When I returned to the boxing gym well past middle age, I wasn’t looking back but forward, determined not to “go gentle into that good night.”
Count me among the millions motivated by a fictional character created by Sylvester Stallone. The “Rocky” movies have been my inspiration as a writer, weekend athlete and boxing enthusiast, who returned to the gym well past middle age. While some may dismiss such endeavors as a sad effort to recapture lost youth, my late-life pugilism sparked a renewed confidence in the journey that lay ahead.
I’ve been a Rocky Balboa fan since 1976. Fan is an understatement, considering my film patronage, memorabilia collection and pilgrimage to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Call me sentimental or unsophisticated in my cinematic tastes. No matter. “Rocky” continues to inspire people of all ages.
One of my proudest “Yo!” moments occurred some 15 years ago. At 54 I returned to the boxing gym after a long hiatus. And I had plenty of company in my pugilistic pursuit. White-collar and executive boxing clubs have been a growing 21st-century trend in the U.S.
My love of the sport dates back to the mid-1960s when an ex-pro named Steve Acunto from Staten Island, N.Y., taught my brothers and me the fundamentals. I dreamed of becoming an amateur boxer. But a couple concussions outside the ring and a bout with encephalitis—all before age 15—ended those aspirations.
Flash forward to Christmas 2006. A restless fifty-something, I continued to hit the heavy bag in my backyard shed. But I wasn’t satisfied with these workouts. After watching the movie “Rocky Balboa” over the holidays, a fuse was lit. I announced to my skeptical wife that I wanted to box again.
My journey led me to the Police Athletic League (PAL) club in Anderson, Indiana, where Mark Lemerick coached aspiring Golden Glovers, mixed martial artists and weekend tough guys. Lemerick, a rugged Irish-American Hoosier, had in the 1980s been a sparring partner for Aaron Pryor, then the light welterweight world champion. When I met Lemerick in early 2007, he reminded me of a jaunty Burt Reynolds in his heyday.
I trained with Coach Lemerick for about nine months, and our sessions were demanding and exhilarating. He told me after my first visit, he thought I’d be “one and done” like so many other old dudes who came to the PAL Club seeking dreams of distant lives.
“Most of ’em watch a couple ‘Rocky’ movies and are all gung ho. But they never return. You did.”
“Here comes the professor,” he liked to announce when I entered the gym after teaching journalism classes at Ball State University. Younger boxers would stare as I lumbered about, jumping rope or hitting the bags, waiting my turn to pound the mitts or spar a few rounds. “You know, ya probably have a screw loose boxing at your age,” Lemerick would say.
He was probably right, but as Rocky himself said once upon a time: “All I want to do is go the distance.”
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