How does one walk into the arena, prepared to be punched? How do you reconcile the idea that your hobby not only involves, but necessitates being hit, hurt, bruised and battered? Dublin University Boxing Club (DUBC) captain Declan Garvey insists nothing but practice and experience can prepare you: “At first it is a shock, and if you’re shocked in a fight you’re not going to last a couple of seconds. You have to get used to looking at punches coming at your face.”
Fancy footwork, ducking and feigning are all part of the game, in what boxing club coach Dan Curran refers to as a form of “dance class”, but ultimately, you will get punched. For those unwilling for the training and all it involves, coach Curran points to the frisbee club. For those who can stick it out, he says this is the chance to end up in the best shape of your life and to see what your body is capable of in its prime. Tempting, until the glove lands and whiplash snaps you back into the price of this promise.
Conflicting schedules meant that organising captain Garvey’s interview was difficult – he was sitting an exam on Monday morning before returning to his home in West Cork. Offering to postpone to another time, Garvey told me that Sunday evening was fine, he felt prepared. Again, I offered to postpone. Putting him under pressure before an exam was my last intention, and a tense interview wouldn’t facilitate much insight. Another occasion where both of us were comfortable would make for a better test result for him, and a better interview for me. Lacking any apparent jitters, he insisted and I conceded.
Expecting a high-strung and agitated boxer, Garvey gently apologised for being late (he wasn’t). Amiable, chatty and entirely relaxed, it was hard to imagine Garvey tense, even before a fight. Laughing, he told me he hadn’t recognised me in clothes outside of gym gear. Having met the captain (“O Captain, my Captain!” is a frequent quote of Coach Curran’s when looking for Garvey’s attention) through my own brief and intermittent club membership, the change to jumper and jeans jarred him.
Garvey seems an unlikely boxing captain. His ready smile doesn’t convey brawler, nor does his relatively light 74kg on a 188cm-tall frame. Lean being the most apt description for him, his long reach is key to his technique in the ring. Far from brutish or dominant, Garvey says that this is common amongst the boxers in the club: “Alpha male types, they never keep it up. They say they’re going to beat the shit out of someone, they get hit really hard a few times, get tired and then decide it’s not for them. It’s the people who like boxing as a sport, they stick around. But you know who isn’t going to come back. After they’ve beaten the shit out of someone once, they’re happy.”
Joining the club for fitness, Garvey was initially reluctant to spar. Curran, the club’s coach, encouraged him to give it a go, but Garvey remained unsure. Donning gloves and a helmet, he stepped into the square, only to be immediately smacked and for his nose to start bleeding. Even Curran seemed taken aback. For many, that would be the bell on their pugilistic career. Instead, Garvey returned for session after session. Before long, he was one of the most experienced and dedicated members and captainship naturally followed.
“Alpha male types, they never keep it up…They get hit really hard a few times, get tired and then decide it’s not for them. It’s the people who like boxing as a sport, they stick around.”
Training “first-years” in the club involves patience and sparring with those who know to restrain themselves: “Generally you wouldn’t put beginner against beginner because they just beat the shit out of each other. What I’d do is I hit them hard enough they know they’ve done something wrong, but it doesn’t really hurt. I keep hitting them until they get used to being punched.”
For many, the extent of their career in the club doesn’t go that far. The first hour is limited mostly to cardio and technique. Dedicating the second hour-and-a-half to bag-work and sparring, it’s here that boxing comes into its unique element. “You learn to recover faster when getting hit in the face. You want to look away and close your eyes. You know, you see ‘the sparks’, but you have to remember to keep your hands up when the sparks come up, or you’ll get hit a second or third time.” For all Garvey’s friendliness, an assuredness underlay his banter. It was hard not to appreciate the confidence with which he spoke about the sport, and wonder whether this had drawn him to it, or had been fostered at the punching bag.
Talking about his first fight, Garvey conceded there were some nerves: “[Beforehand], I was thinking about technique. You’re doing a little practice in your room, doing a little hop. You’re just thinking about it. With my first fight anyway – you’re trying not to think too much, because it is unnerving. The second time I fought, well, I thought about it a lot then too!”
“It is scary enough. You’re used to sparring and you’re not hitting them to hurt them. That’s the thing – in the fight, you can’t stop. If you stop, you’re fucked. And punching hard is a lot more tiring. When you put effort into your punching, then you realise. You think you’re fit until you do a fight.”
“You learn to recover faster when getting hit in the face. You want to look away and close your eyes. You know, you see ‘the sparks’, but you have to remember to keep your hands up when the sparks come up, or you’ll get hit a second or third time.”
Beyond anything, Garvey said this fatigue causes chagrin as the bouts go on: “It’s not a jog when you fight – it’s a sprint. You’re not going casually. Sometimes you’re losing vision. By the third round, you’re just trying to keep your hands up and you can’t. You can see his face, and you see how open he is and you want to hit and you’re trying to move back and…” The frustration of past fights remembered, fusing with an anticipation of future encounters revealed some of the drive in Garvey.
“You’re aware of that in terms of self-preservation. It’s one thing [in a sport] like soccer where you lose as a team. [In boxing], they display you at the end. Plus it hurts. Losing at boxing isn’t fun. You’re sore. It’s not fun to lose. It’s always more fun to win. But still, the fight I lost, I did enjoy it. It went through the three rounds.”
Carol Oates wrote: “Boxing is about being hit rather more than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain, if not devastating psychological paralysis, more than it is about winning.” The movie Rocky isn’t about coming out on top, but going the distance. Garvey echoes this sentiment, having an almost meditative self-focus.
“If you think about your own stance, that’s the key. If my stance is here” he explains, with the help of a real-life example, “my legs are perfectly apart – there’s not much they can do. They can hit you but won’t get good punches. It’s only when you start thinking about other people’s stance, that’s when you get hit hard in the face. When I get hit in the face, I think I just have to put my hands up in front to recover. Or hop out. Throw a punch back!” As he had for the whole interview, he smiled and laughed at this imagining.
Wrapping up, I wished him well for his exam but he brushed it aside. As with his sport, there wasn’t any aggression propelling the captain. It wasn’t a winner’s drive, but a calm persistence. Even at the inevitability of an opponent’s left jab or right hook, Garvey just smiled, shrugged it off and focused on his footwork. So long as his own technique was solid, the rest would follow.