WHEN I WAS 40, I raised my fists and did not run away from a fight for the first time since sixth grade.

It happened in a gym straight out of a Rocky movie. I was spending that year working in a rented office on the second floor of a three-story walk-up in Rome, Georgia. I filled my time staring out the office window, tapping gloomily at my keyboard on a failing project. One day, I heard banging.

Fire-escape stairs led to a newly cleared third floor. “A gym,” an intense, wiry man said. And sure enough: heavy bags, speed bags, weights. Along one brick wall: a ring, canvas duct-taped directly to the wood floor. Plaster hung in patches; the bags hung directly from exposed roof joists.

The wiry man was Lee Fortune, onetime holder of the World Boxing Council’s Continental Americas middleweight title. Did I want to learn to box? Lee, a cop, planned to work the gym around his schedule. It would be $25 a month for limitless time and coaching, several afternoons a week. “Not kick boxing,” he said. “Real boxing. Sparring. You’ll wear headgear.” I said sure.

“A man you’ve never met before said for $25 he will hit you in the head,” a friend summarized. What else did I have going on?

But there was more. When I was growing up in suburban Cleveland, unless you were an athlete, you were a school playground victim. You were pushed, teased, hit; I was, anyway. The adults in those days blithely assured us that standing up for yourself cured bullies, but I never witnessed that. I tried once, against my will, in sixth grade. The class decided, seemingly en masse, that a dodgeball incident required playground resolution. I told the other kid it was stupid, tried to walk away, finally started pushing back, and ultimately ended up on the lawn in a ring of jeering classmates, flailing. “Look,” I heard someone say. “It’s the two queers fighting.” I kept on until we both stopped swinging, then went, crying, to my piano lesson. The lead bullies took no notice; as for me, I spent the remainder of my youth and young adulthood resolutely avoiding, even running from, fights.

All kinds of fights. I slunk away from arguments with parents and siblings; retreated, stung, from locker-room teasing. In junior high, I tried the bullied-child strategy of bullying someone else, but I failed at the first push back; when I was randomly hit during a high school eruption of race-related strife, I simply stood, mystified at why and what to do. As an adult walking on city streets, I quickly withdrew from anything threatening, once sprinting away from a random beatdown that left both me and a friend bloodied. Fighting back seemed not unthinkable, but unimaginable.

When I was 40, that gym represented an opportunity: Maybe it was time to fight. I was instructed to buy high-top sneakers, cotton hand wraps, a pair of training gloves. And, ominously, a mouth guard.

The first weeks were boot camp. About a dozen of us — all men in their mid-20s, except me — stretched, jumped rope, did gym exercises. Lee, in his mid-30s, taught us to wrap our hands. The wrapping and gloves, I learned, protect the boxer’s hands, not his opponent’s head. This was a hitting sport.

We learned to crouch and angle our shoulders, protecting still-soft bellies. Left hand up by left cheek, right around the chin, peering between gloves, we adopted the classic fighter’s pose. Lee taught us the jab: straighten that left, pop!, directly at the heavy bag. Then the cross, the overhand right—launched not from the shoulder but from the hips, pushing off that back leg and shifting your entire bodyweight. I had always heard “throw a punch,” but on those grimy wood floors facing a stained heavy bag, I understood.

“Jab!” Lee would say. Then the hooks, left and right; the jab and cross were one and two, the hooks three and four. “Give him the old one-two” suddenly had meaning. Lee explained: The one, he leans to his left; the two gets him sliding hard to his right, where your left hook meets the side of his head. We got used to pounding that heavy bag and learned the speed bag, which is about rhythm, “bappity-bappity-bappity,” and about holding arms high enough to make shoulder muscles cry out by the end of a three-minute round. That three-minute clock defines everything, followed by a buzzer and a minute of gasping rest.

It was working. My biceps strengthened, my shoulders swelled; my wife called me “Gregory Pecs.” I started to think maybe I could actually hit somebody. Then Lee said, “Bring your mouth guards Thursday,” and my stomach dropped.

We had begun moving with Lee in the ring, jabbing at his hands in paddles, learning to duck his slow-motion swipes, but sparring was different, and the gym felt different that day. Lee checked mouth guards, chose boxers of similar size, jammed competition gloves over outstretched fingers, taped laces. I had to yoga-breathe for calm.

We entered the ring and the buzzer sounded. Lee had to encourage us to approach each other, and when the first tentative jabs were thrown, terrified backpedaling followed. “Don’t turn your back!” Lee yelled, pushing us back together. But when I crouched and faced my opponent, a guy heavier but shorter and 15 years my junior, he connected. With the headgear, I felt impact, but not pain. A lifetime of running from fights and that was it? I relaxed. We moved and probed, and once I got a right hand through, I realized I had hit him. It may have been the first punch I landed since that day on the playground. It may have been the first one in my life. The buzzer sounded; suddenly, hands were removing my headgear. Soon others wore the lace-up gloves and I leaned on a bag and watched, vibrating. I had fought someone.

WE SPARRED EVERY FEW WEEKS. My movements grew more confident as I learned to parry and feint. I began to think I was a guy who could take care of himself. One day Lee’s dad, Roy, a small-time promoter, took me aside. He put together cards for the casinos in Biloxi. Headliners required undercards, and two-round jousts earned $500 per palooka. Did I want to fight? I was 41 and in the best shape of my life.

“Don’t you think your life is hard enough with your brains on the inside?” my wife responded at home. Roy shrugged and life went on. Then one day, Lee approached.

“I have a bout coming,” he said, with an opponent he called a slow white guy. “I need you for sparring.” Before I knew it, I was in headgear and gloves in the ring. “To your left,” Lee would say, and I would float that way, jabbing, trying an occasional combination. He’d move forward and I’d try to duck, defend, feint, and then suddenly I was leaning against the ropes watching the light fixture swim in circles. Lee backed away as Roy and a couple others held me up. “When you see that big right hook coming,” Roy said, “you know you can duck.”

I pulled out my mouth guard. “If I could see that hook coming,” I said, “we would be having a different conversation.” I ceased to spar with Lee. I never really believed I was a guy who could take care of himself. But evidently, I can take a punch.

The next year, I lived in Nashville and took a boxing class in an office building basement. When in a newspaper office I playfully threw an air combination at other writers, one jumped, startled. “Jeez,” he said. “Do you box?”

I guess I did, a little. But I retired with a record of 0–0 lifetime. You’ll find me now on a bicycle or running underneath a fly ball. Not as good for the pecs, but fewer headaches. And no troubling echoes from childhood playgrounds, either.

This story originally appeared on Esquire US.


What is successful nonmonogamy anyway?

The best surf beaches in Australia for every experience level