almost theoretical. The punch means nothing if it has got nothing to land on. There is no more eloquent way of nullifying someone else's aggression than to dodge it. To do so takes confidence, timing and poise. There can also be nothing more demoralising than to punch thin air when you have aimed for someone's head. Make them miss, and make them pay, goes an old boxer's saying. It is the aspect of the sport that is so frequently overlooked by outsiders but appreciated by anyone who has ever tried to do it.

Evasion appealed to me also because of the way it challenged assumptions that boxing is bash, bash, bash and nothing else. I started to appreciate this aspect of the sport - this 'not being hit' - even more when I realised how difficult it was to do. When I see a professional boxer slip a punch, it still looks like magic, especially considering the speed at which the punch is delivered. Whenever I manage to do it, I regard it with a great degree of incredulity.

Compared to these finely tuned skills, my strength alone seemed somewhat inadequate. It is no real compensation for the lack of refined agility. Boxing requires so much more than brute force. To box well, however, you need it all - strength, speed and grace. Highly mobile and evasive boxers are often criticised for not having 'the punch', which means they will not be able to provide the 'big finish' that many fans and promoters expect, while those who have power but no defence are limited to fighting opponents who cannot hurt them by literally walking through the attack.

When I started, I just wanted to do an adequate job. I didn't want to finish anyone off. I just wanted to look passable. My own strength probably scared me more than it empowered me. I didn't want to be seen as a bully and I was worried about what I might do to a live person as opposed to a punching bag. My strength felt like something I might call upon in desperate times, but it was not very useful in the broad scheme of things. It was only one element in a repertoire of required skills. Not that I didn't enjoy being strong. I did. I was flattered when people told me I punched like a mule. I also knew it was a bit of a straw bogie. It might have been different if I was a weightlifter.

So often it felt as if I was struggling against myself, trying not to enact my strength, and my awareness of these contradictions only helped slow me down.

For about eighteen months I had been training with Amanda each week, and I was infatuated with her skills to the point where Peter thought it constituted a form of hero worship. In my view, she had it all. He was also miffed that I had abandoned him as a coach, but I was finding it increasingly difficult to simply do what he told me, because our relationship had developed along more intimate lines. At least I was not in any conflict about that aspect of my female identity. Obedience to a man was definitely not in my relationship repertoire.

I kept going to Melbourne University, but I also joined up at the Underworld. Amanda and I did a bit of light sparring and I was amazed at the speed and sting of her combinations, although I was reluctant to try too hard to hurt her. I was worried again about my right hand and particularly what might come back at me if I landed it with its full force. So sparring sessions with her were muddled for me - usually exacerbated by the steady flow of punches that seemed to come at me from all angles. I assumed that no matter how many punches I threw I wouldn't be able to keep her at bay, or that in the process I would drop my defence and she would see an opening and possibly knock me out. I was so much in awe of her that it gave her a psychological edge - as if she needed it.

I had also been moving around with another of her students, David McKenzie, who was roughly my weight. Still, nothing bad had happened to me. I had never been hurt and I had never hurt anyone else. I had not sustained so much as a bruise nor inflicted anything, except anxiety perhaps, on a growing list of smaller women whom Amanda periodically threw in the ring with me like sacrificial lambs. This only exacerbated the sense of my own disturbing punching power. Most of the time it was not a fair match. They were ill-prepared and easy to handle. I accumulated a list of former female sparring partners and the names circled my mind as if I were Don Juan.

Most of them were more than several kilos lighter than me and lacked my strength. In each case when we entered the ring there had been an expression first of apprehension and then terror on their faces coupled with a steely-jawed determination to see it through. Afterwards they would thank me enthusiastically for the experience and usually that would be the last time I would ever see them. One or two came back for more, but the partnerships did not usually last very long.

I began to feel like the lonely girl in the playground whom others shunned. If I were them, I thought, I wouldn't want to spar with me either. Compared to them I looked so solid, broad-shouldered and intimidating. But that was all I had by way of a natural gift -my father's barrel chest and biceps like a bricklayer. Anyone with a bit of experience could see that all they had to do was keep moving and I would never catch them.

I craved a true test. Some real way of knowing exactly what I was like as a boxer against someone of the same weight, with the same degree of experience. Then one night I went to a professional boxing show at Moorabbin town hall and that is when it struck me. Maybe it was the atmosphere, the circus razzamatazz, the cheering crowd. I will never know for sure. It was an exciting main event between Karim Nashar, a cocky Lebanese fighter in golden trunks, who was all show and laughing arrogance, and Barren 'Chainsaw' Zappa, a hard, short-armed man with a shaved head, a covering of tattoos and a relentless, unflappable fighter's style of marching ever forward.

It was one of those classic boxing contests. One protagonist flashy and flamboyant, the other workmanlike and determined. There was a big crowd, lots of cheering and booing, card girls, middle-eastern drums, hoopla. Howard Leigh, the ring announcer, was dressed typically in one of his lurid colour combinations, wearing a blond, slightly off-kilter toupee. He had mentioned my name between the earlier preliminary bouts as if I was a boxing somebody and, for the first time, I felt like a fraud. I was getting more and more caught up in this strange sub-culture and yet I did not really fit. I had not paid my dues. I had not, after all, been in there.

The next time I saw Amanda I heard myself say, 'How do you think I'd go if I had a fight?'

The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Fright-eningly so. She had just been registered as a trainer, making her the first female boxing trainer in the state. So she was keen. She thought I would need about six weeks to get ready, which was somewhat optimistic. I had a lot of weight to lose and fitness to gain. I had to stop smoking and start running, and soon. It was going to take a lot longer than six weeks.

But even I was not prepared for how long it was going to take in the end. Amanda, in her energetic way, was down to business as if it was all going to happen next week. About a month later, when I had lost a couple of kilos and hadn't smoked for a few weeks, she arranged for me to join in some sparring at another gym. This would be the first time that I would spar with people I didn't know anything about. It was exciting. I felt that I could box okay. I had frightened off all those girls, after all.

But, as the date approached, I started to think about other things. I knew I had not really begun to manage the slip, that motion that looks like telepathy when professional boxers do it. Their opponent throws a punch that sails millimetres past the ear, might even hit the shoulder, glance the temple. But movement nullifies it. As John Famechon says, movement is the key to this sport. It was not my strongest point.

We set off one Saturday for a gym in the western suburbs where another professional female boxer/ kickboxer, Laura Skinner, trained and where three-time world champion Lester Ellis shaped himself to become the Master Blaster in the late 1980s. It is deep in a suburb that has a name so ironic that George Orwell could not have bettered it. The place is called Sunshine. It is poor, bleak, tough and in perpetual almost terminal recession. Boxing heartland. Actually, I had been to the gym before a few years earlier, and as soon as I set foot in the joint, commonsense was the first thing to hit the deck. Lester Ellis, whom I had met in a boxacise class, was raving about this right hand of mine and before I had finished wrapping my bandages on I had a gang of dubious-looking gentlemen trying to pin me down for a fight date.

'But I've never even been hit,' I said.
'You'll get used to it,' piped in Lester.

I did a few rounds on the pads with the trainer John Scida and left. It had taken me an hour in travelling time, and I thought they were all mad trying to get me to have a fight. But something must have worked its way into my bloodstream, even then. I spoke briefly to Laura who had only just begun her fighting career and said I would be back.

Next time I went, four girls from Bendigo had also come to spar, which only happened every three or four months. How lucky, I thought. Here was my opportunity. This would be a chance to test myself against equal opponents. When I felt the butterflies in my stomach as we approached Sunshine, I didn't worry too much. Although the phrase 'four girls from Bendigo' had been circling my head like a pod of sharks all week, it had been a distant but not too serious worry. But the more I thought about it, Bendigo, that is, the more I worried. Country people are tough, aren't they? Girls grow up brawling with their brothers across open fields and milk cows at dawn in sub-zero temperatures. I am just a girl from Kew, molly-coddled, middle class, protected from pain.

Jake LaMotta, the subject of Scorsese's Raging Bull, seemed to have had the ideal upbringing for a boxer - a brutalising bastard father who threatened to beat him if he didn't stand up for himself, but beat him regularly anyway, for different reasons. Great boxers generally do not spring from two tertiary-educated parents with pacifist ideals who live in a large rambling house in a leafy suburb. Oscar Wilde's nephew, Arthur Craven, boxed, and there was 'gentleman' Jim Corbett, but champions drawn from the bourgeoisie are not nearly so common in boxing as they are in sports like golf or tennis.

Boxing reflects the ethos of a working class for whom work means hard, physical labour. The sport is a natural extension of that. Champions, the men at least, come from poor countries, poor suburbs, and flourish in hard times. When Jose Torres was asked why so many champions came from Puerto Rico and so few from Japan, he said that boxing champions could not emerge from a society that was content. It might be seen as less of a cultural leap for someone who regards struggle as ordinary than for someone who pays others to do the difficult work that requires sweat and toil. In the Picador Book of Sportswriting, in an essay about Mike Tyson, Tom Callahan says that perhaps the 'true horror' of boxing is that 'there has always been a class poor enough for this, and maybe that's why so many people avert their eyes'.

Any concerns I had, based on class or anything else, I pushed to the back of my mind - back there with the self-doubt and the niggling fear. I had serious doubts about my defensive skills, my ability to move and keep moving, and simply to keep my hands up. I do not know what worried me more, the unknown Bendigo girls or my own wanting ability. But I do know that I didn't really listen to any of these worries. I discarded them as neurotic irritations. The four girls from Bendigo looked as though they were just there to do the job, without having a middle-class existential crisis about it. So I tried to close out my clamouring inner voices. Just shut up and box, I told them. Not such a good strategy, as it turned out.

As we warmed up, skiDDine. shadow hnvina in frr, of the mirror, hitting the heavy bags, it seemed that I looked the most like a boxer of all of us - apart from a small woman called Sue Latross, who was about my age, and who was also planning to start competing. Sue said repeatedly as the morning wore on, 'Gee, I love sparring,' as if we were about to hoe into a chocolate mud cake.

The warm-up went on and on. The country girls didn't look too mean. Most of them were kickboxers who I assumed would not hit too hard and would probably have worse defences than mine. Kickboxers tend to wave their hands at either side of the head like someone doing semaphore, making themselves more open to straight punches. After a while, however, I began to worry about tiring myself out.

Amanda kept drawing me aside with little pieces of advice. 'Don't keep your stance too wide, so you can move in ... you'll be fine, you're a straight puncher . . . you look better than any of them . . . don't work too hard on the bag now . . . keep you hands up.' Peter massaged my shoulders, held his hands up for me to punch his palms. He was looking as if he thought that this had gone too far already, but he was prepared to sit it out until I came to my senses.

Then it was time. The headguard was being tightened (my right ear had somehow folded in half beneath it), and the gloves were being velcroed to my hands. I was so dry my lips were sticking to my mouthguard.

Amanda's hand directed me towards the ring. As I stepped through the ropes I remember thinking, I'm not sure I want to do this, and the million doubts I had been ducking from all week bombarded me simultaneously like a crowd pelting me with rotten eggs. My body was in the ring, but my mind had fled to somewhere much safer.

'We met in the change room, remember?' the woman said.
I gave her a gentle tap on the back and said, 'Yes, I remember,' and laughed nervously.

She seemed much taller now, and the ring seemed huge. I started to flick the jab and she came back with a few combinations a bit harder than I expected. A bit faster, too, but nothing completely new. I had gone at this pace before, and I remember thinking, Don't hit her too hard and she won't hit you too hard. I was trying to avoid my strength - not for her sake this time but for mine. Not that it did me much good. My body felt more sluggish than usual, and my feet felt flat against the canvas, almost stuck to it. Not just slow - they had somehow taken root. The faults that I feared most seemed exaggerated tenfold. My hands were down, my chin was up. I felt as though I was under water. I do not, and probably will never know exactly what happened next. It all felt so different right from the start. More serious, regimented, laconic, less friendly, less like a hobby, more like survival. War. Suddenly I wished I'd had a miserable childhood that had turned me into a psychopath. All the tough-girl bravado that came when I told people I boxed was suddenly mute when I really needed it.

Amanda was screaming at me from outside the ring.

I have no idea what she was saying, an hysterical barrage of instructions no doubt, like 'Keep your hands up', 'Move', 'Go to the body', 'Jab', 'Move', 'Hook', and so on. I heard Peter say quite clearly, 'Chin down, Mischa,' and a few seconds later, I recall seeing a blur that was possibly the posters on the wall, my own fuzzy image in the mirror, the ropes, people, all passing me rapidly as I fell to the canvas.

Then I was on my feet again with Amanda at my side outside the ropes saying something, again, I can't recall now what it was. Then a male voice said, 'Ah, she just dropped her left, that's all.' I didn't know what had hit me. I mean, what kind of punch. (It was an overhand right, I later learned.) I didn't know whether I had been unconscious for some time because I had no memory of actually getting to my feet. But apparently not. I was in no pain, but I was in shock. I decided to get out of the ring in order to absorb what had happened to me. I rested my big-gloved fists on the ropes and gasped for air. At that moment I thought to myself, I am never going to have a fight. This is insane. I am not one of these women. I crack under pressure. The massive flaw in my character seemed to swell into a neon sign. You've got no heart, it said. The biggest insult of all in boxing is to have no heart, to be unable to take a real punch. Heart makes up for other deficiencies in skill and, at this stage of the game, it was one more thing that I really needed.

But one serious round in the ring with a stranger and I had lost the plot. The pressure was too much. I wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. But I took some deep breaths and tried to focus on what was now going on in the ring. Tiny Sue, who weighed about fifteen kilos less than me, was coming in and coming in with relentless tenacity against this woman who had just decked me. Her eyes were wide, never off the target. She was doing everything I should have done.

'See?' Peter said. 'She's working fast, moving.'

Yes, well, it was a bit late by then. Sue was doing well. She was slipping and darting around the ring and shuffling in. Even though she was much shorter than the other woman, she kept coming in, kept her cool, took a few pops on the forehead. Never shut her eyes. At the end of the round she looked at me as she dabbed the blood from her nose and said, 'Gee, she hits hard, doesn't she?'

I had hit the deck so soon I really had not been hurt by any of her punches.

'Not one body punch,' Amanda said afterwards, like an irate mother. 'Not one.'
'I know, I know,' I said, ashamed, humiliated, confused and doubtful, not just about my boxing career, but also about the very core of my being, my 'heart', and still on the wobbly brink of tears.

Somehow I got back on the horse. Not the same one, a different girl, a southpaw, just to make my job more difficult. I don't remember much of that now except for the determined set of her jaw and the tough schoolyard I'm-gonna-get-ya focus in her eyes. I do remember a clinch in which I kept her head in a tight lock under my arm and then pounded a few good ones onto it. I immediately thought, like the pathetic coward I had become, 'She's gonna get me back for that,' and began to regret it. I went around twice with her and by the second round I was starting to look almost respectable. I was so tired from the nervous breakdown I had apparently just had that it had sort of loosened me up. Or perhaps it was that I was simply past caring. Whatever, I was just beginning to feel half-way capable when that was it. Everyone had done their six rounds and it was time for the blokes.

The man outside the ring pointed to little terrier-like Sue and said, 'She's got some talent, this one.'

I felt ashamed. Utterly ashamed. I was supposed to show these people the Buchanan skills. But it all went down like a sack of miserable potatoes, thanks to me.

She was telling Laura, 'You should see her usually. With me, even with David, and he's a bloke. She moves around real good.'
'I don't know what happened,' I said. 'I just froze.'
'You were like a zombie,' Amanda said. 'I've never seen you move so badly. We've got a lot of work to do.'
'Might take more than one fight to get over that,' Laura said.
Oh no, I thought, maybe not even one.
Then Sue popped up.
'She did well,' Amanda said.
'Yeah,' said Laura, beaming at Sue. 'You just about broke my jaw.'

I am not one of these women, I thought. They're lunatics. What was I thinking? I still had an overwhelming urge to cry, but I had misplaced my bag mitts and I was poking around for them, trying to distract myself, absorbed in the search, in the vague hope that I would forget the crisis of character that had just occurred.

In the peace and post-sparring calm, the woman who had knocked me down asked me what I had lost. She seemed so gentle, so softly spoken, so concerned.
'Oh, just my bag gloves,' I said. I didn't really care if I found them or not. I was thinking I would probably never use them again anyway.
'Are you okay now?' she said.
'Oh, yeah,' I said. 'I just lost it. I don't know what happened.'
'Well,' she said, 'I've got a sore nose.'
'Probably not from me though,' I said.
'Someone's responsible,' she said, mocking a school-teacher, waving her finger.
I left without the gloves.

We dropped Amanda off at the gym, and I organised to meet her the next day to go over all the mistakes I had made.

As soon as she was out of the car and we had driven off, I howled like a baby, drew my knees up to my chest and cried as I had not since I was about ten years old. I felt so pitiful I wanted to cry for the rest of the day. And I just about did. It was the only thing that felt good. I mourned my feeble character, cracking under pressure, my body, stiff and hopeless, and my fear (that stranger who got in the ring with me). I smoked half a cigarette before I tossed it out the window. The arrogance, to even think that I could do this. It seemed as if I was the only one in the world who could be such a stupid, hopeless, cowardly, worthless pretender. I cracked because I was up against another woman. What I feared most, after all, was my equal.

'It's never going to happen again,' I wailed through sobs.

I meant either I am never going to spar again or, if I do, I am going to be over this particular psychological hurdle. But at the time I was not sure exactly which. I hardly slept that night and the next day I took my puffy, sad eyes and my deflated ego into the Underworld and went back to the drawing board with Amanda.

'I'm just too ponderous for this,' I said.
'No you're not.'
'I'm not athletic enough.'
'Yes you are,' she said.

I was talking to a woman who fought three rounds of Muy Thai kickboxing with a collapsed lung. To her, nothing on earth was impossible.

I later discovered that this phenomenon, which I thought occurred only to me, was so common it even had a name. It is called a 'flash knockdown'. Even the uncontrollable sobbing is not all that extraordinary, apparently, but usually it takes place in a desolate and empty change room somewhere out of sight.

It was my first real boxing experience and it was absolutely pivotal. Until that time, I had only been playing. It had always been comparatively safe. But from that point on I think I understood it in a different way. I knew more about what was actually at risk only for having lost it so dramatically. I consciously decided I wanted to take those kinds of risks. I also began to understand what was so addictive about the sport. It is this hope, this belief that you will overcome your personal weaknesses. It is a chance at redemption. Boxing offers you a chance to examine your flaws. You cannot turn away and pretend they do not exist for they will haunt you until you greet them.

That experience brought me face to face with myself in a way that nothing else ever had and what I saw up close I do not think was coloured so much by my gender as by all the tiny fragments of experience that make me who I am. It could have been anything. But it was boxing. I did not necessarily have that experience as a woman, but as a human being. The fact that it didn't fit any of my previous experiences, however, was more likely to be related to how culture had shaped my expectations and what it offered me as a means of knowing myself within the confines of being female. It also alerted me to my tendency to freeze under pressure, coupled with a will often to put myself under pressure. While some people run from what frightens them, I seem to run towards it.

This was something that was happening to me on a completely personal level. It was connected to how I had constructed a sense of myself and I wanted to keep that picture intact somehow. I had not, until then, recognised that fear and danger were such prominent features of that picture. And even when I was confronted with all that can go wrong in a boxing ring, a failure of personality, a disaster of grand proportions, I still could not turn my back on it. I was amazed that the most stinging pain had been in my heart. There was not even a bruise or cut I could point to and it seemed, after a while, that the pain had to a certain extent been self-inflicted.