Jonny McCambridge: The boxer, the boy and the story seldom told

The rumble in the back gardenThe rumble in the back garden
The rumble in the back garden
Days of sunshine have dried out the lawn. The ground is hard and lumpy and the blades of grass are sharp and ticklish, like the bristles on our yard brush.

I know this because I’m lying on my back in the garden. I have been felled and my son is standing above me. The lockdown and the sacrifices that it requires have pushed me towards ever greater invention in devising ways how to amuse and occupy my child. Now, quite implausibly, we are having a boxing match under the baking sun.

This is out of character, but not without explanation. My son is gentle and sensitive by nature, but also has a young boy’s desire for rough and tumble. This has manifested itself for years in the play-wrestling bouts that we stage on my bed in the evenings.

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Unfortunately he has been lumbered with an old father’s unfashionable cultural references. Rather than being able to adopt the modish personas of The Rock or John Cena, the only wrestling stars my boy has been exposed to are Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks.

The bedtime ritual has been established through habit. Like a method actor, I become Giant Haystacks, scowling and waving my arms angrily at imaginary members of the audience. Then my boy, taking on the role of Big Daddy, climbs onto the bed and begins to knock me around the ring with several robust body charges. Next the (imaginary) referee gets injured and Big Daddy stops to check on his wellbeing. Seizing the opportunity, I attack him from behind and begin to boot him around the ring. Just at the point when I’m about to finish Big Daddy off with a concussive belly flop, he rolls out of the way and then throws me out of the ring for the knockout victory. It concludes with me bitterly vowing revenge while he chants ‘Easy! Easy! Easy!’

This theatre usually takes place against the backdrop of my wife standing at the bottom of the stairs, calling up that this is supposed to be quiet time.

Perhaps it is a thirst for greater authenticity which has pushed my son more recently towards boxing. While he may not be consciously aware of it, he will at least have an instinctive understanding that wrestling is merely pantomime.

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My wife and I were unsure how to react when he asked to be bought a pair of boxing gloves. We agreed in a moment of weakness and sympathy, after he injured his finger by sticking it inside a pencil sharpener, reasoning that boxing training is a useful way of getting some exercise.

Soon two pairs of gloves and a punchbag had arrived in the post. I watched with bemused interest as my son, with his thin arms, flailed wildly at the bag. The sweet science it certainly wasn’t.

So I stepped in and showed him a few basic moves. How to adopt a boxer’s pose, how to keep his balance, how to construct a rudimentary defence and how to throw a jab. I could tell from the serious expression on his face that he was listening and keen to learn. As he worked on the bag afterwards I could hear him repeating under his breath the instructions that I had given him.

So far I had gone along with it, but, inevitably, the question arrived.

‘Daddy, can we have a boxing match?’

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This forced me to address the very complicated relationship that I have with the sport of boxing. As a child, beguiled by the romance of the Rocky films, I was fascinated with the sport. Because I have an obsessive personality I made it my mission to know every scrap of information about the pugilistic trade. Hundreds of books, videos and magazines were collected and an bewildering array of random facts were stored in my brain.

To this day I can recite, without a moment’s hesitation, every heavyweight champion from the bare-knuckled John L Sullivan through to Muhammad Ali; though I still struggle to remember my wedding anniversary.

But I quickly outgrew this infatuation, much as my boy outgrows his school shoes. These days I find it difficult to watch a boxing match. The truth is that I’m a bit squeamish about the potential for injury when people punch each other.

But matters have to be kept in context. A quick sparring session with my son is unlikely to lead to a career for him as a gnarled and hardened fighter. I hesitantly agree to the match.

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Minutes later we are gloved up and awkwardly circling each other with our hands in front of our faces on the lawn. My version of the Ali shuffle is met with a confused stare.

After a few minutes of phoney war it has become clear to me that neither of us really wants to hit the other. Intuitively, I know what is going on, my boy has inherited my revulsion of delivering violence onto another.

In a way it’s quite sweet, the two of us bonded in nature and temperament. I imagine when I’m an old man and my son is grown, this is an occasion we will talk about and remember fondly - the day we boxed but refused to strike each other. A perfect reciprocity of thought and action.

He comes a little closer and smiles at me. I smile back indulgently and lower my hands.

My son punches me on the nose. Hard.

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More blows are directed at my head but I can’t see them because my eyes have filled with water. I’m not really sure how to respond to the barrage so I sink to one knee, to gain a moment of respite.

‘It’s a knockdown,’ I mumble gamely.

My eyes clear sufficiently so that I can make out my gloved son looming. I have just enough to time, from my kneeling position, to think, ‘I really should have explained the rules to him’, before my six-year-old wallops me on the left ear with a solid right hook, sending me sprawling onto the grass.

He counts rapidly to ten. It’s at this point that I notice how sharp and ticklish the grass has become. From my horizontal perspective I can see my boy running off. I think I can hear him shouting ‘Mummy! I knocked daddy out!’, although it’s difficult to be sure because of the ringing in my ear.

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