Take a Punch
Credit: Renee McKay / Getty Images

Boxing is the original extreme physical challenge. Do you have what it takes to get in the ring?

You might think you're in tip-top shape and ready for anything. But spend a round in the boxing ring and there's a good chance you'll learn otherwise. Most guys are exhausted after less than a minute.

That's because boxing isn't just physically and mentally demanding – it's fundamentally unpredictable. And the stakes are big: It's win or get your face bashed in. "You face anger, you face fear, you face embarrassment," says Michael Onello, a longtime trainer in San Francisco and the author of Fear into Fuel: 21-Day Mind & Body Empowerment. "You find out who you are when the body and the mind come together."

I'd been training at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn for about six months when my trainer decided I was ready. He shoved a pair of gloves on my fists, clad me in flamboyantly patriotic headgear, and put me in the ring with another student. The bell rang, my opponent approached, and I readied my sharp, three-punch combination, the one thing I had to show from my months of heavy-bag practice. And then – thunk, thunk. My head whipped back twice. I tried to counter, but my precious jab-jab-right wilted in the air. I tried to get a better angle. Thunk – my head whipped back once more. (The thunk, according to boxing lore, is the sound of the brain jostling inside the skull.) Desperate, I ditched the combo and windmilled frenetically, until I could no longer feel my arms. Soon I was exhausted. I glanced up at the clock. Thirty seconds had elapsed.

Boxing was something new for me. I'd grown up playing cello, not football. But I couldn't help wondering what it would be like to face off against another guy. Could I hold my own? There is just one way to find that out: You have to get punched. A lot. When I was training, my co-workers wondered about my near-constant black eyes.

But stick it out and something interesting begins to happen. You learn that fighting is less about throwing punches than anticipating the other guy's moves. You start to notice little tells: an opponent's stutter step before he lunges toward your body, or the subtle twitch in his shoulder muscles before he snaps a shot to the head. Then you learn what to do with that knowledge. My trainer would hold up pads, and I'd hit them, and he'd hit me back, hammering home boxing's geometry: how throwing a hook to the body leaves your forehead naked. How throwing a straight jab exposes your left flank; how slipping such a jab – to the right – puts you in perfect position to shovel a hook into his ribs.

After a while, you almost become blasé about getting punched in the face – it's part of the process. You relax. You stop flinching. You breathe. And then you move the way you're supposed to.