New Year's Resolution: Learn How to Throw a Punch

A lifelong avoider of violent conflict joins a mixed martial arts gym.

Silvia Izquierdo/AP Images

I'm 45 now, and it's hard for me to imagine a situation where getting into a physical fight would be anything other than embarrassing for all involved. And that's great. It's comforting to me that I don't need to size up a guy before disagreeing with him. If he's my age, I know that we're both too tired and creaky to have any interest in rolling around on the pavement; and if he is a young buck, I can't imagine that he would feel the need to establish his dominance over a geezer with kids and a minivan. It's liberating, really, and has given me the boldness to do things like yell at the drivers of lifted 4x4s with chrome Truck Nutz to slow down when they drive 37 miles-per-hour on my 25-mile-per-hour street.

But still, there's a part of me that wants to get into a fight before it's too late. I've been in mosh pits, bar brawls, and melees, but I have never been in a proper one-on-one fisticuffs, despite receiving numerous invitations. Whether I surrendered, ran away, or froze and took my licks, one way or another I simply didn't show up. There's something about squaring off against another man, punching and grappling, that's terrifyingly intimate, and I've never been able to cross that threshold.

I've been driving past a boxing and mixed martial arts gym in my neighborhood since it opened six years ago, and rubbernecking at the guys sparring in the ring. I could do that, I tell myself. There's no reason, in a controlled environment, that I couldn't exchange blows with another dude, and not worry about going to the hospital or bringing shame to my family.

I must have been musing about my fighting fantasy aloud, because for Christmas, my wife bought me a membership to the boxing gym. I'm excited about this for a number of reasons (fitness, fun, etc.). But mainly I want to see if I have some hidden genetic aptitude for hand-to-hand combat that has simply been civilized out of me.

My grandpa on my father's side, dead for some 20 years now, is still a legendary tough guy among the old-timers in the once booming railroad town of Havre, Montana. He cowboyed his way from Arkansas up to the Canadian border, settling every dispute he encountered with his fists, and bare-knuckle boxing anybody who challenged his status as toughest man in whatever town or camp he wound up in.

My dad, although tough enough for Jump School, Ranger School, and two tours in Vietnam, has not generated the same kind of duke-it-out mythology that Grandpa did. In fact, the most notable achievements of my dad's distinguished career in the Army and the Defense Department are in his capacity as a diplomat and an arms-reduction treaty negotiator.

But really, if there's anybody to blame for my inability to fight, it's my mom.

I'm guessing that a lot of parents tell their kids this: "There's always a way to work out a problem without resorting to violence." But my mom didn't just spout truisms. If they were worth repeating, she would hash them out. She argued her (our) values forcibly and with unassailable logic. Along with a few other lessons she imparted to me, the one about violence really stuck. So when other boys were beating the snot out of one another, I was perfecting the art of weasling out of conflicts without losing face, saying "Uncle," or just covering my head and waiting for the beatings to stop. It didn't help my street cred that I grew up with two older sisters upon whom I was never to lay hands, under threat of the most dire of punishments, no matter how legitimate my wrath toward them. Later on in life, when throwing a punch seemed like a reasonable response, I lacked both the instinct and the muscle memory.

Nonetheless, there are a few reasons to believe that I could have been, if not a contender, then at least not a palooka, or a chickenshit.

I'm not weak. I've been doing various amounts of strength training, and lots of manual labor, ever since I was a teenager. For 20 years, I was always one of the stronger guys on the construction site. I could sink a 16-penny nail with two swings of my framing hammer, carry a sheet of three-quarter-inch plywood up an extension ladder with one hand, and was more willing than most of my colleagues to work long hours in extreme conditions.

In addition to being pretty strong, I'm not particularly afraid of, or susceptible to, pain. I've done a lot of stupid things that have required medical attention, as well as some for which I should have sought medical attention but didn't. For instance, after I shot a 3.5-inch spike clear through my thumb with a nail gun, I pulled it out, dressed the wound with electrical tape and a piece of my T-shirt, and went back to work. Usually when I tell this story, I don't include the part where I went to the gym on my lunch break, because it seems braggy and maybe like bullshit; but it's true. Some of the stupid things I did came very close to requiring a mortician, but few of them slowed me down or made me more cautious: Only age did that.

Despite my strength and selective courage, though, I inspired fear in very few men on the construction site. Maybe one or two, and that was just because they were very poor judges of character. Most guys could tell that I wasn't a fighter, and some of them disrespected me openly because they knew they could get away with it. What could I do? I took my mom's advice from when I was in kindergarten, and ignored it. Or, more accurately, I pretended to ignore it. I can't help but suspect, though, that had I radiated the confidence of someone who would take only so much, I wouldn't have had to take so much.

I don't think that taking a few boxing classes is going to fundamentally change me. I'll still be a non-violent conflict-avoider at my core. And if learning to fight instills some confidence that I've been lacking all my life, I will welcome it without being wistful about what I missed out on by being too timid all these years. Most of the regrets I have about the past are things that happened because of an over-abundance of confidence in some area, not a lack of it. It might sound like I've spent my life cowering at the threat of bullies, but that's not the case at all. I've talked plenty of smack and done my share of gloating about prevailing in contests of traditional masculinity that didn't involve violence. But whenever it came down to beat or be beaten, the best I could hope for was mercy or few witnesses. I know that I can take a punch. I just want to find out if I can throw one.