There was something very odd and yet entirely captivating about watching the boxer's hands get wrapped before a fight. Perhaps it had something to do with the delicacy with which the trainer, Devon Cormack, wound the white gauze around the wrist and then the metacarpals. When these were partly covered, he tore off three short pieces from the roll and strung them between the fingers. He pulled the strips longitudinally, toward the wrist; they would support it like a splint when they were wound firmly into the body of the wrap.
It was the summer of 2000, and I was in a makeshift boxing venue: the basketball court of a recreation center in Augusta, Georgia. A regulation-size boxing ring had been set up in the middle of the room, and folding bleachers had been pulled out from the walls. A few dozen chairs sat closer to ringside, with seats for five judges placed directly around the perimeter. Attendance was modest—mostly friends and family of the boxers. On the back wall hung a poster from a local restaurant, Malley's Bagel and Grits, and kids from the Augusta Boxing Club were selling raffle tickets and wearing T-shirts that said I'D RATHER SWEAT IN THE GYM THAN BLEED IN THE STREETS.
Devon was almost finished with the pair of hands I had been watching him wrap. An amiable Jamaican, he is one of the best kickboxers in the world in three weight classes; training amateur boxers is only a sideline for him. He explained a little about what he was doing as he worked, but after he stopped to redo one of the hands, I let him finish the job in silence. His long dreadlocks hung still as his eyes focused on the small hand in front of him. The wrapping seemed to embody one of the contradictions of the sport: a wrap serves not only to protect the hand but also to make it more dangerous. Because this was an amateur bout, Devon explained, he couldn't use anything other than soft gauze and a single, final turn of adhesive tape. The pros use a much more substantial wrap, and the gladiators of Roman Coliseum days bound their fists with studded leather straps—one good punch and it was all over.