Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Even the wimpiest Harvard students harbor dreams of Muhammed Ali glory. But few are brave enough to float like butterflies

Even the wimpiest Harvard students harbor dreams of Muhammed Ali glory. But few are brave enough to float like butterflies and sting like bees. FM’s Véronique E. Hyland takes a ringside seat in Harvard’s own version of Fight Club—boxing practice at the MAC.

They start pulling out the mats. A few people have already arrived and are lacing up shoes or silently taping their hands. One girl shadowboxes her blurred image in the mirror. The room smells of chlorine from the pool below, which mingles with sweat to create a heavy, pungent smell as the afternoon continues.

Third-year law student Gene T. Gurkoff wears shorts, lace-up wrestling boots and a Harvard Boxing tank top that reads “‘My writing is nothing. My boxing is everything.’—Ernest Hemingway” on the back. A set of tennis sweatbands is looped around his elbows, and on the side of his head, a vein bulges.

“We were hit unexpectedly with people this year,” says Gurkoff, an enthusiastic club member. He punctuates this news of increased interest in the club with a jab at my shoulder. It doesn’t hurt, but instinctively I flinch.

Gurkoff begins sparring with David S. Love ’06 as their coach, Doug Yaffi, stands watching at the edge of the mat. “Don’t anticipate,” he tells them. The two fighters move jerkily on their feet, darting in every so often to hit, their movements reminiscent of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.

Sometimes they pause to offer one another some advice. “You’re throwing your jab a little slow,” Gurkoff advises Love after one bout. Yaffi then steps in to demonstrate a proper jab.

Now there are more of them, pairs upper-cutting and right-hooking, more arriving at the gym and sliding mitts and gloves onto their hands. Andre M. Pentalver ’06 winds a long strand of yellow tape around his fingers. The action is instinctive and Pentalver can’t quite place the logic behind it. Scott Valez ’05 swoops in and says, “For our knuckles. Otherwise these things will get fucking chafed. It also absorbs some of the sweat, the moisture.”

Across the room, Yaffi instructs Julia K. Clarke ’06, a beginner in orange shorts, on her jab. “Hands up by your face, start nice and slow.” As she and Megha M. Doshi ’03-’04 begin sparring, making tentative jabs at each other, Yaffi shouts encouragement. “No matter how big and strong the guy is,” he tells them, “you are strong enough to push all that aside.”

Shirley V. Cardona ’06 began boxing January of last year, encouraged by a friend on the soccer team who was also interested in the sport. “I spar with the guys all the time,” she says. “A lot of the girls beat the guys.”

As if to prove her point, she enlists Pentalver for a sparring match. “I didn’t bring my mouthpiece,” she tells him curtly, “so no punches in the mouth.” The two begin a friendly sparring match, stopping intermittently to laugh, joke or correct each other on form.

On the sidelines, Chealon Miller, a second year student at Harvard Medical School, punches the air in frustration. “I’ve been waiting for my partner to get back,” he says. “His nose got bloodied up a little bit.” This is an understatement; the mouthguard and “brain bucket”—slang for helmet—can only protect a boxer so much. As blood streams from his partner’s nose, Yaffi tells him, “If you’re real worried about it, you can’t box.”

The boxer evaluates whether or not he’s real worried about it.

Miller practices his footwork while he tells me, “I’ve only been coming for this semester.” Interning at two hospitals makes it difficult for Miller to attend the five-days-a-week practices, but he says the team has been “so supportive.” Unfortunately for Miller, his wary teammate decides to call it a day.

We move to a minimalist room on the top floor of the MAC with a painted red floor and chains hanging from the ceiling. The chains are there to suspend the huge Everlast punching bags the team drags in. There are also smaller, round punching bags called speedballs.

Some people jump rope to work on their footwork, while others, like Doshi, pummel the speedballs until they are nothing but two bluish blurs dangling from the ceiling.

Yaffi leans against the wall, talking about the obstacles that first-time boxers need to overcome. “Some people have a hard time punching someone else in the face. It goes against everything you were ever taught. But when someone gets hit, they get over it right away.”

Muscular grad student Owen Chen says he just began last week and has encountered “people of all sorts of levels. Law school students, B-school students, undergrads. It’s a good mix.” Club president Francisco A. Robles ’05 explains that the club also has a social aspect. “We organize Fight Nights where we watch championship fights,” he says. The group recently gathered to watch the Holyfield fight. They also bond by doing community service together, like a recent 10-mile charity run at Tufts.

Several here are newcomers to the team. Karen J. Adelman ’07 is a brunette in a white tank top, blue sweatpants and silver nose ring. “I used to be a bully,” she tells me, adjusting her ponytail. “I like punching stuff.”  She found out about the team through their table at the activities fair. “I showed up on the first day. I was so pumped. It kicked my ass,” she says.

The room is dominated by the screech of Asics boxing boots against the hardwood floor and the flat, brutal sound of gloved fists making contact with the bags. Gurkoff chants to himself, “Pivot, punch” as he dances around a black and turquoise punching bag.

Valez works the punching bag near the door. Each time he hits it, the bag swings violently from its chain. As Valez takes a break, the feral look fades from his eyes. As if to try to explain the fiery gaze, he says, “I picture a lot of people I don’t like,” he says. “When I’m having kind of a shitty week, it’s therapeutic as hell.”