Not many people realize this, but Paul Simon wrote his 1969 hit song, the Boxer, about me. In fact, I don’t think even Paul Simon knows he wrote it about me, but the main character really is me.
In the song the eponymous boxer is marginalized and shunned by everyone. He’s rejected by his family, he can’t get even a minimum wage job, and the only women who’ll have him are whores.
(I have to point out that in 1969 I didn’t know what a ‘whore’ was. The word is also in Macbeth, and our English teacher tried to define it, but did so in a way that left me none the wiser).
At the end of the song the boxer stands in the midst of a forest in his blood-stained shirt, yelling defiant challenges at the trees, and even the trees seem to want to have nothing to do with him.
We had boxing every Monday afternoon at my junior school, so I boxed once a week from the age of five, until 1970 when I was thirteen. I was never afraid, and never hurt––at least until I was 12. In 1969 a boy named Kim Hudson appeared opposite me in the ring. He’d probably always been there, but I hadn’t noticed him the entire time he was under 5 foot tall. Kim had gown over a foot taller during the summer of 1969, and by the end of August when boxing began he was at least 6 foot, and built like a caryatid.
His first punch snapped my head back. His second punch went in my eye, his third punch bloodied my nose, and as soon as the blood started pouring the headmaster stopped the bout. Usually a doctor’s son would be sent into the ring with a sponge and a bucket of water to clean up the nose bleed––but Kim was the the doctor’s son, so I had to clean myself up.
I prayed all week that I wouldn’t have to face Kim the following Monday, but there I would be, each Monday facing Kim. I reckoned that God didn’t have much sway with our headmaster, which was strange because in my mind’s eye, they looked very similar. Or perhaps God has his own reasons. Maybe he thought I had too much symmetry in my facial features, and would benefit from some unevenness.
My first defense strategy was based on the knowledge that the bout would end when my nose started bleeding, so I took to head butting Kim’s right glove. This backfired in several ways. Firstly, it just didn’t work; secondly it confused Kim; thirdly it caused Kim to move his hand so I ended up head butting his ribs.
I have to point out that Kim was a thoroughly nice human being. He really did try to spar lightly with me––until I hurt him. Being head butted in the side of the ribs is pretty painful, and Kim responded in kind. I usually ended the bout slipping over in a pool of my own blood.
Luckily for me Kim received a rugby scholarship and graduated early. One more term of his jabs and hooks and I probably would have been too brain damaged to remember my irregular Latin verbs for the final exams.
So, there I was at age 13 with nobody wanting to box me.
But I’d learned a valuable lesson from Kim’s light sparring. Instead of throwing punches I’d reach out and touch my glove to a forehead, or a cheek, or a shoulder. I’d even grunt a bit to make it sound real.
Soon, everyone wanted to spar with me. I’d even be matched up with 10 year olds.
And then what followed was totally amazing. For the first time in my life I found I had friends. I was welcomed into the football (soccer) clique. I played in pick-up games in the evenings, and even took my place in the North Stand at big league games.
It didn’t last of course. Light sparring doesn’t work outside the ring. You’re not wearing gloves, and the other person probably isn’t a boxer.
Before I knew it I was alone again, back in the forest clearing, blood dripping down my school shirt, and raging at the trees.