'Blessed be the LORD my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight.' Psalm 144 'Do you do sparring here?' he asked. 'Yes' I said, wishing I had another answer to give him. Normally I'm mad keen when new guys wander into the gym looking to do some training, but this was different. This was a group of four, and only three of them were teenagers.
The guy talking to me was an older guy, probably in his fifties. The first time I met a group like this I assumed that the older guy was the father or uncle of the younger boys - scouting around for a good gym for his kids. This time I knew better. Teenagers always scout out their own gym and then tell dad about it later. The old guy who leads kids into a fight gym can only ever be a trainer, and a trainer who turns up unannounced at somebody else's gym is generally a trainer who's got something to prove. 'Mohammed here needs some sparring practice' the old guy continued.
'Can he spar with you?' Mohammed was tall and dark, about 18 years old, and had attitude written all over his face. He was standing about two metres away from me, arms folded, eyeing me out. 'Well, we're just about finished up for tonight' I said, 'but come back on Sunday afternoon, I might be able to do a couple of rounds with your boy then.' Sunday was three days away, and I anticipated that this wholly unsatisfactory response would result in the pack simply moving on in search of more ready prey, but the old guy said 'That will be just fine.
What time do we get here?' I responded with some feeble dialogue about how we only spar for fun at our gym and about how we all try to take care of each other, but it was too late. The match was set in stone. When the group showed up on the Sunday I was still busy chairing the monthly Parish Council meeting. I had forgotten about my church management duties when I made the date with the old guy, but the meetings are scheduled to finish before the kids arrive for training anyway, so it shouldn't have made any difference. I deliberately hold the meetings in the room adjacent to the gym, so that if the meeting does run late I can zip across and open up the gym and keep out a listening ear while I finish the meeting. I can't remember whether we were running late that day or whether the boys arrived early.
What I do remember was that the last half hour of the meeting was dominated by a rhythmical 'thwack' penetrating the walls of the meeting room - the sound of my prospective opponent belting into a punching bag in preparation for the big event. Needless to say, it made it difficult for me to concentrate on the concluding details of the meeting. When the meeting finally finished, I hurried over apologetically to where the challenger was warming up.
I deliberately went over still wearing my clerical collar, hoping that the sight of the venerable old rector of Dulwich Hill might have a calming effect on the challenger, who by this time had worked himself into quite a lather of sweat. A little focused reflection should have told me that neither Mohammed, nor his brothers Mustaffer and Achmed (whom he introduced me to) were likely to be impressed by the priestly garb. Perhaps the meeting had drained my brain. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
Meeting the brothers made me aware of something else. Mohammed had brought quite a sizable entourage with him. In addition to the brothers there were cousins and friends, guys and girls - quite an audience. I did not get introduced to all of them, but I got the picture. One of them had brought a video camera, hoping to capture vivid images of the great shellacking on tape. I made a few more feeble utterances about 'all taking care of each other' but all words were, by that stage, just more unwanted delays to the great showdown.
I got into my gear and fronted up to the ring. I think I was still muttering niceties when the bell rang and Mohammed started for me. He was young, fast and strong, and he came at me like a wild animal - panting hard, eyes ablaze, fists flying. I had been in this position before and I knew what to do.
The boy was fit and fast, but he was still a teenager, and this was the Achilles heel that I had to aim for. It's all about ego when you're a teenager. It's all about showing how tough you are - showing that you can beat your chest more loudly than the gorilla next to you. If you can frustrate the young Achilles - make him miss and ideally make him look a bit foolish - then you can take control.
So I did what I do best - I ducked and weaved and used my footwork to stay away from him, let him swing at the air for a while and then tied him up when he cornered me. And in the clinch I continued my friendly dialogue - 'Let's settle down a bit, eh? No need to hurt anybody today, is there?' I kept up this pattern for the best part of two rounds before accepting that the friendly dialogue was having no positive effect whatsoever. Normally a young buck like Mohammed can keep this sort of pace up for about half a round. The more they swing and miss, the more frustrated and tense they get, and the more frustrated and tense they get, the more energy they throw into each successive punch. Other young kids I've had like this have been all punched out in about a minute, but Mohammed was fit. Given that this guy had not only his friends but his family watching, the potential for embarrassment was enormous.
Every now and then he would swing so powerfully but so wildly that he would almost trip over himself - a move that drew giggles from the female members of his entourage and which must have made his blood boil. The constant streaming of videotape could not have been helping him maintain his equilibrium either. Every indicator suggested that this guy had to punch himself out soon, but by the end of the second round he seemed to be showing no signs of tiring whatsoever! At the beginning of round three I clinched him again and tried to talk him down again, but he just wrestled me off again and continued swinging. And it seemed that no matter how many times he would swing at the air, he would launch the succeeding punch with the same level of energy, convinced that he was going to floor me forever with the next hit.
Now there's only so much of this that any human being can be expected to take, and I'm no exception. I pride myself on being as calm as a cucumber in the ring, but after two and a half rounds with this guy I was starting to get really pissed off. After all, there's only so long you can keep ducking and avoiding before your opponent does land a lucky punch, and this guy was punching hard and continuously. Half way through round three he got me onto the ropes and started working my body and throwing uppercuts.
It was when the third right uppercut whizzed past and singed my nose hairs that I remember something within me saying 'stuff this' and I spun off the ropes and started to give him a few back. Perhaps it was the sheer shock of receiving some shots from me after two rounds of almost complete passivity, but he wasn't prepared for my comeback at all. I don't think I've ever landed a three-punch combination quite so squarely on anybody as I did on Mohammed on that fateful Sunday afternoon. I threw a right hook, a left hook, and a right uppercut, and the great beast just dropped like a sack of potatoes at my feet - 'boom'.
I knelt down and picked him up. I embraced him and whispered in his ear 'You've got your friends watching. You've got your family watching. You're on tape. You don't want to look like a complete fucking idiot do you?' The guy who replied seemed to be a different character altogether from the one that had hit the floor - 'Let's just have a bit of fun, eh Father? No need for anybody to get hurt here, is there?' After that Mohammed and me were best mates.
We did a few more fun and respectful rounds together, after which one of his brothers did a couple of rounds with me. The brother was completely respectful from start to finish and not a shot was thrown in anger. We had a lovely time. When it was all over I stepped through the ropes and down the steps, and Mohammed's entire entourage formed a silent guard of honour as I exited the ring. I had just watched the movie 'Gladiator', and the memory of that scene where Maximus passes between his fellow gladiators and they all rise to their feet to salute their hero came flashing back to me. I think it was the greatest moment of glory I have ever experienced.
There I was - towel over my shoulder and gloves under one arm - emerging from the gladiatorial ring to the silent adoration of the assembled crowd, who stood and parted before me as I made my way from the stadium. The incident with Mohammed was the gold-medal moment for me. Perhaps it was because it was so unexpected. I had been concentrating on survival. I think it was only as the spontaneous honour guard formed that I realised that Mohammed hadn't been the only one 'on show'. I saw Mohammed about twice more after that Sunday.
I was sorry to loose touch with him, but there's no way his trainer would have allowed him to maintain the contact. The event lies well in the past now, but the sense of glory lingers. It still feels good when I think about it.
Rev. David B. Smith (the 'Fighting Father') Parish priest, community worker,martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of three. Get a free preview of Dave's book,Sex, the Ring & the Eucharist when you subscribe to his newsletter at www.fatherdave.org